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Collaborative Technologies: Reducing the Friction in the System

November 07, 2013

(Gabriel Kasper is a senior manager at the Monitor Institute, a consultancy and think tank focused on philanthropy and social change that operates as part of Deloitte Consulting LLP.)

Headshot_gabriel_kasperEarlier today, the Monitor Institute and the Foundation Center released a new report called Harnessing Collaborative Technologies: Helping Funders Work Together Better (44 pages, PDF). As part of the research, we looked at more than a hundred and seventy different technological tools now available to funders, dove deeply into the literature on philanthropic collaboration, analyzed the results of recent Foundation Center surveys, and spoke with a wide range of experts from the worlds of both technology and philanthropy.

The report's main headlines won't come as a huge surprise to anyone: (1) more than ever before, funders are recognizing that they need to collaborate to effectively address the complex, intractable problems we now face; and (2) new technologies -- from simple group scheduling tools to comprehensive online collaboration workspaces -- are now available to help facilitate the often challenging process of working together.

But there's a deeper story beneath the headlines about how these emerging technologies are enabling new types of collaborations that weren't possible (or were more difficult) just a few years ago.

While much of the talk about collaboration these days centers on large, formal "collective impact" initiatives and "needle-moving" collaboratives, these types of highly intensive collaborative approaches aren't necessarily right for all funders, all situations, and all purposes. In some cases, funders are simply looking to learn together. In others, they're just aiming to understand the broader ecosystem of activity so they can act independently but still align their efforts with those of others.

New technologies are changing the playing field and making it cheaper and easier than ever before to facilitate these different types of "lower-intensity" collaborative activities. New collaborative platforms are helping funders share files and information, and can provide important forums for ongoing dialogue and conversation. Online project management systems are streamlining processes for coordinating and aligning action. And new tools for aggregating data and visualizing information allow funders to see in new ways the larger funding landscape of which they are a part.

These simpler, technology-facilitated collaborative activities may not yield the outsized results of more complex, formal efforts, but they often produce very real improvements and outcomes while also helping to build relationships and momentum that can build toward higher-intensity efforts.

The Harnessing Collaborative Technologies report and its its Key Findings executive summary help readers make sense of the dizzying array of technologies now available to those engaged in both low- and high-intensity collaborations by parsing the different collaborative needs of funders. How can new tools help funders learn and get smarter about the issues they care about? How can the technologies help you find and connect with potential partners? How can they help you transact business together? Which technologies can help you assess collective progress and measure outcomes? The report encourages funders to start with these collaborative needs, rather than with the technologies themselves, to ensure that solutions fit the wants, requirements, and limitations of users.

Harnessing Collaborative Technologies also provides a set of principles which offer guidance for tool developers and funders about how to make thoughtful choices when investing in the creation and adaptation of new tools that facilitate collaborative work.

By getting smarter about how we develop and use these collaborative tools, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of the "friction in the system" that has made working together -- even in lower-intensity ways -- difficult until now. And in doing so, we can ease the path to collaboration and help aggregate resources and effort that can match the scale of the problems we now face.

-- Gabriel Kasper

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