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Collaborative focus - SRM looks at decision making strategies

Written by Saige Albert

Evanston – With range managers, researchers and more gathered at the Wyoming Section of the Society for Range Management Annual Meeting, held in Evanston Nov. 18-20, collaboration was the topic of focus for keynote speaker Jessica Clement. 

“Range managers are very experienced with lots of technical information, and they know how to apply it to education and ecological communities, but many of the people we work with are not,” said Clement of the UW Haub School of Natural Resources. “But those people still want to have a voice in decision making. How do we cross that divide?”

Clement focused on the ideas of collaboration and collaborative learning during her keynote address at the conference. 

Defining collaboration

“Collaboration is a process in which interdependent parties work together to affect the future of an issue of shared interest,” she commented. “Before people are going to come to the table, they have to have a shared interest. They may have wildly different views about a solution, but they are interdependent because of that interest.”

Clement also noted that interested stakeholders looking for solutions to an issue are often diverse, with different values and interests, and collaboration can accomplish everyone’s goals. 

“Collaboration is working with other people who don’t necessarily agree with us,” Clement noted. 

Developing solutions

“Solutions emerge by collaboration,” Clement continued. “We have a better chance that solutions are arrived at if we provide a process that allows people to go through various steps.”

In developing viable solutions, joint ownership of both the problem and the solution is necessary.

“People have to agree to the fundamental outcomes and approve a plan,” she said. “They are part of writing it and putting it together. When there is joint ownership of a decision, stakeholders assume collective responsibility for the future of the decision.”

“Collaboration is an emergent property – it is not a given,” Clement added.

Making distinctions

Clement continued that while collaboration can be useful, it is not something that can be used at all times in every situation. 

“It is a big tool and a big help, and we use collaboration when we have to,” she said. “Most of the time, we can cooperate with people and come up with solutions. Collaboration is for more contentious and complex issues.”

Collaboration is important for creating what Clement calls a “table of trust.”

“We can create a table of trust and networks of people who understand each other. They know each other, and they know where everyone stands,” she said.

When dealing with complex issues, a strong foundation is necessary to bring people together to accomplish goals at hand and address challenges in the future. 

“This maximizes opportunities for solutions,” Clement said, noting that collaborating also allows people to see solutions outside of their normal paradigms to achieve value for all parties. 

“Starting with a collaborative approach means less of a chance of litigation, confusion, disappointment or no solution,” she added. 

Process

“In a basic collaborative process, the first thing we do is start with the situation,” Clement explained. “I call people and find out what the issue is in their mind and whether they are willing to come to a collaborative process table.”

She also noted that it is important to find out what solutions and outcomes are sought by all parties and who should be involved. 

“Then, we start the process by defining the problem,” Clement said. “We have to come up with a common problem definition, first of all.”

The next step is involves discovering the solutions and options available.

“We throw everything on the table,” she said. “Then we create criteria on how we are going to measure whether or not objectives are going to work for us or not.”

Though the process looks relatively simple, it can take years to accomplish. 

“We need substance, process and stakeholders to create progress and to create a collaborative process,” Clement said. 

Necessary components

For collaboration to occur, Clement identified a list of factors that are necessary to have. 

“First, to allow collaboration to happen, we need basic things like food and beverages,” she said. “It is not just to keep energy levels up, but it also to have a place to gather, talk and be civil. It is helpful.”

A facilitator experienced in collaboration is also useful, as are interactive workshops and field trips. Tools that can be useful include participatory monitoring, concept mapping and others. 

“Documentation is very important,” Clement continued. “A website or public place where documentation can be posted allows for greater transparency and builds trust at the end of the day.”

“This process is about building trust,” she said.

Additional thoughts

Clement noted that several factors should be considered in approaching collaboration.

“Collaboration takes time, staff and costs in the short run,” she said. “If we have a wicked situation with a lot of complexity and contention, there is an investment involved.”

Active, meaningful support is also required from both stakeholders and supporting agencies. 

“It requires open mindedness and active listening,” she continued, “and we have to represent our stake, as well as be open to other ideas.”

“We have to create trust and understanding so we can move forward,” Clement commented. “Collaboration is all about moving forward and creating progress with the really wicked issues.”

When not to use collaboration

Jessica Clement of the UW Haub School of Natural Resources noted that collaboration isn’t always a tool that should be used. 

“Collaborative learning may not work all the time,” she said.

For example, if a situation is not complex, collaboration does not fit. 

“We also don’t want to use collaboration if there is low collaborative capacity within the convener organizations or agencies,” Clement explained. “Before I work with an agency or organization, I need to make sure the agency is going to honor the outcomes of the work of stakeholders.”

If an organization is not going to honor the outcomes, the process backfires, and stakeholders become unwilling to participate in future efforts. 

“If there is a lack of decision space, collaboration also does not work,” she continued. “If there is no wiggle room, the process doesn’t work.”

“The last reason collaboration might not work is if the outcome might be trumped,” Clement noted. “We don’t want to use collaboration all the time. We want to use it for the special occasions.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..