[Editor’s note: this post was written by Francesca Uccelli for the On Think Tanks Exchange -an action learning initiative to support interregional collaboration between think tanks. Each participant has prepared a post to share. See Leandro Echt’s post on barriers and drivers, Barriers to collaboration between think tanks: Grupo FARO and Barriers to Collaboration: Budapest Institute.]
The Institute of Peruvian Studies (Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, IEP) is a private institution dedicated to research, teaching and the dissemination of social studies about Peru and other Latin American countries. With 50 years of experience, the IEP is Peru’s oldest social sciences research center.
Since its inception, the IEP has grown and evolved by working alongside other national and international research centers and universities. In doing so, the center has developed and strengthened its collaborative relationships with professionals and institutions alike.
Over the last 10 years, the IEP has carried out more than 20 projects involving researchers from two or more institutions undertaking joint research or other activities. This post focuses on some of the IEP’s more recent experiences, which are particularly interesting for analysing the benefits and barriers to collaboration and which provide some key lessons in this respect.
IEP’s collaborations aim to meet different objectives. Amongst the most noteworthy projects are those that bring together different institutions and individuals to:
- Produce and disseminate knowledge on specialist issues (e.g. Project on Public Opinion of Political Culture and Democracy – LAPOP; Project on Higher Education, Professional Development and Exclusion; Seminar CVR+10, Education and Collective Memory).
- Generate public policy proposals (e.g. Regional Dialogue for the Information Society – DIRSI; The Challenges of Democratic Governance in Latin America; Capital Project).
- Carry out comparative studies (e.g. The Impact of Economic Neoliberalism on Post-War Societies; Studies on Young Rural Women In Latin America ‘Nuevas Trenzas’ (‘New Braids’); Experiences of Indigenous Organization in Latin America).
- Strengthen Capacities (e.g. South-South Exchange Programme for Research on the History of Development – SEPHIS; the Memory Group; Network for the Development of the Social Sciences).
These collaborative projects have been developed using different working arrangements:
- Either executed jointly between researchers or on an individual basis, whereby each researcher provides a particular contribution or the study or activity is divided into specific products and/or stages.
- Some projects are developed over the short-term (less than one year), while others imply a longer commitment (6 years and over).
- The researchers or institutions involved may work together through a hierarchical or horizontal relationship, having engaged in the joint initiative due to common interests, participation in networks or owing to a particular contractual arrangement.
- Finally yet importantly, the IEP’s experiences in collaboration differ according to the type of communications methods employed for coordination, exchange and decision-making. Depending on project requirements and resources, the communications strategy may be implemented online, involve a combination of face-to-face and virtual meetings, or consist of a single face-to-face meeting during which the work is jointly developed.
Based on these factors, the different forms of collaboration can be categorized as:
- Projects in which each institution is responsible for developing a particular component according to its experience and specialism (e.g. Capital Project)
- Comparative studies undertaken by different institutions using a jointly developed research methodology (e.g. LAPOP)
- Studies coordinated by one institution which contracts one or more other institutions to carry out specific components (e.g. The Impact of Economic Neoliberalism on Post-War Societies)
- Activities facilitated by one organization during which researchers from different parts of the world share their work face-to-face in a specific space (e.g. Sephis)
- The co-management of a joint project (study, activity or professional network) by two or more institutions (e.g. DIRSI)
Possible Benefits of Collaboration
Collaboration is intrinsic to the work of the IEP and its researchers, and can be witnessed in the continuous reflection, discussion and exchange between researchers from across the region and worldwide. Collaboration has contributed in several ways:
- Helps to broaden horizons and perspectives in terms of understanding social problems in similar contexts. Collaborative projects and networks represent an opportunity to discover work by other researchers and to enrich one’s own work with new views and knowledge on similar topics of interest.
- Collaborative work supports capacity building amongst researchers, and, in turn, strengthens the institution.
- The professional networks that arise out of collaborative work can strengthen relationships between institutions and lead to the development of new projects. Establishing inter-institutional relationships that outlast individual projects provides an opportunity to develop new proposals and creates channels for sharing information, disseminating events and calls, promoting joint working and exchange and for accessing new sources of financing. Furthermore, collaborative work can also stimulate the creation of sub-networks and alternative networks by its members.
- Finally, working with prestigious institutions and researchers from around the world builds external recognition by highlighting the institution’s work internationally. Thus, collaborative work also provides a window of opportunity for showcasing the expertise and knowledge housed within the institution.
Possible Barriers to Collaboration
Although collaboration can generate significant benefits for an institution, its researchers and the research outcomes, several factors may also create barriers to this kind of work:
When a project involves researchers who speak different languages, a common language, usually English, is used to facilitate communication between these individuals. One barrier that can arise from this situation, however, is that those researchers with lower ability to communicate in a second language find it difficult to participate fully, the fluidity of the discussions may be interrupted and, ultimately, the outcomes of the collaboration may suffer.
