A couple of notes on collaboration between think tanks

29 March 2014
SERIES Articles and Opinions

Next week we will be meeting in Lima for the first Event of The Exchange. We will be publishing several posts, tweeting (via @onthinktanks and #TheExchangeLima), posting pictures and videos, presentations, etc. This is all part of our M&E approach.

To prepare for the event we have asked the participants to reflect on a series of cases of past collaborations in their own think tanks. We provided them with some reading materials and some questions to consider. We will be sharing those (or versions of these) soon.

In the meantime I thought I’d republish a couple of posts from On Think Tanks’ past that deal with the challenges of collaboration.

The first is about large research programme consortia: 10 recommendations for policy research consortia. In this post I outlined a number of assumptions underpinning these large multi-country and multi-think tank collaborations, the challenges they face (challenges that often go unnoticed), and made some recommendations.

A key recommendation, relevant to The Exchange is:

Start with the building blocks: if the consortium is new, the funder should first fund efforts to 1) develop the consortium (and this is very difficult) and 2) ensure that capacity is (at least relatively) homogenous across. 2-5 years of this before the consortium is asked to move on with research and policy influence. If possible the leading centre (that holds the contract) should not be charged with developing the capacity of the others: why not include an organisation that has that expertise and role? There are plenty of lessons being learned on this, lets put them into practice.

A second post that I thought was interesting refers to co-production of knowledge: Groupthink: many lessons for think tanks. This post is full of excellent ideas (not mine) about collaboration and co-production of knowledge. It is largely based on the history of Building 20 at MIT:

Building 20 had been an emergency building, meant to be torn down after the Second World War. But demand for space meant that the building became home to an eclectic community of researchers, housing centres as diverse as a laboratory for nuclear science, the linguistics department, a cell-culture lab, a piano repaid facility, etc.

Because Building 20 was a temporary construction, staff felt free to adapt it to fit their own interests. They would tear down walls, open new spaces, decorate following their own styles, etc. This flexibility meant that the building adapted to the researchers’ own learning. If they needed more space for a lab the walls came down. If they needed to bring in extra help, new desks were added, etc. But most interesting, the diversity in the background and focus of the researchers meant that the right mix of familiarity and surprise was reached. It reminds me of the think tank hub idea. Noam Chomsky’s work on linguistics drew from biology, psychology, and computer science -all from the researchers working within Building 20.

These two post focus on a common idea: the right setting and flexibility are important when we want to develop working relationships. These cannot be imposed or engineered from outside.