It takes two (or more) to tango

A guide to dating for schools, or how to collaborate

[something I wrote for Relational Schools, here] 

“Inter-agency collaboration in the public sector has been viewed as a self-evident virtue in complex societies for several decades, yet has remained conceptually elusive and perennially difficult to achieve” (Hardy et al, 1999).


The emergent academies programme – and I’m going back to the mid-noughties here – had inter-school collaboration at its heart. Indeed, the funding agreements for individual schools setting up or converting as academies specified that, once up and running and doing well, they had to form supportive relationships with other schools, sharing the love and resource that they themselves had benefitted from.

The 2010 Act did away with that, which is why around 30% of all academies still ‘standalone’ in splendid but lonely isolation from their neighbours. And it’s why, despite lots of noise from the centre about the merits of multi-academy trusts, fully 66% of all MATs comprise one (or fewer) schools! After all, if our performance and therefore legitimacy is measured in relation to our ‘competitors’ in a ‘market’ where parents can exercise ‘choice’, then why would we collaborate?

The problem is, despite this backdrop, and despite the fact nothing in a school leader’s training prepares them to lead and manage collaboration, heads are coming under increasing pressure to do just that.

Be pragmatic and act relationally

But what is collaboration, why should schools do it, and how can we ensure it has at least a fighting chance of success?

This was the subject of a presentation my colleague Rob Loe and I of the Relational Schools Foundation (RSF) gave recently at the Suffolk Association of Secondary Heads’ annual conference. The session was timely. SASH is beginning the process of establishing a peer review and support system across the county, which will see both primary and secondary schools working in groups to share resources, challenge performance, and support improvement.

It’s a relatively well-trodden path, and SASH is casting its net wide as it learns about what has and hasn’t worked in other contexts. But what it is also doing is involving us, having recognised that relationships are not just at the core of any collaborative venture, but that they are vital to its success. Unless attention is paid to the health of those relationships, outcomes are likely to be sub-optimal, or perhaps unachievable.

Happily, inter-agency collaboration – both in the private and public sector – has been the subject of a great deal of research. A high-level review of this suggests the importance of slaying a big myth from the outset.

Collaboration is not easy. In fact, it’s really, really tricky. Just like any organisational change process, but probably more so, it requires significant planning, oversight and management, if it is to achieve the intended aims.

I would also suggest that schools – which are both highly complex organisations and significantly under-researched in terms of their organisational dynamics – present a particularly challenging environment for collaboration. And of course, as school leaders, you are encouraged to act alone by the dynamics of our quasi-competitive school system. All the carrots and sticks appear to compel you to do anything but collaborate.

But collaborate you must. Because, in the public sector, organisational individualism is a waste of precious resources, and fails to achieve the sort of efficiencies the taxpayer expects and the learner needs. It is also “an inadequate response to the growth in task scope”, and results in repetition, misdirected effort, and counter-productive behaviours, where an organisation working in isolation all too often does things that conflict with the actions of others (Alter & Hage, 1993).

One of the distinguishing features of the public sector is that good results depend upon co-operation between many organisations with inter-dependent functions … it is intensive and sustained inter-organisational co-operation that is the hallmark of success in public management, rather than the single-minded pursuit of individual organisational objectives” (Huxham & Macdonald, 1992)

Hardy et al (op cit) set out a series of components of collaborative endeavour, providing a framework or model for collaboration. We prefer to think of it as a dating manual for schools, and that’s how we presented it to SASH.

There are several things about the nature of collaboration that anyone leading organisational dating needs to acknowledge.

First is the need, as organisational leaders, to think and act relationally; to understand that it is people and not initiatives that get things done in schools. Any organisational change, therefore, needs to be thought through and managed in terms of the relational needs of the people involved. Because of course what we are asking them to do is to tolerate a period in which their current relationships are disrupted, and subsequently to build new relationships in a collaborative context, including with people from other organisational cultures. For this reason, we also need to pay attention to our own relationships with staff and other leaders, and recognise the conscious and sub-conscious behaviours we bring to the party, and their impact on our ability to lead collaboration.

Second, conflict will happen, which will make it hard at times to be a relational leader. It helps to know, perhaps, that conflict is an unavoidable part of organisational processes, a form of socialisation, which needs to be reconciled with collaborative activity[1].

