Collaboration matters – how can we make it more effective?

In this original post, Jack Noone, Gemma Carey (Centre for Social Impact UNSW) and Fanny Salignac (Kedge Business School, Bordeaux) introduce the Collaboration Health Assessment Tool (CHAT). They provide the rationale for developing the tool, describe its grounding in systems thinking and provide an example of how it was used to help a collaboration that was facing difficulties. In time, the CHAT will develop an evidence base on what dimensions of collaborative practice drive the accomplishment of collaborations’ goals.

Collaboration is messy, relational and hard to define. Image: Upsplash

Collaboration is messy, relational and hard to define. Image: Upsplash

Complexity has become a core feature of society’s most entrenched social issues. Issues such as climate change, income inequality, social and economic exclusion are complex because there is non-linear and reciprocal causality, and therefore no simple solutions. In Australia and around the world, we are not effectively addressing these complex social problems. For example, Australia spends $510bn on social issues – yet, resources are increasingly scarce and many complex social problems are not improving. Part of the reason for this has been the implementation of isolated solutions, often layered on top of each other, which tend to address symptoms rather than root causes and therefore have limited impact.

Yet, positive social change is possible, if we work together. One way to address complex problems more effectively is to enable more effective collaborative cross-sector responses. But the practice of collaboration is far from easy. Collaboration is messy, relational and hard to define. But we also don’t have a good evidence base about it, or easy-to-use tool that helps us understand how well we are working together – a tool that will generate evidence.

Researchers from the Centre for Social Impact and Kedge Business School, as well as practitioners from Collaboration for Impact have developed the Collaborative Health Assessment Tool (CHAT), which measures how well partners are working together across 8 dimensions of collaboration (e.g. resource sharing). The CHAT is a free online tool that comprises 28 questions and a system for partners to confidentially rate the relative importance of their collaboration’s short-, medium- and long-term goals. The CHAT takes 15 minutes to set up and 10 minutes for each partner to complete. Collaborators can take the survey over time to measure how they are tracking across the 8 dimensions. There are also options to download aggregated data and graphs, and to produce different CHAT scores for different groups within a collaboration (e.g., a leadership group, Backbone organisation or service provider group).

In the short-term, CHAT will show collaborations where their strengths are and where there are challenges. Partners can reflect on these data to make decisions regarding what needs to change about how they work together. In the longer term, we will be able to analyse all the data to determine which dimensions of collaborations help partners the most to achieve their goals. We will pass this information on so that all collaborations in the social purpose sector can benefit. We will also turn the results of our analysis into benchmarks so that collaborations can compare their progress against collaborations of similar maturity, make up and size.

In this recent publication, collaborations are theorised as systems. This means that a collaboration is made of multiple components that are all interconnected and interdependent. They interact through “feedback loops” giving rise to unique dynamics and behaviours. Collaborations, thus, are more than the sum of their parts. By thinking in systems, partners can better understand the “wiring” of their collaboration, allowing them to identify the “feedback loops” that maintain both adaptive and maladaptive behaviour. Breaking the feedback loops that lead to negative outcomes is the key to improving the health of a collaboration. With CHAT, you can identify the dimensions of collaborations that are contributing to these loops.

What does this look like in practice?

Recently, the Centre for Social Impact was tasked with evaluating the ‘health’ of an Australian collaboration initiative that was facing difficulties. The collaboration was aiming at addressing youth unemployment through education participation – in Australia, young people are unemployed at twice the national rate. We used CHAT to identify two problematic feedback loops within this cross-sector collaboration initiative.

First, questionable program design brought out the fractured nature of the collaboration. One agency attempted to repair the design issues by introducing an alternative program. However, some partners saw this as direct competition, which fractured the collaboration further.

Second, problems within the collaboration led to timeline slippage, which led to further collaboration problems and further timeline slippage.

Using CHAT through a systems thinking lens, we found that there were ‘hidden’ feedback loops: key stakeholders were not involved in important decision making about program design (shared authority dimension); there was disagreement on how to approach the issue the collaboration was there to address (Shared goal dimensions); internal communication was poor (Communication flows dimension); and trust among partners had depleted (Holding environment dimension).

Identifying these ‘pain points’ gave the collaboration a pathway forward, and a way to rebuild for stronger outcomes. For example, we recommended the collaboration evaluated the alternative program to both learn and start rebuilding trust. We also suggested a needs analysis to identify what partners would require in order to re-engage with collaboration. Through this process, we wanted partners’ interdependencies to become apparent thereby re-igniting the collaboration with a better program design. We also recommended the development of a stronger internal communication strategy that would disseminate the results of our recommendations and provide the structure for developing clear and implementable actions. If implemented, the strategy should disrupt the second feedback loop by reducing time slippages that came out on inaction.

While collaboration remains fundamental to almost all government and social programs, it has begun to fall out of favour in academic circles. Largely this is related to a lack of a clear evidence base with regards to whether collaboration creates better outcomes, and if so what dimensions of collaboration are important. The CHAT attempts to revive interest by establishing the framework to generate evidence and conceptualising collaboration as a system. This also has advantages for practitioners. It is known that complex social issues are maintained by complex systems and that the goal is to disrupt the system in order to produce social change. This means that collaborators can use the same mindset for addressing their collaborations’ issues as they would for addressing the social issue they are interested in. This, and a stronger evidence base, will help collaborations achieve their goals and reverse historical trends of inequality.

Power to Persuade