The network effects and workforce implications of cross-sector collaboration

The first Power to Persuade symposium explored the value of social network analysis in examining collaborative activity. Here Power to Persuade symposium moderator Prof Jo Barraket and her colleagues Michael Moran, Andrew Joyce, and Emily Foenander from Swinburne University's Centre for Social Impact discuss their recent social network analysis of a utility company/not-for-profit partnership.


Social sector reforms at all levels of government, combined with growing complexity of social needs, are driving new service designs across sectors. As both not for profit and private for-profit organisations look for new ways to meet the needs of their clients, some are looking to each other for synergies that realise the potential of ‘collaborative advantage’. Hybrid service offerings arising from such partnerships can be complex to manage and require new ways of working from the staff who deliver them.

Here, we report briefly on the early findings of an ongoing study of cross-sector collaboration in Melbourne, funded by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. This project examined a developing partnership between a not-for-profit community service organisation and a utility company. The initiative was designed to provide holistic levels of care for people experiencing financial hardship and improve the referral pathways and information flow between participating organisations so that, once a client enters one program or service, they can be referred to other programs and organisations with greater ease than previously possible. This study examined the early stages of development of the partnership and the implications for staff. This research is ongoing and our future work will also examine the effectiveness of this partnership in relation to impacts for clients, and the network’s expansion to include other utility companies.

The research comprised social network analysis (SNA) of the two partner organisations, as well as interviews and focus groups with staff involved in the initiative across the two organisations. The interviews and focus group discussions were guided around specific topics such as: perceived nature of the relationship and its value; impact of partnership on organisations’ service provision; impact on staff morale, knowledge and skills; and challenges with the partnership. The SNA focused specifically on relationships of trust, information sharing, and collaborative activity between the organisations.

There was consensus across both organisations about the purpose of the initiative to develop partnerships that pool expertise and resources to address complex and growing community challenges. The SNA results demonstrate a high degree of trust and information sharing between the two organisations, but less evidence of new collaborative activity at this stage. The strength of the relationships appeared to be a consequence of the length of time spent working together and the industry partner’s appreciation of the specialist contribution of the community sector partner.


Figure 1. Information Giving Network – this diagram reveals a high a degree of connection between the not-for-profit (black nodes) and the industry partner (white nodes) and strong ties around advice giving.

Implications for staff and the workforce profile appeared to be particularly prevalent for the not-for-profit partner to the initiative. The organisation was undergoing numerous changes to meet the demands of working with industry partners. This required workforce development and process changes to outputs, communications, and reporting. The not-for-profit organisation was training staff to meet these requirements and also hiring new staff with the requisite skills to meet the needs of the corporate partner.

While workforce changes appeared to be most strongly felt within the not-for-profit partner, shared values around social equity were seen as critical to the collaboration, which marks this as an interesting case study given that the two partners were from different sectors. How this partnership develops further as the initiative grows and other partners from utility and financial industries join will be interesting to explore given that they may have differing motivations and values than the original partners to the initiative.

At the first Power to Persuade symposium, we explored the value of SNA in examining collaborative activity. In the case of this project, we have found that the network maps are a powerful tool for collective reflection by staff and managers of the partnership, providing them with visual evidence of how working together is tracking, and what aspects of the approach need adjusting. The research project itself is an ongoing collaboration between the research team and the not-for-profit partner. We’ll drop by the PtP blog again further down the track as we have more to report on the initiative and its impacts.

Posted by Sophie Yates.