The secrets of collaboration success: beware of zombies!

The following post is part of a series highlighting an OCLC Research project entitled Library Collaboration in Research Data Management.

Libraries have a rich history of collaboration. OCLC and its cooperatively maintained WorldCat database of library holdings is only one of scores of examples of library coordination. But what are the essential ingredients for a successful collaboration? And furthermore, how do libraries make strategic choices about when and how to collaborate, particularly when working across institutional boundaries?

A current OCLC Research project, Library Collaboration in RDM, is examining what ‘active, informed decision-making’ means for libraries in the context of choosing to collaborate across institutions to provide research data management services. I’m working on this project with OCLC Senior Research Scientist Brian Lavoie and Ohio State University Life Sciences Librarian Amanda Rinehart, who will be spending her sabbatical with us.

As part of this project, we conducted informal interviews with members of our Library Collaboration in RDM expert advisory committee in order to collect their wisdom on the elements of successful collaboration. Upon review, I found that their comments dovetailed closely with a framework laid out in an earlier OCLC Research report, Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives and Museums, published in 2008. Don’t let the punny title fool you: this is an excellent report, with insights relevant not only to LAMs but to a wide array of library collaborations. In fact, I have used the framework of “collaboration catalysts” to organize the insights from our advisory committee members.

What makes collaborations successful?

The Silos report offers a framework of nine “collaboration catalysts” that make it more likely for collaborations to flourish (or fail). Because there is significant overlap between these collaboration catalysts, I find it useful to group them into three high level categories:

  1. Vision
  2. Motivation
  3. Stewardship


In order to succeed, the collaborative idea must be embedded in an “overarching vision all participants share which makes it worth the effort to overcome the inevitable obstacles.” Our advisory committee members emphasized that this vision must also be clearly articulated, with well-defined parameters, goals, and stakeholders. One advisory committee member commented,

“Having a defined idea of what you’re trying to do is fairly critical. . . [because without it] the project can degenerate to where you have a lot of meetings and sort of do some stuff, but never achieve anything of lasting value.”

Another described how a lack of vision could lead to a project that “. . . just stumbles on. . . for a little while. . . until eventually it just collapses. . . like a zombie.” (See? zombies really did come up!)

Vision is such an important part of the collaboration that it stands alone—I haven’t grouped it with any other catalysts from the Silos report.


I’m grouping three of the nine catalysts from the Silos report under the “Motivations” category:

  • Mandates
  • Incentives
  • External catalysts

These all play a role in stimulating (or stifling) collaborative catalysis, and they also are highly similar and often overlapping concepts.


Mandates can be powerful drivers of collaboration and can take the form of institutional policies, government or funder requirements, budgetary models, and strategic plans. For example, in the RDM space, increasing requirements from US funding agencies that researchers develop plans for managing their data led to an inter-institutional collaboration to develop the DMPTool.

While recognizing the mandates can be strong catalysts for collaboration, it’s also important to recognize, as several of our advisory committee members did, that the absence of mandates can act as a barrier to collaboration. Without some form of external pressure, there may be little imperative to act collectively. For example, one advisory committee member emphasized the importance of executive support for a project, saying that collaboration must not be limited just to the participants working on a project, but also must be signaled by the stakeholders and leaders. Furthermore,

“[Stakeholders must have. . .] a real, clear defined interest in seeing this thing get done, so it is prioritized and not just another add-on to existing priorities and responsibilities.”


If mandates are the stick, then incentives are the carrots. Are there rewards for the participants of collaboration? Or are there primarily risks and barriers to true commitment due to competing priorities and busy schedules? The Silos report recommends that staff evaluations and departmental assessments should reward collaborative activities.

Our advisory committee members recognized that there can instead be disincentives for collaboration. Sometimes inter-institutional competition can stymie collaborative efforts, and it could even become necessary, as one committee member observed, to “. . . convince [leaders] of the benefits of the collaboration, [because if the value isn’t well understood from the start,] it can doom a collaborative effort.”

External catalysts

In the Silos report, external catalysts are populations, groups, or organizations that exist outside the collaborative grouping. This may include users, peer institutions, professional organizations, and funders. Several of our advisory committee members explicitly mentioned that the decision to invest in a new service offering (either independently or collaboratively) may be influenced by observing the activities and new initiatives of peer institutions. In this setting, coming together as a group may indeed be the best way to scale capacity across multiple institutions.  


I’ve grouped five of the collaboration catalysts under the theme “Stewardship,” because they all relate to the care and feeding of the collaboration:

  • Trust
  • Change agents
  • Mooring
  • Resources
  • Flexibility

It’s all about the attention to the people, relationships, and administrative structures.


