Participation in Training Courses
The development of human resources envisaged within the first specific objective required commitment on the part of members of COs (the dispatchers of human resources) and on the part of the employees of such companies themselves, who raised their skills thanks to the support obtained in COs. This commitment primarily consisted of participating in training courses and workshops organized by coordinators for the benefit of the cluster members (see Tab. 5.13, quotation 2). The training courses led to the projected development of the skills of the cluster members, provided that their topic and level of professionalism were suited to the needs and expectations of the attendants: they had to enrich their knowledge and refresh their skills, including knowledge on the changing market and technological trends. In the respondents’ opinion, specialist skills common to members of COs can also be developed by launching shared training, centered on developing human resources to suit the needs of the cluster members (in order to, e.g. train welders, the deficit of which is strongly felt in companies operating in the metal industry).6
The study has shown that the basic barrier in COs, which hindered the provision of services (with respect to making material resources available or preparing a training offer) was the variable character of the skills of the cluster members (even when the common denominator in the CO was industry affiliation, which delineated the basic scope of interests of the cluster members). The study has shown that variable needs were hard to fulfill by providing access to the same resource. For this reason, in order to raise the efficiency of actions undertaken at cooperation level II, it was advisable for clusters to accept members with the same (or a similar) scope of skills or to divide the CO into groups of companies with similar skill sets (both solutions allowed for a more efficient tailoring of services to the overlapping needs of the cluster members). However, bearing in mind that cooperation level II is just one of the four stages in the development of cluster members, and the limitation of membership to homogenous companies hinders (and in some cases prevents) the fulfillment of objectives assigned to other levels of cooperation, the second solution practiced by COs is much more advisable.
Participation in Subgroups Created Within COs
From the perspective of the efficiency of attaining the second specific objective (pertaining to exchanging resources in COs), of great importance was the observed tendency of cluster members to create smaller groups, which happened in a formal (the organizational structure established separate cells dedicated to fulfilling specific functions or achieving specific objectives) or informal way. With the growth of the COs (in the context of the growing number of cluster members), there was a growing need for dividing the participants into smaller subgroups, resulting from their developing relations or the pursuit of individual members toward their individual goals. In such a circumstance, we can speak of the bottom-up process of creating subgroups within COs - when the members start creating informal groups (see Tab. 5.13, quotations 7-8).
In large COs with a developed organizational structure (this group includes studied COs from the ICT sector), the process of dividing the CO into smaller categories was more formalized. Participation in formal groups (such as task groups) was usually voluntary and entrance was not conditional. The groups organized their own meetings independent of other meetings held within the COs. The more advanced the form of cooperation within the group, the higher the number of such meetings and the higher their turnout, with the number of attendees becoming lower (the number of attendees was reduced to the most committed members). Participation in meetings organized within such groups integrated their attendants and led to the development of their mutual relationships (see Tab. 5.13, quotations 9-10).
As the study has shown, the creation of subgroups (formal or informal) within COs has usually been executed with reference to the presented skillset of the cluster members, with a view to maintaining unity within such groups (in this case, the groups primarily included companies representing the same industry, of a similar operational profile, having the same or very similar skills) or quite the contrary - to maintaining diversity, which allowed the companies to combine their skills (this pertained to companies with completely diverse skill sets, often functioning in different sectors of the economy). For cluster members, task groups generated one of the largest benefit packages - they were the fundamental and, in effect, the most important tool with regard to fulfilling tasks undertaken within the CO. This was also a form of delegating authorizations in COs.7
The exchange of resources in COs was based on the efficient flow of information among the cluster members. In comparison to meetings organized in the public forum of the CO, meetings held in smaller groups (e.g. task groups, areas of competence, “cluster-related” groups) enabled a much more unrestrained flow of information among the participants. The relationships developed thanks to these common and more regular task-group meetings promoted more openness among their participants (in effect, the participants were more eager to share information on their resources) and allowed them to display an attitude of reciprocity (which considerably facilitated the sharing of various resources with selected cluster members). The exchange of resources in COs (which took place in smaller subgroups within the CO among cooperating parties) primarily pertained to two kinds of resources: material resources and human resources. Material resources were a natural cause for cooperation. Companies lacking in material resources sought possibilities of supplementing their deficits on the market, while companies with a surplus could in principle make their resource available in exchange for specific benefits (mostly financial in nature) (see Tab. 5.13, quotation 3). This usually took place in the form of contracting external entities to perform specific kinds of services (where the company with access to material resources fulfilled the role of a subcontractor), and, less often, sharing machines and tools with another company. The study shows that companies made an effort to become self-sufficient at least in those areas which were fundamental to the development of their key competences. In the remaining areas, they would eagerly make use of the support offered by other companies, thus lowering the costs of purchasing and maintaining machines and production tools.
