Collaboration between organisations is not a new phenomenon for a sector that deals with complex societal issues. And it is now, more than ever, offered as a viable solution as the continuing funding crisis requires organisations to do more with less.
This approach can open up opportunities and enable organisations to produce innovative solutions and outcomes that perhaps they would not have achieved on their own. When it works well, this kind of collaborative advantage can be very energising and inspiring for those involved.
Many have commented that collaboration chimes with the values of the sector, and the benefits include sharing of back-office functions, peer support, knowledge exchange, joint bidding and participation in public sector commissioning processes. By joining forces, organisations can develop a more strategic and influential narrative for the sector. Collaboration requires individual leaders to look carefully at how their organisations cooperate with each other and how they can effectively engage with influential stakeholders beyond the sector.
When working together doesn’t work
However, being able to use potential partners’ resources and expertise while managing varying cultures, aspirations and needs can be challenging. Our research, carried out over the past two decades, shows that most collaborations make slow progress and many fail to achieve anything significant.
There are a number of reasons why this is the case. Typically, shared and common goals provide the motivation for a partnership, yet the differences between organisations can make it hard to agree on joint goals. Similar organisational values and cultures facilitate collaboration, yet potential partners often have different priorities and work and interact in different ways. Trust is perceived as an essential factor, but competition and suspicion can be rife. Power imbalances, whether real or imagined, further undermine trust, and a requirement to include all relevant stakeholders can make it unrealistic in practice.
Because diversity in partners’ resources, experiences and expertise provides the potential for collaborative advantage, these kinds of tensions are inevitable. Being able to collaborate successfully therefore implies the ability to manage inherent tensions. An important question in all of this is, what kind of leadership can support the practice of collaboration?
Leading from within
Leadership needs to go beyond focusing on individual formal leaders and followers to focusing on mechanisms to "make things happen". Structures, processes and participants are all equally important to an overall understanding of leadership in collaborative situations. Any individual with knowledge and know-how can lead, regardless of their formal position or role. And leadership needs to be shared by many individuals who bring diverse resources, experiences and professional expertise. Because the context is often ambiguous, individual leaders can expect to be challenged by dilemmas and difficulties to the extent that the outcomes won’t be quite as they had intended. For these reasons, individuals need to be motivated, supportive and persistent.
We can agree that leadership in a collaborative context can never be an exact science. Nevertheless, it is possible to explore the concept of collaborative leadership in ways that emphasise and develop the capabilities of willing and energetic individuals.
If voluntary sector leaders are able to successfully manage the points of tension involved in collaboration, their organisations can reap long-lasting benefits.
Siv Vangen is director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership at the Open University Business School