It ain’t what you do, it’s what it does to you: collaborative learning

Here’s the outline of what I talked about in the case study at the Stronger Together conference – or event as Erica Whyman pointedly reminded us it really was – at Northern Stage on Wednesday. The theme of the conference for any readers who weren’t there – and at times it seemed anyone likely to read this was there – was collaboration. You can look at the Twitter comments by searching for #artstogether. It was a great event, and there was a real buzz of energy coming off people at the end of the day. It combined a number of approaches, building from provocations and an Open Space to also include some case studies (for those who wanted to sit and listen), some conversations and some speed dating. This diversity and openness of approach really worked for most people, I think. They also used technology brilliantly to include satellite events in Bristol, Manchester and even that remote village, London.

I had suggested talking about the work I have been helping Clare Cooper, Holly Tebbut and Margaret Bolton with on designing a peer support or learning network for MMM – (re)evolution as it is called. (With investment from Creative Scotland and Arts Council England.) As it turned out we are still working through some of the design issues so I was not able to talk in the depth I’d envisaged about the offer (re)evolution will make to leaders (at all levels) in the sector. But it was a useful chance to talk about the thinking and learning that informs us, and set out our thinking so far.

I started by talking about two formative collaborative learning experiences which taught me a lot, including that learning is often the most sustainable thing which comes from collaboration, and that perhaps we should emphasise this more. (I didn’t say this but it strikes me now Simon Armitage puts it brilliantly in his poem/title, ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s what it does to you’. Hear that noise? That’s me kicking myself, really hard, for missing this connection/title before.)

The first was an artistic collaboration, A BALKAN EXCHANGE, which you can read about here: This has been a long collaboration between a group of English poets and a group of Bulgarian poets. My point was not the ‘outputs’ – two books of translations – but the learning I gained from it, about my own writing practice was transformative. The key learning about collaboration included:
  • The importance of listening deeply
  • The paradoxical combination of absolute commitment to both task and your collaborators and ‘non-attachment’ to your own ideas as the only or best ideas
  • Observing self as well as your collaborators and the task
The second was with my ‘executive’ head on, when I took part in the National School of Government’s Top Management Programme some year ago. This was all about collaborative learning, with a very diverse group of senior people from across sectors, which included some heavy duty collaborative tasks assisting national agencies with major challenges. My learning group included senior civil servants, a chief constable, private sectors leaders, even a knight – it was, crucially for me, not a cultural group – although the people themselves were, in the main highly cultured. (Although I do recall one person suggesting the Arts Council should change its name to the Entertainment Council, if indeed it were needed.)

The learning from this experience included:
  • The importance of honest, detailed and specific constructive feedback
  • Framing the experience as both practical and a learning experience and building reflection on experience in from Moment 1
  • The need for diversity: collaboration with people you know you agree with is more a matter of numbers, and less of learning
I then went on to talk about Mission Models Money’s (re)evolver pilot, which brought a diverse group of peers together to help co-design a peer support network. I was the evaluator on this CLP-funded scheme and have been working with MMM on the design of what we are now framing as a peer learning network. This will enable peers to develop their own skills and understanding by helping others address challenges related to mission, model or money, or the leadership, culture and values which we see as cross-cutting issues in that kind of change.
Those involved in (re)evolver reported a number of benefits to learning through shared experience with peers:
  •          growth in and greater awareness of their competencies, qualities and attributes
  •          interaction with diverse group of peers
  •          exploring own thought processes, values and behaviours in a group context
  •          improved communication and active listening skills
  •          opportunities to explore challenges facing the cultural sector
They also stressed the importance of mutuality, trust, investing time in bonding to build trust, understanding scale and varying sense of who a ‘peer’ might be. 

Interestingly the area of MMM’s ‘competencies, qualities and attributes’ framework in which peers reported most growth was ‘Reality Check’. As I said on Wednesday, if there is anything which will help us collaborate our way to a more resilient future it is a great sense of realism about our strengths and situations.

I spoke a little of the design of the peer learning network (re)evolution which MMM, working with industry bodies, want to start rolling later in the year. This would work on the key principle of mutuality, of ‘giving and getting’, with peers committing a certain number of days to the network – we’re currently thinking 3 – and being able to draw on other peers for assistance with their own challenges around mission, model, money or leadership. This could be done through a variety of flexible ‘programmes’ – from peer review style team approaches, to individual exchanges, mentoring or action learning.

I also shared some of the challenges the team and our investors, with whom we are working in a spirit of co-design, are grappling with, which we’d really welcome feedback on here too. (I’ll add in a couple that came up in conversation with people afterwards too.)
  •  How realistic is it to expect this type of investment into CPD and collaborative learning, given pressures on time and budgets?
  • How open can people be to sharing their challenges with others?
  • How do we avoid this becoming another ‘old boys network’ that excludes emerging or divergent leaders?
  • How do we structure the network operate so that it does not inadvertently exclude those who are unfunded or operating in a partly or even wholly commercialised way by asking them to work for nothing, whilst making it open to them as they could bring valuable insights, and could also benefit from the collaborative learning?