Blog Post

Embracing the opportunities to develop stronger collaborative cultures in Universities

by | 25 Nov, 2022 | Blog, CASS Collaborative Cultures Project, Collaborators, Featured, Resources

by Maya Haviland, Sejul Malde & Mitchell Whitelaw

In this second part of our blog series on the CASS Collaborative Cultures Project we share recent participatory research undertaken with staff at the Australian National University’s (ANU) College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) investigating the institutional, project and individual enablers and challenges of collaborative practice in a university context. We outline our process and findings to date and share our plans for next steps in action research and culture change to enhance collaborative cultures at the ANU. You can read the first post in this series here, which explores the strategic need for universities to explicitly understand and support their staff with collaborative practice.

Collaboration represents an important enabler for universities to achieve their strategic goals, but there is surprisingly little focus on how collaborative practice is nurtured and enabled within universities. As we have outlined in a previous blog post 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.

In late 2020 a group of staff in the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences set out to explore ways to develop and scaffold capacity within our university to better initiate, enable, sustain and amplify collaborative practice between practitioners and their networks. We were motivated by a shared recognition that effective collaborative practice is essential for our university to achieve its strategic goals, but that current institutional approaches and mechanisms to support effective collaborative practice are inadequate. We believe that effective collaborative practice is an essential and core capability of a university today. Therefore there is an institutional responsibility to actively enable collaborative practice, not just expect that it will happen and succeed without explicit support.

In starting this initiative, we also recognised that some excellent collaborative practice occurs within our institution. Over the past 2 years we have undertaken a program of research and design with a group of collaborative practitioners in our college community, linked to wider research around collaboration.  We invited a group of people involved in collaborative practices of one form or another across CASS to be part of a collaborative action research process.

This work has involved testing concepts, prototyping tools and social processes, as well as researching aspects of lived experiences of collaboration at individual, project and institutional scales. Broadly, we have been seeking to better understand commonly experienced dynamics, enablers and barriers of collaboration, as well as identify what works (and might work) in our institutional context.

Principles guiding our work

As this project emerged from a broader discussion about organisational culture change anchored in key principles, we were keen at the outset to explicitly articulate these and adhere to them in guiding the project. These are:

  • Draw upon the experiences of practicing collaborators from across CASS 
  • Produce evidence and grounded ideas for action 
  • Consider individual and organisational scales 
  • Focus on practitioners not roles, and value gathering diverse perspectives on collaboration 
  • Collective problem framing, reflection and synthesis to meet specific needs 
  • Open to outside collaborative practice, experience and knowledge 
  • Where relevant operate a non-traditional approach to this challenge   
  • Seek to understand, connect and amplify with other relevant university wide initiatives, not duplicate or replace

The 2021 Collaborative Cultures Workshops and research process

In 2021 we ran a series of 3 interactive workshops with 18 participants involved across the series (not everyone was involved in all 3 workshops, but many took part in 2 or more). Participants were drawn from across a range of schools in the College , and included academic and professional staff. They were invited to participate based on their engagement with collaborative practice and self-selected the extent of their involvement.

Workshop 1 – Testing and Evaluation a Collaborative Research Cycle – April 2021

The first workshop drew on a framework for mapping stages and phases of a co-creative cycle developed from parallel research undertaken by one of our team. The group tested and evaluated the provisional cycle structure, giving feedback on the framework and brainstorming gaps and enablers for each phase (Inception, Discovery, Validation, Impact) in relation to practice within the university.

One of the interesting findings from the Workshop 1 is that our institution focuses its existing resources and efforts mainly on the Discovery and Validation phases of collaborative practice, and offers little for the crucial Inception and Impact phases.

We observed that our institution focuses its existing resources and efforts mainly on the Discovery and Validation phases of collaborative practice, and offers little for the crucial Inception and Impact phases.

Workshop 2 – Deep dive into the Inception Phase – September 2021

In the second workshop participants reflected on the Inception phase of a real-world collaboration. Looking at a collaboration they had been involved in, participants reflected on and mapped the formation stage of a collaboration. We each considered the spaces and contexts of our collaboration, the processes of formation, and the people and roles that were involved in the formation of the collaborative project. Each participant also identified elements they felt were crucial to the inception of the specific collaboration as well as dynamics they observed, and the agency and motivation of different players involved.

