Do you know what the purpose of your research alliance really is?

This first article at according2research about research alliances offers a simple navigational tool to help you clarify where your research alliance is heading. 

Universities, research organisations, clinical research groups etc are often involved in a number of different alliances (I use the term alliance here in the broad sense of the word covering different types of networks, platforms, strategies partnerships and leagues of research organisations, but excluding  research associations that acts like international guilds for different research areas).

Organisations participate in these alliances either as a whole  or through faculties, departments or centres.

The reason for doing so can be numerous. Some alliances are between prestigious organisations where membership is a question of being part of the right group. Other alliances are started by a smaller group of researchers who wants to collaborate or promote a new area of research. And in some cases alliances are started because the partners has identified a need to have a shared voice towards policy makers and politicians.

Seems clear enough?

Well, it isn’t always.

First of all, even if you start out agreeing on the goal, internal or external factors can significantly change the alliance partners’ understanding of what the alliance’s raison d’être is.

Secondly, even if you agree on the overall goal, do you all mean the same thing?

And thirdly, when you realise that you all might have slightly (or very) different interpretation of what the alliance’s goal is, do you have the conceptual framework to reach a common understanding? 

In this article I want to focus on the third and last problem, namely the lack of a conceptual framework to reach a common understanding.

Since this is the first article at according2research about research alliances, I will do so by offering the following very simple navigational tool for clarifying what the purpose of your alliance is:

 

alliances-dimensions
4 dimensions of alliance building

 

To use it, you simply sit down with your alliance partners and ask everyone to score the importance of the 4 dimensions on a scale of 1-4 (4 being the most important).

I know. It is almost too simple.

Perhaps. But in my experience many alliances would benefit from having their governing board sit down with this simple model of 4 dimensions of alliance building and agree on what they really should be doing. And when they have agreed on what they really should be doing, they should check that they also are really doing it and have the right setup reach their common goal.

So let me make a quick walk through of the 4 dimensions:

  • Branding
    This is about showing who you are, demonstrating your special capacity. Do you epitomise the notion of academic excellence? Is your organisation one of the new kids on the block who knows how to innovate? Or are you dedicated to working with universities in the developing world?
    Either way, your alliance shows it and gives you a platform to tell it to the world.
  • Lobbying
    Lobbying for research organisations is typically of two kind. Either you lobby for money, by trying to influence the priorities of funding agencies, or you lobby for changes to policy to ensure that your organisations has the right conditions for operating.
    In both cases, going together with others makes your organisation stronger because you can claim to represent a national, European or international community of organisations.
  • Collaboration
    What I mean by collaboration here is research collaboration. As an organisation you want your researchers working more closely together with researchers from other organisations. Perhaps you are able to combine in-house research infrastructures or you simply have complimentary skills and knowledge.
  • Funding
    You need money? who doesn’t. An alliance might allow you to attract funding by pooling efforts.
    In a way you could argue that for modern universities and research organisations an alliance is always about funding. You brand yourself to attract more students or industry partners, you lobby to attract more grants or avoid spending cuts and you collaborate to stay ahead of the pack.
    What I mean by funding here, however, is when an alliance invests significant resources in actually getting funding. Are you board meetings focused on the number of research proposals the alliance produces and is the key operational personnel your proposal writers? Then that is one example of an alliance focused on funding.

How do alliances get it wrong or why are they not clear about their purpose in the first place? After all, this clearly isn’t rocket science. I will get back to this in future posts, putting the 4 dimensions to use, but among the typical problems are:

  • Uncontrolled growth altering the organisation and capacity of the alliance
  • Difference how you present your alliance and what you actually intend to do
  • Disagreement among partners about the goal
  • External factors pulling the alliance in a difference direction than intended
  • and you can probably continue the list

 

Until then I am interested to hear if you agree about the 4 dimensions. Are they the right ones? And does your alliance knows where it is (really) heading?

 

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