Collaboration culture as a critical factor for sustainable
universities. The Nexus24 programme at UPC-BarcelonaTech
Head of the Sustainability and Equal Opportunities Office
Coordinator of Nexus24 programme.
The Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) has been involved in different phases of
environmental and sustainability planning since the 90’s [Ferrer-Balas, 2004]. Two
sequential strategic plans focused on environmental issues helped to coordination
disseminated activities and triggered new initiatives. The main idea by then was a
comprehensive vision: the environmental perspective aimed to cover curriculum, research,
management and outreach simultaneously. An Environmental plan coordination unit was in
charge of promoting strategy and actions related to all these fields. Other research groups
and initiatives existed throughout the university, though not much linked. The macro-level
was clear, but there was not much activity at the micro-level.
From 2005 to 2011, the focus was put on sustainability through a more participatory
approach (Ferrer-Balas et al, 2008; Esteban et al., 2008; Mulder et al., 2010). Planning was
done through consultation and activation of individuals and groups around the university,
and the focus included social, economic and cultural issues, beyond environmental. In
general, the majority of community members who were interested about the topics got
interconnected in some manner. The unit in charge of the sustainability coordination and
management, as well of the sustainable management at UPC, merged with academic and
research groups in sustainability creating a new Institute for Sustainability Science and
Technology (in 2011). Also started a new Masters in Sustainability (2010), and consolidated
an PhD program on the same topic. Indeed, the vision became more systemic (Ferrer-Balas
et al., 2010).
Then came the economic crisis, with drastic reductions of the resources available, what
contributed to dismantle some interdisciplinary and cross-cutting structures and initiatives
that had been put in place and which revealed not resilient enough. At that moment,
academic and management issues related to sustainability at UPC got separated again (and
lost resources), and since then have walked in parallel. The existence of a Sustainable
management office (created in 2011) proved especially useful when the economic cuts
came, and especially when an energy efficiency Plan was commissioned to that office. In
2014, the energy consumption of the energy had been reduced 27% compared to 2010,
saving around 4M€ to the University. How was this achieved? Without any available budget,
the main success factors were (i) urgency and focus on a specific issue (energy), (ii)
transparency and access to data and (iii) collaborative work among administrative staff. On a
conceptual base, the interventions were based on socio-technical aspects, based on living-
systems theories (Capra, 2002) and conveying the message that the “abundance time had
finished”, as well as the notion of limits.
This success brought to light the power of collaborative teams and actions to solve
sustainability challenges (and other complex issues), and was the seed of a new institutional
initiative that emerged at UPC about collaborative communities. Although the sustainable
management strategic lines of UPC are still today focusing on topics as energy, circular
economy, mobility, or biodiversity, there is an underlying principle of collaboration and
transversality that is becoming the key common sustainability factor for a community such as
the University. This chapter puts the focus on this aspect rather than on the traditional ones.
Collaborative vs hierarchical responses
It is important to note that when refereeing to a sustainable university, there are two
interlinked issues in the concept: how we increase the contribution of the university to the
societal sustainability, as well as how the university itself is sustainable in the long run.
These are systemic questions that might be treated at different scales.
Elements of social and organizational sustainability, such as the collaboration capacity in a
system as a university, are as important as environmental or economic dimensions, and
have been very poorly treated in the past when studying or promoting sustainability in
universities. As much, the issue is treated by underlying the importance of participatory
Moreover, everyone agrees that sustainability of universities needs innovation and change,
but experience shows many of the efforts are useless if they do not bring structural and
cultural changes. Innovating towards sustainability on a non-collaborative ground might not
be a proper strategy, and might rely on efficiency investments and resources available.
Investing in increasing collaboration capacity, and then mobilize it to innovate with a wider
set of options (efficiency, but also sharing solutions, sufficiency, etc.) might reveal more
effective. This is the corner stone of the strategy presented in this paper.
To understand the context of the practice presented, it is important to note that UPC is a
public university where more than 4000 employees work (aprox. 2500 academics and 1500
administrative), and which has grown organically in a multi-hierarchic complex system. This
growth stopped by 2011 (and even decreased slightly), but the structure still is the same. As
UPC is result of the federation of former engineering schools, there are today 8 campuses in
different cities of the province of Barcelona.