As a group we then mapped a ‘wish list’ of collaboration enablers, considering these across different scales, from the personal to the institutional, and across practical external things (like spaces, resources, materials and methods) to more relational aspects of how we work with other people.

Screen shot from Workshop #2

Workshop 3 – Design Thinking for Culture Change initiatives – December 2021

Drawing on the data from Workshops 1 & 2, cross-referenced with insights from parallel research and practice the facilitation team were involved in, we developed a set of 12 problem statements about collaboration (see below). We then asked the group to vote for which of these 12 problem statements were most urgent or significant for them. The third workshop took a more ‘designerly’ approach and we broke into groups to work on the Top 3 problem statements identified in the group. These were Roles, Designing for Collaboration and Facilitation. Groups then worked through a design thinking process to identify possible useful actions or culture change interventions that could be implemented in the context of our university.

Problem Statements about Collaboration

The 12 problem statements developed from the data seemed to reflect the main challenges, barriers or concerns regarding collaboration within our university context, and can be grouped into 3 clusters. These are:

Literacy & Awareness

Language: People involved in collaborations often don’t have a language to talk about and reflect on their collaboration experiences.

Values and motivations: Unless motivations and values are clear it can be challenging to satisfy the diverse interests in a collaborative group.

Different Roles: People involved in collaborations often play multiple roles. These are often implied or invisible to others.

Methods: A lack of known methods for collaborative work across differences can undermine its viability and perceived legitimacy.

Invisible collaboration: The collaborative work that others are doing can be invisible. Thus we miss opportunities for learning from each other.

Enabling Environments & Organisational Support

Institutional support: Institutions don’t support processes of collaboration very effectively.

Risk: Collaboration is risky. That risk, which is often borne at an individual level, can be a barrier to collaboration.

Spaces: We lack safe and conducive spaces to form and experiment with collaborations.

Undervaluing process: We often attend to and celebrate outputs and outcomes more than process.

Facilitation: Collaboration facilitation and brokerage is relatively invisible and not valued institutionally.


Designing for collaboration: We design our projects to make a convincing proposal rather than to enable effective collaboration

Finding people: It’s difficult to find the right people to collaborate with. We don’t have a good sense of capabilities, strengths and networks within the institution.

Undervaluing process: We often attend to and celebrate outputs and outcomes more than process.

Group voting data for most urgent/significant problem statements prior to workshop #3

Insights and Findings so far

Through this collaborative research and design work we have begun to develop an understanding of collaboration in practice, as well as gaps, enablers and barriers within the institution. In addition to the twelve problem statements, developed to identify barriers to collaboration, our findings can be grouped into six key themes that recur through the data providing us with both a more nuanced and complete understanding of collaborative practitioners needs across the  College of Arts and Social Sciences at the ANU. In addition to our process of analysis and synthesis we sought to re-frame each of these themes into challenge statements that could be used by CASS to design practical interventions.

Theme 1: Rendering Visible 

Our data found that we need to make the labour, challenges and joys of collaboration more visible and explicit in our organisation. Specifically people seek: 

  • Shared language to talk about collaboration. People involved in collaborations often don’t have a language to talk about and reflect on their collaboration experiences. 
  • Cultures and practices that make collaborative dynamics explicit & visible. If we are not explicit with ourselves and with others about dynamics we are experiencing we can face additional challenges. 
  • Contexts to reflect on collaborative practice. It is harder to work with things we don’t recognize or have shared language for. We need time, spaces and encouragement to safely reflect on our collaborative practices.  
  • Awareness of collaborations already happening in the organisation. Opportunities to celebrate the process, as well as the outcomes, of collaboration. Collaboration is hard but valuable. We often attend to and celebrate outputs and outcomes more than process. This can under-value the labour, learning and value of good process. Under-valuing these elements can discourage collaborative work. 

Our challenge statement became: how might we foster opportunities to share and make explicit the dynamics and experiences of collaborative practice? 

Theme 2: Peer Networks  

Learning from our peers about how to better navigate collaborative work and being able to find people to collaborate with are essential to foster cultures of collaboration. Specifically, people seek: 

  • Safe and conducive spaces to form and experiment with collaborations. 
  • Time to build and maintain collaborative relationships 
  • Opportunities to learn from and connect with each other 

Our challenge statement became: how might we support and foster networks for peer learning and nurturing collaborations? 

