Build space for informal social interaction into a collaboration's systems, structures and processes. Make sure the space is defined, comfortable, familiar and safe. For example, make time and space for informal interaction before and after formal meetings. Make sure this informal interaction takes place in a relaxed space away from the meeting room and prepare for it carefully. How will you encourage people to feel relaxed? How will you encourage people to interact? How will you encourage people to interact with those outside of their usual social, professional and organisational spheres? How will you encourage people to move around and mingle? Remember that encouraging opportunities for repeated unplanned interactions is the key to successful informal social interaction.
Call regular informal intermissions or "time-outs" during the progress of a collaboration's work. Make sure these happen at different times and places from formal meetings and conferences, etc. Again, prepare for them carefully and ask yourself the above questions. Give these "time-outs" a clear purpose but ensure it is appropriate to an informal, relaxed setting and you can achieve it with a light touch.
For example, you might want to call for additional partners to help with the work of your collaboration. You could deliver a short presentation explaining why additional partners are needed and the skills, expertise, experience and resources they would need to contribute. At the end of the presentation you could provide your email address or mobile telephone number and ask people, as they mingle and chat, to email or text you their suggestions for new partners.
The above example demonstrates a simple way in which information and communication technology can be used to achieve valuable outcomes as part of informal interactions.
Identify additional ways in which ICT can be used informally, unobtrusively and intuitively. Make sure these approaches are simple and their purposes clearly focused and defined. Ensuring these things is essential because too much complexity and a lack of focus and definition re. their use will cause ambiguity and confusion and hinder an atmosphere of relaxed informality.
Find ways to blend social media into ongoing informal interactions, but be careful how you blend it in. Facebook closed groups, group messenger chats (together with some light-touch and mutually agreed good practice guidelines which ensure safety and appropriate privacy) will ensure that social media can quietly oil the wheels of informal conversation and relationship building rather than cause unwanted misunderstandings and personal frictions.
Lastly, do not bind partners to legal agreements too early in the life of a collaboration. Instead, begin by seeking informal understandings that can naturally evolve into Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) that can then lead to legal agreements. This will not always be easy to achieve, given the high profile nature of many collaborations and stakeholders' and sponsors' understandable demands for clear accountability and measurable outcomes. However, achieving this informal breathing space at the beginning of a collaboration's life will pay significant future dividends: when the going gets tough and the collaboration experiences difficult times and unexpected problems, partners will be able to overcome their challenges by calling upon the personal understandings and associated willingness to offer mutual support that were developed previously.
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