Lone wolves need not apply

April 22, 2005

It takes an excellent communicator to fuse together researchers from several different institutions and backgrounds but, as Harriet Swain discovers, there's no shame in bringing in some professional help

How did you get yourself into this? You're responsible for co-ordinating five research teams from four universities, three countries and two continents, and you've discovered that three of your project leaders haven't spoken to each other for 20 years, the fourth is mad and the fifth is dead.

It sounds as if your levels of communication could be improved.

Successful management of a collaborative project is largely down to people dynamics, says Peter Hedges, head of the science sector team at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. He says a funder such as the EPSRC will ask whether the people in a big consortia project get on with one another and have the necessary interpersonal skills. All those involved should know what their role is. "Then people can see if they don't do something what the knock-on effects will be," he says.

Charlie Jeffery, director of the Economic and Social Research Council's devolution and constitutional change programme and professor of politics at Edinburgh University, says much of this communication has to be done face to face. He advises holding regular events to help develop an esprit de corp among the project team. He also suggests encouraging people to disseminate their work in collective ways or ways that use the project "brand".

Good communication is never more important than in the earliest stages of putting together a bid, says Rachel Cooper, professor of design management at Salford University, who leads a project involving teams from four institutions to look at sustainable urban design. She advises setting aside considerable time to get people from different disciplines and institutional backgrounds to understand one another.

"Even if they agree on the nature of the problem, the way they collect and analyse data is different," she says. Cooper stresses the importance of building relationships between every element of the project team - not just the principal researchers. Whenever her project holds a team meeting, the research assistants are put together with a facilitator to talk about issues they have with their research supervisors. This helps to build relationships between them and to identify problems at an early stage.

Junior team members can often see solutions to problems that become entrenched among older and more established researchers. "If you can get younger people to work in an interdisciplinary way, they may be able to break down traditional barriers," Cooper says.

It is important to build trust. Cooper says this can be done by putting in place clear principles governing questions of intellectual property, as well as by encouraging social interaction.

Peter Taylor-Gooby, professor of social policy at Kent University and director of an Economic and Social Research Council network involving 14 institutions, says it is essential to spend time making sure that all those involved in the project - many of whom will be senior academics - are committed to their role and are not tempted to go off and do their own thing. The way to do this is to ensure that the value to them is clear. He says you have to offer explicit opportunities - to meet others in the same field at conferences, to disseminate research, to be published. "You have to be clear that it is not reasonable to expect people to engage with a network just because they signed up to it in the first place," he says. "It has to be a continuous process of benefiting them all the time." He says that respecting the seniority and professionalism of those you are dealing with also means you cannot manage your team too hierarchically.

Harvey Goldstein, who facilitated a workshop for the Institute of Education on managing multiple projects, agrees that strength comes from respecting everyone's individual expertise and relying on mutual agreement and decision-making. However, he says that there are strategic decisions to be made and the buck has to stop with the project manager. "If you are going to be a formal manager, then don't think you can be at the same level as your researchers," he warns.

Cooper agrees that clear management is essential, not just to make the project understandable to those involved, but to outside funders and industry as well.

Hedges says the EPSRC will often expect to fund significant project management costs. "The larger a project gets, the more important it is that its leader isn't spending all the time doing the rigmarole of project management," he says. He suggests that one of the project's external partners is often a good source of project management help. Finally, there are times when you have to recognise that an element of the project is not going to work.

"There are some academics who just don't want to work in that way - lone scholar types," Cooper says. "Before you take on the management of such a project just make sure that you're not one of them."

TOP TIPS

* Communicate - work out how the project will be managed and get good support staff

* Make sure everyone knows what the project is about and what part they will play

* If the budget doesn't cover it, don't do it

* Don't depend on having much time left over for the day job

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