Working in mixed consortia is an art to be mastered - Impression of pilot seminar

21 december 2015
About 40 NWO researchers and experts in co-production of knowledge and transdisciplinary research came together at the Amsterdam Business School (University of Amsterdam) in December 2015 to share their experiences with cooperating with non-academic partners. The seminar was a pilot hosted by the university, NWO Social Sciences and VerDuS (the knowledge initiative 'Connecting Sustainable Cities' by NWO, Platform31, SIA and two ministries). 'We wanted to explore if this kind of exchanging experience and lessons learned from the past would come in handy for starting researchers in NWO programmes,' says Ymkje de Boer on behalf of NWO. 'Now that we know it does, we're looking into ways to continue the dialogue we started and to offer this form of 'inter-vision' for more young researchers at NWO Social Sciences in the future.' Participants came from four different NWO Social Science programs*.
Wim Hafkamp** chaired the seminar and welcomed the participants by asking non-Dutch researchers about their experiences in working across the borders of cultures and languages. PhD candidates from Italy, Colombia and South-Africa are in an even more complex situation than the Dutch non-academic partners in their consortia. Next, John Grin*** gave a quick introduction to the theme of transdisciplinary research and knowledge co-creation. 'This kind of co-operation between scientific researchers and experts outside the academia is especially needed when we are dealing with unstructured, wicked problems, like climate change. Note that problems can change in character over time; a structured problem can become unstructured when for instance in the societal debate the means and the ends become controversial.' Grin also used the metaphor of the pin ball machine: 'Sometimes cooperation is a messy thing.' A useful distinction that would return several time in the afternoon was 'politics/practice on top' as opposed to 'science on top'. In lots of research projects that have their origin in science, in the way things go science is 'on top' in such a way that real co-operation is hard to achieve. For NWO programs obviously both need to be on top.

Wim Hafkamp chaired the seminar

Researchers, facilitators and an NWO staff member were interviewed about research projects by mixed consortia. Paul Chorus, a researcher who is now at Provincie Noord-Holland: 'I've experienced that it is difficult to keep practitioners involved and infuse the knowledge in their organizations. My advice is to engage people that are passionate about the subject. And always ensure the commitment of the management in practitioning organizations.' Niels Sprong is researcher in the NWO program Sustainable Business Models: 'Even with just one stakeholder involved things can work like the pinball machine John mentioned. There is a tension between keeping the stakeholder committed and keeping focused on your own research plan.' Eric Koomen was involved in a project with many stakeholders from various backgrounds. 'Indeed the commitment of stakeholders is something very personal: it depends on someone’s personal interest. Another thing is that your network of parties that are interested can change overtime. We got attention from parties we had not foreseen at all. This also influences the way the research project evolves and it can change the results.'

Not just financing
Dolf van Veen is both lecturer (at Hogeschool Inholland, auniversity of applied science), professor (at University of Nottingham) and project leader in the field of education and youth. 'We work a lot with partnerships between very different organizations. This leads to complex situations with very strategic and politicized behaviour. We should not see the consortium as a way to finance our research only, but also as a family in which one supports one another. As a researcher you can't do it all on your own. And for having any societal impact the involvement of others is crucial.' Marcus van Leeuwen is senior policymaker at NWO Social Sciences. In his department co-funding by other parties and building mixed consortia is becoming more customary in research programmes. 'Indeed this is not just a matter of finance. It is a matter of investing in knowledge together to have more societal impact. Ministries and companies are involved at the programme level but also in individual projects. In the private sector they would call what we do 'open innovation'. I think we are moving towards a situation in which societal stakeholders co-define the central themes and research questions for the programmes. In Sustainable Business Models this has already been done. Measuring impact is still quite hard. We can only rely on what the researchers report to us about that.'

Smart techniques
What are do's and don't's when you are working in mixed consortia? And what role can process managers and facilitators play? Femke Merkx is consultant and facilitator in knowledge projects. She works with people from different backgrounds. 'There are several ways in which you can make co-operation more fruitful, by using different discussion techniques, for instance. A technique I often use, is posing questions in a more explorative way. This leads to less debating and more learning experiences.' Edwin van Uum works as an urban planner and is often active as a facilitator in spatial projects. 'To get practice on top next to science is very hard. Sometimes practitioners just sit there at the table with an attitude of a customer: I've paid for this, so please give me something I can work with. You can activate all partners by doing something very practical. Create a 'living lab', let researchers reflect on the problems of the other organisations, make the process more 'giving & taking' at the same time for everybody, change the setting and the roles.'

John Grin gave an introduction

Make it fun
Lydia Sterrenberg also has a lot of experience as a coordinator of 'mixed' research projects. 'All too often science stays at top. My advice is to put a lot of time in the start of the project. All partners involved should frame and rephrase the project and the research questions together. The time this will take might seem too much, but as the project evolves, it really pays off. And you're never finished discussing the goals and so on; it is an ongoing process. Be sure you work with people who are engaged by heart. Avoid partners who see the project as just an obligation.' Paul Chorus: 'Political urgency is also helpful.' Lydia: 'And making it fun for everybody. Organise an interesting excursion to a nice place.' Edwin van Uum: 'Joint activities are also interesting forms of output. We should value that more.'