Third, collaboration is itself an overworked term, and means different things in different contexts. “The definitional ambiguity which makes collaboration a handy political device has led to a chasm between rhetoric and operationalisation: organisational co-ordination is discussed as though everyone knows precisely what it means, when it means many inconsistent things and occasionally means nothing at all” (Weiss, 1981). Work out what you want it to mean in your context, and set your goals accordingly. Then …


Establish your collaborative rationale

You need to be sure about your rationale for collaboration. Don’t just do it because you’re being told to. It’s too difficult – and potentially damaging – for that. There are some things organisations do which are best done alone, and are in fact less likely to work as the focus of a collaborative effort. Think this through carefully first, knowing that if the organisations involved have dissimilar goals or cultures, the people in them who you need to act collaboratively, are less likely to appreciate the potential benefits of interdependence and cooperation. In short, it’s vital to be realistic and honest in identifying a legitimate rationale. Realise that:

  • All collaborative activity is about the self-interest of the organisations and individuals involved, and should be managed and presented as such. Like any other form of exchange in an organisational context, collaborative activity must be focused on the realisation of the goals and objectives of the participants (see Levine & White, 1961).
  • And that the key driver for collaborative effort – like any other organisational effort – is resource dependency, or the relative availability of knowledge, money or authority. “Organisational life at every level is an ongoing struggle to obtain, enhance and protect resources; collaboration is one of the ways organisations seek to manage their own survival; and collaboration will therefore only be entered into where there is some mutual benefit to be derived from doing so. Therefore, successful collaboration needs to be rooted in hard-headed deals” (see Benson, 1975).


Assess your collaborative capacity

Linked to this is the idea of ‘collaborative capacity’, which depends on your willingness and ability to shed some autonomy, or lose some relative strength. This, in large part, depends on your organisational culture. Because if your culture is unlikely to accommodate collaboration, any effort will be in vain. If you don’t already have a sense of the nature of your culture, you need to develop one. But it needs to be realistic, and grounded in evidence, because if you set a collaborative vision which turns out to be unconnected to the way the change is experienced on the ground, you will not only fail, you’ll also generate high levels of cynicism which will damage your trustworthiness as a leader.

This is so important, it’s worth considering in more detail. Because culture prefigures the way strategy is made, including collaborative strategies, it is an act of arrogance not lost on staff to expect the culture to change quickly to suit a new collaborative aim. Remember that culture is something an organisation *is*, rather than a variable that can easily be manipulated by the leadership. Therefore, “any interpretation of organisational culture must be deeply embedded in the contextual richness of the total social life of organisational members” (Meek, 1988). Any attempt to present unifying desired values without due consideration to the nature of prevailing inherent values will be seen as unrealistic, leaving managers to deal with dilemma and ambiguity just when you need them to be focusing on change.

At the level of the individual, your collaborative capacity depends upon how people identify their roles, and the extent to which these are fixed. Collaborative activity will mean that some people’s notions of fixed identify are challenged, and that the real or perceived boundaries of their role become more fluid. By evaluating this, as well as how the change is likely to impact people’s constructs around professional progress, you will have a better idea of how to approach collaboration.


Articulate your purpose

It is also vital that each organisation in a partnership or alliance articulates its collaborative purpose. Indeed, capturing the shared vision- along with clear and realistic goals – in an explicit statement is a prerequisite to success.

Schools have become quite good at this vision/mission statement stuff. Perhaps too good. Because for some researchers, expressions of shared purpose should not be too explicit, and can benefit from expressing purpose without declaring intent (Cropper, 1995). For Pettigrew et al, “broad (as opposed to fine) visions were found to have significant process and implementation benefits in terms of commitment building and allowing interest groups to buy into the change process” (Pettigrew, Ferlie, & McKee, 1992). Leaving some ambiguity in the statements at this stage may make negotiation easier, and enable decision-makers to co-operate without the need to immediately address conflicts of interest.


Build trust

Trust is important in any organisational change, but particularly so in collaborative contexts. But what is it? Most discussion of trust rarely gets beyond rhetorical flabbiness, but as it is so important, it needs to be understood.

For Gambetta, “trust (or distrust) is a particular level of subjective probability with which an agent assesses that another agent or group will perform a particular action, both before he can monitor such action, or independently of his capacity ever to be able to monitor it, and in a context which affects his own action” (Gambetta, 1988).

Put more simply, trust is a device for coping with the freedom of others, and with our inability to predict or control their behaviour. This is something that schools seem to find more difficult than other types of organisation, so it’s worth considering here.

In collaborative partnerships, organisations either economise on trust, or invest in trust. Economising on trust involves the use of reliable and familiar mechanisms to co-ordinate social action and thereby replace the need for trust. These can include contracts that impose specific expectations around collaboration, the use of authority to mandate collaboration, or more subtle forms of coercion which attempt to encourage the co-operative tendency through appeals to the self-interest of those involved.

On the other hand, investing in trust involves doing what one promises to do, despite the uncertainty and lack of information that will characterise the experience, and (vitally for us) investing in personal relationships, critically between those front-line staff operating across organisational and professional boundaries, and between decision-makers. It is about having the right people in the right place at the right time, and in the right frame of mind. As with any form of investment however, it cannot be blind, and must be preceded by a calculation of the risks involved in trusting and not trusting, set these against the losses or gains to be had from the collaborative activity.


Share ownership

Even a well-developed collaboration strategy will fail if it does not take a system view of the organisational context(s), and design structural links between the macro and micro levels of activity. As with everything else, this is again about people. The ‘champions of change’ in this case, will be your reticulists … “those people skilled at mapping and developing networks, and in identifying key resource holders and fellow reticulists in their own and other agencies” (Friend, 1974). You need to create the means for their boundary-spanning to be recognised formally within the organisation, and developed.

