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Week 8 Weaving the collaborative fabric

Introduction

Congratulations on reaching this final week of our course on collaborative leadership. We hope you have found the ideas you have encountered along the way interesting and thought-provoking. More importantly, we hope that these ideas have challenged you to reflect on your own leadership practice, and enabled you to adapt that practice to reflect the collaboration challenges of your current or future working environment.

In this last week, we will ask you to reflect on collaboration as a long-term endeavour to work across organisational, sector, and professional boundaries, and on the implications of this long-term approach for leadership practice. Although our focus is on organisational boundaries, you will also find that many of the ideas you encounter here also apply to collaboration across departmental or team boundaries.

By the end of this week you will be able to:

  • identify reasons for collaborating over the longer-term and the challenges that make long-term collaboration difficult
  • reflect critically on the conceptualisation of collaborative fabric as a way of thinking about sustaining collaboration over the longer term
  • identify and reflect on the issues that arise for collaborative leadership
  • apply these ideas to your own working situation.

1 Continuing to collaborate

Now listen to the final instalment from Ellen’s story.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: declvo_1_audio_week8_ellen.mp3
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Transcript

ELLEN
It's six months now since the Regional Parenting Partnership kicked off and yet again I've spent the morning discussing which organisation delivers which pairing programme in which locality. The meeting ended with a lengthy discussion about when to meet next and where and who will chair and what the agenda should be. Thank goodness there was time for a quick lunch with Sally, the manager of the parenting project in the next county, which was good and we quickly agreed to share staff training so that we can both offer the new programmes in next year's contracts.
We also agreed to meet for coffee every month to explore how we continue to work together. It is not just about delivering the programmes, but also influencing the regional partnership, which looks like it is here to stay for all its seemingly endless bureaucracy. A quick sandwich, and I'm back on the motorway heading for the office.
The administrator waylays me on my way in with a list of questions, so it's actually another hour before I sit at my desk. I must finish the monthly report for tomorrow's trustee meeting, and I'm struggling to concentrate with the photocopier alongside me humming its way through hundreds of copies of the annual report. I'm also struggling because I know the trustees are anxious about the amount of time I spend on the regional partnership and want me to spend more time back at base with the Family Time team.
How can I convince them? Should I even tell them that I've been asked to be chair of the council's Family Support Forum next year? It's a great opportunity to promote Family time, but it's yet more time spent collaborating with other organisations rather than managing the staff team. And, of course, Family Time is a key member of the Locality Interagency Planning Group, so I need to keep time for that too. I need to think carefully about how I say all of this to the trustees, actually.
When I reflect on how collaboration with other organisations has impacted Family Time's work, it has been a roller coaster. In just four years, Family Time has gone from an independent, locally-funded and supported project to an organisation which is heavily influenced by government policy and dependent on government funding. I tried to influence the regional partnership, but it's dominated by the big players.
All I can do is try to make sure I get to know everyone. Those contacts might be useful in the future, and at least I now realise that the challenges I face are similar to other people, a problem shared and all that. It does feel vulnerable, though, and all so dependent on me.
End transcript
 
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Like Ellen, many individuals leading voluntary organisations spend a large percentage of their time collaborating with other organisations, but the form and structure of this collaboration changes over time. Informal cooperation becomes a formal agreement; a locality partnership forms, struggles and dissolves in response to policy changes; a leaders’ forum is strong for a while but dissipates when key individuals move on. Individuals engage in multiple forums, working groups, and joint projects – each with different members, processes, and accountability structures, all of which are continually changing. The organisation adapts to these different forms of collaboration, responding to the shifting priorities of its partners.

Almost in spite of these changes, organisations within and beyond the sector do develop collaborative partnerships that endure. Think, for example, of the changing but enduring relationship between a residents’ association and a town council. Initially, the residents’ association forms to represent to the council the need for more green spaces in the locality. They develop a formal partnership to apply for Lottery funding to restore a derelict site in the town. The Lottery project lasts six months, but residents and councillors identify further land for development of allotments. The land is owned by the council which offers to lease the land to the residents’ association, forming a binding contract between them. In the meantime, the partnership between the council and the residents’ association becomes more widely known and both are invited to join the county forum for the development and maintenance of green spaces. In forum meetings, it is clear that the association and the council have quite different views on the ownership of green spaces. The residents’ association partners with other residents’ associations to campaign for council held land to be transferred to local communities, and so the collaborative fabric is woven across the locality.

