Key elements of collaboration
Collaborations bring people, organisations and knowledge together. Something is jointly created, often something entirely new. Yet there is no one-size-fits-all model. Success is achieved when members and administrators focus on the main elements of a collaboration: interactions, governance structures, systems and processes.
Interactions are helped by our connections and relationships. Collaborators need to nurture existing relationships, as well as seek links with new participants, organisations and resources. Participants can tend to focus on established links more than potential new contributors. Both need nurturing. To maintain quality relationships, trust, reciprocity and mutuality are needed.
Trust is pivotal and can reduce complexity and cost. Parties must show willingness to share power, and trust others not to take advantage of that. This allows a stepping back, letting go and accepting that control rests with the collective. Greater trust leads to information and resource sharing; increasing risks, efforts and rewards. This kind of trust comes from shared values, language and vision. It builds commitment to the collaboration* and its goals.
Reciprocity is give and take, a broad expectation of contributions and returns of similar value. Effective collaboration sees self-interest shift to longer-term collective reciprocity. This can come from one partner contributing or taking a risk, and others following.
Trust and reciprocity link to reputation, an estimation of character. The cautionary and self-interested “I will if you do” is not enough. Rather, individuals lead by example. A positive collaborating reputation can develop from: using agreed practices, helping to define problems and possible solutions, promoting outcomes with mutual interest.
Mutuality stems from interdependence and relying on others for group goals. It grows from participants’ shared beliefs and purpose. Sustaining a collaboration needs participants to share a vision, change work practices and commit to meeting collective and individual goals.
Governance refers to decision-making groups; the types of decisions they can make; and the processes they use. Governance structures help collaborators negotiate how to solve collective problems. They jointly set rules and procedures for involvement. These structures can be formal (boards and committees), or informal. How they operate is usually determined by written articles of association or model rules (such as in a Co-operative’s or Association’s constitution). These structures need to strike a balance between ‘minimal’ (to encourage participation and initiative) on the one hand, and ‘overbearing or unnecessary’. Processes cannot be so loose that obligations can be overlooked, but nor should requirements be unreasonably demanding. For example, farmers have a social license to farm, but industry or regional groups may develop extra voluntary codes of conduct to help farmers meet both legislative compliance and ethical duties.
Systems and processes are ever-present, even though we tend to think of collaborative efforts as being creative in nature. Adjustments to fit collaborative networks, because of the broader system you work in, are important. Collaborating can, for participating groups, mean big changes such as: building relationships for joint work, encouraging shared decision making, or altering operations and structures to reflect collaboration. You could invite collaborators on to your board. System-wide changes may be needed for legitimising or sustaining individual worker efforts and organisations will need to consider broader, collaborative network operations.