Collaboration

The Analytical Sciences Lab is an eight-year partnership between the National Security Agency (NSA) and North Carolina State University that aims to bring together business, academia and government to help the intelligence community address “the most pressing national security and technology issues.” For example, the 2016 collaboration used information from buses and trains to alert officials at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics about potential safety issues for athletes and spectators during protests.

A group of outside researchers studied the lab’s work and published a book about the interdisciplinary collaboration. “We were interested in, ‘How well does this work in a real-world setting?” – says study co-author Kathleen Vogel, deputy director of the School for the Future of Community Innovation at Arizona State University.

One of the biggest obstacles to collaboration, they found, are cultural clashes between members of different professions. “At meetings, we see government representatives sitting on the edges of the room,” Vogel says. The academics at the table didn’t understand what was going on-they asked, “Don’t they want to participate?” But government people are used to working-level people sitting around the room, and only high-level government officials sit at the table.”

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How do you make sure new employees work together? Here are some of the most important findings of the researchers:

Talk through the little things. People from different fields may understand the simplest tasks differently, from setting up a meeting to sending an e-mail. “You have to be in constant communication about how things work or don’t work, and openly state problems as they arise,” Vogel says. “We had to develop protocols for working with other people.”

Don’t forget the long-term goals. Initiatives to accomplish urgent NSA goals have often been prioritized over long-term projects. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” the researchers write, but there is a danger in “increasingly gravitating toward producing tangible widgets that can be implemented quickly.” The risk is that short-term projects usurp “long-term research and innovation that can yield significant returns in the future.”

Make it “critical.” The notion of “critical” is typical of government projects, such as building bridges or training first responders. It means that the work is critical: If it is not done, it will result in harm or injury to others. This is motivating, especially in remote settings where social ties between team members can be weak. “Criticality is very important when the work is virtual,” says Beverly Tyler, co-author of Vogel’s book and professor in the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University.

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Focus on results. People with set work schedules that matched traditional work hours didn’t always appreciate colleagues whose schedules weren’t so “nine-by-five.” As one lab employee told the researchers: “We had to realize that professors could come in and do whatever they wanted. It was a bit of a surprise for us.” This can create tension, so make it clear that it’s the outcome that matters, not who was in the office when.

Be gracious. As obvious as it sounds, employees who collaborate need to feel supported by their supervisors; if you manage remotely, you need to do your best to make that support evident. Employees will “lose interest,” says Tyler, if they are not praised and rewarded for their work.

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