July 2009

Our image of the world now, constructed by people we once thought we could rely upon for such work […] is actually and philosophically false. It’s time to replace it with an image that actually works. What we need is a framework for the sort of change that fits our world – and that lays a foundation for the widespread personal involvement of millions of people that will make such change useful, durable and sustainable.”

Joshua Cooper Ramo

This paper asserts that the voluntary or social sector plays a pivotal role in generating and disseminating social innovations through collaboration with diverse partners. The authors explore the potential to engender a quantum leap in the sector’s efficiency, reach, and impact through the combined use of open source technologies, social process tools and collaboration platforms. The objective is to contribute to a new generation of intelligent social systems, enabling an evolutionary recalibration of relationships among ourselves, our social and economic institutions, and the planet.

As a means of integrating and disseminating the most promising approaches, the concept of ‘Applied Collaboration Studios’ is proposed. Their primary activities would be: i) dissemination of open source technologies; ii) ongoing instruction and coaching in the use of social process tools; iii) the assembly and launch of multiple collaboration platforms; and iv) collaboration with other like initiatives to create ecologies of scale that inform and precipitate systems' change toward greater resilience.

The paper concludes with a reflection on the conditions necessary for such a project to come into being as an open source initiative, and an invitation to contribute to an ongoing discussion at Applied Collaboration.

Why We Need Applied Collaboration Studios

In Platforms for Collaboration, Satish Nambisan argues that: "Organizations must look beyond their own boundaries. Adopting [a] network perspective forces them not only to consider how their agendas fit with broader social problems, but also to develop the skills for collaborating with diverse partners."

Our continuing efforts to adjust human economic and social behaviour so that is equitable, enjoyable and environmentally sustainable begins with a dual premise:

  1. We have to learn quickly to do a lot more with a lot less.

  2. Getting to dynamic equilibrium requires high levels of ingenuity and collaboration both within and across traditional sectors and silos.

We focus on what this implies for the social sector in Canada.

Getting Past Social Sector 1.0

The initial goal is to overcome bottlenecks in communications among donors and grantees, focused on planning, administration and reporting within the sector. This is equivalent to looking at an operating system and not the programs that run on it. In other words, how the sector functions, not what it does. If funders and grantees used the same quantitative metrics and common matrices for categorizing and sharing qualitative data, in order to ‘speak the same language’, the result would be less waste, and increased capacity to collaborate.

The recent paper Drowning in Paperwork: Distracted from Purpose documents how organizations misspend considerable human and financial resources writing numerous grant applications and reports to funders. One answer is to introduce standard reporting formats and data repositories, as the Cultural Data Project is doing. When grantees input their operational information once, so it can be used in application and reporting processes to multiple funders, they save time and money. Tailored reports can be generated by individual funders, using subsets of the available information. Another paper, The Non-Profit Marketplace: Bridging the Information Gap, redefines the information needed to assess operational efficiency and social impact. By analyzing such data, up-to-date comparisons can be made, and resources directed to organizations that perform best. What is currently a plethora of reporting protocols could be replaced by a few, adapted to specific fields and types of activity.

Designing, testing and implementing such a system, with input from multiple stakeholders, would make an exemplary project for Applied Collaboration Studios.

Over time, Studios would build a growing, living repository of open source technologies applicable to social sector organizations, annotated by user groups using wikis, and documented in case studies and outcomes reports. They could organize workshops and coaching in the use of specific tools, in connection with projects. If warranted, the Studios might collaborate in funding new work. For example, Social Actions, which aggregates information from diverse online sources into an open application programming interface (API) database, could collect and present information on volunteering opportunities across Canada, enabling these to be presented in a manner similar to what Canada Helps does with online donations.

Adding Information Dashboards with Open APIs

In order to make smarter decisions, better information is required about the state of particular issues or domains, along with the ability to observe trends and changes. Optimal operation of Applied Collaboration Studios requires that current data be organized into relevant sets or 'dashboards'. Indicators that can be assembled, displayed, and updated allow participants to work with common reference points, to review the known and unknown, and to make decisions based on shared information.

