It is in the spirit of the age that we are all obliged to collaborate. Whether in formal partnerships, or as members of consortia, or in multi- or trans-disciplinary working groups, or even among colleagues from within our own organisations, collaboration is key.
There are at least five factors influencing and shaping the current aegis of collaboration:
"Wicked problems" - the challenges of climate change, of obesity, of mental health, of sustainability in the round, are complex and multi-faceted, requiring inputs and solutions from a multiplicity of sources
"Information overload" - the accelerating rate at which information is produced, and the escalating challenge of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff, mean that multiple minds and institutions are required to avoid the risk of blissful ignorance.
"The division of labour" - long recognised as a particularly efficient means of completing tasks, the division of labour takes on a new hue in a world of information overload, as well as in the context of flexible labour markets, blurred boundaries between 'work' and 'non-work', and the shift towards 'emotional' as well as 'rational' reasoning in decision-making. Team work is the only way to cope.
"Funding" - with fewer resources available, individuals and institutions are under pressure to do more with less: three departments become one, three research studies are conflated into a single exercise, three previously distinct policy instruments are combined.
"Politics and the Big Society" - a profound re-alignment of responsibility, between and among individuals and institutions, asks new questions: who should do what? Where once a single entity issued instructions and money, now a collection of entities must come together to decide whether and how to achieve something.
Having in the past few months experienced several direct examples of collaborative environments, some of the (often under-played) challenges have been made painfully apparent to me:
Leadership - the established model of leadership is profoundly challenged by truly collaborative processes. Who is in charge? Being the biggest, or the cleverest, or the most well-informed, or the oldest or the most male or the wealthiest or the most arrogant or the one with the biggest [insert display item of your choice] matters less and less. Facilitative, humble, inclusive, listening, attentive, engaging - these are the adjectives of the new leadership. Whither such skills?
Effort - building the environment, the psycho-social infrastructure, for effective collaboration takes a long time and a lot of effort. In the old world, you could perhaps bank on spending 20% of your time on the admin and management, and 80% of your time on 'delivery'. In the new world, perhaps it takes 80% of the time to get all the relationships and communication and engagement and collaboration infrastructure in place, and only 20% of the time goes on delivery. Is the funding and resource-deployment machinery up to this yet?
Facilitation - the art of enabling a group of people to talk and work together seems almost like a non-job (where is the tangible output?) and it can be very difficult to describe a good facilitator. You may know one when you see one: but defining it in advance? Choose the 'wrong' facilitator and an entire decision-and-delivery infrastructure could be scuppered. The stakes are high.
Assholes - there are some total assholes out there, people that you would really rather avoid, yet the collaborative obligation is to accommodate them, to get on with them, to work with them. (Recent times have included a particularly striking example, where we had agreed to work with someone in order to meet a client's need for a multi-disciplinary approach. The individual's condescending arrogance, something we tolerated and managed as best we could, finally became too much to bear when they disdainfully humiliated a colleague in front of the client.) What do we do about such folk? Every partnership setting will know the problem. Do we just put up with them, in the spirit of collaboration? Or does there come a point when we say: enough. Aggregate welfare has fallen. Inclusivity has its limits. We have better things to do than work with assholes; we can achieve the same goals, in a better way, in a way characterised by respect and well-being. We can and should be muscular about our collaboration.
Many challenges ahead, obviously. I find myself looking forward with relish. The need for collaboration is not going to go away, and we all need to adapt. New forms of leadership, new models of facilitation, a willingness to make the effort - all good. Dealing with assholes - no, not any more. Play by the rules, the rules we have collectively determined, or go and play by yourself.