Collaboration - Too much of a good thing?

 Collaboration has been called 'the new normal', but is that necessarily a good thing? Today’s contribution comes from Professor Robyn Keast is the  Chair of Collaborative Research Network Policy and Planning for Regional Sustainability, and located at the Southern Cross University.

Collaboration is the holy grail for businesses, government and community alike. The lure of collaboration is self-evident: it allows for cross-fertilisation of ideas across work-groups and even competitors, opening up opportunities for new breakthrough product, service and practice innovations. Collaboration also enables organisations to tap into partners’ resources and contacts to extend the range and scope of portfolio of products as well as the reach of their supply-chains.

Done well collaboration can generate dramatic results. However, undertaking collaboration just for collaboration sake can be costly and unproductive. Despite its philosopher’s stone image collaboration does not occur by magic. Strong relationships are the foundation on which successful collaboration are based. There is a significant transaction cost involved in identifying the right partners and building the strength of relationship necessary for genuine collaboration to occur. Both of these tasks require strategic thinking and deliberate action before the collaboration even commences.

Potential collaborators should first of all think about what participation will mean for all involved. This starts with identifying the likely partners, making some initial overtures regarding the potential for collaborative action and determining what they will bring to the table. Following the initial mapping attention should be directed toward gaining some understanding of what might be the motivations (implicit and explicit) for engaging in a collaborative effort. Acquiring this deeper level of insight goes beyond initial meetings and can extend to several weeks of dialogue. Further, depending on the nature and extent of the collaboration the discussions may need to be spread across the layers of the organisations to ensure an alignment of workforces with the collaborative mission.

The initial stage of mapping the collaborative terrain, then navigating the intentions and possibilities of collaborative outcomes takes up time and resources of the participating organisations, which might have been used elsewhere in the organisation. This represents a considerable investment for a minimally guaranteed outcome and potential lost opportunity costs.

Having determined to enter into the collaboration is just the beginning of the relationship transaction costs. To generate ‘collaborative advantage’ relationships must be built and nurtured. This can involve attending a seemingly endless array of meetings and social events which allow members to get to know each other and build the level of trust necessary for collaboration to occur. Some research has shown that it can take up to three years to build the relational strength required for successful collaboration. Even when this process has been ‘turbo-charged’ through special training and retreats there is both a relational time cost and a financial cost of the facilitation. The time factor of collaborations, coupled with the fact that they don’t always produce expected results can lead to costly delays in outcomes.

Research shows that around 75% of collaborations fail: representing significant costs in terms of a misplaced focus and lost opportunities elsewhere. The main reason for collaboration failure is that it is presented as the only game in town and always a good thing, overlooking numerous other ways of working together. The message here is that collaboration costs before it delivers and it does not always deliver as expected. Best to ask – do I really need to be doing this and might some other form suffice.