Collaboration Through Shared Services - Part 1

Part 1 - Working Collaboratively

The notion of collaboration as a beneficial activity is widely understood and is considered a worthy goal by associations and organizations in general. Associations often identify closer collaboration within their stakeholder community as a strategic objective. When asked, association CEOs often say that working collaboratively is a high priority within their organization. However, in practice the notion of working more collaboratively is largely aspirational. In practice, organizational inertia often prevents associations from making the necessary changes to increase and enhance the levels of collaboration, and programs and activities continue to be undertaken single-handedly. It is clear then that from concept to implementation there are hurdles that prevent associations from collaborating to their fullest potential.

This is somewhat ironic given that associations are intrinsically platforms for collaboration. Generally, associations are formed when like-minded individuals or organizations join forces to achieve goals that are beyond their individual reach. An association provides the enabling structure through which its members can collaborate to pursue common interests and derive mutual benefit. Typically, association members can share knowledge, programs, services and, perhaps most importantly, a common identity.

The collaboration that takes place within the association structure offers members a variety of tangible benefits such as products, services, information, and discounts as well as many intangible benefits, such as networking, a sense of community and common purpose, and even the opportunity to volunteer. The traditional benefits that most associations provide include:

  • Learning—the opportunity to take courses or professional development activities either online or in person
  • Knowledge—the collective body of information resources produced or procured by the association, such as publications, research, or websites
  • Community—opportunities for members to interact and share ideas, such as online forums, social media, conventions, and meetings
  • Advocacy—the representational activities aimed at influencing public policy in support of the membership and the public good including lobbying, and the development of policy positions

The marshaling of resources to enhance performance and achieve objectives within organizations can take several forms. Often, cooperation is the most evident joint activity involving more than one individual or organization. Cooperation is usually less formal, of shorter duration and minimal risk and involves an alignment of resources possibly including the sharing of assets, or information. Coordination requires more formal mechanisms through which activities can be aligned. There is usually a level of advance planning which requires a greater degree of commitment, time, and resources than cooperation. The coordination of programs and initiatives can enhance performance overall and generate tangible benefits to those involved. Collaboration is a more formal and longer term undertaking between two or more individuals, departments, or independent organizations that often requires significant changes to the way programs are activities are undertaken. Collaborative undertakings require deeper levels of trust, and commitment and need to be carefully planned in order to achieve mutually agreed-upon objectives. By working in a collaborative manner, participants share resources, and synergistically transform them to enhance their performance and generate positive outcomes beyond what they could achieve individually. Collaboration exceeds what can be done through simple cooperation and coordination by effecting systemic change and achieving transformational results.

So-called collaborative organizations are ones that share certain characteristics including:

  • Aligned values and objectives
  • Mutual trust and respect
  • Transparency and openness
  • A culture that shares knowledge widely
  • Stakeholder driven decision-making
  • Effective and efficient governance model

Formal collaboration takes place within associations and between associations when there is agreement to combine resources in order to enhance performance, achieve mutual objectives, lower costs, or other mutually agreed-upon outcomes. There are number of ways that associations can collaborate including strategic partnerships or consortia among the associations through which joint initiatives can be undertaken to achieve common goals, joint social enterprises through which participating associations can derive additional revenues and other benefits, and shared services through which associations can pool resources and expertise to achieve higher performance while reducing costs.

In part two, shared services will be discussed including the kinds of services that can be shared, the reasons for sharing, and the benefits that shared services can provide to participating associations.