This is the complex context for collaboration that you will explore this week, mapping out what this complexity means for your organisation and its leadership. As with last week’s study, you will undertake a mini-research project this week through which you will reflect on how collaboration is sustained over the longer-term, by mapping collaboration between your organisation and a key partner over an extended period of time, and through changing forms and structures. You will also reflect on what this longer-term focus might mean for your own leadership practice.

2 Nurturing over the longer-term

Earlier in the course, we reflected on Huxham and Vangen’s (2005, p.80) advice to collaborative leaders to ‘nurture, nurture, nurture’ collaboration like a well-tended garden. This ‘strapline for collaboration’ is a reminder of a key point you have encountered throughout this course. Collaboration (whether within or between organisations) is not self-sustaining. Like any growing, adaptable and vulnerable entity, collaboration takes a lot of looking after. A key task of leadership in collaborative contexts is this nurturing of a fragile entity – keeping a partnership focused, encouraging active engagement in a joint project, negotiating goals, giving direction, challenging and playing the politics to keep the show on the road.

As we have seen in this course, this is leadership as a complex practice which involves difficult decisions, compromises and trade-offs, but also ongoing commitment, determination and persistence to make things happen and drive collaboration forward. For individuals (perhaps particularly individuals in the voluntary sector), this frequently involves engaging not simply in one collaboration or partnership, but rather with multiple collaborations within a locality, or inter-related collaborations focused on a social issue or a community of place or interest.

It is because collaborative practice requires this continuing level of commitment and energy that it is important to keep asking the question – where is the potential for collaborative advantage? Or, expressed in a different way – what is it we hope to achieve by working together that we could not achieve alone?

Activity 1 Collaborative advantages

Timing: (10 minutes)

Think of a collaboration which you or your organisation have engaged with over an extended period of time. This might be a collaboration within your organisation (for example between departments), or across organisational boundaries. Can you identify the continuing potential for collaborative advantage, or have you and your partners lost sight of this potential over time as the collaboration has changed its structure, membership or purpose?

Comment

As we have previously suggested, one answer to the question ‘where is the potential for collaborative advantage?’ focuses on so-called ‘wicked’ (Grint, 2005) or ‘relentless’ (Weber and Khademian, 2008) problems that no one individual, department or organisation can address on their own. These problems require organisations and individuals to draw on the knowledge, expertise, resources, networks and sources of power of as many players as possible, and to do this over extended periods of time. However, we know that in general collaborative partnerships are not long-lived – they slip into inertia (Huxham and Vangen, 2005), or become dominated by personalities and factions; they fall apart due to the competing interests of collaboration participants, but also due to external changes, including government policy and priorities. As a result, collaboration continually fails to address these complex problems over the longer term.

3 Reasons for failure

Of course, not all collaboration is focused on complex social problems, but the experience of struggling to sustain collaboration over the longer term is a common one.

Activity 2 Sustaining collaboration

Part 1

Timing: (15 minutes)

Think of an effort you have been involved in to work collaboratively that failed to sustain itself over the long term – by long-term we mean an attempt to collaborate over a period of years. For example, a long term strategy to increase access to the arts in a locality which quickly ran out of energy; a cross-sector 5-year strategy to improve educational outcomes in a locality, which ended with changes in government policy; or an inter-agency plan to deliver an annual event over a 10-year period that ends after only two years.

In your learning journal, list the reasons this attempt at long-term collaboration failed, and then uncover our responses in the comment below. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 8 Activity 2.

