19 Jul 2018 18:53 IST

The value of collaborative research

Team research, across institutions and geographies, has important policy and practice implications

Research is the systematic process of exploring an issue to arrive at an outcome that either resolves the stated problem or makes it more understandable. Rigorous research has been an integral part of the education system and is critical for a faculty member who wants to retain tenure, with ‘publish or perish’ becoming a survival mantra for academia.

For years, the scholarship selection process and promotion of an academician have been evaluated on the basis of quantity and quality of their publications in peer-reviewed journals. In today’s competitive world, the ranking and rating of an academic institution also hinges on research and its publication by faculty members. Thus, conducting research and being published in quality international journals are a sine qua non for an academic to retain a job and and progress in it.

Management, with its home-grown theories and concepts, is not a fundamental discipline of study — it borrows ideas from related disciplines such as psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology, among others. It is a potpourri of conceptual frameworks and, hence, in order to really master the art and science of management, one has to draw from diverse fields of knowledge, more so when you are a management educator.

Purpose of research

This inter-disciplinary approach is not only applicable to effective teaching-learning, but also to research in the domain, as no single academician can reasonably acquire the necessary wherewithal, in terms of knowledge and skills, to do justice to the myriad demands of management studies. Transcending boundaries and cross-fertilisation of ideas across disciplines is a necessary condition to effectively contribute to the teaching-learning process and conduct of research.

Research may be conducted with various objectives in mind, including building a new theory, exploring the application of an existing one, or evaluating the causal relations between or among various constructs or variables. The findings, thus, may have policy implications (relevance of existing policies or framing new ones) or throw new light on prevalent practices (evaluation of existing practice or devising new practices).

Modes of research

The modes of research, depending on the number of people involved in it, can be categorised as ‘solo’ and ‘team’ or ‘collaborative’ research.

Most research used to be conducted solo due to certain personal and environmental factors. The personal factors relate to a researcher’s personality characteristics such as eccentricity, egocentricity, pride, and independent nature. The environmental factors include institutional work culture, reward system, and non-availability of enabling technology to communicate and interact with other researchers.

The gestation period of such research work was high, and limited availability of resources was an impediment to a great extent. Since solo researchers had no means to overcome challenges caused by institutional factors, they continued to bear the burden of working alone.

There are numerous stories of two researchers exploring the same problem for many years in isolation, unknown to each other, and arriving at similar conclusions within a short span of time of each other. Imagine the time, money, energy and resources they could have saved, and frustrations they could have avoided, had they collaborated with each other? Yet, in spite of its limitations, we owe a great deal to the dedication and commitment of solo researchers in formulating new theories and concepts, and discovering new products.

Over the last 20 years, there has been an unprecedented change in the world we live in, and dealing with these changes has become a huge challenge in itself. The 21st century is considered a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world that has made legacy systems and approaches redundant, and there is a dire need for the creation of new paradigms to deal with emerging challenges.

On his own, an individual would find it very difficult to decipher, understand, explain, andprovide solutions to issues the world is facing today, especially in management education. This necessitates the application of multiple minds and multi-disciplinary approaches to solve existing and emerging issues. This paves the way for a newer approach to exploration — ‘team’ or ‘collaborative’ research.

Institutions, geographies

Depending on the ingenuity and enterprise of the researchers involved, collaborative research may take various shapes. The simplest form would be among researchers within one institution, with colleagues, either in the same functional area or across disciplines.

Inter-institutional collaborations can be established between researchers from different institutions across the world, with different qualifications.

Another form of collaborative research can be between an academician and an industry professional. Such academia-industry research ventures bring with them tremendous implications for improved practices.

Complementary framework

Research by individuals was relevant in a time that was slow paced, less complicated and relatively predictable. But with globalisation, the information and communications technology (ICT) explosion and the rapid pace of life, the management world has become intimidating — it exposes the many limitations and vulnerabilities of solo research.

In order to make sense of management education, one requires multiple perspectives and cross-disciplinary approaches that are available only to a team with diverse strengths but operating in a complementary and collaborative framework. Such research brings many advantages, such as ease of effort, resource expansion, time saving, and cross-fertilisation of diverse ideas.

In addition, it has positive implications on the teaching-learning process, management development, consulting, and cross-cultural applications of collaborative research outcomes. And with the advent of ICT, it is much easier to communicate and collaborate in real time with any number of research collaborators spread across a large geography.

The challenges

At the individual level, a researcher has to invest her/his resources to find like-minded researchers, deal with others’ expectations (even if they are unrealistic), and handle conflicts or differences in ideas, and idiosyncrasies of team members. This becomes more compounded if the team comprises members from diverse backgrounds, in terms of culture, expertise and demographics.

To facilitate a management educator to deal with the above issues, the institution that she/he is associated with has to create a healthy environment, work culture, policies, and practices. Without a supportive institutional mechanism it will be challenging to embark upon such a team venture.

This mechanism should offer an employee specific employment conditions, flexibility in work-load, provision for travel grants, and seed money grant to pool in with other researchers across institutions.

(The authors are professors at IMI New Delhi.)