Blog Post

Putting Collaborative Practice in Universities under the Microscope

by | 24 Jul, 2023 | Blog, CASS Collaborative Cultures Project, Projects

by Sejul Malde, Julie Munro-Allison, Maya Haviland & Mitchell Whitelaw

In this third part of our blog series on the Australian National University’s (ANU), College of Arts and Social Sciences CASS Collaborative Cultures Project we share key insights, reflections and processes from the first phase of the ANU’s Collaborative Practice Lab Program, a new initiative aiming to support staff to better initiate, enable, sustain and amplify develop their collaborative practice. The Program was developed from research undertaken by the CASS Collaborative Cultures Project in 2020 and 2021 and informed by the work of the Scaffolding Cultural CoCreativity Project. 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, and the second post here, which explores participatory research undertaken with staff in CASS investigating the institutional, project and individual enablers and challenges of collaborative practice in a university context.

Between March and June 2023, a group of ANU academics, professionals and PhD students came together for Phase One of ANU’s new Collaborative Practice Lab Program, a peer learning and action research initiative to better understand and nurture university collaborative practice. In doing so the Program sought to respond to an identified support gap existing currently across the university sector.

Across five Labs as a cohort we came together to learn, think, share, reflect and play; supporting each other in our respective collaboration journeys, while seeking to build a shared understanding of the opportunities and challenges of enacting collaborative practice within our university.

Key insights and reflections gleaned across the Program include:

  • The necessity of ‘opening the hood’ on what effective collaborative practice takes. This helps make visible its specific enablers and barriers, which can help us to better support collaborative work.
  • These specific enablers and barriers can be understood by examining collaborative scenarios via a range of relevant lenses. In the Labs we focused on authority, emotions, value, motivations, roles, risk, time and energy.
  • Collaborative practitioners want and need facilitated support, space and time to reflect on their collaborative work, by themselves and with their peers.
  • There are a number of aspects of University culture, systems and processes that do not align positively with supporting effective collaborative practice. Universities need to critically reflect on and adapt these if they really want to enable a positive collaborative culture.  

Many of these insights aligned with and validated the findings of our previous research, as outlined in our previous blog posts. The Collaborative Practice Lab Program enabled us to explore how we translate insights into meaningful activities that inform and support collaborative practice in relation to the real-life contexts of participants, providing us with a more detailed and nuanced understanding of collaborative practice and its supports through peer learning.

Program intentions and shape

Through the Lab Program, we hoped participants would:

  • Develop insights into their own current collaborative practice, and learn useful approaches to help reflect on, interpret and improve it.
  • Become part of a supportive peer learning community, with a diverse cohort of colleagues offering a range of perspectives and experiences from across the University.
  • Contribute to and draw from our existing research on the dynamics of collaboration and collaborative practice.

In designing and running the Program, we were keen to adhere to the following key principles that we felt were essential in creating the right context for better exploring collaborative practice.

  • To create and maintain a safe and supportive environment for shared discussion, reflection and learning.
  • To emphasise the importance of care, hospitality and fun, allowing us to draw energy and enthusiasm from participation rather than just expending it.
  • To bring a spirit of collaboration and experimentation to the Program, resisting the usual ANU way of doing things where appropriate and necessary.
  • To recognise that we all, participants and conveners alike, are experts in our own experiences and practices, and to collaboratively draw upon this expertise in the spirit of peer learning.

The Lab Program was designed both as a peer learning initiative, for better supporting collaborative practice, and a participatory action research project, for better understanding it. In our previous work we found that learning from our peers about how to better navigate collaborative work is essential to foster cultures of collaboration. We imagined that the collective experience and perspective of the group, facilitated in an exchange of ideas, perspective and reflections, would serve as a shared resource for participants. From a research perspective we wanted to build on our previous insights on supporting effective collaborative practice by testing them in a practical context, as well as drawing on the shared activities, discussions and reflections within the Program to draw deeper understanding.

Participants were selected as part of a competitive EoI process, based on their desire to improve their collaborations (considered in the context of a current collaborative project) and an interest in participating and supporting peer learning. Consideration was also given to assembling a diverse group of participants, working on a broad range of collaborative projects. We believe that to collaborate effectively requires an ability to connect across difference, and so we intentionally sought to ensure that the group comprised enough difference, by including academic staff, PhD candidates and professional staff, from different areas within the university and from a variety of levels. Participants were expected to attend all Labs (where possible), to undertake a small amount of reflective work between Labs and to actively contribute to the peer-learning experience.