Comment
Personality differences
Changes of personnel
Competition between collaborating teams/organisations
Changes in policy – at national or local levels
Political change in national or local government
Slow pace of progress
Failure to agree basic ground rules / terms of reference
Failure to achieve sign-off from senior managers
One partner pulls out due to changes in their organisation
No decisions are made
Powerful partners dominate
Structural arrangements for collaboration change
No one takes responsibility
Everyone is too busy
Nothing gets done
Collusion between other partners
Disagreement on the aims of the collaboration
Realisation that collaborating organisations each have different aims
Too much time spent reaching agreement to act
The issue we were addressing together has changed

You may have thought of more reasons than those we listed. In general though, we can summarise these reasons as follows:

  • first, there are reasons concerned with the collaboration itself – the difficulty of reaching joint decisions and of doing that again and again; the realisation over time that collaborating organisations do not have the same interests or aims; the failure to take responsibility; the lack of clarity as to who is responsible for what; and competing accountabilities.
  • second, there are reasons concerned with the external environment – the changing nature of government policy; changes in the collaborating organisations themselves; and the changing nature of the issue we seek to tackle together.

If collaboration is so difficult to sustain (and sometimes even to get off the ground), then it is perhaps unsurprising that Huxham and Vangen (2005) advise, ‘don’t do it unless you have to’. We might add ‘stop doing it if you don’t need to continue’. Paradoxically, knowing when and how to say ‘stop’ to a specific partnership or collaborative project which has lost its way might be the best way to maintain the potential of longer-term collaborative relationship. In part 2 of this activity, you will reflect on whether any of the collaborations you are involved in should be brought to an end.

Part 2

Timing: (20 minutes)

Reflect – why does your organisation need to continue to collaborate with others over the longer-term? What is it that you can achieve together through inter-organisational collaboration that is sustained over 2, 5, 10 or even twenty years? Are there any partnerships or joint projects that you should end now because they have little value for the future?

Comment

It is never easy to bring a collaborative partnership to an end – and certainly not easy to be the one to stand up and say the collaboration has no future. However, as we have seen throughout this course, leadership sometimes means being willing to say difficult things.

4 Re-structure, re-structure

In our experience, a frequent leadership response to the endeavour to achieve long-term collaboration is to continually re-structure the collaboration in an attempt to find a structure that will make things happen in a sustained way. One partnership ends and another begins; or a collaborative project is reorganised in an attempt to clarify the responsibilities of partner organisations, who reports to who and how decisions are made; or perhaps the structure changes to reflect policy change. Unfortunately, continued structural change can itself become a source of fragility. This is evident in the social welfare field where successive governments have introduced different structural partnership arrangements through policies that have impacted the way in which public agencies collaborate with organisations in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

For example, in this article for the Guardian, Professor Bob Hudson, an expert on inter-organisational partnerships in the social welfare field, argued that the impact of 40 years of structural change in the NHS on its partnerships with organisations beyond statutory services has been ‘instability and fragmentation which is inimical to settled joint relationships’.

This continual attempt to sustain collaboration through structure is also seen at a more local level. The temptation is to think that if we can finally get the right partners around the table and clarify how they each relate to the other in a clear structural arrangement, then we will keep collaboration going. In practice, we often find that the new structure works for a period and then we have to revisit it again. A CEO interviewed for Carol’s research into cross-sector collaboration in children’s services described the context as ‘a washing machine of continual change’. For voluntary sector representatives, this context results in a roller coaster ride through continually changing policy-led collaborative forums and partnership arrangements.

Eventually, continued efforts to re-structure use up so much time, effort and resources that we abandon the attempt altogether, or the collaboration simply runs out of energy and enters a state of inertia.

This sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, there is a need for long-term collaborative endeavours to address complex issues; on the other, specific collaborative arrangements (partnerships, working groups, joint services and projects) tend to be short-lived, subject to the internal dynamics of competing organisations and changes in the external environment. For leaders, the need to focus on short-term change (and its consequences) pulls time and energy away from a focus on the longer-term.

It is for these reasons, that in these final sections we offer a somewhat different way of thinking about the nurturing work of collaborative leadership over the longer term. To do this we leave behind the picture of a garden to draw on a different metaphor for collaboration – the ‘collaborative fabric’ (Jacklin-Jarvis et al., 2016).

5 Weaving the fabric

Imagine a large woven fabric, which is continually remade by multiple hands. Over years, successive weavers introduce different textures and colours; they fill in different sections of a developing picture; the pattern changes; threads are pulled out by accident or design; edges are frayed; but still weavers return to add their own distinctive contribution. Observers recognise an emerging picture, but their perceptions of that picture vary from one another. The fabric is always unfinished, the picture always emerging; yet the fabric itself endures – it is resilient if misshapen, the product of multiple weavers over a period of time. In leadership terms, the collaborative fabric is made through multiple practices that are often incomplete and partial; they are relational, creative, serendipitous and unexpected, as well as intentional, purposeful and planned.