Practice next to science on top
Antoine Heideveld is director at Het Groene Brein, an association of researchers in the sustainability domain, and he also is network manager at the programme Sustainable Business Models. 'At our programme practice was completely at top, from the very start. We invest a lot in the relationships between the co-funding parties and the researchers. This is especially important because companies tend to expect results in a very short time – say, in a few months, while it takes science a few years.' Marcus van Leeuwen: 'At NWO we are putting practice more on top and in the driving seat. At the VerDuS programme SURF we recently had scientific and societal review panels at the same time: their reviews are weighed equally.'

Some panel members: Marcus van Leeuwen, Dolf van Veen, Paul Chorus, Eric Koomen

Several practical issues
After the interview with the experts, is was time to work in small groups. The participants came from four different NWO programmes: Sustainable Business Models, Uncertainty Reduction in Smart Energy Systems (URSES), Smart Governance and Human Capital. Each programme had their own group with a facilitator and one or two of the experts that had been interviewed. After an hour the groups came back and reported the most important issues that had been discussed. Also there were some points of interest for NWO and the facilitators present:
  • Building consortia takes time. It that available in NWO procedures? (NWO representants answer: yes, this is becoming more routine.)
  • Process managers / facilitators can also be part of the project in some more recent NWO projects. It might be an idea to start a pool of available people for these jobs. (Although one might also argue that these skills should also be part of the researchers that are in leading roles. Maybe we could work with 'tandems', is a suggestion: let process managers and researchers play the facilitating role together; or to explicitly acknowledge this role for senior researchers and project leaders, also financially.)
  • A lot of NWO programmes still have the traditional structure of a set of PhD projects. This is not the ideal form for true transdisciplinary research; more flexibility in employment is needed.
  • Researchers should be offered education or support for these kinds of projects if they have no experience yet.
  • Maybe co-creation itself should be more explored on a scientific level (and we can learn from international experience and networks); see for instance Gabriele Bammer's initiative for a global community on Integration and Implementation Sciences.

Wim Hafkamp closed the session with the promise to let everybody know how this dialogue can be continued in the future.

Links & documents:
  • You can have a look at the special issue of Bestuurskunde at the website of Boom Lemma.
  • You can download the presentation by John Grin as PDF.

* These are:

** Wim Hafkamp is professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam and working in the field of environmental economics. He is co-editor of the special issue from 'Bestuurskunde' about co-production of knowledge that was issued this week.

*** John Grin is professor at University of Amsterdam and specialized in co-production of knowledge by experts from different backgrounds, and co-editor of the special issue from 'Bestuurskunde' about co-production of knowledge that was issued this week.

Issues discussed in the small working groups

The problem of keeping stakeholders involved was discussed, especially in the situation that research has been on top from the start. Some ways to deal with this:
  • Always have an open dialogue with the stakeholders, keep working on the relationship, put (next to the content) also the process central 
  • Use smart co-operative working techniques, like joint prioritizing / agenda setting / fact & expectation finding
  • Organize to have fun
  • Be interested in the daily practice of the other parties; let them give presentations on what is on top of their agenda; meet each other in the organisations, have a broad interest in each other
  • Discuss boundaries and restrictions in the project (and maybe even change the group)
  • Bridge the first year (in which there is only theoretical output) by finding common interests and organising activities (on location)
  • Find new spin offs, extra research activities (MSc students) for instance
  • Don't focus on meetings, but also on the process before and after

This group discussed various ways in which to further and realise a fruitful science-practice collaboration:
  • How to make sure companies/partners get enough out of it?
  • Create 'add on' projects, involving students sometimes
  • Make sure that the partners do not see scientists as their 'ambassadors' (PR); just 'show casing' is not enough, for neither ‘side’
  • How to make sure companies/partners get enough out of it
  • There are different ways of delivering 'value' for practitioners, also depends on 'drivers' of practitioners
  • Needed are common vision and trust, personal relationships and mutual understanding (also in the practicalities of how to organise and structure meetings)
  • For proper management of expectations from the start, it is important to identify win-win-situations AND win-lose-situations; honesty is important

* Smart Governance
Co-operation is not easy, due to a lot of different factors. What works:
  • Exchanging knowledge between the knowledge parties in the consortia
  • Having fixed contact persons and clear mutual agreements
  • Having a common goal
  • Having information that is very relevant to practitioning parties
  • Using info-graphics
  • Working in small groups and individually, being flexible in that

* Human Capital
In this group a specific project and its context was discussed:
  • Use the expertise of the partners more
  • Create smaller projects, also in a smaller time frame, with more short-term milestones



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