Systemic Collaborations for Solving Complex Social Problems: A Field Study of Organizations in Houston Food Deserts

The need for systemic collaborative action to address complex social problems has become axiomatic in practice and research. It involves coordinated and concerted actions by a heterogeneous set of organizations, institutions and stakeholders, joined through formal and informal arrangements, and pursuing a shared vision of effecting sustainable systemic change. Systemic collaborations are purportedly offer the best chance for profound social change because it enables partners to pool together diverse resources, create new resources, learn rapidly, and build institutional arrangements. In addition, systemic collaboration brings together the voices of a diverse set of stakeholders that enhances the likelihood of community and political support. However, while a few examples show the merits of systemic collaboration, such as the North Karelia dietary health project in Finland, more widespread evidence demonstrating its effectiveness has been limited, weak, and inconclusive. This research project asks: Why do systemic collaborations, that appear to hold so much promise to solve complex social problems, appear to be relatively limited and fragile?

We examine this question through a longitudinal, multi-organizational, multi-sectoral, qualitative study of the food desert landscape in Houston, Texas, USA. Food deserts are areas in which a significant number of individuals are low income and have restricted access to sources of fresh foods (e.g., produce from a grocery store). Houston is the fourth largest city in the USA, ethnically diverse, located near the Texas Gulf Coast, with a 2017 population of 2.3 million and over 4.5 million in surrounding Harris County. Our investigation of food deserts in Houston occurred over 23 months, beginning in late 2015 and extending through September 2017. Our main data collection was semi-structured interviews of relevant individuals in the food desert space and analyzing third-party archival documents. A second source of data came from visits to many of the sites. Finally, in February 2017, we organized two focus groups in a low income neighborhood in Houston that had several food desert interventions. We adopted standard grounded theory methodology to analyze the data.

We find that systemic collaboration activity in the food desert space is shaped by two contradictory forces about the nature of the problem and the institutional environment. The nature of the problem is characterized along two dimensions: (i) problem ambiguity: how much consensus exists about the social problem?; and (ii) user-centricity: to what extent do solutions require participation and behavioral compliance by heterogeneous users? Social problems characterized by significant problem ambiguity and high need for user-centric interventions engender an imperative for organizations to systemically collaborate if they are to solve the problem substantively. Paradoxically, we find that the institutional environment hinders the emergence of systemic collaborations. The institutional environment is characterized along two dimensions (i) institutional pressures: funding structures, government policy, and politics; and (ii) organizational competition: competitive pressures. The institutional environment encourages organizations to enhance their own position and dominance in the problem space leading them to prefer working on their own over collaborating with other organizations. We conclude that the tension between the nature of the problem and the institutional environment hinders the emergence and functioning of systemic collaboration resulting instead in narrow collaborations that are discrete rather than coordinated, spasmodic rather than continuous, and isolated rather than integrated, that in turn reduce the overall effectiveness and prospects for systemic change.

Douglas Schuler is Associate Professor of Business and Public Policy. Dr. Schuler’s principal research interests are corporate political activity, public policy, corporate social responsibility, and non-profit organizations. Dr. Schuler also does research about the introduction of health technologies into low resources developing markets. His research articles have been published in many top academic outlets, including the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Business and Politics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Business & Society, California Management Review, Journal of Management, PLoS-ONE, and Strategic Management Journal. A member of the Jones School faculty since 1992, Dr. Schuler has taught many courses, most recently Business-Government Relations, Globalization of Business, Social Enterprise, and Social Entrepreneurship. He has received several teaching and service awards, including the 1997 JGS Award for Teaching Excellence, 1997 Rice Graduate Students Association Teaching Award, and the 2006 Rice Graduate Students Association Faculty/Staff Service Award.

Dr. Schuler studied at the University of California, Berkeley (B.S., Business Administration) and the University of Minnesota (Ph.D., Strategic Management, School of Management). At Rice, Dr. Schuler serves on the Executive Committee for Rice 360 Institute for Global Health Technologies.

Doug Schuler primarily studies the political activities of companies (CPA). Among many questions, his articles explore the primary drivers of CPA, focusing upon both external and internal factors. His work also investigates the payoffs of political investments.

Dr. Schuler also examines facets of corporate social responsibility (CSR). His work describes the linkages between a firm’s CSR and consumer purchases – the CSR linkage to financial performance. Other work examines a firm’s CSR as practiced through voluntary organizations, such as industry self-regulatory governance mechanisms.

Dr. Schuler has written about non-governmental and non-profit organizations, especially critical about the business models they adopt to serve their clients.With a colleague, he is investigating such organizations in the context of food desert interventions in Houston.

With colleagues in engineering, Dr. Schuler also studies the introduction of technologies into low-resource emerging markets settings. He has recently created a containerized system for sterilizing medical instruments for health facilities that sit outside of a power grid such as in rural areas of developing countries.