Our research suggests that the experience of collaborating across organisational boundaries over the long term and through changing structures feels something like participating in the weaving of continually remade fabric (Jacklin-Jarvis et al., 2016). For individuals this continual remaking involves engaging with four key elements of the collaborative fabric:

  1. the processes of collaboration – attending meetings; determining and participating in decision-making processes; negotiating (formally and informally); keeping records and challenging records made by others; communicating across organisational boundaries
  2. relationships between key individuals – networking; identifying and building relationships with key contacts
  3. policies imposed by public agencies – implementing, challenging and responding to policy change
  4. the identities of collaborating organisations – ensuring the organisation’s identity is sustained through the challenges of collaboration.

But these elements of the fabric are not stable over the long term. They change continually, whether by design or default, as they interact with one another to provide a continually dynamic context for collaborative practice.

You will be able to identify all of these in Ellen’s story – changing government policies; the processes of the regional partnership; the relationships between individuals who make things happen behind the scene; and the continuing endeavour to maintain a distinctive identity for Family Time. You probably recognise this dynamic context for collaboration in your own practice.

How then might the picture of continually rewoven fabric help us to think about the work of nurturing collaboration which, as in Ellen’s example, is continually changing and adapting to a context in which process, policy, relationships and identity, are each themselves continually adapting and inter-relating?

The activity that follows is designed to help you think through a long-term approach to collaboration through the picture of the collaborative fabric.

Activity 3 Continuing collaborative relationships

Timing: (90 minutes)

This activity takes the form of a mini research project focused on a continuing collaborative relationship between your organisation and another organisation – whether within the voluntary sector or in a different sector.

To complete this activity you will first need to identify a collaboration between your own organisation and another (or several others) that has endured over a period of time – an obvious example might be where your organisation has collaborated with the local council, or with a similar organisation in a neighbouring locality. You may need to search your organisation’s archives and/or interview a couple of individuals who have been with the organisation for an extended period of time.

Once you have identified your example, download the Collaborative fabric template  and follow the instructions below.

  1. Complete the sentence at the top of the template by writing down the long-term collaborative advantage that is the focus of this inter-organisational relationship.
  2. Mark on the timeline the dates of the collaboration – you may want to mark dates into the future.
  3. In the first box above the timeline titled ‘Structures’, add the different forms or structures that this relationship has taken. For example, it may have started as an informal agreement to act together, then formalised into a partnership with terms of reference, delivered a short-term project, then re-structured due to external factors. There may also have been contractual agreements between the two organisations and along the way, the two organisations may have entered collaborations with other partners, or participated in collaborative forums or partnerships. Mark all of these on the timeline.
  4. In the second box above the timeline titled ‘Policy’, add examples of national or local policy that impacted on how the collaboration progressed. These examples of policy might take the form of formal policy documents issued by public agencies, or a more localised interpretation of policy.
  5. Now, think about the individuals involved in nurturing this inter-organisational relationship. Who were they, how did they first meet, how did they communicate with each other, and with others in their organisations? Have the same individuals stayed involved with the relationship between organisations through its changing forms and structures, or have the individuals changed? In the first box below the timeline titled ‘People’ write in the names or job titles of these individuals.
  6. In the second box below the timeline titled ‘Processes’, write in the processes through which individuals from each organisation related to each other and then the processes through which they linked their own organisation to the collaboration. These processes may be formal meetings, terms of reference, informal discussions, email updates, meeting minutes, negotiating a formal agreement, shared newsletters or joint training. (Don’t worry if you don’t have all the detail available to you, just add as many ideas as you can.)
  7. Finally, return to the timeline, and use a different colour to identify any significant ways in which your organisation was changing over this period of time. These might be changes in size or focus, significant new projects, or a more fundamental change of strategy or purpose, or culture. For the purposes of this exercise, we see these as changes that impact on organisational identity.

Check through your work – you should be able to identify issues related to people (and the relationships between them), processes (formal and informal), policy (national and local), and organisational identity. Think about how these interact, impacting on each other and on the forms and structures of collaboration that you identified on your timeline. You may want to take a different colour to mark-up these inter-relationships.

