collaboration models

Facilitating Collaboration: Five Potential Models

Facilitators are often called in to help design projects involving multiple stakeholders such as in convening interdepartmental workgroups, cross-functional teams or inter-agency committees and coalitions. For these assignments one of the key assessments that the facilitator needs to make is to determine whether the convening is for the purpose of accomplishing a task or for the purpose of creating collaboration. When I inquire about this I sometimes hear, “I thought every time you brought people together it was for collaboration?” I explain that there is a difference between working together and collaboration. This distinction is not so subtle. Facilitating the development of a product with multiple stakeholders giving input requires a facilitator to create clear expectations, foster information sharing, follow though and problem-solving and tracking progress. Facilitating for the purpose of developing collaboration requires organizing the stakeholders around a common model that is congruent with the sought after outcomes. Developing a product requires tactically working together where collaboration suggests a “shared mind” or shared systems view. (1)

When facilitating for collaboration the first task is for the stakeholders involved to understand and agree to the model of collaboration. In this process, a key role of the facilitator is to clearly describe models of collaboration and have a toolbox big enough to implement the models based on the customized and tailored needs of the group. At this deeper level, collaboration models typically have distinct organizational and governance structures attached and, in some cases, have legal structure implications. My intention is clearly not to offer legal advice but to simply introduce five models of collaboration that can serve as the basis of collaborative groups and teams.

Coalitions: The most readily assessable model of collaboration is the community coalition model. In a community coalition the focus of the collaboration is to concentrate the collective power of the members and focus it on action. Typically coalitions have membership guidelines, operating procedures and often bylaws, governance structures and elected leadership positions. There is a fairly large literature base and many textbooks describing the process and functioning of effective coalitions. Collaboration is based on shared goals and vision related to the action agenda. At times, coalitions use structured memoranda of understanding to help operationalize the collaborative process. A Google search will turn up numerous references for developing coalitions. One succinct primer on coalitions was developed by the Prevention Institute.

Communities of Practice:  Collaboration based on the concept of “communities of practice” involve the creation of a “learning guilds” that support the development of shared expertise and competencies. Developing collaboration around this model primarily focuses on distributing knowledge, competency and building networks between people. While the concept of communities of practice has appeared in the knowledge management literature for at least two decades, Etienne Wenger is one theorist that clearly develops the theoretical framework for this model.

Cooperatives:  A third model for collaboration is found in the concept of developing a cooperative. The drivers for cooperatives are seven principles relating to membership, control, participation, autonomy, learning, networking and social responsibility. Through co-ownership and participatory governance, a cooperative model has potential to encompass both learning and action. The University of Wisconsin has a great resource center dedicated to cooperatives.

Cohousing: At first glance the model of co-housing communities might seem a bit abstract to apply to the business or nonprofit sector. Cohousing is a property ownership and management concept where groups of individuals co-own homes that have elements of both social contact and individual space. Typically, cohousing communities have common facilities such as open space, courtyards, play space, and, in some cases, even shared living space like a communal kitchen. The governance structures for co-housing communities are egalitarian or even Socratic and emphasize problem solving and unanimity. Leaping to inter-agency collaboration, governance around shared values and interest in commons can be powerful. In a day when agency mergers increasingly being seem as a way to keep similar mission driven organizations viable, a co-housing model may be an instructive alternative that allows agencies to retain independence by designing and operating collaborations out of a shared space. A resource on Cohousing is the Cohousing Association of the United States.

Industry Clusters: A final model for collaboration to consider is found in the concept of industry clusters. Industry clusters are basically the associations of companies that share the same maket-space in a particular geographic location. The concept is to create a critical mass of related technologies, workforce and suppliers linked by buyer-seller or peer-to-peer relationships. The intended outcome is that “firms and workers in an industry cluster draw competitive advantage from their proximity to competitors, to a skilled workforce, to specialized suppliers and a shared base of sophisticated knowledge about their industry” (Reference: Oregon Clusters Website). Collaboration in an industry cluster approach balances the needs of individual companies and organizations against the larger need of the entire market with the goal of creating a network effect where the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

There is a myth perpetuated that “collaboration is an unnatural act” but thinking about the models and process of collaboration is, at its core, systems thinking. If we are intentional about imagining what collaboration could look like, it can serve as a frame for a strategic conversation about the role collaboration plays in strengthening the capacity of stakeholders as they seek to expand, grow and achieve a common mission.


Photo Credit: javipolinario

(1) One critical texts that needs to be on your shelf is Michael Scharge’s book No More Teams!: Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration.

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting blog posting! Another aspect of how the Cohousing model might be applied to other endeavors is the partnership between community and private interests. Many cohousing communities in the United States originated with a group of people who decided they wanted to live together in community. Typically, these people then seek the services of professionals who are creating housing for them. In some cases, the community hires the professionals, who just deliver various housing development and design services. In other cases, an authentic partnership develops between the producers (those who actually produce the housing) and the consumers (those who will pay for and occupy the housing).
    This is an emerging model in the private sector which is sometimes called “co-creation” – whereby the producer partners with the consider. Because the consumers actively care about the end product, they help the producer better meet their needs. The consumer participates in the creation of the product, rather than acting as a more passive recipient of the producer’s work.
    A real world example of a massively successful co-creator is Google. Many of the Google products are improved by the acts of their consumers. The big idea that first made Google Search so powerful was their use of the human-crafted links from one site to another when ranking the search results. Since then, Google has found numerous other methods of improving search results and their other products, some of which wouldn’t exist without the active creative work of the consumers, e.g. Google Blogs, etc..
    Cohousing is a bit different, in that the producer-consumer partnership typically is just one phase of the development process, rather than an ongoing relationship whereby the consumer helps craft. In any case, many can learn from cohousing as you’re exploring ways to facilitate creative work groups, who actively participate in creating the future for themselves and their families.

    Craig Ragland
    Cohousing Association of the United States

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