Collaboration is certainly a buzz word at the moment. In the current climate working together is presented as a way of maximising shared resources and reducing overheads – from neighbouring local councils sharing services to open source software developed by volunteers across continents – when joining up works it can be of benefit to all. This is an area of particular interest to me, both because I work for two organisations which have realised the potential benefits of collaboration and decided to work together,and also because a lot of our work at present is exploring the process of collaboration in artistic practice, along with its many challenges and potential pitfalls.
Last week I was involved in helping put together an event at the Barbican – The Secrets of Successful Collaboration. This session was part of the Digital Shoreditchfestival, and was itself a collaboration between us and the digital consultancy Unthinkable Consulting. We had put together three case studies of different types of collaboration, which provided an interesting range of contexts to think about the issues surrounding working together, and to explore whether there were commonalities, rules, or secrets which apply at all levels of collaboration across sectors and at different scales.
The first project which was discussed was the consortium of companies collaborating on an Internet radio project with speakers from Totally Radio and Mixcloud. They were all working in the same area – all had different skills and specialisms which they bought together with the shared aim of strengthening the way which their sector worked and addressing some fundamental problems which affected them all.
SecondlyPunchdrunk , the extraordinary immersive participatory theatre company, discussed their collaboration with MIT media lab. The mutual aim here was to explore how technology could be used to link people attending their show in the real world with participants in the virtual world. Was it possible to create the intensity of a Punchdrunk experience in someone’s front room? Could interacting over a computer make someone terrified, excited or transported into another world? They ran a small scale pilot within the New York presentation of their show Sleep No More which required the Creative application of new technologies which linked pairs of real world and virtual participants.
This first pair of case studies were very different, but having thought about it since the event I think there were some striking similarities gave an insight into what the Secrets we were looking for might be:
The fundamental starting point for both collaborations was that all parties involved were genuinely invested in the outcomes of the projects – if the projects were successful, each partners area of work would be enabled to move forwards to a new place. I found it interesting that early on in the internet radio project one of the partners had walked away, mainly because although their knowledge would help the collaboration, they didn’t feel they would get enough out of it.
There was a shared understanding of each others worlds – in the Internet Radio project this was perhaps inherent as all the organisations were working in a relatively specialist field. In the Punchdrunk project it was interesting to hear how those working on the technology became immersed in the narrative of the show – as having an understanding of this directly informed the technical solutions they created.
Neither of the collaborations challenged or threatened any of the partners core business – success would help everyone, failure would be disappointing and of course time, effort and money would have been lost, but everyone involved could walk away without having lost everything. I think this is key because it enabled a high level of risk. Although layers of complexity were added on top of Punchdrunk’s core business of producing an extraordinary show, the core experience for their ticket buyers was not fundamentally changed. Similarly as the consortium were working away the Radio Player and Mixcloud people could still get on with doing what they do….
Nothing was said about money. I am sure there were various deals and agreements between the partners in both case studies, but it was not the jumping off point or the reason for the collaboration. In her introduction to the evening Sarah Turner from Unthinkable referred to a quote that collaboration between two arts organisations was ‘the suspension of mutual loathing in pursuit of shared funding.’ I don’t know where that originates from, but I wouldn’t mind hazarding a guess about how that collaboration turned out.
The third case study took a relatively small digital consultancy, FridayFriday, working with a large company – the coop. This was essentially an exploration of a client/ customer relationship – a very different dynamic from the other two case studies. It had clearly been a successful and happy relationship, which resulted in the consultancy delivering work of which they were proud and with which the client were happy. There were some really interesting insights into the way Friday got to the heart of what the client wanted – for example everyone who works for them can draw! However, where one party is buying services from another, does this really provide the basis for a true collaboration? Interestingly the client in this relationship were not present to speak at the event itself.
The event ended with a few short call outs from people looking for collaborators – the one which sticks in my mind was from The People Who Share – whose underlying philosophy is essentially that we – people – will have to work together a lot more to survive much longer, whether through sharing the planets resources or sharing knowledge to solve the problems we face now and in the future. This ‘Sharing Society’ is going to have to just become the way we live – which is why it is worth us trying to get to the heart of what makes a successful collaboration.