You also need to ensure that front line staff and engaged, regardless of their level, through the creation of meaningful links between higher and lower organisational tiers, where authority is delegated to suit the needs of the collaborative context. Again, this seems painful in schools where there are clear and often inflexible hierarchies based on tenure and assigned authority, your reticulists and others need to be afforded ‘convenor legitimacy’ (McCann, 1986), and invited to participate in decisions and activity usually associated with management and leadership.


Eat the elephant one piece at a time

As I clarified up front, collaboration is hard, and there will be conflict. Because they do not obviously align with organisational strategy, collaboration will be perceived by some in your school as an inconvenient novelty; the folly of an out-of-touch and over-reaching leader. The key thing is to recognise this, and to understand that the collaboration will be most vulnerable at the start, when vested interests will most vigorously resist change. “Embedding new processes and dislodging old ways of life are long-term processes, with movements backwards and forwards, and with change at different levels, at different times” (Lowndes, 1997).

Enthusiasts must be pragmatic, and accept that it will take some time to achieve the goals they set. You can’t eat an elephant in one go, so a collaborative venture must be approached in chunks too, with a clear set of project milestones set at the start, each celebrated as they’re passed. Small wins are just as important as big wins, and infusing a series of apparently marginal achievements with a sense of strategic direction, such that they add up to a big win, is a good motivational approach. ‘Muddling through’ (Lindblom, 1959) is a perfectly acceptable strategy.


Design a relational context

You and your collaborative partner(s) will need to agree which type of collaborative relationship is most appropriate for the purpose, and for your context. Broadly, you will form a network (a structured or loose system of contact, with few expectations or commitments), a coalition or federation (which might initially focus on information sharing but evolve into joint planning or delivery), or a unitary model (which unites your organisations and pools their resources to serve a single set of objectives).

The process of selection requires you to work out what can be achieved by each individual organisation, and what can only realistically be achieved through collaboration. Failure to do this can result in collaborative inertia (Huxham & Vangen, 1994), where the work output from a collaborative group is less than expected, due to confusion about accountability or autonomy. This is normal and, for Huxham & Vangen, will happen “sooner or later”, so it’s as well to prepare for it by deciding on how to balance autonomy and accountability. Critically though, a failure to deal with collaborative inertia will result in collaborative fatigue, where people assume that things aren’t worth the effort, and just give up. This is often seen where the distance between a collaborative unit and a parent organisation is too wide, such that the joint project team end up in organisational limbo (Hardy et al, 1992). Once again, this is about trusting the members of collaborative forums, and giving them as much power as they need to act.


Choose your route to collaboration

So there are choices about collaborative strategies and collaborative tactics, but also about collaborative pathways, or routes to collaboration. These are not mutually exclusive, nor bound by geography or temporal order, but comprise markets, hierarchies or networks.

The market as a co-ordination device for collaboration, based on the voluntary mutual exchange of goods and services at a known price, is generally viewed as sub-optimal. This is particularly the case in public sector quasi-markets, where exchange is contingent and conditional anyway.

In a hierarchical model, “the invisible hand of the market is replaced by the visible hand of management” (Powell, 1991). The co-ordination of collaborative activity arises from relationships characterised by power and subordination.

The key feature of networks is that they address the way co-operation and trust are formed and maintained, and often embody these things such that co-ordination is achieved through informal and egalitarian means. “The ‘entangling strings’ of reputation, friendship, interdependence and altruism all become an integral part of the relationship, [so] the information obtained is “both thicker than that in the market and freer than that communicated in a hierarchy. Where such a model can be created, it has distinct advantages, especially in relation to the exchange of commodities whose value cannot precisely be determined (such as know-how)” (Hardy et al, 1999).


So these are the components for successful school to school dating.

Collaboration is something schools are coming under increasing pressure from the schools commissioners to do, and yet – as usual – very little account is given to how best to do this in school leadership training or professional development programmes. It also seems to run against the grain of the current accountability system. For example, the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, is trying to encourage MATs in close geographical proximity to work together (rather than compete) for the benefit of the communities they serve, whilst at the same time measuring them against one another in terms of performance. Of course, this is over and above the imperative for schools within MATs (and other groupings) to work ever more closely together, and co-ordinate activity. As resources tighten, these things will become expectations, even mandatory.

But there are significant benefits to schools and school groups in taking the lead, and creating your own collaborative ventures and networks, like that being proposed by SASH around peer-to-peer review and improvement. Hopefully, this guide will help you understand the importance of both systems thinking and relational thinking in any collaborative endeavour. Like any form of change, collaboration will stress your organisation and find its weak points. Knowing what to expect, and pre-empting the main challenges will provide you with the best chance of success.



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[1] There is a lot of literature on conflict management, should you wish to look into this further. By way of an interesting aside, management theory has moved on from the influence of post-war sociology, which quite understandably presented conflict as a disease with disruptive, dissociative and dysfunctional consequences. Therefore, the more current the literature you review, the better.