Even when the researchers share a common language, local codes of communication must be learned during the process and can sometimes result in misunderstandings or offence. This is more common when the communication is not in person. The IEP’s collaborative experiences demonstrate that certain traditions and forms of communication considered correct or suitable in some countries and institutions can present barriers to collaboration with other institutions with distinct traditions and codes. One example is the style and speed of communication via e-mail (for example, more formal communication or an immediate reply), which, given the different expectations of the participants, can produce a barrier to effective collaboration.
Likewise, the profile of the participants is an important factor for good communication. Some researchers believe that it is important for the different collaborating teams to possess similar experience and academic achievements in order to facilitate smoother communication between peers.
Project and Management demands
While communication between peers can be more fluid project management demands can impose communication styles (oral, written, formal, informal etc.) that may hinder the participation of some team members.
Coordinating schedules and time for interaction and face-to-face meetings is a fundamental issue. Different time zones, for example, can represent a challenge for communication between researchers in terms of agreeing meetings, sending documents and organizing logistics. Even though nowadays better communications technologies exist, researchers are not always familiar with these methods (maybe for generational reasons?) and, hence, new barriers can emerge. Furthermore, these technologies can sometimes fail (e-mails that never arrive, interruptions in communications etc.), producing further problems.
The organisational characteristics of each institution can create barriers to collaborative work, including different ways of managing information, the level of bureaucracy, institutional procedures for budget management and changes to the institutional structure and/or the agendas of the institutions and funders.
Information management can become a barrier as soon as differences in openness emerge. Institutions do not necessarily share information freely and this can generate a conflict with the other institutions involved in the collaboration.
The level of bureaucracy within an institution can also create a barrier to collaborative work. For example, the need to make quick decisions can be restricted by administrative barriers that affect the work underway.
These institutional differences are also clear when it comes to budget management. Different ways of executing the budget (such as expense claims procedures) can create confusion or discontent between institutions.
Changes in institutional structure can also impede collaborative work, for example, when a change in management at one of the institutions results in reduced support for the collaboration underway.
Institutional traditions merge with local traditions, and certain customs and implicit agreements can present an important obstacle for the uninformed partner organization. For example, the requirement to put agreements in writing may be considered offensive to an oral culture.
One barrier that the IEP has come across during its experiences is the difference in agendas between the institutions that collaborate on the project. Indeed, institutions can possess very different motives for participating in the collaboration. These differences are exacerbated when the expectations and interests of the project funders drift away from those of the institutions involved.
Researchers and the Research Outcome
If the collaboration emerges out of an institutional initiative yet the researchers do not know each other or have not worked together previously, one possible barrier is the challenge of reconciling different perspectives or ways of tackling a particular issue, which can result in a rather bureaucratic endeavour. In this sense, a lack of trust and previous acquaintance between researchers may pose a barrier to collaboration.
When researchers undertake studies separately, there is the risk that the different components of the collaboration do not tie up. The challenge is to achieve coherence between diverse approaches. Even if the information produced is valuable, the project must be high quality and achieve a rational unity between the studies.
A number of lessons can be identified:
- Strong coordination is necessary: As for collaborations involving researchers who do not know one another, that is to say, who have never worked together previously, or are invited to participate in collaborative studies promoted by their own institution, strong coordination is fundamental, as are clear agreements when setting the objectives and outcomes. Likewise, on-going communication is required throughout the execution of the project.
- Institutional support is necessary: As for the professional networks that appear spontaneously between researchers with common interests, basic institutional support and resources are essential for their existence.
- Technology is also an essential for successful collaboration: The ability to be in permanent real-time communication (via e-mails, telephone conferences and Skype, for example) facilitates both coordination and decision making. Nevertheless, although technology provides long distance communication, face-to-face meetings are indispensable for the overall success of any collaboration. These meetings in person provide meaning to the project because they consist of discussions about what is going to be done, how, what is being done, what has been done etc. and involve face-to-face relationships that ultimately build trust, alliance and commitment between researchers.
- Openness and interest: Open interest in dialogue and collaboration between peers is also an important factor for success. At the very least, the existing institutional hierarchy should be made clear before any collaboration is initiated. Misunderstandings between peers can obstruct collaboration. Clear terms of reference that define expectations regarding objectives, outcomes and delivery dates can help avoid this situation since clarity in working arrangements helps to strengthen commitment and performance from researchers.
- Financial independence: Due to all the institutional differences mentioned, it is important that each institution is responsible for its own resources. This way, different approaches to managing budgets should not become a source of conflict.