Promoting innovation, increasing productivity, and achieving goals that might not be achieved alone are attributes of successful collaborations, in higher education and in the corporate world. Numerous other benefits are reaped by both the organizations and the individuals taking part in collaborations. Those may include enhanced resource allocation and cost savings, opportunities to improve prestige and influence, and connections to facilitate learning.
Facilitating learning is in itself inherent to successful collaborations because individuals get to hear different viewpoints, improve communication, apply trust-building skills, and nudge participants out of comfort zones and institutional silos where one may have traditionally worked autonomously. In the long run, such experiences can help develop tools that can reduce conflicts and move projects forward more quickly.
Whether you’re connecting with like-minded, commonly interested partners or working with someone who may initially be reluctant, identifying several key elements for successful collaborations is a good jumping-off point.
Without communication, the other key components for successful collaborations—trust, identifying shared interests, and defining roles and expectations—are in jeopardy. Quality, frequent communication can help build trust, and without trust there is likely a fear that one party or another is going to be exploited.
There is evidence that once trust is achieved between collaborators, the likelihood of future collaborations occurring is greatly enhanced, so reaching that level of shared alignment in an initial collaboration is key.
Identifying shared goals can help unveil unexpected connections, like needs and challenges, and common interests. A key motivation for collaboration is that the individual may not be able to obtain or achieve a goal without the expertise of the partner.
Roles and expectations
Just like trust building and identifying shared goals are facilitated by high-quality communication, so is the need for reducing conflict by clearly defining roles and expectations.
In one sense, the student union is a collaborator every time an entity outside the center uses a meeting room or any other union service. And there are plenty of examples where student unions and student affairs offices have created opportunities to enhance student and community life by finding new partners with which to collaborate.
The Central Washington University student union has partnered in a number of collaborative endeavors to benefit students and the community. Along with university technology personnel, it has offered free laptop checkouts, worked with enrollment and visitation offices to act as the host and starting point for campus tours, and partnered with the local Ellensberg Daily Record newspaper to host an annual Weddings and Events Expo in the union ballroom.
The student affairs division at the University of Illinois has also developed a culture of collaboration, having worked with Disability Resources & Educational Services (accessible living), the Illinois Student Senate and the Office of the Provost (campus committees and boards), Division of Public Safety (neighborhood watch programs), and the Student Health Insurance Office (student health benefits assistance).
There are, of course, challenges to taking on any collaboration, especially when it’s with new partners.
In their 2009 book Organizing Higher Education for Collaboration: A Guide for Campus Leaders, University of Southern California professor of higher education Adrianna Kezar and George Mason University associate professor of higher education Jaime Lester not only enumerate specific challenges, but also recommend what they think are institutional changes that need to be made in higher education in order to facilitate more collaboration.
Special challenges that may create roadblocks to collaboration, they say, include specialization, professionalization, disciplines and departments, reward systems, the clash between academic and administrative cultures, and responsibility-centered management and budgeting.
Institutions may also need to adapt to a number of organizational aspects to support collaboration, including revising strategic plans, mission and vision statements, and even education philosophy; changing and altering social networks; and reexamining values statements and rewards plans.
Kezar and Lester also noted that institutions may need to revise hiring processes and staff and faculty development to encourage collaboration, as well as realign planning, budgeting, and review processes to better facilitate collaborations.