Sep 21 2015 How a closer connection between practice and research can advance cross-sector collaboration
Reflections on ”Designing and Implementing Cross-Sector Collaborations: Needed and Challenging”
By Neil Britto, Executive Director, The Intersector Project
In a 2006 special issue of Public Administration Review, John Bryson, Barbara Crosby, and Melissa Stone released their seminal “The Design and Implementation of Cross-Sector Collaborations” — a work that has had significant influence both on our thinking at The Intersector Project and on scholarship on this topic generally. The authors provided a valuable update last month to commemorate the 75th anniversary of PAR’s publication, the crux of which is this — While progress has been made, there remains a need for significant advancement in both scholarship and practice of government, business, and non-profit collaboration in the United States.
The authors’ update takes stock of thinking on the topic over the past decade and discusses “areas in which scholarship offers reasonably settled conclusions” as well as recommendations for future research. For us, the article inspires the question: How can the growing number of entities working to support cross-sector collaboration in the United States help advance knowledge and understanding on the practice? We would argue that the support industry — advisory service providers, trainers, academic institutions, program operators, facilitators, and the like — and funders of cross-sector collaboration have a potentially valuable role to be in conversation with scholarship, helping to address the questions that if answered, would advance thinking and practice of intelligent collaboration, and ultimately improve efforts to address complex public problems.
Research activities that connect practitioners and scholars are an opportune way to simultaneously advance thinking and practice. Those actively working on collaborative projects have rich knowledge to offer to researchers and vice versa. As the authors write, “because learning is an important feature of successful collaborations, they are natural sites for action research that has theory building and testing as its aim.” Furthermore, research and practitioner communities have aligning needs for greater learning processes: “Collaboration processes are complex enough as to demand a simultaneous analysis of all its moving parts, a goal that should drive future research in this area,” the authors write, quoting previous research. They add, “the challenge for practice is the same — how to understand collaborations and their moving parts well enough to actually produce good results and minimize failure.”
So what can the industry of organizations seeking to advance cross-sector collaboration in the United States do to support communal knowledge on the topic? We offer three recommendations:
- Practitioners of cross-sector collaboration, (along with the advisory firms, facilitators, and others that provide direct support to collaborations) should build learning processes into their work from the early stages.
- Funders of cross-sector activity should demand and support initiatives that build a collaboration’s capacity to support exchanges between research and practitioner communities.
- Practitioners and scholars alike need to better understand the limits of multi-sector collaboration in order to understand the conditions, processes, structures, and interactions that contribute to success.
More on each of these recommendations below, but first, here’s a brief look at Bryson, Crosby, and Stone’s conclusions on areas of the field where consensus has been reached and areas that warrant further study.
Areas of the field where consensus has been reached
- When and when not to collaborate
- The antecedents of effective collaboration
- The elements of effective collaboration leadership
- The multilevel nature of collaboration
- The range of, and contingencies guiding, effective governance approaches
- Likely collaboration outcomes
- The difficulties or challenges of collaboration
Areas of the field where additional work needs to be done
- How collaboration might differ depending on the nature of the issue or task to be dealt with
- How to actually go about discerning what the collaborative advantage is in specific circumstances other than engaging in dialogue and deliberation
- How collaborations can contribute to the creation of public value
- How collaborations can clarify the complex nature of accountabilities
Recommendation: Practitioners of cross-sector collaboration (along with the advisory firms, facilitators, and others that provide direct support to collaborations) should build learning processes into their work from the early stages.
Cross-sector collaborations should consider partnerships with academic institutions and research initiatives to create a clear mechanism for documenting and learning from the collaborative process and for sharing that knowledge with a larger community. Learning processes that support data collection, periodic reassessment of process, sharing of what’s working well and what isn’t, and post-collaboration reflection are all ways to enhance the learning experience of collaboration participants. The objectives for the learning processes should include not just reactively adjusting the course of the collaboration based on findings, but also proactively developing knowledge on the factors, decisions, and interactions that led to that deviation to assess the risk of and avoid reoccurrence. This not only instills confidence in the collaboration among partners that the capacity and structures to course-correct exist, but also provides insight into the structures, processes, and interactions that influenced the deviation — valuable knowledge for scholars and other practitioners.