Tools like Vital Signs are demonstrating high utility in framing civic discussions, guiding philanthropic contributions and contributing to public policy discussions. It would be interesting to see it applied by universities or schools at a neighbourhood level. Another promising collaboration might occur with the Community Leadership programs that exist in many Canadian cities.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing is a set of indices whose objective is to improve on the Gross Domestic Product as the measure of social, environmental and economic health. Three of eight sub-components are ready now, offering comprehensive datasets with open APIs, enabling use by the social sector.

Introducing the Next Generation of Social Process Tools

Social process tools mimic open source technologies in that they awaken collective intelligence, enable mass collaboration, cost little and frequently produce extraordinary results. Examples of such tools include World Café, Appreciative Inquiry, Deliberative Dialogues, and Future Search. Such initiatives enable groups of diverse individuals with varied capacities and interests to develop shared understanding, and draw on wellsprings of compassion and creativity to forge new ideas and directions.

Chevalier and Buckles have published SAS2: A Guide to Collaborative Inquiry and Social Engagement. SAS stands for Social Analysis Systems and the SAS2 website outlines some 20 such processes. The tools are available online and the authors are applying them to a range of projects, while training a cohort of practioners in their use.

Recently, SiG @ Waterloo tested several new process tools with social sector organizations involved in disseminating social innovations. A brief review is sufficient to hint at the potential such tools have for improving collaborative work on complex issues.

  1. As a means of providing context for thinking about dynamics in systems and formulating strategies appropriate to four distinct phases in a transformation process, Frances Westley presented an updated version of the Panarchy framework.

  2. Brenda Zimmerman introduced a 'multiple lenses' tool for examining issues from diverse perspectives. This provided several participants with fresh insights into a particular challenge, changed conversations among stakeholders, and led to several new strategies for collaboration.

  3. Angela Dumas led a Totemics session to define an organization's essence through the guided co-creation of visual metaphors. In one case, this helped diverse stakeholders interested in working together to achieve passionate consensus.

The initial work of developing such tools is resource intensive, involving collaboration among academics, process consultants, philanthropists, and others. Collaboration Studios propose to serve as clearing housees for such tools and as a working laboratory for their application and refinement.

Applied Collaboration Studios

John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, once stated: "Without exception, all of my biggest mistakes occurred because I moved too slowly. The future is about collaboration and teamwork and making decisions with replicable process that offers scale, speed, and flexibility".

Having proposed technological and social process tool innovation, the requisite capacities are in place for collaborations at scale involving a diverse range of actors, including social sector leaders, thought leaders, policy makers, academics, artists, students, and business leaders. For the sector to engage in the larger project of social transformation, efforts must converge around collaboration. We are attracted to the notion of Studios as a space for collaboration and learning. Multiple projects can take place there, in a variety of media. Mentors would be available, and it is possible to learn just by observing, or to become involved in co-creation. Work would be produced for various publics, and Studios recognized as a source of ideas and interventions that are both practical and elegant.

Satish Nambisan suggests three types of collaboration platforms:

  1. Exploration: what is the problem?

  2. Experimentation: what is the solution?

  3. Execution: give the solution away.

Taking these as templates, we can cite three practical examples within one metropolitan area to illustrate the Studios' role in changing the way social issues are addressed. These examples are explained below then summarized in Figure 1.

Youth Challenge Fund recently granted $40 million dollars to 200 youth-led initiatives in Toronto's underserved communities. A majority of these initiatives are small, without much capacity or expertise to manage their growing operational infrastructure. Studios could bring groups together to explore the common challenges these organizations are facing and, based on needs analysis, assemble a suite of the most appropriate tools for planning, administering and reporting on their projects, and adding coaching and evaluation.

Studios would support experimental forms of collaboration. Business for the Arts is proposing a shared event calendar for art gala events run by their network of partner charities. Events such as the Royal Ontario Museum's Prom, the Art Gallery of Ontario's Massive Party, and the Science Center Innovator's Ball all target a similar audience: young professionals who will be the next generation of board members and donors. Event planning, marketing, awareness and other logistics between initiatives are currently uncoordinated, siloed, and occasionally in conflict. Studios could bring the organizers together to model user needs and implement solutions. A shared planning and event calendar is one simple first step, with various forms of collaboration around purchasing and analysis a subject for further work.

