Blog Post

It won’t just happen by wishing it. Collaborative practice needs nurturing in Universities.  

by | 7 Nov, 2022 | Blog, CASS Collaborative Cultures Project, Featured

Maya Haviland, Sejul Malde & Mitchell Whitelaw, November 2022 

In this blog post, we map out the strategic need for universities to explicitly understand and support their staff with collaborative practice, helping them to better respond to the opportunities and challenges of collaboration in relation to their own activities, as mediated by the people, projects and institutional environments that these sit within.

Whilst collaboration represents an important enabler for universities to achieve their strategic goals, it is surprising how little focus there is on how collaborative practice is nurtured within their institutions and for their staff. There is a significant international, sector-wide gap in this area that is preventing universities from fully embracing the value that collaborative work could hold for them. The College of Arts & Social Sciences (CASS) at the Australian National University (ANU) has begun to consider how we might begin to address this gap. We have set out to explore ways to develop and scaffold capacity within our College to better initiate, enable, sustain and amplify collaborative practice between CASS practitioners and their networks. To that end, we undertook a process of collaborative action research across the college in 2021 identifying enablers, barriers and common dynamics experienced by staff in their collaborative work. We are learning that people need the opportunity, process and time to reflect on, discuss and iterate their collaborative practice with their peers in a safe supportive space. The key findings from our work so far, alongside our plans for next steps, in supporting our people on their collaborative practice journeys will be detailed in a forthcoming accompanying blog post. 

Collaboration has obvious strategic value to universities. It helps us to achieve key financial, educational, research and social goals, whether through developing external partnerships, building connections across disciplines or driving the twin pillars of engagement and impact. Indeed, collaboration is held up by universities, either explicitly or implicitly, as the key to unlocking a number of pressing strategic imperatives such as diversifying research income through developing partnerships with external organisations and industry, addressing societal challenges through developing greater inter and trans disciplinary research solutions, or through accessing greater pools of students through partnerships with international universities. The ANU strategic plan 2021-2025, for example, includes many implicit and explicit references to the importance of collaboration to achieve its strategic goals.  

As an asset with such perceived importance, it is startling how little universities focus on understanding how collaboration is nurtured within their institutions and for their staff. It’s almost as if we believe that if we wish it to happen, then it will. Yet it’s actually not institutions that collaborate, it’s the people within them.

Collaboration can be enabled (or constrained) at various scales across the institution – through improved administrative and data sharing systems, processes of relationship brokerage & facilitation, resources to support and sustain collaborative work, and better recognition of the time & labour involved in working collaboratively (to name just a few!) – but in the end collaborations are enacted by people relating to and working with other people. As such university staff require supporting institutional environments and specific support mechanisms that target how collaboration happens for their collaborative work to thrive. 

Current collaboration orientated approaches adopted by universities appear to fall short. A brief desktop review highlights a sector-wide gap internationally in how universities support their people to collaborate. University approaches tend to fall into the following three groupings, none of which directly focus on better understanding how collaboration can be better supported: 

Advocating for the value of collaboration  

Universities are relatively evolved when it comes to understanding the strategic value of collaboration, and much of the collaboration-orientated literature connected with universities focuses on articulating the business and economic benefits of developing collaborations between universities and industry. These generally focus on emphasising why collaboration is important rather than how it occurs, premised on promoting institutional collaboration rather than focusing on individuals. When, on occasion, there is an emphasis on how to enhance these collaborations, the approaches only focus on high-level institutional strategies. While these have an important role in scaling up collaboration, they cannot enable effective collaborative practice without due consideration of how support is manifested at the individual level.   

Evidencing, evaluating and reporting on existing collaborations

As universities are consistently subjected to assessments, evaluations and rankings, it’s no surprise that other dominant responses to collaboration seek to evidence, evaluate and report it, rather than better understand and support it. In this form, universities become interested in seeking to identify and track incidences of collaborations to demonstrate their value. This emphasises what collaboration looks like and who with, rather than seeking to understand how it could be improved, generated or better supported. As an example, the 2015 report “Measuring the Value of International Research Collaboration” by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, critiques how much emphasis the Australian research sector, in its focus on international research collaboration, puts on evidencing internationalisation as an end in itself, rather than focusing more on policy and programme development that seek to improve collaborative value. ‘To adequately do this requires moving away from frameworks that focus on simple measurements of incidence, to frameworks capable of tracking the complex systems and changes that are involved in international collaboration and the broad range of values that flow’. 