I think everyone knows trust is essential for collaboration, but it’s a fragile commodity—slow and difficult to develop and easily damaged. In fact, all the advisory committee members we spoke with emphasized trust as a dealbreaker for collaboratory success. For example, we heard that the trusted relationships developed through “long-term collaborations with known players” where “we’ve worked together for a long time, and we know each other and can depend on each other” can make existing consortia or associations well situated for new projects. One committee member advised that “Having pre-existing relationships and trust and very similar goals and objectives helps.”

Some advisory committee members expressed concerns that trust can be more difficult to develop in the virtual environment necessitated by the pandemic. One member commented that “I think it’s easier to [develop relationships and trust] in in person because there’s no online equivalent to the standing in the hallway or standing in line waiting for coffee. These sort of incidental chats. . . that turn into hugely successful projects three years later.”

Change agents

A change agent is as a trusted individual, department, or program that keeps the effort alive, injects it with a dose of resources (ideas, technology, staff) at the right time and keeps participants focused on the overall vision they are bringing to life. Our advisory committee members emphasized the need for these leaders, with one stating that collaborative projects must have “people who are really strong kind of drivers, who want to get things done right.” Another described a change agent as a make-or-break component of success, “You really need clear, determined leadership.”


Collaborations need a place to live, a “mooring” or home base, in order to assure stability and chart a path toward long-term sustainability. I’ll take this a step further and suggest that not only do collaborations need a home, but they also need a responsible party—an owner.

An existing consortium or association can provide this tethering, often through the provision of staff support that can provide operational support: as one member put it, “What the legacy organizations have going for them is staff.”

While working within existing consortial models may make sense, several members of our advisory committee also observed that there can also be advantages to ad hoc groupings. One advisory committee member commented:

“When you can pick your own partners, you might be able to bring together a group that’s laser-focused on a particular thing. Whereas, when you’re working within a legacy association, you don’t pick your partners, and you have different types of partners.”

Even start-up efforts unaffiliated with an existing consortium can find operational stability through affiliation with a university early on. This is the case for the Data Curation Network where the University of Minnesota currently serves as the mooring institution, providing operational support and community coordination for the network.

Our advisory committee members emphasized the value of dedicated staff support for collaborative efforts: “Where I’ve seen success is where there’s a defined person or people for whom it’s their job to do this collaboration,” to keep a project on track despite an array of small and large obstacles that can derail the effort at many points along the way. Another said that “you need enough staff, usually consortial staff doing the project management and keeping things moving along and assigning duties to the various partners and making sure everybody’s doing their piece.”

Without this mooring, when collaborative responsibility is “an add-on” to an already busy job, one advisory committee member said, “that’s when a 12-month project turns into a 3-year project turn into. . . well, we just kind of stopped meeting. . . .“ and the collaborative effort dies (or turns into a zombie).

This is where mooring overlaps closely with. . .


Obviously. You need more than “collaborative will” to achieve a successful outcome; expertise, labor, infrastructure, and financial support are all required. Several of our advisory committee members mentioned that having dedicated staff allocated to collaborative efforts is essential for success. Having someone to “transcend the volunteer energy that got it started. . .“, as one member put it, and assume responsibility for the operational aspects is key. We also heard concerns that nascent collaborations where the project is an “add on” to someone’s already busy job would, at best, make for slow progress, and at worst, kill it.

This was nicely described in the Silos report, too:

“In collaboration, you can come up with the greatest idea, but if people see themselves as having to be stretched, stretched, stretched beyond some of these areas that are actually counted and measurable, then they may well put it on the back burner.” 

And, of course, for long-term success, sustainable funding must be identified, secured, and constantly revisited.


When working with people in a ‘cultural microclimate’ different from your own, flexibility and curiosity can help bridge differences. My colleague Brian Lavoie recently blogged about this, stating that “there is a whole glossary’s worth of terminology that can potentially trip up an exchange of ideas between a librarian and one of their colleagues in another part of the campus.” Troublesome terms may include “archive,” “preservation,” “data,” and “open.”

Taking time to listen, learn, and adapt is essential for stewarding a collaboration. As one of our advisory committee members said,

“By continuously adapting, working and articulating a new plan” in response to a dynamic and evolving roadmap, “I almost think it can’t help but be successful.”

As I synthesized the content for this post, I was struck by the consistency of comments from our expert advisory committee members. Not only did everyone mention the importance of trusted relationships, but they also emphasized that without significant investments in stewarding a collaboration—through the liberal provision of time and resources in a stable environment—collaborations would fail. Many thanks to each member of our advisory committee for sharing their wisdom with us.

If we can all apply their advice, I think we’ll have fewer zombie collaborations.