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Updated to include result-oriented leadership in the various frameworks of collaborative practices. The bibliography has been expanded and updated.

Updated on 3 September 2013. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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Collaborative Practice

Abstract and Keywords

Social workers are uniquely prepared to provide leadership for collaborative practice, especially when they employ intervention logic. Intervention-driven collaboration develops interdependent relationships among people. These relationships are cemented by norms of reciprocity and trust, enabling participants to organize for collective action in response to “wicked” problems characterized by uncertainty, novelty, and complexity.

Among the family of “c-words” (for example, communication, coordination), collaboration is the most difficult to develop, institutionalize, and sustain because it requires new organizational designs, including inter-organizational partnerships, as well as policy change. Notwithstanding the attendant challenges, collaborative practice is a mainstay in multiple sectors of social work practice, including mental health, substance abuse, school social work, complex, anti-poverty initiatives, international social work, workforce development, and research. Growing collaboration with client systems connects collaborative practice with empowerment practice and facilitates the achievement of social work's mission.

Keywords: collaboration, social work practice, collective action, complex change

Social workers, like other helping professionals, are encountering growing needs and opportunities for collaborative practice. For example, the limitations of industrial-age professions, organizations, and institutions are becoming apparent as a new genus of problems develops. These new problem clusters, called “wicked problems” because they encompass intractable dilemmas and defy ready solutions (Mason & Mitroff, 1981), are marked by unprecedented complexity, novelty, and uncertainty. Examples include concentrated poverty (also called social exclusion and social isolation) and the threats to global sustainability caused by pollution, food shortages, wars, ethnic hostilities, and multiple insecurities. Such wicked problems require collaborative practice, especially forms of collaborative practice led and performed by social workers who advance democracy as they promote social and economic justice for vulnerable, oppressed populations.

Social workers have made unique, significant contributions to the concept of collaborative practice and for good reason. An option for some professions, collaborative practice is an essential, defining feature of social work practice. For example, social workers, perhaps more than other helping professionals, strive to establish collaborative working relationships with their clients systems. Moreover, social workers often are instrumental in facilitating interprofessional (interdisciplinary) and interorganizational collaboration (Abramson & Rosenthal, 1995).

This entry is structured to introduce relevant details. It begins with an intervention-oriented, conceptual framework for collaborative practice. Then it provides examples of social workers’ collaborative practice in multiple sectors. Collaborative practice's import for social work's mission provides a fitting conclusion.

An Intervention-Oriented, Conceptual Framework

Collaborative practice arguably is a defining characteristic of “macropractice” because it cross-cuts the other kinds of practice in this category. These other kinds include community building and development, interprofessional practice, interorganizational practice, and social planning—all foci for other entries in this Encyclopedia. Because collaborative practice is embedded in these other kinds of macropractice, it has the potential to unite them and provide much-needed coherence. These benefits and others depend on a research-supported, theoretically sound conceptual framework. One such framework follows.

Enhancing the Lay Definition With Intervention Logic

Collaborative practice, in lay terms, means “working together.” While this lay approach is fundamentally accurate, it also is both imprecise and incomplete. It conceals important distinctions among a variety of collaborative practices. This problem carries with it the threat that well-intentioned social workers will err when they elect a kind of collaborative practice that does not correspond to presenting needs, problems, and opportunities.

Intervention logic, a hallmark of sound, clinical social work practice, helps prevent collaborative practice errors. It prioritizes the correspondence, or more simply “the fit,” between the practice solution (intervention) and the presenting problem, need, or opportunity. This logic requires social work professionals to make theoretically sound inquiries into “the theory of the problem” so as to determine its etiology. Such an etiology includes relevant causes, correlates, and antecedents. Three inseparable questions facilitate these inquiries:

  • What is wrong that needs to be fixed?

  • What is good and correct that needs to be maintained?

  • How can the answers to these two questions be pieced together, producing an accurate and coherent “theory of the problem,” that is, one that enables social workers to select among alternative strengths-based, solution-focused, and culturally competent interventions?

Because intervention logic helps to pinpoint the theory of the problem, it maximizes the probability that social workers will select the optimal, collaborative practice intervention.