Especially among the administrative staff, the working culture is bureaucratic and the
organization highly compartmentalized. Legal framework and other restrictions have brought
it to operate traditionally in a hierarchic mode. Resources are more and more limited while
needs always growing, provoking the frustration of many of the staff and bringing low levels
of motivation. This was the fundamental reason why the manager of the university (head of
the 1500 administrative staff) launched in 2014 the Nexus24 collaborative work program. Its
purpose is very simple: “in 2024, working in a collaborative manner will be normal at UPC”.
An unsustainability crisis generally stimulates two types of opposed responses: on one hand,
fear-related as competition, fragmentation, control through strong hierarchy, etc; on the
other, collaboration, flexibility, openness, sharing power and resources, etc.
The Nexus24 program is an example of the “second type” of responses to crisis suggested
above (collaborative not competitive), and aims to change the working culture at the
university in ten years. Beside that general purpose, there are five more specific goals:
● Motivate and empower people.
● Develop talent that is wasted in the university.
● Open and share this knowledge at university.
● Gain flexibility as an organization.
● Improve the university through concrete projects.
Operating system of a collaborative program
The core of the Nexus24 program is the collaborative team. As Nexus24 is a culture change
program based on co-learning, the program aims to offer the UPC staff an experience of
genuine collaborative work. It is only through that experience that learning can be achieved,
because collaborative work is such of those competences that cannot be learnt “in theory”,
but only through practice. The people involved in collaborative teams have the opportunity to
experience a different way of working, having the feeling of being suddenly in a new system
with a new culture.
After more than two years of the program, an operating model to run it has been
consolidated. This consists of six elements around the core element of the collaborative
team: (a) the principles, (b) a network, (c) a reference model, (d) teams and roles, (e)
process for collaborative projects and (f) energy and Resources.
Beside the vision (making collaborative work normal), the core of the program are its 8
principles, listed in the Nexus24 Manifesto that was produced by a first collaborative and
transversal team at the beginning of the program. They aim to define how this collaboration
has to be:
- In confidence. Feeling that we can express ourselves openly.
- With commitment. Feeling involved and excited about what we do.
- Learning. Promoting individual growth and collective knowledge.
- Experiencing. Testing new and fun ways to co-create and improve.
- With autonomy. Being able to organize ourselves in the most effective way.
- For results. Defining clear objectives to achieve efficient impact on what we do.
- With transparency. Showing what we do and how we do it.
- Serving society. Thinking beyond our scope to contribute to the common good.
The collaborative culture grows in a new ecosystem of human and professional
relationships. This takes shape of a new network, that as such is an alternative type of
organisation to the typical hierarchic chart, and is capable of producing more value. In the
recent years, this idea is being treated from different organizational perspectives (Wenger,
2002; Martinez, 2012; Pflaeging, 2014; Laloux, 2014; Figueroa, 2016). The coordination
team manages the conditions to create the connections in that system, by using various
tools and techniques that help visualizing and connecting the growing network.
• Open call for choosing the collaborative projects
• Open meeting points (open workshops, seminars, informal meetings at lunch time…)
• New facilities and rooms to help presential collaboration
• Virtual space to connect (website, blog, mail lists, presence in twitter, etc.)
Fig.1. Network visualization after the first open call for projects. Connected nodes (staff) mean they want
to contribute to the same project.
In general, everyone wants to work collaboratively, but at the same time everyone complains
it is so hard to work in transversal structures. To help overcoming it, there are techniques,
methods and tools to make it easier. The Nexus24 coordination team has been trying and
adapting some of them in order to set a evolutionary reference model for collaborative work
at UPC. This Model builds on this five elements:
N- start with Needs
E- build on a core tEam that shares common goal and knows its own assets.
X- eXperience development by iterations
U- Use tools to connect and co-create.
S- share your project with Society from the beginning.
The model is based on the integration of Agile methodologies1, collaborative networking
(Figueroa 2016)], Design thinking (Brown 2009) and Communities of practice (Wenger et al.
