Friday, 17 July 2015

The rewards and challenges of collaboration in research and development projects

By Jim Young, Project Officer - Mekong Livestock Research (University of Sydney)

‘Collaboration’ is a word that rolls off the tongue and I think is generally perceived in a positive light. So I was somewhat surprised to find two definitions on a 'Google search'. The first, was expected; ‘the action of working with someone to produce or create something’. The second, was a little more surprising; ‘traitorous cooperation with an enemy’. Hmmm, interesting and I thought it might be useful to explore collaboration in further detail in the hope of stimulating some discussion and learn the experiences of others.

My view, and I am confident I can speak on behalf of our University of Sydney Mekong Livestock Research team, is that collaboration refers to the first definition: Joining forces to reach a common goal. Sounds simple, right?

Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned.

Collaborating, or partnering, can tap into existing networks and help scale out messages. Agricultural projects, particularly in their early phases, need to build a profile quickly and efficiently, often across multiple geographies, disciplines, cultures and institutions. Communicating objectives, planned activities to formal stakeholders is needed to build support and identify opportunities.

Collaboration might start with a simple act such as donating textbooks for university students. Source: Jim Young

Pooled funding can also help scale out extension and activities. If this is thought of in terms of fixed and variable costs, even small increments can actually lead to relatively higher levels of person-to-person engagement. For example, if a planned workshop costs $2,000 with 20 participants, and an extra $500 allows a further 20 people to attend; participation is doubled yet costs increased by only 25%.

Relationships leading to future benefits can occur with collaboration. For example, if one group goes out of its way to assist another, because the objectives were not 100% aligned, the partner benefiting to a greater degree may reciprocate this in the future. In my opinion, finding the sweet spot where objectives overlap is where success is most easily found.

One of the challenges of collaboration is overcoming fears of one group (or person) taking all the credit. It’s important to recognise there is no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’, and define early who does what and how reporting will occur, to ensure the relationship remains robust. In a cross-cultural setting, one example may include the logos on a workshop banner. Location and size matter! Another one that comes up is journal paper authorship. Setting the expectations or parameters early on authorship order (i.e. first authorship is given to whom did the majority of the work) is key to avoid losing collaborative momentum, or even worse, alienation or a standstill. It might also be a good idea to consider outcomes verses outputs, as different project donors may have differing expectations and targets. Another consideration is how collaborations are administered. Contracts, memorandums of understanding and letters of agreement can be very useful but can also require a large amount of administrative resource, which if not managed carefully could outweigh the benefits. Working with groups and organisations that are agile, flexible and trustworthy is preferred.

Find the sweet spot where objectives overlap, and focus efforts there. Source: Jim Young

So when it comes to collaboration, some people believe 1 + 1 = 0, 1 + 1 = 2, or 1 + 1 = 3. What do you believe?

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