I am currently completing a PhD at the University of Bristol (School for Policy Studies), funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. 

The study, provisionally entitled: ‘Working in the space between: constructive engagement with conflict as a route to sustainable cross-sector collaboration’emerges from long experience in working with urban conflict, alongside an enduring interest in human experiential space and complexity thinking in the social sciences.

Its starting point is the challenge of building community-facing cross-sector collaborations that are consistent enough to deliver reliable, quality services over time, and yet fluid and robust enough to respond to changing local need and dynamics in a timely way.  It asks:  ‘How might ideas from complexity thinking contribute to a better theoretical and applied understanding of collaboration dynamics within diverse urban environments?’.

As previously centralised community-facing services are increasingly outsourced, cross-sector collaborations are required to take their place in delivering essential social infrastructure.

The very nature of cross-sector work – collaborating across team, department or organisation – means is that it incorporates more diverse needs, viewpoints and belief systems, and thus generates more conflict, than within a single homogenous environment. As a result, sustained collaborative working is not simple, involving a synthesis of different organizational norms and hierarchies, as well as personal relationships between organizational representatives.

Individuals each bring markedly different personal and organizational self-interests and value systems to interactions, but such points of dissensus are rarely articulated clearly, either from a fear of conflict (possibly rooted in a lack of knowledge about how to engage with it constructively) or as part of conscious or unconscious power plays.

The PhD explores the idea that surfacing and addressing such diverse expectations with clarity – ie identifying conflicting views that emerge in the space between colleagues for what they are, and then building on them – has the potential to increase internal coherence and therefore sustainability for cross-sector collaborative work programmes.

It is a qualitative study that uses a small-scale, snowball, mixed methods action research design to collect data from two cross-sector collaborations on how conflicting viewpoints and needs surface in group interactions. It involves participants from collaborative systems in the UK and in the Netherlands.

The study’s original contribution lies in its use of interactive data collection techniques; through the development of qualitative data visualizations (working with the Jean Golding Institute, University of Bristol); and in its focus on understanding and mapping the flows of human energy in group interaction. By drawing on conflict transformation and psycho-social traditions, it offers fresh insights into building and maintaining collaborative work environments in relation to power and conflict dynamics in group processes.