Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Collaboration + Museum Pros = Treasure Trove of Ideas

I think about collaboration all the time. In my career I've had some amazing collaborative successes and some pretty tough failures, so I'm always looking to learn more.  I met Ivy Young several years ago and we've continued to have great conversations around all sorts of things--but our talk turned to collaborations recently, so I've asked her to share some thoughts from her time as director of the California Networks for Collaboration, a project of the California Association of Museums. Ivy is currently working as a consultant for learning design and the facilitation of collaborative processes. She starts us off by reflecting on the question she posts above.

Some of my immediate thoughts include:
  • Collaboration cannot be done alone – it involves a group of people.
  • Collaboration requires trust and mutual respect. Without establishing core, shared values at the outset, collaboration risks failing.
  • The collaborative process is organic and can be difficult! It requires commitment.
  • Communication pathways need to be clear and remain open.
  • It’s most meaningful, insightful, and produces the best outcomes when the collaborative group is diverse. (Diverse across multiple dimensions: age, gender, culture, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomics, education, abilities, etc.)
  • Collaboration takes a lot time. And sometimes it may just feel that it’s easier to go at the work alone.
  • Often, collaboration yields new ideas or new innovations.
  • Strong collaboration has deeper impacts and broader reaches. It has the potential to strengthen organizations, communities, and networks.

What would you like to add to this list? Please share in the comments below. Let’s keep it going!
Truth be told, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about collaboration. The above reflections have largely been shaped by my experiences in helping to steer the California Networks for Collaboration (CNfC)– an aptly titled project at that! Collaboration was at the very heart of the project and all CNfC stakeholders were engaged in collaborative processes throughout, from esteemed advisors to voluntary participants.
In the briefest of nutshells, the CNfC is a four-phase, multi-year project that is directed by the California Association of Museums (CAM) in collaboration with 13 other partner organizations statewide. In the CNfC phase that I helped to oversee, we brought museum thought leaders together to create three different curricula for studies focusing on engagement strategies, audience research, and accessibility. CAM and CNfC project partners then activated their professional networks across the state to bring together multiple study groups, or what we called “Learning Collaboratives”, around these three topics. In this, we were piloting how to leverage multiple, informal networks around a focused endeavor as well as we were testing a model for professional development based on the concept of collaborative learning.
With CNfC Learning Collaboratives we sought to provide more collaborative experiences for participants than what might be expected of the traditional study group or professional development experience. This chart, originally created by consultant Marsha Rhea, compares the two learning environments:
Learning Collaboratives
Study Groups
Knowledge co-creation focuses on participant meaning making
Knowledge transfer focuses on participant comprehension
The atmosphere is social and organic
The atmosphere is more structured and predefined
Participant experience is interactive –
“Ask me!”
Participant experience is more passive –
“Feed me.”
Context rich
Content rich
Driven by participant interests
Driven by facilitator’s (or expert’s) interests

With this, imagine groups of museum and arts & culture professionals (anywhere from 5 to 16 people, including the regional facilitator) coming together in different regions throughout California for a six-month period...Each group met together in real life once a month and also had the opportunity to connect in a social networking forum between meetings, had access to live, monthly webinars with museum thought leaders, and were provided with a curated list of recommended readings and optional activities to also peruse outside of meeting.
The in-person meetings tended to be the most important anchor for the Learning Collaborative experience. These often included a number of different interactive protocols for a diversity of spoken and written interactions to help construct shared learning.

In fact, some of the protocols used in the Learning Collaborative meetings were sourced from Linda’s (and Rainey Tisdale’s) book, Creativity in Museum Practice, such as mind mapping (p.38), brainwriting (p. 136), and the butterfly test (p. 137). (And, what’s more, the CNfC project is mentioned in the publication! See page 159.) With all of these different activities for exchanging and cultivating ideas, you better believe the Learning Collaborative groups came up with some great insights to apply to museum practice!
Each group worked together collaboratively to document their most salient takeaways at the conclusion of their studies. These takeaways – what we called “knowledge products”– took on many different forms from pocket checklists to interactive Prezi presentations, to games and annotated bibliographies. Any form, really, that the Learning Collaborative thought would be best to convey their findings. You can access all 37 of the CNfC Learning Collaborative knowledge products here
Stay tuned for Part 2, featuring some of Ivy's favorite Knowledge Products and be sure to share your thoughts on collaboration in the comments.


Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

I have just read your first bullet pointed list of throughts. I WANT to believe and participate in a collaborative and creative process at our small history museum in rural northern California. But the Board of Directors and I have very few shared goals or values. I've tried to gently instill the the value a connection to our past holds in our BovD members and other key volunteers, but it feels (after almost ten year) like nearly a dead end.
My input alone is feeble compared to what a collaborative approach could be I realize. But the Diretors mostly care about how many members we have, how closely we adhere to the budget (although we have plenty of money), and never give a thought to how close we come to achieving our mission.
I will go back now and read the rest of your post now that this is off my chest. I can envision the rewards of collaboration and I want to make it happen, but I've little hope -- except that this "treasure Trove of Ideas" will change my attitude, approach, and mind. Thank you!

Jasper Visser said...

Hi Linda, So energizing to read your experiences, as always. What I'd like to add to your list is an insight into collaboration that has been growing with me in the past few years:

"Every single person has a valuable contribution to make, given they are enabled to do so."

Which leads into the second (which is a call to action for all facilitators, managers, leaders:)

"If a person is unable to make a valuable contribution, it most likely has very little to do with them, and almost everything with the context they are in and how they are enabled to contribute."

It pains me to see so much potential for new ideas and insights get lost whenever people are not invited or enabled to collaborate.

ivy said...

Thank you for your honest reflection, Ginny. I can really appreciate the wall you are up against ¬– we are truly stuck without willing collaborators, and it can feel all the more painful without the support of your Board. I hear you.

I think that Jasper’s comment speaks to the pain you are feeling as well. Indeed, “Every single person has a valuable contribution to make, given that they are enabled [and feel empowered] to do so.” As he noted (Thank you, Jasper! And I hope it’s ok I inserted my two cents within your thoughtful contribution to the list!), it pains him to see others held back – for whatever reason – from the potential of collaborative and expansive work. I feel that way, too.

So with that, I wonder, what would it take for you to feel empowered beyond the vision (or lack of vision) of your Board? Are there other re/sources or outlets for collaborative potential in your community that can help you achieve your museum’s mission and give you those opportunities for deepening your creative work and impact with others?

Personally, in my previous work as an elementary school teacher, I also craved deep collaboration in a school where I was the only teacher at my grade-level. I didn’t have immediate peers with whom I could collaborate on the curriculum or my learners’ school experience. Until I realized that I had an incredible resource of potential collaborators who were both willing and valuable right before me: my learners’ parents! (I just had not recognized them from that perspective prior, you know.) From this, I was able to create deeper, more trusting relationships with the core parent volunteers in my classroom and together we worked to create more meaning for our children and forge deeper ties to our immediate community outside of school. *It was really amazing!* We made the school experience more engaging and my collaborative/creative needs were also met. (Side note: The school has been teaching the curriculum we developed that year for the last 10 years! It lives on! And part of why it lives on is that collaboration is built into its DNA: The curriculum also changes and adapts every year based on students’ interests, their parents’ involvement, and community opportunities.)

Maybe my example will help encourage you to look in other places?

As far as sharing this “treasure trove” of ideas, Linda will be posting a follow-up blog post in which I’ve highlighted some of the helpful tools that came out of the CNfC project – but in advance of that next post, I think that there is one particular tool that may pertain to where you are right now. However, it’s a bit of an analogy… in that this tool outlines a pathway for deeper audience engagement (not collaboration, per se) via organizational change that starts from the individual, extends to the institution, and finally to the holistic relationship with the public it serves. Here’s the link to that tool: https://app.box.com/s/x3b60jd72efdn3nkvsab16omr4fl2sjr

I think that collaboration and the opportunity to realize collaborative projects is similar to deep audience engagement initiatives – and that collaboration is where true audience engagement and exchange is based, honestly. I’d bet that’s where you might go with the collaboration you dream of.

It has to start from the inside first. And you’ve got that! Your inspiration is brimming!

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