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The role of empathy in the ecology of international collaboration

Jordan, Zoe

International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare: December 2016 - Volume 14 - Issue 4 - p 140–141
doi: 10.1097/XEB.0000000000000096

The Joanna Briggs Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia

Correspondence: Assoc. Prof. Zoe Jordan, PhD, Executive Director, The Joanna Briggs Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia. E-mail:

The complexity and diffuseness of international collaboration is frequently built on the premise that the sum of the parts will be greater than the whole. However, it is important to understand that, in order to make the ‘whole’ strong, there are certain qualities required that are often overlooked, such as the ability to recognize and understand context and difference, in other words, empathy. Empathy (the ability to identify with others) is certainly one of the most valuable skills for individuals and organizations seeking to collaborate internationally. Unfortunately, it is not a skill often taught, discussed or highlighted as being important.

As we become more tightly bound together, it is time to develop a new paradigm and practice of collaboration, if we are to function successfully in the global community. We need to identify new ways of working together that strengthen our ability to influence healthcare research and practice, and to find innovative ways to future proof evidence-based/informed care and the translational research cycle.

Recognizing and integrating multiple perspectives has never been more important for the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) and the Joanna Briggs Collaboration (JBC). JBI will continue to expand its footprint in the years to come. However, rather than doing so in an organic way, we will be far more strategic in approach and we will need to build new frameworks to provide a strong platform for a more cohesive network of teams across the world.

So, if we accept that empathy is indeed an important part of achieving the goals we have set ourselves in relation to successful international collaboration, how can we implement strategies that support the development of a culture that fosters empathy? Collaboration is, after all, a ‘human’ activity. It is, at its most basic level, ‘people’ connecting to work towards achieving something. In the case of JBI/JBC, it is the promotion and support of an evidence-based approach to the provision of healthcare.

Social relationships are particularly important for the development of an empathetic culture and also the influence that these networks of relationships have in ‘explaining the processes of knowledge creation, diffusion, absorption and use’.1 Organizationally, JBI has, both consciously and unconsciously, recognized the importance of building relationships and utilizing mechanisms to nurture and promote empathy, both outside of a work context, and also within it. It is through ‘social interaction’ that we, as humans, build connections that strengthen our ability to understand, shape and further develop our science with respect.

Over the course of the past 2 years, JBI has also invested heavily in the co-creation of a common understanding of our vision and mission, and strategies to achieve them. It is important that we harness all that is unique and distinctive about the groups and individuals who seek to work with us. We need to be open in our quest for equitable distribution of resources to promote and support best practice in both academic and clinical settings. It is this openness that will drive innovation in our organization.

There is a growing body of literature that supports the need for constructive dialogue and discourse in order to achieve effective collaboration. Hardy et al.2 argue that, ‘inter-organizational collaboration can be understood as the product of sets of conversations that draw on existing discourses’. They go on to add that, specifically, ‘effective collaboration, which we define as cooperative, inter-organizational action that produces innovative, synergistic solutions and balances divergent stakeholder concerns, emerges out of a two-stage process. In this process conversations produce discursive resources that create collective identity and translate it into effective collaboration’.2 These conversations should ideally occur face to face rather than virtually. Although we live in an increasingly virtual global community, JBI maintains the value of building relationships through ‘real world’ experiences.

The social construction of inter-organizational collaboration is explored by Huzzard et al.,3 who argue that success occurs through informal interaction with and between those engaged in the process. It is important that all participants are actively involved in constructing the discourse that shapes the collaboration. The communication dynamic related to the construction of the JBC is evolving. The model is one that takes advantage of expertise and ideas circulating across all stakeholders right from the beginning. It is less structured, relying on fluid, open brainstorming and with a heightened focus on relationships. The entities involved in the JBC are simultaneously autonomous and engaged in governance characterized by joint decision-making.

Today, JBI's sphere of influence is far wider than simply our local community. Our ability to make an impact on healthcare and improved outcomes for patients is greater than ever before, and our ambition and aspiration to achieve it is palpable. The JBC is today a galvanized international entity. There is great strength in the common identity, language, vision and mission of this group, which makes the future exciting indeed. The Institutes’ ability to achieve the greatness it seeks to achieve it only possible with this united alliance.

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1. Phelps C, Heidl R, Wadhwa A. Knowledge, networks and knowledge networks: a review and research agenda. J Manage 2012; 38:1115–1166.
2. Hardy C, Lawrence TB, Grant D. Discourse and collaboration: the role of conversations and collective identity. Acad Manage 2005; 30:58–77.
3. Huzzard T, Ahlberg BM, Ekman M. Constructing inter-organisational collaboration: the action researcher as boundary subject. Action Res 2010; 8:293–314.
International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare © 2016 The Joanna Briggs Institute