A final example is a collaboration designed for execution. Eva's Phoenix Printshop is a social enterprise that has provided pre-apprenticeship and employment training for over 175 at-risk youth. Eva's in-house commercial printshop provides both a revenue stream to support the program, and on the job experience for its clients. A recent poll of 50 Toronto-based charities acknowledged they had heard of Eva's Printshop, but only one had used its services. Studios' project planning capacity could uncouple the pre-production bottleneck between charities working on shoe-string design and assembly budgets and Eva's quoting and print-run capacity. They could then design a system for routing a percentage of stakeholders’ print work through Eva’s. The win-win is apparent: charities can claim deeper blended-value in their work while Eva's builds a sustainable client base.

Figure 1: Three Types of Collaboration Platforms


Collaboration at Scale: The Framework Foundation's Expansion across Canada

Framework Foundation is the organizer of Timeraiser. This organization increases civic engagement among young professionals via an innovative arrangement among companies, emerging artists, and social sector organizations. Since 2004, this program has generated 45,000 volunteer hours, invested $260,000 in the careers of emerging artists, engaged 3,600 people to volunteer for causes and worked with 250+ charities in six Canadian cities. Timeraiser is now well positioned to reach many more cities effectively. However, this was not always the case.

Several years ago, Framework Foundation was approaching the scalability wall. Staff and volunteers struggled to keep pace with information requests from various stakeholders such as donors wanting pledge completion data, agencies asking for demographic analysis, the board requesting budgets, artists wanting to know the location of their art, volunteers wanting information about engagement opportunities, and the media wanting examples of successful matches.

As the volume of requests grew, so did the pressure to answer each in a timely fashion. Since key contacts changed frequently, a whole re-education process was required. These pressures were exacerbated by the lack of time and resources to implement an integrated information management technology platform.

At a retreat, staff and volunteers white-boarded the complexity of the Timeraiser stakeholder mix. Then they considered what types of information would be needed to satisfy a majority of requests, including what was unique to each stakeholder and what was generic. This exercise also factored in the 12 unique workflows and 100 document templates required per Timeraiser event.

At the conclusion of this exercise, Framework Foundation had determined where the data and communication bottlenecks would occur as the organization grew. To manage the growing complexity of its operations, Framework had to select technological tools that enabled agile project coordination and robust relationship management. Then, instead of constantly evolving into new states of instability as often occurs when organizations scale up an initiative, Framework would enjoy increased capacity to manage new projects it was interested in developing.

After a review of off-the-shelf and cloud computing options, Framework decided on the integrated features of Google Apps and Salesforce.com, which is free for charities. The customized email domain names, document management, calendar synchronization and wiki-style portal sites provided by Google Apps effectively complemented Salesforce.com's relationship management functions. As well as improving the volunteer experience that produces Timeraisers in a growing number of cities, the result is that new projects can now be launched in days, instead of weeks or months.

Framework Foundation was able to design and launch one new idea in hours. Upon reading Colleen Kelly's A People Lens, a hypothesis emerged: "while most leaders in Canada's nonprofit and voluntary sector community agree that people - staff and volunteers - are an organization's most important asset, most post-secondary curriculum focuses on fundraising." As a result, staff and volunteers quickly created a Google site, listed the 25+ post-secondary institutions for curriculum review, constructed a methodology, enlisted volunteers to review course outlines, completed the analysis and immediately published the results for the world to see and comment on.

Activities related to this project were tracked and monitored in Salesforce.com. Volunteer hours were recorded, the Google docs dynamically linked as attachments and email communication logged in a coordinated fashion. Staff or board members with the correct permission levels can instantly view the status of any project and the contribution from anyone outside the organization .

Had Studios been in place during Framework Foundation’s exploration and experimentation stages, they would have provided guidance through the following steps:

  • identify the stakeholder mix for a particular organization, issue or domain

  • within that mix, envisage how information needs to flow

  • expand the visioning exercise to determine where potential bottle-necks may exist

  • based on where bottlenecks may appear, explore how to best close the communication/information gap with appropriate tools and work-flow design

  • test and adapt tools and workflow design in near-world situations

A significant and unintended result is how the project to organize Timeraisers has influenced the staff and board’s capacity to see and work beyond Framework’s previous borders. Framework now operates consciously in a transition zone between 20th and 21st century working methods. It has discovered that collaboration at scale, using what Clay Shirky calls the ‘power of organizing without organizations’ is optimal for addressing complex issues. It releases financial and human capital for new purposes, and pays an unexpected dividend in affording perspectives on the work in a larger context.

