Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Issues in Inter-organizational Collaboration

Suppose you have multiple organizations interested in collaborating with one another. They each have similar—though not identical—missions and many common areas of interest, such as events, fundraising, outreach, education, research, and public relations. Let's further suppose that there's considerable geographic dispersal of the players, which complicates the desire for face-to-face meetings. How would you set it up to succeed?

One model is to put out the call for each of the partners to identify reps from their organization for each area of interest, encourage the reps to get together with their counterparts and see what happens. There is a simplicity and purity about this approach, but it tends to be fairly chaotic, and hit or miss about who answers the call, and how things move forward.

It works better, I think, if there's an identified coordinator—a person (or persons) whose job it is to call the meeting at which the reps gather, who sees to it that everyone knows about the meeting and how to access it (we're talking web-based meetings or conference calls), makes sure there's a draft agenda, that everyone gets to speak, that minutes are being taken, and that the conversation is forward moving.

Note that none of these coordinator duties needs to be coupled with a personal agenda. That is, they can all be performed neutrally. While I get it that in Western culture we're conditioned to think of the person in charge of coordinating and running meetings to be someone with power to control (or at least steer) outcomes—think of Congressional or Senate committee chairs to grasp my point—one of the most salient features of cooperative culture is the purposeful separation of facilitation from stakeholder.

So a key point in collaborative dynamics is whether you have a coordinator at all, and, if you do, how that person (or person) gets selected. If you offer to fill that role without being asked first, there can be suspicion about your motivation. Is it to control, to enhance productivity, or both? Having no coordinator addresses the power concerns (that the coordinator, or the organization with whom they're associated, will have an advantage in the direction taken by the collaboration), yet at the expense of efficiency (without portfolio, reps will be hesitant to step into the void to perform coordinating tasks—for fear of stepping on toes or being labeled power mongers).

In an anarchistic ideal, every rep would be fully actualized: willing and able to perform coordinator duties as the situation calls for them. But I've never seen that model work well. People can be reps—and good ones—without having the bandwidth to perform coordinating tasks. Perhaps none of the reps in a given interest area will have the time or inclination to coordinate. Or maybe the reps who volunteer to handle certain coordinating tasks are not seen as capable. Now what?

Of course, the reps could discuss that and determine collectively how to self-organize and fill coordination roles, which includes the possibility of reaching outside their current configuration. Can you count on that happening? Probably not. Yet rather than predicting that it won't, I'm suggesting that if you recognize the need for baseline coordination, then, as a partner organization you may want a proposal on the table at the outset, establishing that each focus group will address a set of standard questions about how they will conduct business—note that I am not saying that different interest groups need have the same answers, or that the collaborative groups need to operate the same way that parent groups do:

o  Who will take the lead on scheduling meetings?

o  Who will serve as a point of contact for the group (the person to whom inquiries are directed)?

o  Who is authorized to be a spokesperson for the group?

o  Will the group operate with a list serve, and, if so, who will manage it?

o  How will reps be notified when meetings have been scheduled and the protocol for accessing them?

o  If the group is frustrated by a rep's performance (missing meetings, not coming prepared, acting stridently, etc.) what is the protocol for addressing those frustrations, including the possibility of informing the rep's parent body what's happening and possibly requesting that the rep be replaced?

o  What will be the standards for minutes, how will it be determined who will take them, how will they be disseminated, will they be available to folks outside the group, how can they be modified, and how will they be archived?

o  Will meetings be facilitated, and, if so, how will it be determined who will facilitate?

o  How will meeting agendas be drafted?

o  To what extent are reps authorized to make decisions binding on their constituent organizations?

o  If the group develops proposals, what can the group implement on its own and when do reps need to consult with their organizations? If proposals need to be shopped among the partners, who will manage this process?

o  When can the group proceed in the absence of participation from a partner group (what happens when reps miss meetings)?

o  What are the reporting standards for informing partners what the group is discussing?

o  What is the protocol for inviting additional partners to join the group?

o  How will the group make decisions?

While this list is not exhaustive, it's comprehensive enough to give you a good feel for what I'm talking about.

If you reflect on this set of questions, you'll observe that all of them have probably been addressed by each partner organization to establish how they'll function internally. None of this should be virgin territory. I suggest you think of it as extending what you already know to be helpful at home into your work with others. While there can a certain amount of impatience with tackling process considerations when an interest group initially gathers (it tends to be much sexier jumping into ideas for joint projects, which were the inspiration for collaborating in the first place), my experience has been that operating in the fog bank of murky process quickly erodes enthusiasm for the joint effort. If you want your group's work to have legs, you have to provide shoes.

While it may make sense, in the name of efficiency, to ask one partner group to take the lead on handling coordination functions (perhaps by virtue of access to greater resources or staff experience), at the very least all collaborative groups can walk through the checklist of organizational functions I've delineated above to keep things rolling.

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