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ANZSOG research team examining how to make collaboration work

11 July 2018

News and media


Team members collaborating around a table, marking notes on post it notes.

Collaboration is becoming increasingly necessary to deal with the ‘wicked problems’ that require action from multiple agencies and sectors.

However, collaboration is a lot easier to talk about than it is to do. The extensive academic literature on collaboration—much of it based on case studies—is largely unknown or inaccessible to coalface practitioners operating under tight time and resource constraints.

ANZSOG, in partnership with the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University, has initiated a research project to identify the key elements of effective collaborative practice.

A research team consisting of Prof John Phillimore (Curtin University, Principal Investigator), Prof David Gilchrist (University of Western Australia), Dr John Butcher (Australian National University/Curtin) (Co-investigators), and Prof John Wanna (ANU/Griffith University, Associate Investigator) is undertaking a case study of five collaborative initiatives in Australia and New Zealand.

RELATED: Browse ANZSOG’s complete research collection

Field interviews with collaboration leaders and partners commenced in mid-2017 and concluded in May this year.  In all, the research investigated five cases (four in Australia and one in New Zealand) and undertook 25 individual and group interviews.

On 27 June the research team held a one-day workshop at the ANU in Canberra to ‘beta test’ their preliminary observations with an invited panel of experts drawn from academia, the community sector, the public service and private practice.

Dr Butcher said the team was greatly encouraged by the response of the expert panel to their observations about which authorising environments best supported collaboration, the qualities and attributes presented by effective collaboration leaders, and the nature of effective collaboration governance.

“Our observations were strongly corroborated by the collective experience represented around the table,” he said.

“The expert panel was also able to suggest useful refinements to the framing of the research findings as well as options for further investigation or analysis.

“This research has always had a strong applied focus, and we want to extrapolate aspects of effective collaborative practice from local examples, and supplement that with confirmation from scholarly literature.”

Growth of collaboration means public sector must improve its skills

He said that the importance of collaboration was increasing as governments attempted to work more closely with private sector and not-for-profit organisations to solve complex social problems

“In the past, problems would be identified, accorded political salience, and programmatic solutions applied,” he said.

“More often than not solutions would be shaped by the public appropriation process and would be governed by a legislative remit; implemented by a public sector agency; and operate within an often inflexible program structure.

“Decision-makers and policy practitioners now recognise that some problems are too complex for single agencies or programs to address on their own.

“Policy actors of all stripes are increasingly invoking ‘collaboration’ as a means to bring together the range of stakeholders that have a part to play in helping to address complex problems in social policy.”

Dr Butcher said any discussion of collaborative practice needed to address a range of issues that have not been adequately dealt with in the past.

These include:

How changing technology and the potential of the ‘digital space’ can enable collaboration.
Developing a better understanding of the returns on collaborative processes in their own right, in terms of structural and cultural changes within partner organisations.
How to capture the innovations that often arise from the sometimes ‘disruptive’ nature of multi-party and multi-sector collaboration.

 He said that the research team was confident that their work had the capacity to inform collaborative practice in Australia and New Zealand.

Armed with the expert feedback shared at the workshop, the research team can now embark on the next and final phase of the project. The next step will be to submit a paper based on their findings to a peer-reviewed journal. The research team will also begin the development of a proposal for a book length manuscript to be considered for publication as part of the ANZSOG/ANU Press series. Intended for a practitioner audience in the public and not-for-profit sectors, the aim of the book will be to assist with, and inform, the crafting of collaborative approaches to place based problem solving.

ANZSOG sees encouraging collaboration as a key issue for the public sector, as well as for not-for-profits, and has produced a guide to collaboration with the Brotherhood of St.Laurence