Varieties of Collaborative Practice: A Framework for the Family of “C-Words”

Owing in part to the theoretical and empirical contributions of social work researchers (Abramson & Rosenthal, 1995; Anderson-Butcher & Ashton, 2004; Briar-Lawson, Lawson, Hennon, & Jones, 2001; Bronstein, 2003; Claiborne & Lawson, 2005; Lawson, 2003, 2004), enhanced conceptual frameworks for collaborative practice now are available. Arguably intervention logic has been a facilitator for framework development and serves as a defining characteristic of the best ones and the optimal practice alternatives they encompass.

The best frameworks make firm distinctions among a family of “c-words”: communication, consultation, coordination, and collaboration. Unfortunately, all lend themselves to competing definitions, conceptual confusion, and conflicting practices. Problems like these and the errors they spawn can be prevented when each c-word is framed as a special intervention. Then each can be tailored to special needs, problems, and opportunities (Claiborne & Lawson, 2005; Lawson, 2003, 2004).

Communication. In most conceptual frameworks, communication is the easiest and most simplistic form of collaborative practice. Effective communication with other service providers and also with service users is a hallmark of collaborative practice. Only when people share information and gain consensus through it can they work together. The importance of communication is revealed when it is absent or flawed (Lawson, 2003).

Consultation. Consultation starts with the communication of information, but it also includes a more intricate and important “move” toward more sophisticated collaborative practice. In lieu of assuming automatically that one professional knows best what to do, this form of collaborative practice proceeds with the assumption that other persons offer invaluable expertise. These persons include other professionals, service users, and persons knowledgeable about service users and their surrounding social ecologies, including their family members, friends, and neighborhood communities (Lawson, 2003).

Consultation entails eliciting these persons' views on the theory of the problem and gaining their intervention recommendations. Because it draws on others’ expertise, often in unique practice contexts, consultation facilitates the identification of diversity and paves the way for culturally responsive and competent practice (Lawson, 2003).

Coordination. Coordination encompasses communication and consultation, but it also introduces increasing complexity. Coordinated, collaborative practice is especially salient when multiple needs, problems, and opportunities are encountered; and when the efforts of multiple persons must be orchestrated. In this form of collaborative practice, social workers must harmonize and synchronize their assessments, interventions, and improvement-oriented practice evaluations with other persons—notably other professionals and service users. Examples include interprofessional teams, the several kinds of family-centered practice, and community-based work involving coalitions (Lawson, 2003).

Importantly, in coordinated, collaborative practice the participants remain autonomous and independent. They take turns contributing to problem-solving and opportunity maximization. Just as many sports coaches must orchestrate the multiple movements of their athletes, someone, ideally a social worker usually is required to orchestrate, synchronize, and harmonize the respective contributions of the multiple participants involved in coordinated, collaborative practice.

Collaboration. Collaboration encompasses the other c-words. It is the most sophisticated and complex form of collaborative practice (Claiborne & Lawson, 2005; Lawson, 2003, 2004). For example, in comparison to the other c-words, collaboration requires more time, dedicated resources, and special leadership. The most costly and challenging of the various kinds of collaborative practice, it also is the most difficult to institutionalize and sustain.

Three keynote features of collaboration lend credence to these claims and others that follow. First, collaboration both develops and requires interdependent relationships. Second, collaboration is a warranted response to needs, problems, opportunities, and situations manifesting complexity, novelty, and uncertainty, especially those in which available knowledge and understanding are limited or even nonexistent. Wicked problems, identified at the outset, especially require collaboration. Third, power and authority differentials must be suspended as much as possible, enabling partner-participants to work together as much as possible as equals (Lawson, 2003, 2004).

In brief, when social workers opt for collaboration with other professionals, service users, and other needed constituencies, they do so because they cannot be successful and effective without them. In other words, interdependent relationships emblematic of collaboration develop when no one person can achieve their aims, goals, and objectives alone. Each fundamentally depends on the others, and so they often adopt common purposes (Schorr, 2006). This interdependence is especially apparent when no one knows what to do in complex, novel, and uncertain situations, and especially when vexing needs and problems nest in one another (for example, those accompanying poverty). Collaboration thus entails developing shared awareness of this interdependence and inherent complexity, developing shared goals, and then creating a feasible, warranted system of roles, rules, and social relations, which is tied to effective, collective action strategies (Bronstein, 2003).

