What does successful digital collaboration look like.

Written by Zoe Amar FCIM, Director, Zoe Amar Digital

I watched ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ documentary recently and was gripped by how they created the ‘Let it Be’ album in a fortnight, culminating in a rooftop concert. Seeing inside their world and how they listened to each other, tried out new ideas and navigated the tensions of building something new under pressure made me rethink what I’ve learned about collaboration. 

Collaboration has become almost as much of a buzzword as hybrid. Working together became essential to navigating crisis situations in the pandemic. Now leaders are promising new, more collaborative ways of working to lure employees back to the office. 

Most digital projects are impossible without collaboration. It’s an issue we’re gathering insights on in the survey to build this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report. If you’re a charity or social sector organisation we’re keen to hear your views on this and other areas of digital development so we can help the sector understand what stage it’s at and what it needs to move forward with technology. 

Across the UK organisations across all sectors are facing huge challenges, from digital inclusion to the cost of living and labour shortages. Working together and using technology will be key. So what does collaborating successfully look like? 


Unite behind a common goal

Working together is just the beginning of collaboration. You need a clearly defined, shared challenge. The University of Lincoln, public services provider Serco, and Lincolnshire County Council recently came together to examine how assistive technology could help adults with health and social care needs live independently and safely within their own homes for longer, looking at possibilities from smartphones to sensors and artificial intelligence. 

The three organisations all wanted to find digital solutions for health and social care to the 8,905 adults in Lincolnshire who need long-term assistance with their mental health, learning disabilities or physical and social care. Lincolnshire is a dispersed, rural county which will need an additional 17,000 social care workers over the next 15 years to meet demand, all of whom will require technology to support them. 

This urgent goal has galvanised partners. ‘We’ve proven that public and private sector organisations can work effectively together and at speed to investigate and address real challenges that are impacting our health and social sectors,’ says Dr Salah Al-Majeed from the University of Lincoln. Trust was essential to this process. DrAl-Majeed says that everyone has had to, ‘openly identify and address difficult issues and come up with practicable and affordable solutions.’ 


Invest in relationships

‘Get Back’ shows how listening to each other was a vital part of The Beatles’ creative process. Yet we’ve all been involved in projects where people only collaborate performatively,  talking at, not with, each other. How can you avoid this? 

Communication must be a priority between partners and their stakeholders. The Scouts are working with Girlguiding  in collaboration with the Pears Foundation to find innovative ways to grow and diversify their volunteers, including building a new digital recruitment platform which can be used by both charities to deliver separate welcome journeys whilst benefiting from the efficiencies of a shared system. Celia Wilson, Collaboration Programme Manager, explains that, ‘communication is central to making it work, so listening to the hopes and fears of our members, volunteers and staff has meant we have made changes and adjustments as we go.’ A commitment to transparency, inclusion and acting on feedback will increase trust when collaborating.

When you start working with another organisation discuss what you want your relationship to look like, and agree which behaviours will demonstrate this. As marriage guidance counsellors say, ‘The relationship is the client,’ so check in regularly with partner organisations on how they think the relationship is going and what might need to change. This will flag problems before they escalate.

Investing in a solid working relationship will help you make better decisions together and navigate the inevitable bumps in the road. Wilson points out that, ‘in key areas such as legal, data protection and digital/technology, it can take four times as long to reach a decision between two organisations than it would to reach in a single organisation.’ Organisations will have different systems and ways of working so allowing additional time to deal with this is essential. 


Be pragmatic

All the organisations I spoke to had a sensible, realistic approach to the problems that will arise in any collaboration. Whilst this may temper the big ambitions that often lead to collaborating it will help establish the common ground that’s needed to deal with differences of opinion. 

The Wales Cooperative Centre, Promo Cymru and WCVA are working on the NEWID programme which aims to help the Welsh third sector use digital progressively and sustainably.  This is a long term transformation goal and the team are focused on practical tools which create the momentum for change, such as an online digital tool kit and a digital strategy template to help organisations move forward. Marc Davies, Digital Programme Lead at the Wales Cooperative Centre advises collaborating organisations to, ‘work to one and other’s strengths.  Don’t expect perfection, there will be areas of differences or misalignment, seek to get a common consensus and be open minded to change.’ 

Collaboration is easy to aim for but harder to do, particularly where the complexities of technology are involved. Like any good relationship, it needs working at, but the rewards are huge, whether it’s a cross sector collaboration providing the innovation that powers regional economies or charities working together to improve young people’s life chances. That’s why it would be good to see government enabling more collaboration as part of the Levelling Up agenda. 

The hallmark of successful collaboration is organisations with different, complementary strengths coming together to supercharge their impact. Digital can help us take on the big challenges facing the UK right now if we all commit to listening, learning and innovating together.

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