Research from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on collaborative transportation initiatives in Minneapolis-St. Paul provides a good example of this type of partnership.
Recommendation: Funders of cross-sector activity should demand and support initiatives that build a collaboration’s capacity to support exchanges between research and practitioner communities.
“Some of the most promising opportunities for making change in cities exist at the intersections of sectors,” Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson has said. Foundations have a distinctive and powerful role in advancing cross-sector collaboration because they possess the convening power to assemble leadership from government, business, and the non-profit sector; are often led by individuals that are particularly respected among all sectors; and possess the capital to catalyze collaborations and influence their design. These characteristics also ideally position foundations to play a role in addressing the challenge of bridging research and practice in the field.
Foundations can support initiatives that provide data-collection capacity to collaborations (e.g. financially support the involvement of researchers and research institutions in a collaboration). They can also require that data be collected throughout the collaboration as a prerequisite for receiving financial support. As any practitioner knows, cross-sector collaborations can be extremely challenging. Partners have to navigate the languages, cultures, and practices that differ among the sectors, grapple with power imbalances, deal with partners who prioritize their roles in the collaboration differently, and more. When these operational challenges exist, it can be daunting for a collaboration to devote resources to data collection and broader research goals. If this work is mandated by a funder, however, partners must build these learning processes into their work from the earliest stages. The research community, in turn, could use this data not only to create case studies, but to build data sets on cross-sector collaboration.
Foundations have a potentially important role in enabling cross-issue learning for collaborations, as many large foundations support cross-sector interventions on multiple social or environmental issues in a variety of contexts. This type of learning would address the need outlined by Bryson, Crosby, and Stone to ‘’compare cross-sector collaborations focused on similar problems in different contexts and on different problems in similar contexts’’’ to expand the ways we learn about what works in cross-sector collaboration.
Recommendation: Practitioners and scholars alike need to better understand the limits of multi-sector collaboration in order to understand the conditions, processes, structures, and interactions that contribute to success.
The common approach of developing case studies that examine successful cross-sector collaboration is helpful in understanding best practices, but limits the opportunity to learn from failures or challenges. There is a preference and ease to studying successes, while discussing failure and challenges is often sensitive and undesirable. Yet practitioners and researchers need to understand what structures, processes, and partner interactions exist in failed cross-sector collaboration, and how the absence of those elements helps explain the difference between successful and unsuccessful cross-sector collaborations.
Again, funding organizations have a potentially key role to play in enabling learning from failure because of their ability to financially incentivize a process that is unlikely to happen without support. Also, funding organizations have the capacity to support work that aims to learn from failed efforts and can incentivize involvement of those that have participated in challenged, failed, or underperforming collaborations by not penalizing those groups when they pursue additional funding.
Working to Bridge the Research-Practice Divide
At The Intersector Project, one of our guiding values is to conduct and illuminate research that is valuable for practitioners. Our new Research to Practice series and Monthly Research Briefings are examples of this commitment.
We also have recently revisited our Research Agenda, which we’ll publish on the blog on Wednesday. Several of the questions there aspire to make contributions in areas that Bryson, Crosby, and Stone highlight as needing additional research.
Our suggestions here require increased resources to support collaboration — more information collection, more deliberate planning, and more attentiveness to learning — all of which increases the cost of designing and participating in cross-sector collaboration. The funding community for cross-sector collaboration should be attentive to the reality that cross-sector collaborations are a new, modestly proven approach to addressing some types of public challenges. Longitudinal comparative studies on single sector approaches are sparse, but they could provide meaningful contributions to learning when, how, and why cross-sector collaborations should and shouldn’t be pursued.