The social relations for collaboration are cemented by norms of reciprocity and trust. Both are maximized when “the right mix” of participants is convened and organized for collective action. After all, norms of reciprocity (that is, voluntary, mutual “give and receive” relations) and trust take time to develop and require mutual familiarity. These special norms and trust relationships are easier to develop and witness when stakeholders have enjoyed prior histories of successful working relationships. Additionally, norms of reciprocity and trust are likely to develop when all of the participating stakeholders view each other as credible, dependable, competent, and legitimate. These several features reduce the risks of depending on others, and risk reduction is especially important in today's outcomes-oriented, accountability practice environments (Lawson, 2004).

Collaboration is not, however, without its challenges-as-opportunities. For example, when everyone shares responsibility for outcomes, the risk remains that no one is responsible or accountable. When outcomes improve and other benefits are evident, questions often arise as to who deserves the credit. Questions about recognition and rewards are especially likely to arise when “free riding” occurs, that is when some participants end up contributing little or nothing to outcomes even though they are officially recognized as one of the collaborators (Lawson, 2003).

Above all, conflict is endemic in collaboration. This unavoidable feature highlights the necessity for conflict mediation and resolution mechanisms; strengths-based, solution-focused language; behavioral norms to ensure high quality, positive interactions during moments of conflict; and “barrier-busting” protocols. When these several conflict-related mechanisms are in place, the positive, generative–creative propensities of conflict and collaboration can be maximized. Among the benefits are two kinds of powerful innovations (Lawson, 2004). Collaboration routinely yields process innovations (new ways of practicing and “doing business”) and product innovations (new service delivery structures, programs, and services).

In short, collaboration responds to complexity and interdependent relationships, and it also promotes them. New for many of its developers, it also creates both novelty and complexity. Furthermore, collaboration is an innovation, which incubates other innovations in response to environmental changes. Daunting complexity like this indicates why collaboration is so difficult to develop, institutionalize, and sustain. It also indicates why complexity theory is salient to collaboration's development and theoretical analysis (Warren, Franklin, & Streeter, 1998).

It follows that collaboration entails a special kind of leadership, which may be described as adaptive, shared, results-oriented, and distributed leadership. It must be adaptive to be responsive to changing needs and context. It must be shared because top–down, compliance-oriented, one-person leadership derails collaboration. It must be results-oriented because of modern accountability requirements and also because of moral imperatives for ensuring that collaboration actually helps individuals, families, communities, and the social work workforce. Additionally, this leadership must be distributed because it must span group, family, professional, organizational, and community boundaries. Fortunately, this is the kind of leadership for which social workers enjoy special preparation. Indeed, this cross-boundary, collaborative leadership is engrained in the history of the profession (Abbott, 1995), and the future holds prospects for more of it.

The Import of Organizational Settings

The several forms of collaborative practice require optimal conditions. For example, the organizational environments (Abramson & Rosenthal, 1995) and community settings for these practices must be conducive to collaborative practice. Supportive policies are another practical necessity. A brief explanation follows.

Social workers and others engaged in collaborative practices typically do so under the aegis of at least one organization. When several professions are involved, the multiple organizations that employ them are also involved (Abramson & Rosenthal, 1995). These organizations provide the settings for collaborative practice. Ideally, these settings are conducive to, and facilitative of, collaborative practice. Since these setting-related features do not evolve and occur naturally, it is important to identify important examples so they can be created by design. Both intra- and interorganizational designs are needed. Interorganizational designs increasingly are called partnerships. The rationale: Reserving “partnerships” for organizations also reserves the family of c-words to refer to and depict interactions among people.

The features of supportive organizational settings start with the time, facilities, resources, supports, incentives, and rewards for collaborative practice. For example, many organizations have a preferred program and service model, and it needs to include, support, and reward collaborative practice. Other features include leadership, management, and supervisory structures that are aligned with collaborative practice, including both top-down and bottom-up mechanisms for obtaining information and feedback for learning and improvement. They include data-management systems, both intra- and inter-organizational. They also include training, technical assistance, and capacity-building mechanisms needed to advance collaborative practice (Bardach, 1998; Lawson, 2003).

The Import of Supportive Policy Environments

Individual organizations and clusters of them are disciplined by policies and the institutional arrangements they structure. Social workers, arguably more than any other profession, are prepared to understand and to help change policies that do not support collaborative practice. Since social workers rarely change policies alone, this policy-oriented leadership comprises another kind of collaborative practice.

