Ten rules for successful research collaboration
Robyn Keast and Michael Charles
The federal government announced last year that it wants to see more collaboration between academia and industry. The government believes this will help “find solutions to real world problems and create jobs and growth”.
But collaboration is not easy to achieve or sustain. Between 50% and 75% of all interorganisational collaborations fail. And failure is expensive.
So how do you know when it’s appropriate to collaborate and how to make the relationship work?
Here, according to research, are ten rules you should follow:
1. Make sure you actually need to collaborate. Don’t be lured into collaboration just because it’s what everyone else seems to be doing. It’s not a way of getting what you want done more easily or cheaply – it can often be the opposite. So think whether your goal could be achieved another way – ie, by building in-house expertise, hiring new staff with the skills you need, or by contracting another party, such as a consultant, to do the job.
2. Understand that collaboration is risky. Collaboration is not business as usual. It is risky and represents a different way of working. It’s not always well supported within the organisation and not all people have the skills or appetite for it. Take time to review the proposed collaboration and determine the costs/benefits: what might you lose and what are you willing to hand over? Is the time and effort likely to pay dividends?
3. Find the right partners. This might seem like a no-brainer, but so many collaborations are doomed from the start because of mismatched expectations and goals, or working with parties that don’t have the right skills and resources to make the project work. The right partners don’t necessarily have to be like you, but you need to be sure that the other parties respect your way of thinking. There’s no point in collaborating with partners who don’t bring additional expertise and resources to the table.
4. Leverage your existing relationships. Collaborations often work best when you work with people you know well and trust, and where time has been invested in building relational capital. But the project might require new ways of thinking, different skill-sets and different resources. So previous collaborators or partners might become the connectors who can match you with the right sort of partners, even if they’re not entirely a good fit for the intended collaboration.
5. Find common ground with the other parties. When you’ve got a fair idea of your ideal collaborators, negotiate your terms of agreement up front, particularly about how you will work together, how conflicts with be handled, who will do what, and what will be contributed. This doesn’t mean reaching for the rule book each time problems arise, but it is important for parties to fully understand everyone’s interests and responsibilities. Time spent setting the rules of the game can also reduce the costs of ongoing monitoring.
Making it work
6. Invest in relationships. Collaboration is based on relationships, not programs or organisations. It’s not simply a transactional arrangement. If you only want that, hire a consultant. For collaborations to work, you need to establish face-to-face relationships initially to build relational strength. Face-to-face meetings every so often between collaboration partners also help to ensure that things run smoothly. Simply put, time is a big part of the investment.
7. Identify and support champions and sponsors. Collaborative projects work best when there is a champion (usually from industry) who knows exactly how the research is going to benefit his/her organisation, industry or sector. If this person leaves the organisation, someone similar needs to be found. If not, the project will drift, the researchers will reduce their engagement, and the outcomes won’t be applied. This is the worst of all possible outcomes. By contrast, sponsors provide high-level endorsement for the project and help to secure legitimacy, funding and access to resources. Give sponsors good news stories to help them act as brokers for your work/projects.
8. Close down the ineffectual or toxic. Some collaborative projects end up carrying a partner or two, which puts considerable strain on everyone else – and can affect relationships that would otherwise be productive. Call out these behaviours, but give work-shy parties a chance to redeem themselves, or look for alternative ways of getting their input. If that doesn’t work, revise previous agreements, particularly when it comes to co-authorship, and don’t reward shirking behaviours.
9. Protect the fortress. Work hard to keep a successful collaboration going. Add parties as the need arises, but take care when doing so. New parties need to understand the culture of the collaboration and fit in with its values, norms and behaviours. Understand how your partners work, their strengths and weaknesses, appreciate their value-add and constantly find ways of keeping the magic alive.
10. Measure, monitor and communicate success. You need to establish a clear way to measure how you’re tracking against previously agreed objectives. Make sure you plan for some early wins and be sure you can verify when you’ve got there. Being able to measure and communicate success is essential to keeping a collaboration going and – more importantly – working out whether it’s on the right path, or needs work. You also need to be able to demonstrate clearly and unambiguously whether the project was a success, or whether it fell short in some areas.Comment on this article
Robyn Keast received program funding from Department of Education and Training - Collaborative Research Networks Section.
Michael Charles does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Southern Cross University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.