Thinking about Collaboration

Jo-Louise Huq (Ph.D., MBA)

June 2019

I am hearing more and more about the importance of distributed leadership, collaboration, capacity building, and experimenting and learning in and among organizations. [i]  [ii]  

In this post, I want to explore collaboration.

Oxford dictionary defines collaboration (noun) as “the action of working with someone to produce something,” and collaborate (verb) as to “work jointly on an activity or project.” [iii] [iv]  

When I’m working with boards, leaders, and managers, I hear a lot about how collaboration is needed to encourage change and how it will lead to innovation (social and technical), service improvement, better outcomes, and will address a host of other organizational (or sector) concerns.

When I ask people, “What do you mean by collaboration?” or “What do you want from collaboration?” they offer statements like:

  • “We want to work together to do [something]”
  • “It means to share information.”
  • “It means to co-create [or design] new solutions.”

Then, when I ask, “What does “work together” or “share” or “co-create” mean and how will you know you are doing these things?” it gets quiet. The answer that comes out is usually something like, “Those are good questions; not sure we clearly know.” This is a great answer because it leads to conversations about what collaboration means (and how it can be done) in specific contexts.

Chris Huxham and Siv Vangen have studied multi-organization collaboration for a long time. They propose a synergy argument for collaboration, suggesting that “to gain a real advantage from collaboration, something has to be achieved that could not have been achieved by any one of the organizations acting alone.” They also have developed the concept of “collaborative inertia,” which they suggest frequently happens in collaborations. Collaborative intertia arises when “the output from a collaborative arrangement is negligible, the rate of output is extremely slow, or stories of pain and hard grind are integral to successes achieved.”[v]

When I share this concept with people who are trying to collaborate, it resonates strongly.  

My research has examined the challenge of inter-professional collaboration.

Today, many organizations ask professionals to collaborate, with the idea that, through collaboration, professionals will combine their different and diverse problem-solving approaches to resolve complex problems. However, as my and other’s research shows, this kind of collaboration is very challenging. Culture, identity, paradoxical tensions, and hierarchies all contribute to the challenge of inter-professional collaboration.[vi] [vii] It takes nuanced facilitation and support to help diverse professionals work in truly collaborative ways.  

Like with many things, there is no easy answer—no linear recipe—for collaboration.

An important first step in supporting collaborative efforts is to have collaborators explore the questions posed at the beginning of this post. Exploring and answering these questions together helps collaborators understand what they are hoping to achieve and, potentially more importantly, understand how each of them will need to contribute and work differently within the collaboration to achieve what they want to achieve.   

There is a lot more to explore about collaboration, and future posts will dig deeper. For now, I would encourage boards, leaders, and managers to explore why and where collaboration is needed and how they will know that collaboration is happening.  

As always, I am happy to engage in conversations about these blog posts.

Jo-Louise

Jlhuq@ccigsolutions.com


[i] Huq, J. L. (2018). Conditioning a professional exchange field for social innovation. Business & Society, 0007650318758321.

[ii] Tams, C., (2018). Why We Need to Rethink Organizational Change Management. Available online: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carstentams/2018/01/26/why-we-need-to-rethink-organizational-change-management/#67e99a95e93c

[iii] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/collaboration

[iv] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/collaborate

[v] Huxham, C., & Vangen, S. (2004). Realizing the advantage or succumbing to inertia?. Organizational Dynamics33(2), 190-201.

[vi] Huq, J. L., Reay, T., & Chreim, S. (2017). Protecting the paradox of interprofessional collaboration. Organization Studies38(3-4), 513-538.

[vii] Hall, P. (2005). Interprofessional teamwork: Professional cultures as barriers. Journal of Interprofessional care19(sup1), 188-196.

Published by CCIG | Collaborating, Changing, Innovating, EnGaging

I am a 'pracademic,' a practitioner of collaborative change and innovation who also conducts and publishes research on collaboration, change, and innovation. This is my personal blog, and I use it to communicate about my and other's research, publications, and ideas related to change, innovation, and collaboration.

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