‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’

Management guru Peter Drucker’s quote famously emphasised the value of culture to an organisation. Its importance is widely recognised within academia and research funders where increasing attention is being given to developing a positive research culture. As the Royal Society puts it:

“Research culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated.”

A central theme of building a positive research culture is collaboration and multidisciplinarity. As part of its work on promoting research culture the Royal Society has produced a series of essays that look at historical and contemporary collaborations in science research and the conditions that led to their success.

Neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow’s book ‘Joined-up Thinking – The science of collective intelligence’ makes the case that the range and complexity of the challenges that face us a species require an even greater focus on working together, rather than in individual silos to harness our intelligence in its broadest sense. She argues that even though our success as a species has been largely down to our ability to cooperate we have become too focussed on the importance of individual intelligence and as a result: 

“We get stuck in our own little bubbles, overlooking ideas and people that could disrupt our thinking in useful ways. We don’t talk or listen with enough curiosity and patience to actually learn. We pay lip service to the value of collaboration without knowing how to really do effective joined up thinking, or what it might mean for us if we did.”

Effective collaboration requires trust. As an article in the Harvard Business Review, looking at the neuroscience of trust, summarised: 

“Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”

Trust requires open and honest dialogue. Economist Paul Collier highlights the importance of dialogue in developing a collaborative environment:

So how does a community become capable of acting together for some shared goal? The surest way is through dialogue and trusted leadership. Dialogue…engages everyone, so that all members of the community can participate and co-own the outcome. It flows back and forth between equals who aim to understand each other, in contrast to instructions flowing down a hierarchy. And it presumes mutual regard between participants, not indifference or worse. Dialogues tend to build a common understanding of a situation, a common sense of identity that can co-exist with our other identities. But above all, they can create a sense of common obligation that encourages us to put these collective purposes ahead of our own individual interests.”

Dialogue and knowledge exchange are at the heart of SUII projects. They provide the time and space to bring together researchers from different disciplines and institutions, and give them the opportunity to work with each other to exchange knowledge and ideas with policy makers, practitioners and the wider public, to improve policy and practice. In this way we aim to contribute to developing a trusting, collaborative research culture that values diversity and different perspectives.

This short video summarises the collaborative experience of one SUII project leader.

Creative Workplace Innovation – Madeline Smith, Glasgow School of Art.
Video by Alison Hutcheson (Woods Noble Video)

Not only will this work have impact on policy and practice, it should also help foster a deeper culture of collaboration within academia, which should have a positive feedback on the quality of future research and help in securing research funding, where successful applications are likely to require even greater collaboration in the years to come.

As well as providing financial support to cover the expenses of running collaborative knowledge exchange projects, the SUII team also offers logistical and administrative support to project teams to make it easier for teams to work together to focus on the content of projects and help remove one of the barriers to collaboration.

Charlie Woods, February 2023

Author: scotinsight

The Scottish Universities Insight Institute supports programmes of knowledge exchange which address and provide insight on substantial issues that face Scotland and the wider world. Our programmes break down disciplinary and organisational barriers in bringing together academics from different backgrounds, policymakers and practitioners to mobilise existing knowledge in fresh ways through sustained and collaborative focus on a shared issue. Our member universities are: Aberdeen, Dundee, Heriot Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde, and Glasgow School of Art.

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