Collaboration Among Collaborators

Timeraisers involve a novel linking of institutions to address the issue of declining volunteerism among young professionals. Similarly, Applied Collaboration Studios would serve as a collaboration platform for designing innovations around other complex challenges. In some cases, these might be time-limited projects with specific, planned outcomes. More often, they would be structured as systems of continuous innovation, enabling the ongoing testing and refinement of tools and strategies, continuous updating of performance indicators, and investment in successive generations of new ideas and approaches.

Similar efforts are underway elsewhere, and offer possible links to those emerging in Canada. In fact, since social innovation is an emerging global phenomenon, it makes sense to prioritize Canada's potential contributions to the field. Here are some examples of large scale collaboration platforms:

Ashoka Changemakers, a process for open sourcing social innovation, turns the generation and identification of novel solutions into competitions in which ideas are typed according to strategy and sorted according to which aspects of a complex problem they address. Using this common framework, all options become visible and up for discussion, making it possible for anyone to suggest improvements or link ideas to create hybrids. By keeping the prizes small (typically $5,000) and the process fun, emphasis is placed on supporting a healthy exchange of ideas. Being an open process reduces the reinventing the wheel phenomenon, another drag on innovation. It provides the philanthropic marketplace with greater fluency around interventions in large systems. In the past year alone, over $30,000,000 in new funding has been directed to projects identified in the competitions.

Another model to consider is The Lab, created by the UK National Endowment for Science, Tecnology and the Arts (NESTA), whose mission is to introduce public sector innovation. The Lab is organized into sections called Challenges, Methods and Learning, and incorporates input from governments, and the private and social sectors.

Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) is a global learning and exchange program for social innovators.

Social Innovation Generation (SiG), a partnership among MaRS Discovery District, the University of Waterloo, the PLAN Institute, and The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, is positioned to play a role in advancing this work in Canada, along with other allies.


While market failures in the private sector currently take up the lion’s share of media attention and attract massive financial support from government, it is within and around the social sector that many of the solutions to our present crises will be found. Using open source technologies and social processes, Applied Collaboration Studios would host collaboration platforms to improve social sector performance, and structure and implement systems of continuous social innovation.

Projects within the Studios would use open source methods to frame and address a range of challenges, at different levels of scale, making use of dashboards to aggregate and update relevant data. In addition to convening projects around specific challenges, a learning platform would distill and share lessons from across multiple platforms. Applied Collaboration Studios would seek working relationships with like initiatives globally.

Startup funding would enable the requisite diverse design expertise and mentorship team to be assembled, and a portfolio of demonstration projects to be hosted, some of which already exist in various stages of development.

A scan of where cloud computing and the semantic Web are heading would be helpful, as would a taxonomy and evaluation of social process tools. There are labour and training issues involved too: apart from Web of Change and Social Tech Week, which cover technology and social change, there are no programs that cover these ideas in a comprehensive manner.

We invite readers to visit Applied Collaboration to contribute their ideas and comments.

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Thanks for this article. There are numerous links to follow, which means it will take time to digest it all. However, from what I've read you're describing a process which I've been leading in Chicago since 1993, from the grassroots level. If you look at the graphic on this page you'll see the a three dimensional idea. http://www.tutormentorconference.org/platform_tmi.htm 1) a map showing all poverty areas, illustrates the need for solutions to be applied in many places on an on-going basis; 2) a chart showing the steps needed to reach a level where high-quality programs are available in most places, which is essential for long-term solutions. The first step on this ladder is collecting information related to stakeholders, issues, resources, challenges, opportunities, etc. and 3) a marketing effort intended to connect more people from the resource who have talent and resources to places in every neighborhood where those resources need to be applied to solving problems. I hope you'll take time to browse through the web site and that we can connect in your forum or mine.