Creating ‘places’ where collaboration can happen 

Universities aren’t short of locations where collaboration can or should happen. In some cases, these could relate to specific physical places such as co-working spaces and labs, but there is also an abundance of virtual places such as MS Teams, Zoom, Miro, Mural, which provide us with more opportunities and contexts to collaborate in and through. There are also many notional collaboration ‘spaces’, such as clusters, centres, networks, communities of practices, even informal morning teas, that support working across traditional university disciplinary and service structures. There are also mission orientated projects and programmes that seek to cut across traditional disciplinary silos, e.g. like the ANU Grand Challenges Scheme, which similarly become places where collaboration is framed as necessary in achieving success.  

These various ‘spaces’ are useful in contributing to universities’ collaborative capabilities, and clearly speak to universities’ recognition of the importance of collaboration. However we cannot assume that collaboration happens successfully just because of them. For example research has shown the tendency for organisations to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries rarely delivers truly robust collaboration on its own. Whilst such ‘spaces’ can provide opportunities to collaborate and connect, they do not support the actual relational practice of collaborating. They tend to focus on where or when we should collaborate, as opposed to how. Whilst online tools offer some affordances that do support us to practically collaborate, this is limited to a mechanistic form of collaboration, one that enables specific operational workflows rather than overcoming common relational or cultural barriers to collaboration that can be baked into our institutional systems. Ultimately the value of  various collaboration ‘spaces’ depends on their successful integration with the collaborative capacities and capabilities of those who use them and the projects they support. This integration requires a deeper understanding of how effective collaboration is formed. Having yet another place to collaborate will not do this. 

So given the lack of existing university approaches that seek to explore how to support staff in their collaborative work, how could this gap be addressed?

A key challenge for any institution is that collaboration is not easy, and there is no simple solution to supporting it. The nature of the collaboration challenge is complex. It is inherently situational, contextual and relational; looking and feeling a bit different to everyone.

Given this complexity, universities require a deep and nuanced understanding of the enablers and barriers relating to collaboration, in order to better support it. Without this understanding, ways to enable collaboration to happen remain largely invisible and inaccessible to most. 

A positive step forward in this regard might be to shift universities’ interpretation of ‘collaboration’ as a singular concept.  Far more useful is to think of it in its more active sense, as collaborative practice. This assumes an applied and contextual nature to collaboration, such that anyone who is interested in collaborative work at universities seeks to better understand it in relation to their own activities, as mediated by the people, project and institutional environments that these sit within. Therefore, in seeking to enhance collaboration, universities should consider how they could better understand and support effective collaborative practice. 

There is existing research on applied aspects of collaboration in connection to universities to draw upon to help build this understanding; however, none of it adequately represents the specific nature of university collaborative practice. For example, Team Science, a significant body of knowledge that is anchored in a desire to enable interdisciplinarity within universities, seeks to shift research culture from a primary investigator-initiated focus to one that embraces collaborative and crosscutting efforts across disciplinary dedicated departments. Elements of Team Science thinking focus on attributes that help or hinder team effectiveness such as trust, vision, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, leadership, mentoring, team dynamics, communication, recognition and sharing success, conflict and disagreement; and navigating networks and systems.  

There is no doubt rich a rich seam of knowledge here for universities to draw upon in the context of collaborative practice. However Team Science’s primary focus on promoting interdisciplinarity, limits its applicability in better understanding and supporting wider collaborative practice in universities. It tends to focus on certain researchers working in large inter-disciplinary teams, whereas collaborations in universities happens across broader contexts than this. There is also a dearth of examples of how universities are practically supporting Team Science at the level of individual collaborative practice. Existing approaches tend to focus on creating the environment for interdisciplinary collaborations to happen, for example through establishing interdisciplinary spaces and structures or provision of seed funding for interdisciplinary projects, rather than how to support people navigate the opportunities and challenges of collaborative work. 

There is a clear and present gap in how universities consider and support effective collaborative practice. If we really are going to embrace collaboration as an essential way to help universities achieve their strategic goals, it is essential to consider how we will address this.

A group of academic and professional staff within the College of Arts & Social Sciences (CASS) at the Australian National University, supported by the College Executive, is seeking to meet this challenge. We are exploring ways to develop and scaffold capacity within our College to better initiate, enable, sustain and amplify collaborative practice between CASS practitioners and their networks. Taking a participatory action research approach, we initially worked with a group of collaborative practitioners from across our College, to begin developing an understanding of collaboration in practice, as well as gaps, enablers and barriers within the institution. We also sought to generate ideas for practical approaches to activate support in this area. We learnt that people need the opportunity, process and time to reflect on, discuss and iterate their collaborative practice with their peers in a safe supportive space. This reflective, peer learning model lent itself both as an approach to gathering relevant understanding of collaborative practice (by adopting a practice based research mode), as well as tangible way to support its future development and support. We hope the wider university sector might also draw useful learning from our approach. You can read more in our next blog post (coming soon) about our key findings to date, as well as our next steps towards initiating, enabling, sustaining and amplifying collaborative practice with our institution.