Comment

Don’t be surprised if this ‘map of collaboration’ looks messy and/or incomplete (we would be surprised if it didn’t). This messy and incomplete picture simply reflects our suggestion that inter-organisational collaboration resembles the continual reweaving of unfinished fabric.

The activity draws your attention beyond structure and form to four key elements of the collaborative fabric as they interact over time. These key elements are:

  • the relationships between key individuals
  • the processes through which individuals and organisations interact
  • the policy context
  • the changing identity of collaborating organisations.

The picture that emerges is likely to show individuals and organisations collaborating in multiple ways – through formal agreements, projects and partnerships; informal arrangements and interpersonal relationships; through processes that have been agreed and set down in writing and through processes that have emerged. It will also begin to show how this collaboration is impacted by change at the policy level and at the level of organisational identity.

The point of the exercise is to help you reflect on how this inter-organisational collaboration has been sustained over the longer term. More specifically, reflect on how relationships, processes, policy and the changing identity of your organisation have impacted on the collaboration over time – bearing in mind that the exact nature of the inter-relationships between these elements may be hidden by time. We suggest you reflect on this first in your learning journal in a post titled Week 8 Activity 3, and then post your map of the collaborative fabric into our discussion forum with a summary of your thoughts on how these elements have interacted to sustain collaboration over a period of time. Make sure you post your comments within the correct thread for this activity.

6 Reflecting on leadership for long-term collaboration

So what does all of this mean for leadership? To address this question, we return to some of the key underpinnings of the ideas about leadership which you have encountered in this course (you can also read more about our approach to leadership in our earlier course Introducing leadership in voluntary organisations).

As you have seen, we think about leadership for inter-organisational collaboration as relational, concerned with process, related to context (and here specifically to the impact of policy within that context) and engaged in identity-making. We suggest that sustaining collaboration over the longer term requires leadership which interweaves the relational with process, policy and identity, each of which continually shifts and changes. This is a complex idea, and we do not expect you to have a complete understanding of how the collaborative fabric develops and is continually re-made (we certainly don’t – we are still learning about this). Instead we offer this as a metaphor for thinking about collaborative leadership over the longer term.

Activity 4 Leadership practices

Timing: (30 minutes)

Think back through the course and the different leadership practices you have encountered. List all of those practices in the left hand column below. We have started this task for you, but think of as many as you can, either mentioned explicitly in the course, or brought to mind by your reading.

Now, add brief examples from your own experience under each of the four elements of the collaborative fabric. Again, we have started this task for you from some of our own experiences.

Leadership PracticesPolicyIdentityProcessesRelationships
Asking challenging questionsChallenging local policy at a council committee   
Story telling Telling stories about the impact of our work that change the way our partners see us. Telling stories about our work through key informal contacts.
Building coalitions  Developing a joint training programme with the local authority 
AdvocatingSpeaking on behalf of families in need at a meeting with the CGC.   
Recognising points of powerRecognising opportunities to challenge policy   
Negotiating    

Finally, in your learning journal, write about how these practices impact collaboration for the longer-term. What challenges does this give you in your own practice for achieving long-term inter-organisational collaborative relationships? Are there some practices you need to develop further with a particular focus on the longer-term? Remember, in a distributed model of leadership, not all of these practices have to be your responsibility – think about how they are shared across the organisation (and beyond) over the longer term. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 8 Activity 4.

Comment

Bringing a longer-term perspective to the practices of collaborative leadership is challenging because it pushes against the factors that can cause collaborations to stutter and fail. However, as you have seen in this course, these practices can also deliver real change for communities and service users.

We end our course with a final video in which Gamiel Yafai, Chair of the MK Diversity Council and a Trustee of the Parks Trust and of Community Action: MK, talks about his own engagement in a range of collaborative arrangements in the locality of Milton Keynes. He represents these different organisations in formal partnerships and informal collaborations with other voluntary organisations and public agencies. In the video, Gamiel talks about the way in which these collaborations are continually changing, even as they try to tackle social issues that are enduring and relentless. We asked Gamiel about the challenges, possibilities, and practices of leadership in this complex context.  In his response, Gamiel draws on a different metaphor from our own and compares collaboration to a jigsaw puzzle.

