Research for Social Good is a MethodSpace focus for October. Throughout the month you’ve seen posts about researchers’ and writers’ efforts in a variety of contexts. Most had to step out of their proverbial comfort zones to carry out their studies. Collaboration is often necessary when we are studying (or supporting) social change efforts. Most types of field work, action research, or ethnography involve accessing research sites and working closely with gatekeepers to reach participants. For other types of studies we might need to collaborate with co-researchers, or co-writers, or other stakeholders to complete the project.
What is collaboration? We’ll define it as: “an interactive process that engages two or more participants who work together to achieve outcomes they could not accomplish independently.”
One premise for the ideas I am sharing here is that “collaboration” is not a single activity, but a series of processes with associated skills. Another premise is that advance thinking, strategizing, and planning can improve the likelihood of success.
Let’s start by contrasting experiences within a group, intra-group collaboration, or across groups, inter-group collaboration. I am using the word group loosely here to describe an educational institution, organization, discipline, sector, culture, social class or other category that brings people together.
With intra-group collaboration, we begin with common foundations. We know the norms and cultures of the group. We have a set of implicit assumptions about how we can and should work together, including ways to communicate, make decisions, and determine goals. We can more readily trust collaborative partners in a familiar setting.
If we work in the same institution or organization, we know the leadership, management, or power structure, and who to go to for permissions or approvals. We understand the mission, purpose, and parameters that we need to work within. We most likely have access to the same kinds of communications technologies and tools. We have a common language; we know the acronyms without spelling them out. And importantly, we probably have similar ways of knowing, ways of thinking, and ways to solve problems.
When embarking on an inter-group collaboration, we need to consider differences in cultures, expectations, and norms. We need to think about which approaches to communication, decision-making, and problem-solving are acceptable to all collaborative partners. We need to define the purpose for the collaborative project, set shared goals, and define expectations. We must find our common language. Even working with other English-speakers, who technically share the same language, I’ve found it interesting to discover that the terminology can be quite different in other organizations or disciplines. In such cases we needed to create a sort of shared glossary. When working across languages such decisions are even more complex.
To figure out how we will come together, we have to decide how and when to communicate. To what extent should we plan for synchronous exchanges, whether face-to-face meetings, conference calls, or videoconferencing? When we communicate asynchronously, when should we expect a response? Should an email be acknowledged within an hour, a day, or what? Do all partners have broadband, do any partners have limitations on the kinds of technologies to use? For example, some university or school computers don’t allow videoconferencing tools that rely on a download in order to access them, or have limitations on the kinds of shared folders or collaborative tools they can use outside their firewalls.
As a basic rule of thumb, assume that the greater the differentiation between collaborative partners, the more time will be needed to plan and prepare. This post describes some of the points to think about from the outset, in order to avoid confusion or discord that derail a collaborative project. When all partners feel comfortable with the process, they can focus on the substance of the work at hand. When common expectations are set, they can begin to build the trust that helps make collaboration not only productive, but also fun!
Want to learn more about building successful collaborations? Join me for a Textbook and Academic Authors Association webinar, Make “Collaboration” More Than a Buzzword on November 6 at 3 pm ET. Global time zones here. Not a TAA member? Find out how to sign up for a trial membership with this dynamic community of writers.
We’ll continue to explore collaboration with a December MethodSpace focus on collaboration. If you would like to contribute a post, contact me with your ideas.