A handful of thoughts approaching the how, why, wherefore and what of the Collaborative Encounters enquiry.

inaugural essay: the encounter unfolding

 

As we explain on the home page of this site, Collaborative Encounters is a co-operative enquiry to promote better forms of collaboration everywhere. But what does this mean? Why are interested in collaboration? And how might this be relevant to you? Written as we launch this project, we hope this essay starts to answer these questions, and raise a few more.  

SOWHATISTHIS?

Collaborative Encounters was established by four individuals whose work stretches across diverse range contexts - from business consultancy to academia, third sector and the arts. As we have worked and talked together over the past few years, our conversations have regularly turned to the theme of collaboration. Why is the term itself so popular right now? What is meant by it, and what does its popularity mean? For those who are so keen to support processes of collaboration, participation, engagement ... how can they do so? How might we describe and share the idea of the skilled "collaborative practitioner?"

In the past year or so, we have slowly consolidated our thinking into the Collaborative Encounters framework as a way to structure our conversations and work together. This essay pulls together some of the fragments of these conversations, some clues and hunches that we have pursued or hope to pursue, as we begins to explore what collaboration might mean for us, the people we work with and for. In simple terms, this essay is a first attempt to stake out some intellectual territory, to answer what Collaborative Encounters is all about, why we're doing it, and why you should care.

If you want to skip the whole essay, the short version might go a bit like this:

Collaborative Encounters is a movement towards a deeper sense of what truly collaborative encounters look and feel like. It is a movement that seeks to use this new sense to understand and redesign the deep structures of organisations and projects of all kinds, and to grow a new collaborative capability in the individuals whose collective actions are the organisation or project at work.

There’s a better, shorter sentence somewhere - we hope to uncover it in the coming months. 

WHY “COLLABORATION”?

As a word, collaboration seems almost everywhere right now. Look at data sets for the popularity of the term, and its on an all time high, a peak of popularity only challenged by its salad days in the 1940s, where the term was used to denote participation in the Vichy regime (more on that another time). And it's not just collaboration either. Across the arts, governance and culture, we’ve seen a tidal wave of interest in words like participation, engagement, social working, outreach. Taken together, they are unambiguous signal of a renewed interest in the ways in which people of all kinds might work better together.

In business, efforts to promote collaboration wobble uncertainly between a range of bewilderingly diverse contexts and programmes - from project design, tasks management, culture transformation projects, knowledge management plans, the implementation of technology platforms and frameworks. Used without compunction and often with little sense of shared meaning, it's a word that is tumbling down that dangerous slide into the kind of doublespeak that gradually surrounded the notion of "open plan" offices in the 1990s (Nathan, 2002).

In culture, the details may different, but the pattern is strikingly similar - with ideas of audience and community engagement suspended between the poles of education, outreach, curatorial practice and socially-minded artistic interventions, between the idealism of reinventing cultural praxis and the cynical pragmatism of securing institutional funding.

In both, ideas of collaboration are often reduced to little more than a facilitator’s toolkit, the skills of dealing with people in a room (or in different rooms and places and the same or different times), the safe zone of the collaborative worksession, viewed and presented in isolation from the broader frameworks that surround it. 

But lets return to the fate of “Open Plan” for a minute, because the comparison is instructive. In the 1990s, Open Plan quickly assumed centre stage as exemplary practice for the modern workplace - a social structuring of space that encouraged more open cultures, the breaking down silos, resourcefulness and the sharing of tasks and ambitions that transcends petty self-interest or local goals for the greater common interest. And in certain contexts, those prepared to receive and celebrates such openness, it could indeed work in this way. But where open plan design was merely superimposed upon more traditional and rigid organisational systems the effect was very different. For many in those offices, Open Plan became all about taking away an individuals immediate resources, identity and sources of satisfaction at work away, leaving employees perilously exposed and constantly worn down by the need to demonstrate unflagging performance in a permanent negotiation with my peers, colleagues and associates.

