What is collaboration?
Collaboration generally refers to individuals or organisations ‘working together’ to address problems and deliver outcomes that are not easily or effectively achieved by working alone. Collaborative practice is now central to the way we work, deliver services and produce innovations. Collaborative relationships are attractive to organisations because the combination of effort and expertise produce benefits greater than those achieved working alone.
What is collaborative practice?
Collaborative practice involves community service organisations working together to achieve shared goals.
In the community services delivery system, collaboration is achieved when organisations develop mechanisms - structures, processes and skills - for bridging organisational and interpersonal differences, and together arrive at outcomes that they value.1
Community service organisations generally collaborate to:
- improve the quality or scope of service to their clients, and/or
- provide administrative or service delivery efficiencies.
A continuum of collaborative practice
Collaborative practice can be seen as a continuum of relationships.2 The relationships formed between organisations can vary in terms of the formality of arrangements and how activities or functions are shared or integrated. Arrangements can range from informal agreements for information sharing, such as inter-agency or other network meetings, through to amalgamations and mergers, where a formal process fully integrates two organisations into a single operation.
The Queensland Department of Communities has prepared the following diagram. It is in draft form. Please contact the Client Service Innovation Unit from the Department of Communities if you have any feedback.
Relationships may also differ in terms of:
- length of relationship (one-off activity, time limited or ongoing)
- degree of risk and commitment
- type of outcomes sought, and
- level of organisational autonomy retained.
A community organisation will have a range of different relationships. It is helpful to map your organisation's collaborative relationships by drawing a diagram noting the different organisations your organisation interacts with, and identifying the relationship type. To view an example and sample paperwork, see Mapping collaborative relationships on the Collaborative practices page of Community Door site.
Organisations may establish formal ties for a number of reasons, such as:
- developing agreed procedures for how the organisations will relate to each another in conducting their separate services or activities, for example, referral protocols
- forming partnerships or consortia to undertake a one-off activity, project or other joint venture, for example, a joint tender
- forming partnerships for a longer-term activity or series of projects, for example, a joint venture to set up an ongoing service operated by two organisations
- to agree to share resources or expertise, for example, co-location of office premises, or
- to agree for one organisation to provide temporary auspice (legal governance) to another organisation.
Formal arrangements between organisations should be documented, and the documentation's type, extent and complexity will depend on the type of relationship being formed and the purpose of the collaboration. The most-common forms of documentation are:
- protocols - documented inter-agency procedures
- memoranda of understanding (MOU) - a broad agreement, usually documenting principles and general guidelines for a partnership or consortia
- agreements - more specific agreements, usually with some legal enforceability, that document the details of a partnership or consortia, and
- contracts - used when there will be significant consequences for participating organisations if partners do not keep to the agreement, or where complex issues are involved, such as when some joint ventures or amalgamations occur.
Reasons for collaboration
Evidence3 indicates that community organisations collaborate to:
|Create or modify service delivery||
|Policy development at organisational or community levels||
|Systems development and change through changed relationships between organisations||
|Social and community development||
Benefits of collaboration
Although many community sector organisations compete with other organisations for access to government and private funds, collaboration between organisations can provide important benefits to organisations and their clients or constituents.
Working with other organisations, either though informal networks or more formal partnerships can provide:
- greater efficiency and less duplicated effort. For example, a consortia approach to a competitive funding round can deliver integrated service models, achieve broader geographic coverage or reduced costs
- access to additional resources or lower costs through sharing resources such as office space, administration or other aspects of an organisation's operation
- improved service coordination across agencies, with better pathways or referral systems for service users
- a holistic approach to meeting client needs, with better and more efficient access to the range of services required, improved quality and consistency of service and greater responsiveness to needs
- organisational knowledge and improved service system capability:
- greater innovation and flexibility to respond to changing, emerging or more complex client needs and changing operations and operational environments
- access to up-to-date information, new ideas and strategic thinking
- improved capacity to demonstrate best practice
- political and lobbying strength
- increased capacity to successfully submit tenders or expressions of interest and to deliver projects, and
- additional expertise, support or legal protection for small, new, or struggling organisations.
Over time, the combined benefits of collaboration create new opportunities for partnering with others to build strong, safe, healthy and vital communities and a sustainable future together.
A living example
When the Shekinah Homeless Women's Services in Melbourne began collaborative discussions to amalgamate its four small stand-alone agencies for homeless women and their children, the benefits identified were to:
- create greater awareness about homeless women's needs
- establish one, large, gender-specific service
- increase and expand the services provided for homeless women and children
- ensure long-term sustainability
- streamline tasks such as case management, human resources, information technology support, and administrative work to increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness
- unite financial and funding arrangements
- ease management's burden, and
- create greater opportunities for funding and collaborative projects.
Shekinah Homeless Women's Services, 'Amalgamation and Strengthening Your Mission', presentation, 4th National Homelessness Conference, Australian Federation of Homeless Organisations (AFHO), Sydney, March 2006.
Evidence-based assessment of successful collaboration highlights six partnership principles4:
- recognise and accept the need for partnership
- develop clarity and realism of purpose
- ensure commitment and ownership
- develop and maintain trust
- create clear and robust partnership arrangements, and
- monitor, measure and learn.
Key elements of Principle 2, that is, the development of a shared vision and values between collaborating organisations, have been highlighted as crucial to successful collaboration.
A successful collaboration or partnership also needs to be approached systematically. Without clear goals and careful planning, collaborating organisations risk misunderstandings, disagreements or other problems arising.
Systematic planning for collaborative ventures involves:
- assessment of the likely benefits to the organisation and the venture's impact on its services or activities, the attributes and suitability of potential partner/s, and the venture's potential risks.
- alignment of goals and values. There needs to be a basic agreement about the purpose of the collaboration, what the organisations will try to achieve together, mutual expectations and the principles or values by which the partners will operate. The principles need to include agreements to operate with transparency and openness in dealings with one another.
- negotiation of details. The agreement between organisations needs to detail partners' specific roles and responsibilities, practical issues such as time frames and financial arrangements, and any other terms and conditions of the agreement, such as confidentiality and intellectual property.
- documentation. The agreement between the partners needs to be documented, either in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or, where there are resource or legal implications, in a formal agreement or contract.
1 RM Kanter in R Walker, Collaboration and Alliances: A Review for VicHealth, Literature Review, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne, 2001, p.1
2 Adapted from Keast, R 2001, 'Government service delivery framework: A new governance approach for Queensland', Journal of Contemporary Issues in Business and Government, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 51-58; Walter, U M and Petr C G (2000) 'A Template for Family-Centered Interagency Collaboration', The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, vol 81, I 5, p. 494-515; and Himmelman, A 2001 'On coalitions and the transformation of power relations: Collaborative betterment and collaborative empowerment', American Journal of Community Psychology, vol 29, no. 2, pp. 165-191.
3 University of Wisconsin - Cooperative Extension (1998:8) in Walker. R., Collaboration and Alliances: A Review for VicHealth. September 2000.
4 Hardy, B. et al. May 2003, Assessing Strategic Partnership the Partnership Assessment Tool, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Strategic Partnering Taskforce and Nuffield Institute for Health. London, pp. 1-52. An evidence-based document that provides a tool for assessing the success of a partnership.