Sunday, 27 October 2013

How collaborative am I really?

Dr Steve Joy

Many of the early career academics whom I’ve met over the years have talked, some almost wistfully, about a desire for more collaboration in their professional lives. Perhaps, in some cases, this was a strategically motivated wish – after all, there’s grant money to be won for interdisciplinary & inter-institutional projects – but I think that, for most, the desire was authentic. Yet I have frequently encountered the perception that, in the flooded academic job market, there isn’t room for too much collaboration. Amassing individual successes to go on the CV is what it’s about; selfish need must always trump collegial spirit – at least until one has snared that elusive permanent post.

It’s difficult to see how to square these two sets of needs & wants – the collaborative versus the competitive impulses, or, put rather more cynically, optimism versus realism. But one thing which strikes to me is that we often struggle to be honest with ourselves about whether we are at the collaborative or the competitive end of the spectrum in any given moment. So, this post is my attempt to be honest with myself & you about how collaborative I am really, in the hope that it will prompt reflection & debate. As such, I offer a starting definition of collaboration:

A good collaboration is one in which all contributors’ needs are met equally.

This definition is pragmatic & reciprocal, and I hear it often. Indeed, I’ve quoted it to researchers plenty of times myself. The obvious rationale is that if all collaborators can be open about what they’re needing or expecting from a shared endeavour, then everybody can work together towards those objectives. Yet it occurs to me, in writing this post, that there are two problems with the definition.

The first is its assumption that all parties are capable of clearly articulating their needs, and I don’t believe that we should take this for granted. For example, I recently collaborated on writing a conference paper with a colleague. At the outset, I knew generally that I wanted to do the paper, just as I perceived somehow that I ought to do it, but it took a lot of careful reflection to identify what I was needing from it. In fact, I think I only realised afterwards what I had most been needing (in this instance: new contacts) when I got home from the conference regretting a number of things I could have done but didn’t. I’m going to go out on a limb & say that I’m not alone in this sort of experience.

The second problem with the definition is especially tricky: what happens when the collaborators’ needs are not in alignment? If you & I are working on an article together, and we’re both feeling the pressing need to be first author (e.g. for career reasons), then our needs are opposed. If we both hold fast to our need & dig our heels in, then no amount of negotiation will move us beyond this impasse. Moreover, my previous point that communicating our needs is fundamentally challenging might explain why we often come to realise for the first time that our needs & the needs of others are out of alignment when something goes wrong, conflicts arise, work doesn’t get done, and so on.

So, here’s an alternative proposition, one which I learnt recently from a friend & am still mulling over. Her definition was:

Being a good collaborator means working to meet the needs of your collaborators. 

That’s it. In other words, I don’t need to worry about my needs, because they will take care of themselves if I help others to be successful. I don’t know about you, but this definition shocks me in its – surely too good to be true – selflessness. In part, I suspect that’s because, if I’m being 100% truthful, it’s not how I’ve ever worked. My modus operandi has typically been to strive for what I want whilst (if I possibly can) helping others along the way. Not so unreasonable, you might think, but you can’t deny that it’s essentially a selfish mindset: in thought & in practice, I’m putting myself first. Perhaps this is why – confession time – I tend to keep a weather eye on who gets the credit and/or the recognition for any work done, and I tend to feel more than a little jealous when I perceive that I haven’t had my fair share. Many hours of conversations with PhD students & postdocs reassures me that I'm not alone in this anxiety, however unedifying it might appear when set down in black & white.

So, what would it mean in academia to collaborate by focusing on the needs of my colleagues? How do I decide that there is sufficient trust between my collaborators & me? Is there genuinely enough credit to go round, so that I don’t have to attend so enviously to who gets it? These are provocative & deeply personal questions, because, at the end of the day, we must acknowledge that collaboration is a highly mutable construct. In fact, how you choose to collaborate probably comes down to one question more than any other: when push comes to shove, how do you personally want to be remembered?

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