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Collaboration: what it means in the volunteer organisation
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Collaboration: what it means in the volunteer organisation

Using examples from IT Service Management Special Interest Groups (SIGs), Philippa Hale and Richard Horton consider the real benefits of collaboration and teamwork.

We live in a changing and complex world. Making sense of this and enabling our organisations to innovate and roll with – or even lead - the changes is a significant challenge. For people working in IT Service Management (ITSM), volunteer groups within ITSMF have played a key role in that sense making. Over many years these groups have enabled collaboration between people in different organisations to improve general understanding and practice, and they have also facilitated collaboration between the organisations themselves.

In this article we look at some of the challenges involved in that within-team and cross-organisational collaboration and propose some ideas for consideration. We combine Philippa’s expertise in organisational behaviour with Richard’s knowledge of ITSMF UK group operation.


Communities of practice


‘Community of practice’, a phrase introduced to the business environment in 1991 by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, has gained widespread currency. It describes a group of people who have a common interest in a specific area and explores how they work together and what the impact of the community is. There is a commitment to work together within the area of interest (across a community that could be widespread), sharing resources and learning/achieving together.

Within an ITSMF context, SIGs are the obvious communities of practice, but there is also a sense that ITSMF itself fits this description, whether at a local or international level. This is also true of many other organisations in the IT and digital environments, and their SIGs. 


The motivations behind volunteer groups


What is it that makes people want to give up many hours of their time and engage with SIGs?  These are voluntary communities, unpaid, often remote and where any ‘management’ or ‘controls’ does not have the same force as within a hierarchical organisation. However this doesn’t mean they are not organised. On the contrary, these are not just debating societies or social networking gatherings. Many SIGs in the digital community work on what by any standards are complex projects, needing sustained effort over months, even years, with multiple and diverse stakeholders who are passionate about their subject, otherwise they wouldn’t be there as they probably have demanding day-jobs and personal commitments. What motivates participants in these communities to give so much of their physical and emotional energy?


Motivation ‘Operating System Version 2.0’


For a long time we have relied on the old fashioned, externally driven ‘carrot and stick’ approach to motivation; the type that Daniel Pink refers to in his practical and thought-provoking book Drive as motivational ‘Operating System Version 2.0’. This is the old ‘management’ model with its roots back in the 1900s – Taylor’s ‘scientific management’, still used by the majority of organisations today in one form or another. Do you recognise any of this? Pay-for-performance, targets, policies, procedures, processes, quarterly (short-term) returns, metrics and measurement… These are based on beliefs about human motivation that, for example, still stop managers trusting people to work from home, to find their own solutions to problems, find out for themselves how to improve processes, lead a project or handle a customer, rather than being given a script and monitored endlessly.

What is now known is that many of these practices actually back-fire. Money, rewards or sanctions might act like a short-term ‘caffeine hit’ but actually reduce rather than increase motivation in the longer term.  

It is very clear to anyone who has worked in the voluntary sector that this approach won’t work, just as it doesn’t actually work in commercial organisations. It can even be seriously counter-productive, encouraging people to focus on entirely the wrong things. You only have to recall the range and strength of distracting emotions and wasted energy at performance appraisal time. We want team working and collaboration? What do we do? Reward individual performance… and classify!

Other symptoms of inappropriate use of sticks and carrots include teams that are change weary or fragmented, changes made to tight deadlines then not quite embedded, processes and hierarchies bypassed so personal or short-term objectives can be achieved, all at the expense of longer-term improvements and business benefits.

These are perfect examples of predictable reactions to situations where the wrong tools and solutions were used to motivate people. A radical rethink is needed, and we are starting to see some changes in the way that people are motivated, not just in the creative industries but also in the big consultancies: Accenture abandoning their appraisal scheme, and others getting rid of the ‘billable hour’ and giving teams much more autonomy. Why?  

Because they have recognised the power of organising work so that it doesn’t rely on outside extrinsic push but inspires intrinsic, internally driven motivation. This type of motivation leads to sustained improved performance, enjoyment, retention, loyalty, team work, collaboration and work/life balance. This is what Daniel Pink calls ‘Version 3.0’.  

