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Are we maximising collaborative behaviour?

Lee Woodcock | 14 Nov 2014 | Comments

Collaboration is becoming an increasingly important part of how we deliver new solutions, but I wonder if the transport sector really understands how to truly maximise the benefits of collaboration? In the main do we coordinate or truly collaborate?

I am clear that there is value to build on the synergies of the public and private sector, but how do we ensure we maximise the value of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs), academia and the creative sector as part of the services and solutions we deliver to meet customers’ needs?

There are a range of clients that are embracing collaborative working as part of their delivery models such as the Highways Agency, Catapults, Innovate UK and local authorities, so do we as a sector see ourselves at the front of the pack and demonstrating truly collaborative behaviours?

Strong leadership and aligned objectives are critical in unlocking the value of collaboration, but it will require hard work and what is absolutely clear this is not process, it’s about people and people with the right behaviours.

This comment has been based on a discussion between three leading experts – Clare Reddington, creative director of Watershed(1), Emma Whigham, business change leader at Atkins and Simon Vaughan, director of JCP Consultancy(2). The full article is in the latest issue of Smart Highways magazine and the discussion is here below:


Question: do you think businesses have established why they want to collaborate and the fit with their business objectives or is it a bit random?

Emma: At one level I think a lot of organisations have established that they want / need to collaborate more. This has often been initiated by clients from which the supply chain must choose how it responds and so the initial driver to collaborate often doesn’t sit neatly alongside their business objectives as a method of delivery or creation as it wasn’t part of the same conversation. But as organisations mature their thinking I can see that it is becoming an integral part of the strategy to deliver within business.

Is it where it needs to be, are we moving quick enough? Definitely not. For those organisations within the infrastructure sector, we face some significant challenges in the very near future, with increases in infrastructure investment, constrained resource, increasing customer expectations in an ever-increasing complex world – we need to do things differently to meet these challenges head on and succeed. Collaboration is key to this and not just through the existing supply chain, also bringing new and diverse partners into the mix, such as academia, SME’s, schools. These partners will bring a diversity of thinking to challenge how we look at engineering and infrastructure, just because we have been doing it this way for the past fifty years doesn’t make it right for the future.

But are we moving in the right direction? Definitely yes. Different conversations are taking place throughout organisations, finding the best people to partner with to find better ways of solving the problem or seeking out where this has been done before and reusing ideas. How deep these conversations go in organisations can be challenged, but they are taking place and we should feel encouraged to continue and build on this.

Simon: I think many businesses think they can see the opportunities collaborative working brings and they may be willing to make a start. What is often overlooked is the hard work it takes to collaborate effectively and this means a clear vision of success is essential before you start. And success means for all stakeholders. Take an individual “what’s in it for me” view, then you are not collaborating. Which means it may not always align with individual business goals. But, where progressive businesses are truly committed to a different way of achieving programme or project success, where parties are prepared to share the risks and rewards, and where objectives can be aligned, then alliancing is the most favourable way forward.

Clare: Businesses that successfully use collaboration to deliver their objectives are those who are trying to create something new, or those trying to change the way things are done. Watershed’s first large collaboration was with HP Labs – they knew that designing the future of mobile phone content would involve an understanding of human experience – so they built a collaboration with us that involved artists and creatives as well as computer scientists and psychologists.

A few years ago we came across John Seely Brown’s work on creation nets and the notion that to deliver real innovation in a fast-moving market place, you need to collaborate with people who aren’t like you, in culture, sector, focus or organisational type. We have found that collaborating leads to new business, unexpected creativity and substantial value, but getting collaboration right is an active process – not a random one. You have to be realistic about the risks you are taking and be aware of where you draw the line. If the product is more valuable than the research, consider hiring a supplier instead of entering a collaboration.

Question: what do you see as the risks to collaboration?

Simon: Collaboration is not a simple transaction or one dimensional. At individual, group, infra-organisational and inter-organisational levels it is complex and strategic. And it has to be a conscious act. It takes hard work and, particularly at times when the alliance is under pressure, it can take people out of their comfort zone. Collaboration is certainly not an easy option. But like many things that are hard won, the rewards are huge. Another risk is the degree to which collaborative working reaches. Many organisations encourage collaborations only at the top levels (tier 1 and 2), often missing the wealth of efficiencies and benefits that can be gained closer to the front-line. When collaborative working is embraced throughout the organisation, more opportunities for smarter working can be found.

Emma: I think it’s to do with understanding how to collaborate. I am not convinced we have built up a significant mass of those who truly understand it. Collaboration isn’t about being best friends, or even necessarily liking everyone you’re working with. It is about putting all and any baggage aside, being present to contribute the best you in a focused way to achieve a common goal. This doesn’t happen very often and you can tell when it has, because great things are achieved.

