How to have Difficult Conversations: 5 practical tips for better academic-practitioner research collaborations

November 25, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Love the idea (and the title) of this report from MITGOV LAB. As someone who attempts to straddle academia and practitioners, I can vouch that such conversations are often marked by mutual incomprehension, sometimes laced with suspicion and/or contempt – not a good basis for a useful exchange.

The authors, Varja Lipovsek and Alisa Zomer are also ‘boundary spanners’ – Varja moved to the Lab from Twaweza, one of my all-time favourite NGOs, so the advice is pretty practical. Here’s their 5 most difficult conversations:

‘Results: what if they’re negative or null? Working through different scenarios early on is essential to set expectations about possible research results and what they mean for both academics and practitioners. At MIT GOV/LAB, we seek partners who want to learn equally from what works and what doesn’t work. Even if the results of our projects are not suitable for academic publishing, we commit to producing non-academic outputs (i.e., summary findings, policy briefs) and to report on collaborations. Talk through possible outcomes at the outset to clarify motivations and deliverables on both sides.

Timelines: are we on the same page? Often there is a tension between practitioners eager for results that they can use quickly, and academics who work on multi-year timeframes. To address this challenge, we try to get everyone on the same page about key dates, deadlines, and timetables for scoping, preliminary work, and pilots. Once a project starts, sunk costs and path dependency can prolong a collaboration that is no longer beneficial for both parties. So, after each phase, we take time to reflect on the process and decide together whether it makes sense to move forward. In some cases, the answer is no, and that’s okay.

Buy in: how do we work together? Oftentimes collaborative projects have buy-in from leadership, but not from staff who will be implementing the project or research in the field. To the extent possible, including a range of staff from both teams throughout the decision-making process is important to developing a successful project with ownership across both teams.

Outputs: what is this all for? Understanding where, and to whom, results will be disseminated is critical to producing something that’s useful to target audiences. That’s why it’s crucial to talk through potential outputs, and clarify when early results might be ready and how they can be used. It’s also important to make sure the results are translated or broken down clearly for practitioner audiences, especially if complex, experimental methods are used.

Power: how do we address equity in research collaborations? Implicit to many of these conversations is the tension over resources and power, and who produces, interprets, uses, and holds knowledge. In writing this guide, we acknowledge that there is a deep body of work examining the production of knowledge and diversity of approaches to engaged scholarship. We don’t discuss in detail issues of equity in this guide, but we link to some useful resources on equitable partnerships in the final section.’

Each of these 5 interlocking minefields has its own section, discussing mutual/differing assumptions among researchers and practitioners, and the kinds of questions they should ask themselves and each other to sort out any tensions. They recommend starting this conversation early on in the research partnership and writing down the results (while you’re still friends).

It won’t end the pain altogether, but this kind of couples counselling for researcher-practitioner relationships could really help.

November 25, 2019
Duncan Green