The second kind of resources - human resources - is the most valuable in the knowledge economy, especially when it’s in deficit on the market. The problem of the deficit of human resources has been felt in both of the analyzed sector (the ICT sector and the metal sector) - the deficit pertains to practically all levels in the organization, from qualified blue-collar workers to first-grade specialists in the field. The respondents would underline multiple times that the growing gap between the supply and the demand for qualified human resources results in the marker becoming an employee market. Companies were aware of the fact that the benefit package that they may offer their employees could always be made better by other companies. On the one hand, COs made it easier for employees to transfer between companies, as they created favorable conditions for the development of interpersonal contacts, which fulfilled the purpose of communication channels enabling employees to have better grasp of the labor market. On the other hand, COs prevented companies from outbidding on their employees - information on such activities was quick to spread and the activities themselves were met with ostracism on the part of the other cluster members. COs also included such companies which - due to their operational profile - required their employees to have unique skills, but even the most specialized companies still required universal skills to execute certain processes, which did not exclude them from the competitive fight on the market for access to this kind of resource.
However - as the study has shown - not all companies participating in COs were closed to cooperating in the area of human resources (see Tab. 5.13, quotation 4). Growing process complexity and rising time constraints often required (especially in the case of small and medium-sized enterprises) making new hires and supplementing the skills of existing employees. Cluster members would initiate cooperation based on the exchange of resources, particularly when their operations were associated with downtime, which meant that human resources were being underutilized. COs also supported the development of human resources by fulfilling the role of an intermediary in the process of sharing knowledge among cluster members (mutual learning) - this was facilitated by organizing internal training courses with active participation of members (in the role of coaches). This type of activities was based on far-reaching openness and reciprocity, which meant that the mutual exchange of knowledge was usually present among select members of the cluster (which built on trust beforehand).
While in the case of the first two objectives with regard to accessing and sharing resources commitment raised the efficiency of activities undertaken within the cluster, commitment should be understood to be a prerequisite for fulfilling the third objective, which is tied to integration at the process level (the third specific objective at cooperation level II) (see Tab. 5.13, quotations 5-6). The above objective was much harder to fulfill in comparison with the objectives defined for the field of resource allocation, because it required the cluster members to agree to changes being introduced to their internal organization. Integration at the process level was the easiest to implement, when at the onset, the cluster members had the same (or a very similar) skillset. This is why COs consisting of diverse companies had to first divide their members in accordance with the similarity of their skillsets - this facilitated the procurement of resources with a view to improving the companies’ processes. The procurement process is a good illustration of the above. Thanks to their scale and advantaged negotiating position, joint purchases (through the CO) allowed the participants to cut their costs. However, the biggest problem with respect to such initiatives in COs was the diverse nature of the cluster members and the resulting needs with respect to the assortment of purchased goods. Despite the fact that the COs associated companies from the same (or similar) sectors of the economy, their operational profiles were often very diverse (both in reference to the produced goods and offered services), which made it challenging to unify their expectations even as far as a single product category was concerned (e.g. steel, which is commonly used in the metal sector). The study demonstrated that cluster members should have a similar operational profile or - what has been underlined earlier - divide themselves into smaller subgroups (according to the similarities in their production process and the resulting assortment of required resources), in order for their purchasing structures to be as similar as possible. However, the initiation and, first and foremost, the administration of group purchases (and a shared purchasing platform) required a high level of organizational maturity on the part of the CO, as well as a high level of activity on the part of the coordinators.
To conclude, it is worth mentioning that in most cases, as the natural continuation of level II, as well as the previously discussed level I, bilateral cooperation developed between specific cluster members. The development of such relationships meant that the chances created by the COs were skillfully taken advantage of to achieve objectives tied to the development of their business operations. Such chances were primarily tied to various meetings, which allowed the companies to initiate first contact with their potential partners.
Nevertheless, bilateral cooperation may not be considered to be one of the forms of cooperation within COs. This form of cooperation exceeds the boundaries of the CO and develops completely independently of the trajectory of development of the CO. However, the development of cooperative ties was - from the perspective of the principles favoring the creation of subgroups within COs - expected, or even desirable. For this reason - which was often underlined by the respondents of the study - COs should strive to create favorable conditions for their members with a view to facilitating bilateral cooperation, in order to complement their needs. However, this should not become the main objective of COs, nor the final result of their operations. Rather, COs should develop and work toward more advanced forms of cooperation (slated for the next two levels) predicated upon collective action.