Theme 3: Human Qualities 

Collaborations are built on personal relationships, even when they scale up to be between groups & organisations. The human qualities we value and bring to our practice shape our collaborations and their effectiveness. Qualities identified as critical for collaborative cultures include: 

  • Ability to articulate and understand our values and motivations, and those of others.  
  • Tolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty and risk 
  • Care (rather than competition) 
  • Listening and curiosity about difference 
  • Commitment and sustained effort 
  • Attention to culture & power 

Our challenge statement became: how might we foster the qualities that enable collaboration in our people and our organisation? 

Theme 4: Labour, Skills & Roles  

Collaboration takes work. It requires some specific skills and labour. Some of the needs identified in our organisational context and culture include: 

  • Facilitation 
  • Working with diverse roles and positionality 
  • Collaboration methods 

Our challenge statement became: how might we ensure the skills and labour needed for effective collaborative practice are available to our people and their projects? 

Theme 5: Organisational Support & Enablers 

People feel like institutions don’t support processes of collaboration very effectively. Organisational environments and systems can strongly shape the dynamics of collaboration. Some systems can constrain collaboration, while some existing supports are not well known or accessible. People seek: 

  • Champions and advocates for collaboration  
  • Resources and methods to design for collaboration 
  • Ways to find people 
  • Supports to maintain effective communication (e.g. platforms and processes) 
  • Recognition of collaborative work 

Our challenge statement became: how might we evolve organisational systems to better enable collaboration? 

Theme 6: Risk 

Collaboration is risky – it rarely works how we think it will and demands significant effort for an uncertain outcome. That risk, which is often borne at an individual level, can be a barrier to collaboration. To mitigate the risks of collaboration people seek: 

  • Support for the time and uncertainties inherent in collaborative work 
  • Organisational recognition of risk for our people and our collaborators 
  • Opportunities to celebrate the process, as well as the outcomes, of collaboration 

Our challenge statement became: how might we build our individual and organisational capacity to navigate the risks of collaboration? 

Next steps  

We offer up these insights  as contributions towards the necessary knowledge that universities need to build to understand what effective collaborative practice really takes, and what collaborative practitioners require to support them. Yet this only represents a first step, there is so much more we still want and need to know. At the same time, we don’t only want to present problems, but solutions too. Taken together these problem statements, themes and challenge statements represent important anchor points with which to begin designing practical approaches and activities that can help support collaborative practice. This now guides our next steps, which seek to contribute to the following goals:

  • RESEARCH. Continue to build knowledge and fine grained understanding about developing and embedding collaborative practice across CASS/ANU and beyond. 
  • COMMUNITY. Cultivate and nurture a community of collaborative practitioners and support them to reflect on and inform their practice.  
  • SUPPORT. Create useful tools & resources to support and develop collaborative practice. 
  • SYSTEMS. Optimise existing ANU systems to better support collaborative practice. 

Based on our research findings identifying enablers and addressing barriers to collaborative practice, we propose four pilot interventions to be tested within our institutional context, that seek to address the goals in different ways: 

  • Collaborative Practice Labs. Intensive workshops for ANU staff and higher degree research students supporting collaborative practice, focused on specific projects and developing our understanding through action research. 
  • Collaboration Salons. Creating a community of practice through regular gatherings for sharing and discussing collaboration in action. 
  • Collaboration Systems Change Action Group. A mechanism to operationalise organisational systems level changes in response to issues identified in our research. 
  • Collaborative Practice Learning Modules. Developing and evaluating structured learning resources on the foundations of collaborative practice. Suitable for staff or student training, or professional development across the sector. 

Across future months we will seek to prototype or implement each of these with interested collaborative practitioners across CASS and the broader ANU, not just with those people that are already engaged in collaborative practices, but also with the ‘collaborative curious’ too. Alongside learning what works in supporting collaborative practice, we’ll continue to build the necessary understanding we need to ensure that collaborative practice not only becomes more visible in universities but also can be nurtured to thrive in our real world collaborations within and beyond our sector.