This is the sort of motivation where you see individuals and groups operating in a state of what is often called ‘flow’: optimum physical, mental and emotional energy, focus and creativity that feels amazing and moves mountains.   

We see a lot of this energy and ‘flow’ in voluntary organisations: groups and individuals working all hours to produce extraordinary results - relishing the challenge, even when the going gets tough.  This type of motivation is actually quite fragile, though, and needs the right type of environment and leadership to take hold and flourish. This is our challenge: to create the right environment for sustained voluntary collaboration.  


What makes volunteer groups work? 


What’s the recipe for good volunteer activity? Or is it unique to each situation what turns a group of people into a community of practice?  Here are some initial thoughts that may be useful for both volunteer groups and for our organisational roles.  


Authentic and fairly strong, collaborative leadership


We want an initiator, to get things going and keep things going when the going gets tough; who can make tough decisions but is not a bulldozer. We want someone we believe in, who is doing this for the right reasons and quickly gets whole teams involved.  


Clear vision


There should be a thought-through vision – well socialised, debated and shared.  This should be presented initially with a degree of humility and openness to shaping and adapting, and finessing the language and metaphors to give a sense of shared ownership and meaning.


How we work


Clarity around proposed ways of working also helps, clearly articulated and regularly checked and reviewed together. Talk about how you are doing things, not just what you are doing. Being explicit about the simple things is essential, especially when members are from different cultures – organisational, professional or national. How we contribute, who we feel safe challenging and how we actually do it gradually emerges and is consolidated, then on-going dialogue ensures the practices don’t solidify into ‘group think’.


Honest debate 


Talk through the risks and opportunities, costs and benefits for all involved: not just at the start, but on an on-going basis. For example, some of the contributors could see themselves partly or wholly as competitors. Be realistic about whether collaboration is compatible with this or not and accept others’ sensitivities. They may have constraints or pressures you don’t understand or know about, as may you. 




Group members need to want to build trust and be willing, mature and confident enough to make what may actually be a considerable transition – from ‘us and them’ to ‘us’. Being able to spot in-group and out-group thinking (‘cliques’ or ‘silos’) and actually work towards integrating rather than dividing people is a rare and essential leadership skill in any situation, but it is key to volunteer groups as people don’t have to stay and put up with it.




Volunteers are passionate by definition. Multiple stakeholder passions mean vigorous debates. Can we handle this and ensure all parties feel their views are heard and respected? Good meeting facilitation is key, but all share responsibility for being both passionate and pragmatic.  



What is the role of each participant? An article by Henna Inam (referenced below) tells of a CEO who worked on a volunteer project and learned “more in 1 year than I had in 20 in the corporate world”.  She gives some great advice on how to ensure that your job in the group involves you where you can contribute most: it is essential to discuss honestly where each member feels they will add best value and where, frankly, they would be dangerous! This contributes to quality relationships. We often don’t realise that, in the workplace, what we interpret as ‘personality clashes’ are actually role misalignments. In the workplace there are many different motivations for taking on roles that we aren’t suited to – such as technical people taking management roles because that is the only route up the ladder, and to higher pay. 

Wenger (1992) identifies that accountability from the type of peer to peer relationships that communities of practice build can be a strong influence. This accountability informs setting appropriate ways of working and adherence to them. 




Henna Inam also talks about accepting that “failure happens so don’t blame, don’t shame, just grow”. The whole group needs to work continuously at maintaining a culture of allowing people to make mistakes. This is often encouraged through the language that the group uses: ‘why don’t we try’ rather than ‘should, ought, must …’ Also, the leader needs to role model calling people assertively and respectfully if unhelpful language or attitudes emerge. More people leave volunteer groups – and day jobs – because they got no feedback than because the feedback was delivered inappropriately.


Looking back 20 years after proposing Communities of Practice, Wenger commented:

“In organizations in the private and public sectors, communities of practice have provided a vehicle for peer-to-peer learning among practitioners. It enables them to develop the portfolio of capabilities necessary for the organization to achieve its mission. Communities of practice have always been there, of course. But having the concept makes the process discussable and then potentially more intentional.”