2002), among other inspiring frameworks. It is the base for training the participants in
collaborative work. At the same time, novel (or not that novel) theories on management of
organisations based on an ecological paradigm are taken as theoretical references (Capra,
2002; Laloux, 2014).
Teams and roles
After 7 projects finished and 8 in development, with more than 100 participants involved, an
organization to run this program has also been set. Its core are the Nexus24 collaborative
teams. These are formed by a group of 5 to 8 people from different units who spend 50-70h
each to develop a common project during 4-6 months. These teams have the support of a
facilitator (a project participant from a previous call who offers to help them), and a
“godfather”, which they choose in the University to act as sponsor and will open doors.
The coordination efforts are organized in four interconnected teams:
- Coordination team. 3 staff (1,5days/week) to run the program, with the support of the
- Facilitators team. Former participants of a Nexus24 project, offer at the next edition
to be facilitators of a new team. They assist methodologically the team.
- Communication & interaction team. 2 staff spend 4h/week to help managing the
communication in the network
- Research team. Researchers from the sustainability institute who investigate about
the system dynamics of the network
No one in those teams has left his/her “normal” job at the University. The collaborative
organization aims to be compatible (and complementary) with the hierarchic one. There are
no power relations in those teams. We are applying something close to self-management or
holacracy (Laloux, 2014), although not yet explicitly.
Process for collaborative projects
Phase 1. Call for projects
Once a year, a call for collaborative projects is open. Anyone working as administrative staff
can look for 2 other colleagues (from different units) and propose a project. At the same
time, any staff (administrative or academic) can access the proposals and do to actions:
- “Like”. Expressing support to the idea.
- “Get involved”. Offering to work in the project
By counting the votes (“Get involved” weight for 5 “likes”), a participatory support level is
obtained. This counts for 40%. Combining it with the Management support level (the other
60%), a series of projects are selected at each call.
Then the 3 proponents of the selected projects chose the rest of team members among all
those wanted to “Get involved”, by applying some diversity criteria.
Phase 2. Acceleration
In this phase, a 22h long training is given to all members of selected teams. Special attention
is paid to sharing a common goal, and knowing each other to build confidence.
Phase 3. Development.
The teams are autonomous to work during 5 months. They have 30h to use in working time,
and get support from the facilitators. He/she helps the team to organize in “sprints” following
the basic rules of Agile methodologies.
Phase 4. Return
At the end, teams have to show the value produced (presenting the outcomes to the
community) and sharing the knowledge they’ve learnt, in order to ensure the organizational
learning. Questionnaires about use, knowledge and social values are distributed and
Phase 5. Implementation
The Management Committee is responsible to ensure implementation of the projects
Energy and Resources
There is no budget allocated to the program. The resources are coming from:
- Time of people that are “liberated” from regular tasks. Often they end by “adding”
collaboration work to their current work.
- The collaboration of units that have budgets and contribute to the Nexus24 goal
(E.g. creating a collaborative space, paying the materials needed for co-creation
- -The interest and motivation of people that values space of autonomy, new relations,
and interesting tasks. This usually compensates the overload of the previous.
Results and impact
Around 100 people have already participated (or are participating) in 15 projects (see Table
1). All of them have the common purpose of improving the services offered by the university,
what should be linked to increase university sustainability.
It is too early to evaluate the value of a program that aims to create an impact in 10 years,
but the first symptoms are very interesting. In the following sections the value of the efforts
thus far are presented in three types: use, knowedge and social capital, according to the
model from Tejeredes (Figueroa, 2016).
Table 1. Nexus 24 projects of the first three calls.
Exploring the concept of student engagement and propose measures.
Simplifying purchase of travel services
Developing a collaborative system to exchange knowledge among staff
Developing a collaborative platform to promote exchange links in the
Simplifying quality insurance processes for academic degrees
Automatizing a ticketing system
Promoting professional links within people working at UPC in similar
Where are the photos?
