Monday, 23 June 2014

"Knowing trust" - or three ways to make a collaboration work better

A recent piece of work with a client got me thinking about the mechanics of collaboration between universities. Universities nowadays have lots of reasons to work together - whether it’s a research project that spreads across several universities; a joint doctoral training centre; joint courses; or shared services - universities have financial, regulatory and market encouragement to play together nicely.

It doesn't always work, of course, and often when it doesn't, it's to do with people, who are at the heart of any collaboration. I think that there are three really important factors to bear in mind.

The first is clarity about purpose.  Do your best to make sure that people don't think that there's a hidden agenda - this helps with focus. If the collaboration is about a joint doctoral training centre, then say so. And it’s good for senior leaders in the work to be clear early about points of tension and difference. If then plan is to share student numbers 50:50, then say so early. Clarity leaves no room for speculation and mischief making. But where there's uncertainty, it’s easy for people to see and find conspiracy (and merger threats!) We're hard-wired to spot danger, and if there's a chance to revert to type, we'll all do it easily.

The second is to take the time to get to know each other. Universities are long-term organisations: the arrangements often need to last for years, if not decades, and this happens well only when people relate to each other as trusted colleagues. This doesn't have to mean shared team building weekends with paintball and obstacle courses (phew!), but it does mean making ample time in any workshops and meetings for informal discussions - make lunch breaks long not short; have plenty of chances for tea and coffee; and make sure that people from the different partner institutions are actually talking to each other.

The third is easy to forget. Face-to-face is better than phone-to-phone. Better than Skype-to-Skype. Certainly better than email-to-email. That can be tricky when the partners are a distance away, but it is worth working at. Some of the very successful partnerships that UK universities have with overseas institutions are underpinned by regular get-togethers, where a lot of people from one of the partners travel over to meet with the others. You don't do this unless there's real value, and that value, I think, is the authenticity that comes from being present in the same space as your co-conspirators, in whatever activity you're undertaking.

All in all, I think that it’s a ‘knowing trust’ which is required. 'Knowing' because it's important to focus on what your institution needs, and why it’s doing it. But it isn't a short term transaction, it’s a long term relationship. And so trust is an equally important partner.

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