Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Learning from experience - bright ideas from the 'Sunny State'

Earlier this week on a not-so-sunny-day in the ‘Sunny State’, I listened to stories that could fill what would be a unique travel guide. From quickly lying face flat-down to the ground in order to obtain an import permit for biological samples, to being warned of love potions that would hold you captive in the mountains of Vietnam; the whole group had stories of the lengths they will go to, to ensure the success and impact of projects. 

David Hall introduces the panel for the cross-cultural session

I was lucky enough to be at a regional meeting of over 70 project leaders from ACIAR-funded agricultural research projects. Participants represented 24 organisations working on 62 projects across 18 countries. Some participants have been working with ACIAR for nearly 30 years while others are relatively new with less than 3 years. As a young researcher, it was great to be in a room filled with so much experience and knowledge - ACIAR Project Leaders are a dedicated and passionate bunch.

Once every two years this meeting, organised by Michelle Sinn (QDAFF), brings together researchers across all disciplines from Queensland, Northern Territory and New South Wales. The aim of the day is to interact with senior ACIAR staff, including CEO Dr Nick Austin, network with each other and find ways of making more impact through their work in developing countries. 

ACIAR CEO Nick Austin presents at the meeting
Topics of discussion included ACIAR in the context of current Australian Government policies and aid program priorities, communications, opportunities for volunteers on projects and an overview of the Crawford Fund. Two panel sessions were of particular interest: engaging with the private sector and working in cross-cultural settings; both looked at the context of how projects do this and how ACIAR can better support and facilitate them. 

Private sector engagement in research projects is not a new concept, but it is a particular focus for future ACIAR projects. ACIAR recently held a workshop with researchers, Government and private sector representatives with an aim to develop a policy for private sector engagement in ACIAR projects. The benefits of private sector engagement could be significant but there are risks as well. The project leaders discussed past successes and failures in an attempt to distil ideal models for engagement. 

The cross-cultural session is always a favourite. For a new researcher (or even an old one!) it can be very daunting to land in a new country with heavy expectations of success and impact. The reality can hit hard. During this discussion, project leaders shared their unique travel stories along with helpful approaches for improved outcomes. The discussion inevitably included other issues including gender, communication and language that are all affected by different cultures in different ways. 

Participants at the meeting actively engaged in discussions throughout the day
The last session was a participatory discussion around what are the success factors and blockers for good international research projects. Participants were asked to write down three key issues from their experience. The most commonly mentioned success factor was the project team and within that the leadership, the people and the relationships. This was a common theme throughout the day whether it was fisheries in the Pacific, livestock in Indonesia or horticulture in Vietnam; it really is about the people. 

Unfortunately, there were no silver bullets developed for building a successful team or managing a successful project in another culture. Everyone agreed that it takes time and patience (these were also mentioned as success factors), along with hard work and adaptability. These events are valuable to ACIAR as the interaction and feedback informs our practice in supporting projects and achieving optimum impact. 

By Rebecca McBride, Stakeholder Engagement and Communications, ACIAR

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