This is a good description of how conscious engagement with SIGs is a key component to how ITSMF UK creates value for its members.




The reality check on commitment – our employing organisations come first, and family even more so. So the volunteer team needs to ensure back-up and mutual support so that no-one is put in an impossible situation. Respect that people will contribute what they can, and they will. Volunteer groups often attract – and may be led by – very driven people who don’t understand that other people are not as driven as they are. Lots of people doing small tasks can work fine, but recognise the implications for timescales of the constraints you are working under. There is often a real tension here – between what the volunteer group needs to achieve to make progress and what level of commitment can actually be made. 




“If there isn’t a financial budget for it, it won’t get done.” That’s not how it works with volunteer groups, who often achieve what by corporate standards is impossible. With limited or no money, creativity and lateral thinking are needed from all, seizing opportunities and sharing ideas as they emerge, which can happen at any time, and come from anybody, not just at designated meetings and from senior committee members.


Individual benefits – what’s in it for me?  


That’s not selfish, it’s common sense. We are all too busy and have too many demands on us not to ask that question. We all want different things and volunteer for different reasons: contacts, learning, finding sales opportunities (perfectly acceptable if agreed and handled professionally and respectfully), interesting projects where we can make a specific contribution, knowledge sharing, feeling part of a community when your job is relatively solitary, self-development… We will all be continually evaluating the pros and cons of participating and these will change all the time, depending on what else we have going on at work and at home. 


What’s in it for my organisation? 


As with individual contributions, if it’s all take and no give then things won’t go far. Members of the group need to think about how they demonstrate return on investment (ROI) of any work time they give to the group (particularly if their organisation operates System 2.0!) This may be learning to make persuasive presentations, or gaining project management experience, or volunteering for a group which focuses on a topic known to be of interest to your organisation.


Physical or virtual


Many groups within volunteer organisations like ITSMF UK are virtual, and this is to an extent inevitable. But while technology increasingly enables virtual meetings, people still value meeting physically. Find the right mix that enables the most productive working relationships and most effective collaboration, without putting too much pressure on specific people. For example, be prepared to adjust meetings to times that fit with specific time-zones or the profile of people’s working day, moving locations where necessary and using technology to help.  


Easy to use collaboration tools


We are very quick not to bother if the tools we use are clunky, slow or duplicate effort or if we can’t find things. We need to find collaboration tools that reflect the way we want to work and help to maximise the use of our shared time and contributions. 


And finally - persevere with collaboration!


Effective collaboration and sustaining a true community of practice is something that requires a lot of work. It doesn’t generally happen overnight or achieve its best results quickly. So why do people invest as they do? 

Probably because, while in the corporate world we think we don’t have time for collaboration (and the sticks and carrots get in the way – Motivation 2.0!), volunteers see things differently. They know that solutions to problems and knowledge don’t sit in neatly self-contained bubbles. Through collaboration we are more likely to come up with innovative solutions to our (and our industries’) challenges. Working with others who are grappling with the same problems gives us multiple inputs, builds important interpersonal and leadership skills, provides multiple perspectives to understand and address these challenges faster and more creatively.




Henna Inam (2012) Transformational Leadership,   

Daniel H Pink (2009) ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, Riverhead

Wenger E. (1991) ‘Communities of practice : where learning happens’, Benchmark Magazine

Wenger E. (2012) ‘Communities of practice and social learning systems’ 

Philippa Hale is Director & Senior Consultant at Open Limits Ltd and an Associate Faculty Member at Henley Business School. She is an organisational behaviour specialist, leadership/team coach and change project manager. She has 25 years of experience of both leadership and learning programmes and hands-on project work.

Richard Horton is Service Manager with NIHR CRN and an ITSMF UK Board Member. He has undertaken a variety of IT roles over the last 20 years. His involvement in ITSMF UK includes two years as chair of the Service Transition SIG, and as a Board member he now represents all SIGs and regional groups. In this paper Richard also draws on learning from the OU’s PGC in ITSM.




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