Setting criteria to order the photographic archives at UPC
Promoting professional exchanges within the different campus
Developing a participatory promotion of Vilanova engineering School
Making innovative teaching practices visible
Transforming our campus into living laboratories
Landing at UPC
Proactive actions when receiving PhD students
Developing an innovation system for University management
Designing a guide for fundraising research projects
The projects aim to solve problems of different types, which all come bootom-up. In order to
analyze their usefulness, they have been plotted on the diagram in Fig. 2. The X-axis grades
the amount of perspectives needed to solve the problem. The Y-axis shows the number of
users affected by the solution of the project. As can be seen, the projects proposed in
Nexus24 fit on the diagonal simple-complex. No projects are proposed in the few-users /
multiple perspectives, as these seem not to be necessary. On the opposite quadrant,
complicated projects tend to get solved already in specialized silos (current units).
So the collaborative projects appear in two different situations. On one hand, simple projects
that are “orphan”, and do not have enough number of affected users to be taken over by the
specialized units, but that are suffered by those individuals who, when get connected, arise
the problem. On the other, complex projects which do not belong to any specialty/discipline,
and need multiple points of view. This analysis is a first attempt to understand the potential
of collaborative work within the university management. From the 8 finished projects in 2015
(there are 7 new projects currently in development), three are implemented, and five not. At
the last call, the management board committed to implement all new projects.
Fig.2. Typology and state of the different Nexus24 collaborative projects.
Another useful result coming from the program is the creation of two physical new spaces for
collaborative work. There are prototypes that could be extended to other building of the
campuses, but at the same are already being used.
Knowledge capital. ¿What have we learnt?
All the projects done generated organizational learning at different levels, as the knowledge
created was explicitly shared and openly accessible. However, the most relevant learning
has been at individual level. The 100 participants have spent around 5000 h practicing
In general terms, the program has created an own reference model on collaborative work
(base for the training of the staff), as well as a manifesto about the shared principles which
guide decision-making in the program. These reference models have allowed the possibility
to train the participants on collaborative work based on a new framework.
Another institutional learning has been the understanding of the dynamics of the community
interactions generated by the open calls. As has been shown in Fig.1, it is possible to
visualize the network of people that have shown common interests. This has potential uses
and reveal, for example, communities of shared interest across units, or individuals that have
a natural tendency to articulate collaboration among groups.
Table 2 shows the results obtained from a questionnaire answered by 77% of the 53
participants of the first 8 projects (the only finished at the time of this publication) we got
those answers (over 100 points). The feedback reveals that the participants value positively
what they learnt through the program (Table 2). However, they’re less optimistic regarding
the impact on the organizational learning (collaborative culture).
Table 2. Average value given to different questions by the participants to the first 8 projects.
In general, how do you value your learning at Nexus4 program
Do you think Nexus24 program is useul to increment the collaborative culture
Would you recommend the participation to a colleague
Proof of the institutional value of the program is the recognition with the prize of Quality of
University Management (2015) given by the UPC Social Council.
Another result has been the publication of 57 blog posts2 about collaborative work
Social capital. ¿How are we now?
The Nexus24 program helps to build new links across the organization. These mean
individual and group interactions, generally centered around a shared purpose. The
psychological effect on those people is generally valued as very positive…
In quantitative terms, the open calls have activated the administrative staff participation with
3168 “Likes” by 800 people (53% of the total), and 318 “Get involved” by 180 people (12%).
As a qualitative symptom, there people that after having worked for 15 or more years at
UPC, express their gratitude after participating in the program for having had the opportunity
to work in a non-hierarchical environmental, with novel methods and less routine tasks.
Beyond, the sense of “community” is growing and although it is not easy to measure, there
are evidences of the positive effect on the individual and group self-esteem.
A dual organisation vision
The two first years of development of the Nexus24 program are helping to prototype the
implementation of a powerful vision, which will be explained in this section.
In organizations that need to effectively deliver public services (like higher education), it is
necessary to have some kind of hierarchical or command-control structure. In fact this is
even regulated by law, and hard to change. This is the typical chart organization, with
management levels, and people “inside boxes” (units or departments). Pflaeging (2014)
refers to it as the “alfa” model.