Download this video clip.Video player: declvo_1_video_week8_interview_yafai.mp4
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Transcript

Gamiel Yafai:
My image of collaboration that cuts across multiple forms and agreements is of a jigsaw puzzle-- a very simplistic jigsaw puzzle that's been chucked up in the air and has landed everywhere. It just feels that Milton Keynes has got all the pieces to everything that we need to have a thriving, in fact a brilliant, voluntary sector.
But we need to understand that those pieces need to be brought together. And by being brought together, they will actually help us create the foundations. There are a number of challenges to making these pieces of the jigsaw fit.
I find that the biggest challenge that we have-- and this is a genuine challenge-- is the lack of diversity, both on boards as trustees and within the staff make-up of most of the voluntary sector. We need to have more diversity. The other issue that started to-- well, not started-- since 9/11 actually-- the other big issue is political correctness, the fact that we're making decisions on behalf of communities without actually consulting with those communities.
Now by having more diversity of staff and boards, you are more likely to be able to consult with those communities because you're working with them, and you get that greater understanding. To me, one of the best examples there is is the introduction of the leadership forum. So the conversations are starting to be had.
So you're not just talking to one organisation. You're talking to potentially 24 organisations at the same time to actually bring out key issues and start to introduce initiatives that cut across. And sometimes there are subgroups. For example, within the leadership forum, there are lots of organisations that support individuals with varying types of disabilities.
So the idea is that we pull them out as a subgroup and get them working together. So rather than everybody working individually, you've suddenly got this combination of talent that's almost unique, coming together now and focusing on the real issues, rather than the perceived issues.
End transcript
 
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Gamiel pulls together a number of points of importance as you conclude this course. The metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle thrown into the air is apt because collaborative leadership can often feel like trying to make sense of a confusing jumble of demands, issues and personalities. Our belief is that collaborative leadership is not about ‘solving’ these issues (real complexity never truly disappears), but about establishing a way of working that keeps important tensions and issues alive while also moving forward. With this in mind, Gamiel helpfully highlighted diversity as crucial for collaborative leadership.

Drawing on diversity means that you will feel uncomfortable as you start to explore problems that were previously unknown to you, or at least consider problems in unknown ways – and this sense of working in uncomfortable territory will only be magnified as you collaborate beyond your organisational boundaries. We hope that we have introduced, over the duration of the course, a number of ways in which you can think about and harness diversity in your collaborative work.

Week 8 quiz

Check what you’ve learned this week by taking the end-of-week quiz.

Week 8 quiz

Open the quiz in a new window or tab then come back here when you’ve finished.

Summary of Week 8

In this last week of the course, we considered how and why collaborative leadership might address the long-term through multiple collaborative arrangements that together constitute a continually changing ‘collaborative fabric’ of inter-related partnerships, agreements, and working groups. Although focusing on the long-term is enormously challenging, leadership plays a key part in taking us beyond immediate concerns and complexities to make a difference in our local communities, and to complex social issues.

We hope you have enjoyed travelling with us through our exploration of the challenges of collaborative leadership in the context of voluntary organisations. Our aim was not to offer easy answers, but rather to help you reflect on how you practise leadership, and to offer some ideas and examples that might stimulate your thinking and change your practice. We hope you are encouraged as well as challenged by the reading and activities in the course. Don’t forget to join the discussion on our collaborative forum, where we will respond to your ideas and questions, but, more importantly, where you can meet and exchange ideas with your fellow learners.

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References

Grint, K. (2005) Leadership: Limits and Possibilities, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
Jacklin-Jarvis, C., Vangen, S. and Winchester, N. (2016) ‘Weaving the collaborative fabric: sustaining cross-sector collaboration in an uncertain environment’, unpublished working paper, The Open University.
Huxham, C. and Vangen, S. (2005) Managing to Collaborate: The Theory and Practice of Collaborative Advantage, London, Routledge.
Weber, E. P. and Khademian, A. M. (2008) ‘Wicked problems, knowledge challenges, and collaborative capacity builders in network setting’, Public Administration Review, vol. 68, no. 2, pp. 334–49.

Acknowledgements

This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.

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