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People and the power of collaborative working

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2012

Dr Robin Singleton, Associate Director at the Institute for Collaborative Working, emphasises the importance of developing competencies and behaviours for successful collaborative working in a changing market.

New expectations

Changing markets and a struggling economy lead us to look at increasingly more innovative ways of carrying out business.

As noted by Grant Thornton, who have a significant involvement in the area of local authorities, the imperatives of the Coalition Government’s 2010 Spending Review, allied to its policy agendas such as the Big Society and Open Public Services, are seeing local authorities considering – more seriously than ever before – alternative forms of service delivery with other public sector bodies, the private sector and civil society organisations, including possible ‘spin-offs’ from their own organisation.

There are many instances of Government recommending collaborative working as an effective way of improving performance, reducing costs and adding value, for both public and private sector organisations. Just two topical examples are:
• Collaboration across police forces, as currently being promoted by Home Office ministers (as in the HMIC report ‘Increasing efficiency in the Police Service – The role of collaboration’)
• The introduction of Health and Wellbeing Boards, which transfer public health responsibility to local government and require collaboration across multiple agencies.

New strategic framework

With so much interest in collaborative working, many organisations are asking what is needed for successful collaboration. Collaborative working is not new. For at least the past two decades it has been wellunderstood that collaboration could increase the competitiveness and performance of organisations, creating additional value for customers. But many forms of partnering and alliancing have been tried over many business sectors and over many years, often with low levels of success.

To enable successful outcomes, organisations need to utilise a strategic framework for collaborative working and to develop collaborative competencies and behaviours in its people. When properly established and integrated with more traditional business processes, the strategic framework and the competencies/behaviours become mutually reinforcing to develop long-term cultural change. A new British Standard – BS 11000 – was developed as a strategic framework to build collaborative business relationships. From this framework, an organisation can assess its own collaborative capabilities, select the right partner, measure joint performance, manage risks together, deliver joint objectives and create additional value – all aimed at successful collaborative working.

New competencies and behaviours

Because collaborative working is an alternative and enhanced business capability, organisations need to develop collaborative competencies and behaviours in its people, so that knowledge, skills and resources can be shared in an environment of trust.

Here are just two examples:
• A key competency is an ability to negotiate collaboratively. In a traditional business model, the approach to negotiations could simply be described as ‘winner takes all’. But for a collaborative venture, the adoption of the strategic framework requires the partners to specify their individual and joint objectives at the very outset of the relationship. So the competency required is to negotiate an agreement between the partners to support those objectives – and help build an open, trusting relationship. This competency reflects an ability to place the longer-term stability of the relationship ahead of any short-term unilateral gain.
• A critical collaborative behaviour is establishing and maintaining respect between the partners. Building trust is paramount in creating a high-performing collaborative environment and is founded on each partner’s respect for the other partner. Mutual respect, for example, encourages the sharing of ideas and bringing the benefits of diverse thinking, which lead to innovation and additional value creation. Trust is then developed through an active commitment to the relationship, with continuous demonstration of integrity, openness and honesty.

Extensive experience with business leaders embarking on collaborative working recently has emphasised the priority of developing these competencies and behaviours.

Many organisations in the public sector have well-established procedures for assessing and developing technical, commercial, financial and other business skills. Fewer organisations have processes that extend to collaborative competencies. Similarly, while a number of organisations are pre-disposed to collaboration, relatively few define and promote appropriate behaviours. But the development of people in terms of collaborative competencies and behaviours cannot take place in an organisational vacuum. Business leaders who want collaborative working as an alternative and enhanced capability must first create the right organisational enablers. This starts from an explicit leadership commitment to a collaborative culture, as well as investing in people, processes and infrastructure. Outside help can often be beneficial – organisations such as the Institute for Collaborative Working and Pera can provide support with understanding BS 11000, providing programmes for skills development and business change, and so forth.

New way forward

Collaborative working offers a powerful capability to build new value propositions that are beyond the capabilities of a single organisation. A new strategic framework is available in BS 11000 aimed at building successful collaborative relationships.

But a key factor is that organisations develop collaborative competencies and behaviours in their people, since – in the end – it will be those people that help deliver change for the public sector.

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