Published by Angus on 13 Apr 2010 at 06:35 am
On April 2, we were attending a Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration workshop organized by Eugene Kim of Blue Oxen Associates who also happens to be a WiserEarth advisor. One of my favorite sessions of this Open Space gathering was around the definition of collaboration. Eugene shared his definition:
Two or more people working together towards in the pursuit of a shared, collective, bounded goal.
We talked about the pressure many of us feel to collaborate, partly at the request of funders, as if collaboration was an end in itself. We all agreed about that we needed a better way to balance the costs/benefits of collaboration and to better understand the alternatives, especially lower touch / lower engagement strategies.
Then, as is the case in Open Space meetings, another person, in this case Diane Johnson-McCarthy, joined our group. She opened our eyes to to the work of Arthur Himmelman and his Continuum of Change Strategies. The first thing we realized is that we weren’t all talking about the same thing. A lot of collaboration can be more accurately defined as simple coordination or cooperation. We’ll get into those definitions further on. Second, we realized that there were alternatives to collaboration – we can start off simply by networking and then build trust to advance to a deeper level of engagement when and if it makes sense. So here are Himmelman’s strategies for working together:
- Networking: Exchanging information for mutual benefit. Example: A public health department and neighborhood health center exchange information about how they each support healthy early child development.
- Coordinating: Exchanging information and altering activities for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. Example: A public health department and neighborhood health center exchange information about how they each support healthy early child development, and decide to alter service schedules so that they can provide their combined support in a more user-friendly manner.
- Cooperating: Exchanging information, altering activities, and sharing resources for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. Example: A public health department and a neighborhood health center exchange information about how they each support healthy early child development, decide to alter service schedules, and agree to share neighborhood outreach resources to increase the effectiveness of their support.
- Collaborating: Exchanging information, altering activities, sharing resources, and enhancing the capacity of another for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. Example: A public health department and a neighborhood health center exchange information about how they each support healthy early child development, decide to alter service schedules, share neighborhood outreach resources, and provide skill development training for each other’s staff to enhance each other’s capacity to support healthy early child development.
When you simply network, you are reflecting an initial level of trust, limited time availability, and a quite reasonable reluctance to ‘share turf’. This level of information sharing could be described as transparency and I would argue is the minimum level of support a fellow activist or nonprofit professional should expect simply as a matter of common courtesy.
Coordinating requires more trust and time investment but critically does not yield access to each other’s turf. You still provide your service but just in a way that it doesn’t conflict with someone else’s and so that it is more user-friendly to the end customer.
Cooperating is another step up, usually involving written documents and sharing of resources like know-how, staff, property, and money, as well as significant access to each other’s turf.
Finally, collaborating implies the ‘willingness of organizations (or individuals) to enhance each other’s capacity for mutual benefit and a common purpose,’ i.e. they share risks, responsibilities and rewards. As you can see from these four modes of working together, they each imply a different level or investment and formality, as well as time and trust to develop (as can be seen in the figure above).
Hopefully, this framework can all help us put into perspective the costs and benefits of true collaboration versus the alternatives. When we think about collaboration, perhaps we should be thinking about the following (adapted from “Talking Right: the promise of collaboration” by Bruce Anderson):
- Are there clearly defined tasks to accomplish?
- What are the differing self-interests and values of our members, and are we taking those into consideration?
- What are the resources and capabilities of each member?
- Does the group have control over the planning process? If so, what methods will be used to achieve goals, and do we have metrics in place to measure success?
- Are we enhancing the capacity and outcomes for each group member?
- Has each member expanded their horizons beyond the goal of meeting their own needs, and are they in service of the other group members’ needs?
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