Clare: The risks in collaboration are mission creep – being diverted away from what you set out to do. Then there’s bureaucracy – being stuck in endless contracting and not being able to get on and do something. And then you get institutional ego or over claiming credit – these make it difficult to build the trust that long term collaborations need. Honesty is a key ingredient of any collaboration; partners all need to be clear about their expectations from the outset. These don’t necessarily have to match, but there needs to be clarity on why the collaboration is taking place and what each partner hopes to achieve. Another way to make sure collaborations work is to make sure that the will to collaborate is understood at every level of the organisation – not just in the board room, or at the top.

Question: do organisations provide the environment for collaboration to thrive and generate new ideas?

Emma: There are many who work in this sector are passionate about what they do and if left to their own devices will find ways to collaborate, draw in ideas to find better solutions and ways to deliver. Barriers have and are being created through commercial / procurement arrangements which make this challenging – if not at times impossible – and so preventing the best possible being delivered for our customers. There are those who will find a way through this by themselves, but we have a duty to take a more pragmatic view in order to create environments for collaboration to thrive and for new ideas to be generated.

Clare: Collaborations are messy, mercurial things. They take up time, can lead to weeks of negotiations and sometimes don’t produce the things you hoped for. Quite often therefore, organisations are not structured to make the most out of collaborations, and are also not the best at applying learning. This is where working with a neutral brokering partner can help – to look after the collaboration, spot problems, and help capture and codify the learning that can be applied. With the right partnership, an investment of time and a fair wind, collaborations can deliver new ways of working and new types of output that will outshine anything you could have done on your own.

Question: what are your best examples of collaboration and feel free to share the worst (if you can!)?

Emma: A really strong example of collaboration is the ‘Traffic Modelling Community’ – set up initially to prove the sector’s ability to undertake and deliver models. It was made up of traffic modelling professionals from across the highway sector. As a group they have made significant progress and have dramatically improved and developed the way this undertaken and developed.

Simon: There are some excellent examples I have seen in the highways sector. MTR in Hong Kong was a huge success, as well as Highways Agency motorways which have brought about the collaboration between four delivery partners and a mind shift from civil engineering solutions, (pouring concrete and covering green fields) to a mixture of customer and technology led solutions which utilised the assets more efficiently.
But I think we still have a long way to go. I was reminded at the recent launch of the HM Treasury IUK Alliance Best Practice Report, that it is 20 years since Michael Latham’s report on the lack of collaboration in the construction sector was published. At the time it was a revolutionary idea but 20 years on, I don’t feel we’ve made as much progress as we should have. It’s widely appreciated that the collaborative approach will bring more benefits and deliver on-time, on-spec and on or under budget. But there is still not enough encouragement from Government or within the construction industry to bring a fundamental change about.

Clare: From Being There – a project with Universities researching the future use of robots in public spaces, to our annual Playable City Award – which seeks to use new technology in the city in more playful ways – all of Watershed’s projects are built on collaboration. Why? Because we believe that technology needs to developed in human-centred ways, and to do this properly takes a mixed input. This approach is also embedded in the Pervasive Media Studio – a multi-disciplinary lab for artists, creative companies, technologists and academics, where co-location leads to informal knowledge sharing as well as formal collaboration. Our collaborative projects are considered hugely successful by partners, peers and audiences – and have delivered significant social, cultural AND economic impact – both in the UK and abroad.

Question: what do you think the sector should do to embrace BS11000 – Collaborative Business Relationships?

Emma: BS11000 is a standard, which looks at the mechanics of collaboration and not the behaviours, so I wouldn’t get too hung up about the standard. But I do think the BS11000 principles should be used as a framework for the sector to mature (behaviours) and start to create ‘adult’ relationships with our clients so that break down the barriers and start delivering together as a sector. After all, that’s what the customer sees!

Simon: Honestly I am not a fan of BS11000 – it is a process and structure which is welcome but it does not deal with the fundamentals of bringing together teams of people with the right attitudes and behaviours – which is the core of collaborative working. Instead of BS11000, what the IUK report and others are talking about is the need for leadership investment through a planned programme of behavioural change. Having the attitudes and behavioural competencies to work collaboratively does not come by accident. Collaborative leadership and an environment where people can make mistakes and practice collaboration is a fundamental requirement – and there are few instances where this environment and mindset is encouraged and practised.

(1) Watershed is a cross-artform venue and producer, sharing, developing and showcasing exemplary cultural ideas and talent. It is based in Bristol and connects with artists and audiences around the world.

(2) JCP is a consultancy focusing on improving performance through collaboration.