Social Workers and Collaborative Practice

The opportunities and sectors for collaborative practice by social workers appear to be growing rapidly. Three reasons are especially relevant. The first is a new policy environment that favors social workers over other professions (for example, psychiatry, psychology). Growing understanding about co-occurring, interlocking needs manifested by many service users, especially the most vulnerable ones, is the second reason. Concern over the lack of effectiveness of conventional, clinical-direct services by a solo professional is the third.

Sectors for Collaborative Practice

This short entry can do little more than identifying relevant sectors of practice and providing references for readers’ personalized follow-up inquiries. After these sectors are identified, a pivotal distinction between two kinds of collaborative practice is amplified. This distinction is especially important to unique social work practice.

Local, State, and National Sectors. Here, then, is a starter inventory of the service sectors in which social workers engage in, and often lead, collaborative practice. These sectors are: (a) schools (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, & Kwuatkowski, 2004); (b) hospitals (Abramson & Mizrahi, 1996); (c) mental health agencies (Hodges & Hardiman, 2006); (d) public health agencies (Roussos & Fawcett, 2000); (e) child welfare agencies (Sallee, Lawson, & Briar-Lawson, 2001; Smith & Mogro-Wilson, in press); (f) juvenile justice agencies (Byrnes, Boyle, & Yaffe-Kjosness, 2005; Marks & Lawson, 2005); (g) welfare-to-work programs (Briar-Lawson, 1999); (h) elder-serving agencies (McCallion, Grant-Griffin, & Kolomer, 2000) and initiatives (Bronstein, McCallion, & Kramer, in press); (i) substance abuse agencies (O’Hare, 2002); (j) domestic violence agencies; (k) youth development agencies (Anderson-Butcher, Stetler, & Midle, 2006); (l) family service agencies (Briar-Lawson et al., 2001); (m) agencies charged with leadership for community-based coalitions (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 2001); and (n) agencies charged with disaster relief (Briar-Lawson, 2006).

International Sectors. Disaster relief in the United States points toward international needs and opportunities for collaborative practice, and a timely response to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia serves as an example (Hardiman, Martinek, & Anderson-Butcher, 2005). This international work includes border-crossing assistance to immigrants and migrants, including the growing number of divided family systems residing in different nations (Lawson, 2001). It also includes cross-national adoptions for needy children (as documented in the Journal of Community Practice).

New Sectors. As workforce recruitment, retention, and optimization become priorities, and as knowledge grows about how and why organizational contexts “push out” good workers, a new sector for collaborative practice has developed. Organizational development, via organizational design and improvement teams, is one such emergent opportunity (Lawson, McCarthy, Briar-Lawson, Miraglia, Strolin, & Caring, 2006).

Moreover, as the limitations of conventional research methodologies become apparent, another sector is developing: The research sector. This encompasses collaborative research (as a collaborative practice), including research focused on collaborative practice. It also entails collaborative research methodologies, including community-based, participatory research, action science, and participatory action research (Greenwood & Levin, 2006; Kreuter, Lezin, & Young, 2000).

A Pivotal Distinction and Choice Point

Partly because conventional practices have enjoyed limited effectiveness, interest is growing in new forms of collaborative practice involving service users as experts and providers. For example, so-called consumer-provided mental health services are gaining considerable popularity (Hodges & Hardiman, 2006; Mancini, Hardiman, & Lawson, 2005), and so are parent-to-parent service strategies (Briar-Lawson, 2000). In these examples, the target system (client system) becomes the action system in close concert with social workers and other helping professionals. Arguably, this emergent practice paradigm provides a unique, splendid opportunity for social work leadership in service of vulnerable people, also benefiting the profession writ large.

Collaborative Practice's Import for Social Work's Mission

The achievement of social work's mission—to eliminate oppression and alleviate poverty—fundamentally depends on effective, creative collaborative practice. Only when social workers engage other people in this important mission, building their capacities for collaborative practice and reinforcing their political will, can this mission be achieved. Here, collaborative practice meets empowerment practice. A technical-procedural challenge in one light, in another this kind of integrated, complex practice is a moral obligation and an ethical imperative associated with the renewal of responsive democracy. Social work's leadership for 21st century collaborative practice begins here, and it spans local, state, regional, national, and international contexts.


Several colleagues were exemplars for collaborative practice as they generously provided materials and suggestions for improving this entry. I am grateful to all of them.


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                                                                    Further Reading

                                                                    Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice Web site.