However, as society needs change or grow continuously, this structure proofs to be unable
to deliver innovation, exploration or reaction to new problems in an efficient, effective and/or
sustainable manner. An option is to create “a new box” to be in charge of innovation (or
sustainability, etc.). But this does not generally work, and ends in a new unconnected unit. In
the alfa side of the organization, work is done through defined processes (given that there is
a good organization level, which is not always the case), and the metaphor is the machine.
Every task has a normalized and reference protocol to guide the decisions and the work
produced. But through technology innovation, many of those tasks might tend to disappear.
The collaborative communities model experienced by UPC with the Nexus24 project can be
the seed for creating the complementary alternative that those institutions need, the “beta”
model (Pflaeging, 2014). In the beta side, people work through projects, bottom-up initiatives
that grow organically and self-managed by sensing the tensions in the organization and the
needs of users. People here will hardly be replaced by machines, because it is this unique
human capacity of “sensing”, the collective intelligence as well as the co-creation potential of
teams with enough diversity which make people unique, critical and irreplaceable by
machines (even with smart systems, big-data or artificial intelligence). Ethical dimensions
present in those tensions or needs will always have to be treated through a social interaction
This division processes/projects is not new, and some organizations already use these
network models for exploration and innovation tasks. Some pioneer private companies have
even abandoned the alfa and operate only in beta or “teal”, as explained by Laloux (2014).
But what could be an innovation is to have this model in the university management.
Frequently, there are management innovation projects, but universities tend to use the first
structure (alfa) for managing them, and it frequently does not work. In our model, we are
using the beta for the innovation projects, and triggering the constitution of the involved
teams by a totally different system. They are not assigned by the bosses, but respond to the
personal interest those people have to solve the issue.
Today, Nexus24 is still operating under some kind of confidence space, and promotes
“protected” projects. It has to be kept in mind that the program aims at creating that cultural
change in 10 years. We are not ready at UPC to use these open calls to create the
collaborative teams systematically, but we hope to have it possible by the half of the
program time horizon (by 2019).
Building distributed collaborative capacities
Nexus24 is currently contributing to create distributed collaborative capacities through the
different campus. To ensure that the collaboration projects will be successful in the beta
mode, it is needed to train a number of staff who are distributed strategically across the alfa
structure. For that, we are setting up a Nexus24 training path for staff interested to acquire
competences in facilitating collaboration. This path is based on:
(a) Participating in a collaborative project (guided action)
(b) Facilitating collaborative nexus24 (protected) project (part of facilitators team to learn
(c) Facilitating collaborative projects in the “real” setting.
Our experiences are still in level (b), with some first attempts of (c), with promising results.
The true power of the model will be when there will be a sufficient number of “articulators”
available to start operating under Beta mode on demand.
From the experience of the nexus24 coordination team, the current challenges faced are:
- Involve and train mid management, still reluctant or unaware of the potential and the
change that is aimed by Nexus24.
- Connect with other public administrations and other organisations which are on
similar paths, in order to ensure mutual learning on similar organizational transitions.
- Sustain change and make the program resilient but not rigid (as a new structure or
“box”), to avoid to create exactly the opposite of what is intended.
Currently, a collaborative Nexus24 project, called “Serveis vius” (Living Services) will be
developed from September 2016 to March 2017. This project is aiming at proposing a way to
promote and operate innovation in the management. As the rest of projects, the 8
participants are administrative staff that offered to contribute. What is singular is that the
general manager of the university is also a member of it, in a non power-hierarchical position
within the project, but the capacity to ensure the implementation afterwards. The outcomes
of such project will surely be key for the next phases of the collaborative evolution at UPC-
The program presented in this paper shows a novel focus to the sustainability in/of
universities. The collaborative organization has not been a topic in this field, although for the
author it reveals to be critical. The paper presents the two first years of development of a
program that aims to create a collaborative culture among the management staff of UPC-
BarcelonaTech. But the potential is not only to change the culture, but the operating system
through creating a complementary structure. This network-type structure would be organic,
based on self-managed teams and would produce value through innovative projects.
Because such a change is extremely slow and difficult, any collaboration with other people
and institutions who have been (or are) involved in similar transitions will be strongly
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