Thursday, November 27, 2014

How to: Manage a Distance Research Collaboration

Since the beginning of my PhD, I’ve worked on a number of long-term, long-distance research projects with people in France, India, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and the UK. I’ve gotten pretty good at scheduling meetings across time zones and finding ways to share documents and ideas with people on opposite sides of the planet. Given the increasingly interdisciplinary and international focus of academic research, I’m betting that at some point you’ll find yourself wanting to collaborate with someone who is just getting up when you’re going to bed, and those collaborations function rather differently than those with the folks in the office down the hall. So you don’t have to figure out from scratch how to successfully pursue research or other projects with people from away, here’s what I’ve learned that can make your life easier:
  1. Figure out what blocks of time in each of your time zones conveniently overlap, and use those blocks as your default meeting times. I know my lunch hour in Toronto is the end of the work day in London, and so my UK-based collaborator and I tend to schedule our meetings then. It saves us from having to figure out a time that suits both of us every time we need to meet. I also keep this bookmarked: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html
  2. Make use of free communication technology. Skype is your friend, as is Google chat. Email is useful, but I find that the best long-distance collaborations are nurtured with lots of less-formal conversation. If you can’t meet for coffee to talk shop, or pop into one another’s offices in the middle of the afternoon, try to replicate that experience online. I also advise using methods of communication that automatically capture a record of the conversation for you--Google chat does this, as does the SMS backup app I use to save all of my text messages to my email account, where they’re searchable. 
  3. Keep your documents somewhere central and easily accessible. I don’t know how I survived before the advent of Google Drive. I have a separate shared project folder for each of my current ongoing research collaborations, and everything lives there. We all appreciate being able to see who was the last to edit a file, precisely what edits those were, and exactly what collateral we have on hand at all times. I certainly appreciate not having my inbox clogged with huge attachments, and knowing that we’re all always working from the most up-to-date files. 
  4. Set deliverables and a follow-up plan at the end of every meeting. This is good practice for real-world meetings too, but it’s especially important in distance collaborations to make sure that everyone knows what needs to be done (and by when) at the end of every meeting, and when the next meeting will be (if one is necessary). If you know that your urgent 8:00 am email to your collaborator isn’t going to get read until she wakes up 10 hours later, it becomes extra important to ensure that expectations, deliverables, and timelines are clear when you already have her on the other end of the Skype call. 
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Long-distance collaborations already have physical distance built in, and that physical distance can turn into mental distance and misunderstandings all too easily. Add the potential issues with cross-cultural communication--and this can be differences in institutional culture, not just broader regional or national culture--and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. It’s incredibly important to make sure that you’re all understanding terms in the same way, that your research goals and plans are clearly and regularly articulated, and that channels of communication are open. 
  6. Make plans to occasionally meet in person, if at all possible. Despite working with collaborators as far away as India, I’ve managed to meet up with my research partners at least once during each project, most often at a conference we were all attending. It is incredibly helpful, and incredibly invigorating, to spend some time talking and working together, even if just for a few hours.
  7. Let someone be in charge. It’s particularly important, when working remotely, to be clear about who is responsible for what, and to have someone taking the lead on the project (or certain aspects of it). Ensure that responsibility is clearly assigned, and that divisions of labour are clearly understood, or else you’ll spend your time worrying about if you were supposed to do that thing, or waiting for your collaborator (for whom it’s the middle of the night) to confirm that he’s doing whatever it is. 
What about you, dear readers? Any tips and tricks for successfully negotating long-distance research collaborations?

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