#Collaboration (and what was said at the IRSPM Conference 2015)

Defining collaborative working and partnerships is a challenge, and was a central topic for discussion at the recent International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) Conference held in Birmingham on 30 March 2014. In this post, Paula Karlsson from  Glasgow Caledonian University shares her reflections on understanding collaboration and what it means in practice. While it is a challenge, it is one that many across sectors are grappling with. 

Paula Karlsson a Finnish PhD student, living and studying in Scotland. She has a BA (Hons) degree and a MSc degree in Risk Management. Paula is currently doing her PhD at Glasgow Caledonian University titled: Co-governance of risk in new partnership models for public service provision: Comparative study between Scotland, Finland and Sweden.

I recently attended the IRSPM 2015 conference which was held at the University of Birmingham (30 March - 1 April 2015). It took me some time to “de-brief” after the conference – sometimes you need this time to recover from a fully packed schedule of learning loads of new things. I have this tiny notebook that was part of the conference pack, which is a little bit of a chest of treasures because it holds all the most important notes and thoughts and ideas from the various panels that I attended. Now the time has finally come to reveal its contents!


First though, maybe a little bit of background to the conference is needed to put things into perspective? The theme of this years conference was ‘Shaping The Future - Re-Invention Or Revolution?’ which perhaps is not very explanatory unless you had the chance to attend or even look at the website. Various panels with topics including local governance, third sector engagement, sectoral challenges, knowledge utilization, innovation, networks and public-private partnerships were covered, so a fairly broad mix.

So now that you know the basic features of the conference lets get back to my notebook. With my research interests being in collaborative working, most of the panels I attended involved themes that covered this in some shape or form, and this is what I will focus on.

To start with, the principal issue I have been grappling with in my own research has been the difficulty in defining collaboration and partnerships, and this was one of the subjects I wanted to have a clearer picture of after the conference. I wouldn’t necessarily say I still have that much of a clearer grasp of this (the concept “the death of partnership” was even mentioned at one point!), but it made me somewhat more comfortable knowing that at lot of the other researchers seem to be struggling with the same difficulty, and perhaps finally the understanding is starting to dawn on people that we do indeed need to do something about this.

One really good session was “The Craft and Graft of Collaboration” with notable academics on the panel (GazleyDickinsonSullivan and Bryson). There were three key messages (in my opinion) that I wanted to relay to you from this session.

  1. Should we share our knowledge?

One of the problems (if you want to call it that - some might say the beauty) of this research topic is that we all approach it from such different starting points: theoretically, conceptually, the key discipline guiding our research, etc. In fact, one of the panelists gave an example of the researchers studying networks and network analysis, who don’t talk to anybody else. I don’t think this was intended as a particular criticism to network researchers alone, but nonetheless, the argument was made that we need to start talking more to one another, or else we lose a lot when not dipping into literature from other disciplines.

  1. What is your collaborative context?

Closely related to this were the comments about collaboration being very context-specific where for instance the financial crisis may have had a significant influence on collaboration but that the context has not really been address in collaboration research. Similarly, cultural differences (in a country or even a continent) will have an impact on the success of collaborations. Therefore one cannot draw representative conclusions regarding the working of a collaboration if the context has not been fully considered. What works in one context does not necessarily work in another.

  1. If practice is ahead of theory, then why don’t we work more with it?

Likewise, the theoretical underpinning of collaboration research was discussed, and it was noted that practice has always been ahead of theory and should therefore drive the development of theory in this field. More methodological and theoretical development was called for, which in a way links back to the fact that we need to talk more to each other across disciplines.

In a way these issues apply to practice as well, where those involved in collaborations really do need to talk to their partners and other stakeholders about what their collaboration really means and is about, and to genuinely value the contributions from others out with ones own profession, for instance.

I personally think that those involved in collaborative working in practice should be more involved in the research concerning them. One of the issues in research concerning collaborations is that we often only get a snapshot of what the day-to-day working is like. Of course there are exceptions to this, with some very creative and interesting research projects being completed. If I were to start my doctoral research today I would probably contemplate doing ethnographic research rather than case studies, positioning myself in the actual collaborative context I wanted to research, which feeds into the call for methodological development in the field.

Will you dare to really go for it?

So if you were to take anything away from this blog post, I propose it to be the following two points:

  • It is perhaps a little bit strange that us academics researching collaboration are not that very good at actually practicing what we are preaching, so this is something we need to work harder at.
  • I would also like to call for more participatory (or somewhat ironically - collaborative) involvement of participants in the research process.

Real collaboration (across the board) requires really going for it.

Can we start a new trend? #Collaboration