Four problems about interdisciplinary collaborations we better learn to love

Will interdisciplinary collaboration within academia eventually become smooth and simple, or will we always remain a rowdy family?  In this blog, dr. Scott Douglas, Assistant Professor of Public Administration and member of the Utrecht Young Academy, discusses the problems of interdisciplinary collaborations that will require constant work, and a lot of love.

"I love and hate family gatherings with my siblings. Because there are quite a few of us, things get rowdy very quickly and all the old family dynamics play out again and again (half the siblings try to manage everything, triggering a coup from the other half, etc.). In the car home, I often realize that this turbulent dynamic makes for tiring evenings, but that I have come to love it as well.

Dr. Scott Douglas (Photo: Ed van Rijswijk)

As we collaborate more often within the diverse academic family, there are some dynamics which we better embrace. Drawing on my own experiences with interdisciplinary work and research on collaborations, I think there are some problems that can never truly be solved. They are part of the very nature of collaboration and we just have to learn to love wrestling with them every day.

1. The structure of the collaboration never fits the mission.

Just like a seating plan at a wedding, it is impossible to get right who should be invited and who should sit where. Whenever you think you have identified all the right researchers to work with, a new aspect of the research puzzle pops up, requiring new partners or new roles for existing partners. This means that the structures in collaborations will always be a little blurry, requiring constant connecter work by the people within the collaboration.

Collaborations should build trust by constantly engaging with the people on the inside and outside.

2. The procedures of the collaboration can never be fully clear.

Collaborations are often criticized because the decision-making processes are obscure. Collaborations lack the clear procedures of hierarchies, which can make them impenetrable to outsiders. As the structure of the collaboration keeps shifting, making the procedures predictable and clear may be impossible. Instead, collaborations should build trust by constantly engaging with the people on the inside and outside, continuously discuss what is and what is not working, and make it their business to help people navigate the social system.

3. Collaborations can sometimes be effective, but never efficient.

Collaborations start because people want to share resources to achieve a common goal, but this does not mean they can do with less time, money, or people. All that coordination, alignment, and bonding takes a lot of work. The collaborations I have been involved also relied heavily on excellent project managers and support staff, without whom the researchers would not have been productive. In the long run, collaborations allow us to achieve things we could never do alone, but the day-to-day reality is that they require a lot of ongoing investment.

The current reward and recognition systems are not yet geared towards stimulating collaboration

4. Everyone feels they are putting more in than they are getting out.

When couples are asked what percentage of the household work they do, their respective totals usually add up to more than 100%; both partners feel they are doing more than their share. In collaborations, partners will often feel that they are not getting enough from the partnership, and individuals may feel they are not getting the recognition from the wider organization. And they may be right, the current reward and recognition systems are not yet geared towards stimulating collaboration, requiring redesign and some delayed gratification.

Collaborations can be very rewarding and stimulating in the long run, but keeping a day-to-day tally of whether it is worth it and who did what will tear apart the partnership. Like family gatherings, collaborations with researchers just take a lot of love and patience."

Scott Douglas, PhD. Member of the Utrecht Young Academy. Assistant Professor of Public Administration