The art of collaborative relationships

March 21, 2017

Professor Sharon Bell, board member of Ninti One, examines different approaches to collaboration and debunks the myth of individual creative genius.

collaborative relationships

When we speak of innovation we increasingly couple it with collaboration. Collaboration is regularly promoted as a positive attribute and a productive means to an end.

In my own research, I promote collaboration as a mechanism for including more women in scientific teams in male-dominated fields, and as a mechanism to sustain research when individuals are juggling the competing demands of life and family.

In this context, at one end of the spectrum we might be speaking of the collaboration that characterises teamwork within an organisation, while at the other end of the spectrum we might be speaking of international scientific collaboration that draws geographically dispersed networks together.

My research over the past decade on women in the academy and women in science has heightened my interest in the art of collaboration and how it might encapsulate ‘the way we do things around here’ – our organisational culture.

I am particularly interested in the way in which men are sponsored and socialised into strategic relationships, particularly with business and industry – an opportunity not readily available to most women.

Yet we know little about the social processes that sit behind the scientific production of knowledge, and most of our recognition and reward systems focus on the outstanding individual.

The myth of individual creative genius is a myth that my colleagues who work with remote Indigenous communities – just like those in large international scientific research teams – know is culturally and historically specific.

Those who are privileged to work with Indigenous communities know that collaboration based on deep respect of different ‘ways of seeing,’ encoded in art, language and religion and formulated over extremely long periods of time, is central to sustaining collaborative relationships. Longevity of relationship is particularly highly valued, and the time taken to build respectful collaborative relationships and trust is a critical part of this sustained engagement.

They also know that while knowledgeable individuals are involved, the knowledge is collectively owned and accessible only through well-established protocols.

The art of collaboration is far more than a set of pragmatic, instrumental practices. With a degree of candour, I should state that I am not always a great collaborative partner. I put this down to my academic identity being formed in the discipline of anthropology where the ‘rite de passage’ was years of field research alone in a remote village.

This prepares the aspiring researcher for collaboration from a position of heightened ignorance but not necessarily with academic peers with a common knowledge base. I also evidence deficiencies in two attributes essential to collaboration: time and discomfort with failure.

Innovation demands the time to build teams, network, establish cross-sectoral collaborative relationships, generate and test ideas, fail, learn and start again, and to translate research findings and disseminate these to a range of audiences. It also requires the time for reflection and exercise of the imagination.

Collaboration at its best generates this time and, at its best, offers a safe space to fail.

Professor Sharon Bell

Honorary Professor College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU

Board Member, Ninti One

Read next: Heather Catchpole: Collaboration at a higher scale

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  1. What about the ones from CSIRO who lost their jobs leading up to the discovery of the result that may be due to gravity waves? They seem to be conveniently omitted….don’t we recognize people anymore because they have been sacked/shafted/deleted/terminated/expunged/retrenched?
    http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/csiro-hailed-contribution-to-gravitation-waves-find–for-work-done-by-axed-unit-20160214-gmtmhu.html
    This is happening too often.

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