The Labs

The five labs were hosted in person across different venues at the ANU, each running across a whole morning, with morning tea and lunch provided, in keeping with the hospitality principle. Time was set aside at the start and end of each Lab for shared reflection on the group’s experiences and perspectives to date. The Lab program as a whole aimed to address the key themes and problem statements which we had identified and developed in our previous research. During each lab session we worked with participants, through a range of activities, to help them reflect on their respective collaborations as understood through a range of interpretative lenses, as drawn from our previous work. These ‘lenses’ included:

  • Situating ourselves within our collaborations, and situating our collaborative work across established cycles of activity.
  • Analysing the foundational elements that exist when collaborative relationships are formed and shaped. These elements included the various positions, motivations and authorities that exist as collaborations establish and progress.
  • Exploring the diversity of value that is created when we collaborate, and exploring how these link to our own and others motivations.
  • Understanding the roles that manifest within collaborations and the specific skills and labour needed to support effective collaborative practice.
  • Identifying, understanding and preparing for risks to, and within, collaboration. This needs attention as collaboration is inherently risky, demanding significant effort, and rarely unfolding as anticipated and often producing uncertain outcomes.

As a peer group we found these lenses useful as a way of making visible the issues surrounding collaboration. By doing so they helped us to draw out shared understanding across diverse examples of collaborative practice, and provided a common language with which to discuss and contemplate them.

Roles and Hats activity

Reflections and perspectives

We are still in touch with participants following completion of the Phase 1 Program, to keep learning about the continuing value of it to their current and future practice. We also built in significant reflection and feedback time within the Labs and across the overall process, so participants were able to share their key insights and perspectives in an ongoing way. In terms of the usefulness of the Program to the participants’ respective collaborative practices, there was common agreement that it had helped them to better reveal, and thus more deeply understand, the variety of issues and dynamics present within their collaborative projects, and that they felt better equipped to negotiate these moving forward. Their enthusiasm and determination for doing so was highlighted by setting themselves a range of tailored goals to advance their collaborative practice post Program.  These included:

  • continuing to make time to nurture collaborations,
  • developing non-linear thinking on collaborative projects,
  • using existing skills to amplify collaborations and create enabling structures, and
  • better advocating for their own skills, knowledge and experience in collaborations.

From our shared discussions, participants significantly valued the approach the Program took as a method to convene reflective peer learning about collaboration in the university.  Feedback centred on the recognition of the Program as an open, nurturing and safe environment to discuss issues that could be challenging or uncomfortable. Participants also felt that the Program successfully created the space for them to step away from the ongoing pressures and challenges of their working days, and enable them to invest the necessary invaluable time, energy and attention needed to make sense of these challenges, from a collaboration perspective. For many this was an experience and opportunity they did not typically have in other aspects of their professional lives.

A number of our discussions also focused on ANU culture and the challenges this often presents to collaborative work. Specific observations noted the dominant culture of individuality present at the university that emphasises competition over collaboration, the rigid hierarchies of authority that squeeze space for collaborative expression and the existing university systems and processes that run counter to collaboration. With that in mind participants provided their views on building out from the Program, towards supporting a more collaborative culture across ANU. Ideas included maintaining and growing these peer networks, provided these networks could retain the personal/informal aspect that participants found valuable. Other suggestions included connecting the deep knowledge about collaborative practice coming out of this work, to cross university strategic initiatives that ANU were currently grappling with.  Communication and visibility were also seen to be key elements in valuing collaboration across the university, and participants raised the need to highlight and celebrate collaborative work in university-wide communications.

From our perspective as convenors, Phase 1 of the Collaborative Practice Lab Program has been invaluable in successfully testing a model of peer learning as well as tools developed in previous research to build understanding about collaboration, whilst also supporting collaborative practitioners in their collaboration journeys. In particular we feel that Phase 1 has helped demonstrate that:

  • There is a definite need and interest from across our university community for explicit support in navigating collaborative practice
  • Undertaking a process of reflective peer learning about collaborative practice is a very effective approach in providing that support. However, the right conditions need to be created in order for this to occur, for example the participants need to trust each other and the convenors
  • If people can see the need and value of the support process, they will engage and provide their valuable time and attention to this, despite their busy lives
  • Thinking about collaboration via specific lenses is a very useful way of revealing and talking about the hidden issues underpinning collaborative work
  • People have different learning styles and it’s essential to balance the need people have for   content about collaboration (via useful tools and framework) with time and space for reflection and sharing.

Next steps

Moving forwards we are building on this thinking and experience with another cohort, via Phase 2 of the Collaborative Practice Lab Program, which will run from August to November 2023. Please join us if you are interested! If the themes discussed in this blog or any of our previous blogs, resonate, we want to hear from you. We are currently seeking expressions of interest to participate in Phase 2. Please review our call for EoIs for more information.

Phase 2 will run alongside our other related initiatives, all seeking to develop a more collaborative culture at ANU. These include building communities of collaborative practitioners across ANU and beyond, developing specific tools and resources that provide practical support to collaborative practitioners (within and beyond the university) and identifying approaches to align ANU systems, processes and other strategic initiatives, to better enable collaboration.

In addition to taking part in the next cohort of Collaboration Labs, you can contribute to ongoing research about challenges and supports to collaboration and co-creation in different contexts of practice through responding to a survey of challenges and supports for collaboration and co-creation that is currently open. We hope that taken together, these various initiatives will not only emphasis the value of our collaborations, but also better help us to better nurture and tend to them.


Expression of interest for Phase 2 Collaborative Practice Lab Program (ANU access only)

Survey of challenges and support needs for collaboration and co-creation