Professor Colin Lindsay of the ESRC PrOPEL Hub Team and Strathclyde Business School reports on his recently published research using the concept of ‘collaborative innovation’ to explore how we can support innovation across teams and organisations grappling with ‘wicked problems’.

Policymakers, business leaders and their partners seeking to build back post-COVID19 are faced with a range of so-called ‘wicked problems’ – the seemingly super-complex challenges that require the pooling of expertise, resources and energies if we are to solve them.

An emerging and increasingly influential body of research in public services uses the concept of ‘collaborative innovation’ to explore the governance, processes and ways of working through which different stakeholders can collaborate to drive change and innovation, improving the experiences of service users. Drawing on ground-breaking work by Danish researchers Eva Sorensen, Jacob Torfing and colleagues, we have defined collaborative innovation as:

“an intentional process that involves the generation and practical adoption and spread of new and creative ideas, which aim to produce a qualitative change in a specific context, with collaborative problem-solving across organisational and sectoral boundaries a key feature.”

Collaborative innovation in employment services…and insights for other businesses and organisations

Our team has published two articles in leading international journals on the impact of collaborative innovation in employment services (local services seeking to assist vulnerable jobseekers – in the case of our research unemployed lone parents – to transition from welfare-to-work). Concerns have been raised that publicly-funded employment services are too often standardised, failing to innovate in response to changing labour market conditions or the specific needs of vulnerable user groups.

Our research focused on local ‘Making It Work’ partnerships funded by the National Lottery Community Fund (at the time of our research known as the Big Lottery Fund) and involving local government, the third sector and other organisations collaborating and working with lone parents to ‘co-produce’ innovative new services. We previously published evaluation evidence pointing the success of Making It Work in achieving its aims. Service users expressed high levels of satisfaction with services, and many progressed into work or learning of their choice and accessed support that helped them to escape poverty.

But just as importantly, the programme offered an interesting example of collaborative innovation in action, delivering radically different, innovative and personalised services. Our recent research publications looked at, first, the ways of working and job roles that were important to collaborative innovation in this case; and, second, how multi-agency ‘collaborative governance’ and ‘distributed leadership’ can be important to delivering collaborative innovation at street-level.

Practices to support ‘mutual and transformative learning’ and boundary spanning

Our recent article in Public Administration Review identified key workplace processes and job roles that deliver collaborative innovation in the form of transformative, high quality public services. We concur with the framework established by Jacob Torfing and colleagues that sees three key processes at the heart of collaborative innovation:

Mutual and transformative learning is supported by the creation of spaces and interactions that allow for the sharing of different interpretations and ideas, and the emergence of new and better solutions. In the case of Making It Work, we found that partners worked together to create shared digital platforms, co-locate employees with different types of expertise, and support job shadowing and shared learning.   

Joint ownership involves the creation of specific mini-projects and ways of working rooted in collaborative decision-making and street-level teamworking. Under Making It Work, we found that there was a strong focus on collaboration and information-sharing during the design phase of the programme, and that local teams enjoyed considerable autonomy to take ownership and drive forward services on the ground.  

Empowered participation makes these processes real at street-level. Empowered participation is about giving people on the frontline the autonomy to be agile and responsive in delivering services. It also means creating collaboration mechanisms so that service users are empowered to co-produce their own services. In the case of Making It Work, we emphasised the importance of frontline key workers acting as ‘boundary spanners’ – these professionals felt empowered by the programme to build networks, join up different service offers, and support users and communities to engage in co-production.

Facilitating innovation through collaborative governance and distributive leadership

Another of our recent articles in European Urban and Regional Studies journal focused more on the sort of governance, management and leadership arrangements that support collaborative innovation. Focusing on how Making It Work worked in two cities, we noted the importance of collaborative governance and funding structures (as opposed to the marketised, contracting-out that dominates in some other areas of public service procurement). The funder required that local partnerships demonstrated a commitment to shared leadership (with local government and third sector organisations often adopting a co-leadership role). Partnerships benefited from up-front grant funding that allowed them to plan services by consensus and build local collaboration. In other areas of employment services (such as programmes commissioned by the UK Government) contracting-out and ‘payment-by-results’ has precluded the emergence of such collaborative approaches, resulting in unnecessary competition and excluding providers (especially from the third sector) who could make a difference in the design and delivery of services.

Finally, our research pointed to the importance of what are often called ‘distributive leadership’ practices. Distributive leadership involves a conscious effort to share leadership through: delegation of decision-making authority (within agreed boundaries); making resources and time available for stakeholders at all relevant levels to take on leadership roles and tasks; and consensus-based processes that provide voice for representatives from different sectors and organisations to collaborate on leading programme development and delivery. Local programme managers, partner agencies and frontline keyworkers spoke about how collaborative funding and governance mechanisms had created the conditions for such shared and distributive leadership. Local MIW stakeholders were able to co-design the programme; managers and keyworkers were able to build provision that was responsive to user needs and ‘stop doing things’ that didn’t work. Crucially, all this allowed for the co-production of responsive services that empowered users to shape their own journeys towards improved employability.

Our take-aways from this research? Collaborative innovation is challenging, but provides a useful framework for thinking about service design in response to wicked problems – in public services, but also perhaps for commercial enterprises. Collaborative governance and distributive leadership practices that empower local managers and employees may be important in laying the groundwork for collaboration and innovation that can transform service delivery.