Its out contention that we’re seeing something very similar happen right now across the arts and business, as buzzwords like co-creation, co-curation and every or other collaborative something you can think of buzz around like flies, devoid of the deeper ambition required to realise genuine, positive change. Because meaningful collaboration is not simply an add-on to traditional structures of business or culture. The ready argument about collaboration as a means to improve efficiency may have some evidence behind it, but at the expense of squandering its real power. For us, collaboration isn't just driving efficiency of existing structures, but beginning to rethink those very structures, to sketch out and bring into existence frameworks that fundamentally change these structures, and by doing so empty out a space of potential, both within and between people.

Such broader notions of collaboration are frequently left unexplored, simply not understood, or rejected out of hand as too ambitious or soulful. Instead, collaboration is bought and sold piecemeal through reassuringly packaged solutions that are little more than displacement activities - software packages, learning programmes, consultant interventions, facilitator toolkits, special commissions ... all of it little more than collaborative snake oil that is routinely ineffective and occasionally toxic. Whatever we may not know right now, its clear to us that the tangled mess of understandings about emerging forms of working together won’t be unravelled by many of the activities with collaboration in their title.

Why "collaboration" then? Because to trace the use, overuse, misuse and abuse of this term is the most interesting fault line we can find to trace out the complexities and potential of contemporary organisations and culture.

WHAT ARE WE DOING?

We’re trying to understand and promote better collaboration. And any project that seeks to do something like this better be damn sure it reflects this commitment to collaborative practice all the way down and back up again.  To borrow from Snowden’s Cynefin model, challenges of collaboration we are complex problems, rather than complicated ones. And complex problems require a very specific approach - one where standard operating procedures, rules and static frameworks are replaced by more fluid activity to probe, experiment and respond. 

As an endeavour, Collaborative Encounters seeks in some way to reflect this spirit, working to bring together diverse experiences from commerce, the arts and beyond to ask good questions about the complexity of the term and the ideas behind it. As Stafford Beers has it, we’re inhabiting a mode of activity where

Instead of specifying it in full detail, you simply ride on the dynamics of the system to where you want to go

Stafford Beers, quoted in the Foreword to Brian Eno's Think Before You Think. 

As a group, we do offer consultancy services to help organisations of all kinds to improve their collaborative capacity or deliver collaborative programmes. But this means more than selling pre-existing models. It means working with organisations and their employees as co-enquirers, growing both their collaborative capacity and our own through shared work and action. It means that we, as enquirers are continually thinking at different levels, playing different contexts off each other in a variety of ways ­ both in practical applications and more theoretical explorations and analyses. And it also means that we encourage our partners to cross over the borders between art, government, commerce, and the third sector, breaking down the illusions of separateness that lead artists (or policymakers or business leaders and managers or activists) -  to assume that the challenges they face are fundamentally different to those from other sectors. This is programme of enquiry that is equally interested in William Burrough’s present­time exercises and P&G’s “connect and develop” frameworks, equally at home with audience development research or the cultural patterns of Rosicrucians in 16th Century Bohemia. 

HOW ARE WE DOING IT?

Speech over, soapbox packed away, bullhorn deactivated. What are we actually doing? As a group, Collaborative Encounters has four core purposes.

Firstly, to develop a theoretical framework and knowledge resource that will help critically analyse, understand, teach and deliver collaborative encounters of all kinds. This is our Patterns and Techniques methodology, of which you’ll find various excerpts featured throughout the site. 

Secondly, to act as expert consultants, offering services and products to businesses and cultural institutions to better understand and promote collaborative practice, and to design and lead programmes of work. 

Thirdly, to turn this lens back constantly onto our own work ­ advising each other on other projects, and using our work as a testbed to constantly extend and explore the limits of the enquiry.

Finally, above and beyond commissioned work, to grow a network of interested individuals and to conduct an ongoing co­operative enquiry into collaboration. This will include actively wokring on projects together and advising on the activity of our fellow enquirers, and seeking out fellow travelers in each encounter.

And thats it, for now. As we return to the other work that lies waiting on our respective desks, we’ll leave you with the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, words that could easily become a compass for our own activity:

I beg you to have patience with everything that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for answers, which would not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. 

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.