Trials and triumphs in blue-sky projects: Managing the research ‘partnership’

The tension between the academic research endeavour and getting a blue-sky project off the ground was the topic of a 28 October, 2015 seminar by Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing(WOW) guest,Dr Irene Ryan (Auckland University of Technology). Targeting partners likely to jump on board such projects, negotiating organisational access to collect data, and adequately delivering the practical outcomes desired by organisations and participants were key features.

Opening with her motivation for the presentation, Irene commented:

“Research is a reciprocal relationship; we should be asking ourselves how we can do it better… Researchers [also] need to talk about the back stories of their projects – it’s important learning, or how else are we going to improve our practice?”

At the tale-end of a recently funded blue-sky project focussing on the intersection of sport, leadership, gender and business, Irene reflected on the importance of framing a proposal around its target audience – are they individuals, funders or organisations to whom you wish to gain access for data collection, for example?:

“A research proposal is all about timing. Ask what the areas of interest are for the potential partner,” says Irene.

“A researcher must also capture the attention of the decision makers and sell the proposal to get business’ buy-in. I had to understand the context that each of [my partner] organisations was working through,…their history…[which to them] demonstrated my credibility. You have to give them the ‘elevator pitch’! …Capturing the interests of different industries in the public and private sector at the macro-meso-micro levels [should likewise form part of your strategy].”

She recommends too using Keith Grint’s (2005) model for anticipating the problems an organisation may face:

“Tame problems are pre-existing, often already known by the organisation and are usually open to a pre-existing solution. Critical problems are urgent, self-evident and crisis driven. Wicked problems are those that deal with what is literally unmanageable, have no right or wrong solutions and novel-unknown consequences.”

Not unexpectedly, negotiating access to collect data was a protracted process for Dr Ryan. Using emails, letters and meetings, it took nine months and three intrastate flights to gain access to one partner organisation. Using language they understood and teasing out what both parties meant by ‘partnership’ were also Critical factors.

Reporting findings to a non-academic audience was a Tame problem for Irene who acknowledges the difficultly in transitioning from academic-speak to other audience-appropriate language:

“[My] reports, whilst they took a long amount of time,…re-educated [me] about how to write for different audiences.”

Dr Sandra Lawrence
Dr Sandra Lawrence

Dr Sandra Lawrence (pictured left)– WOW member and organisational behaviour researcher – spoke post event about the benefit of Irene’shindsight and advice:

“I have had the benefit of working in research teams which have, in part, allowed me tolearn from people who are more proficient at doing the [project] pitches to potential partner organisations….however it has become apparenthow much we [researchers] don’t use [the expertise of] marketing [researchers and practitioners around our workplace] to help us communicate better to organisations about [our own research]… I really appreciated the [interactive blue-sky project] activity as it helped us think about where we wanted to ideally go with our future research projects without being held back by self-censoring pragmatics.”

In concluding, Dr Ryan reiterated the elephant in the room when working with partner organisations – meeting their expectations, and the importance of self-reflection:

“Asking how we as researchers are changed by the research process, [how we] share it, learn from it…that’s my take home message.”