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Some Thoughts on the Communication Culture in a Research Institution
by Stefan Schönauer
Throughout my career the question of how to improve the internal communication and collaboration has been a topic at every institution I worked for. Here I present some of my thoughts on the topic, which are based on personal experience and discussions with several people.
Communication in the sense of exchange of information is at the core of all scientific work. It is the basis for the collaboration amongst researchers necessary to produce scientific break-throughs in a highly specialized world. Not surprising, research institutions try to encourage and improve communication and collaboration among their researchers. The intention behind it is to support each individual scientist by avoiding unnecessary parallel developments within the institution and to create new solutions by bringing together experts with different backgrounds. In other words, the goals are the efficient use of resources, especially the working time of researchers, and enabling the discovery of the new and original by bringing together different and new views on a problem.
With the term "communication culture" I want to describe a communication infrastructure and more importantly a mind-set amongst the participating researchers which supports these goals. It covers not only directly science related information but also administrative information concerning the work environment. Obviously, all this requires open and free sharing of information in a collegial collaborative manner.
Most researchers would probably at least partially agree to the above mentioned goals. Why is it then that the improvement of the internal communication seems to be a constant topic in every research institution?
In my opinion the main reason is that communication means effort. It takes time. The very same precious research time which we try to save with it. To make matters worse, we are all lazy, i.e. we try to achieve our results with the least amount of effort. (In fact this efficiency is the ultimate goal of almost all computer science research.) Consequently, people tend to avoid the effort and only half-heartedly participate in measures to improve communication. In short, I claim that the main question is not what technical measures (seminars, Wikis, mailing lists etc.) should be implemented, but how to make those measures valuable to each individual stakeholder.
The following suggestions to improve the communication culture are guided by the claim just made. Neither one is a "silver bullet". Instead, the basic idea is to create an environment that encourages information sharing and provides means for it. These means may very well change over time due to change in habits or technology. However, I feel that rather than implementing each one of them only one or two should be in use at any given time. Otherwise the internal communication becomes scattered amongst channels and it quickly becomes an effort to keep track of the channels and to access all the relevant information. What technique works best depends heavily on the concrete institution. In one seminars might work best, whereas in others, with distributed locations, face-to-face meetings require much more effort and things like Wikis or mailing lists might work better.
One possibility could be a weekly seminar. At those seminars news of general interest (new hires, important administrative issues, achievements) could be announced. Also, new and successful collaborations that came from a talk could be mentioned there to show that it is time well spent. Such a seminar series would only work as a communication platform, however, if it had near 100% attendance. For people to feel obliged to come, I consider it vital that the senior staff shows up to demonstrate the importance of the venue. Obviously, finding a weekly common time slot in the senior staffs schedule would be a challenge. Therefore, it would have to be done well in advance.
In order to spread the knowledge about what is done at the department and by whom, the speakers for the seminar could be chosen from a different group of the department every week. For example at one institution I worked, next weeks speaker for the seminar was chosen at random from all researchers who hadn't spoken during that term already. In any case, the talks should be short (15-30 minutes) and could very well be just progress reports. The main idea would just be to spread the word on what is going on in the department.
A department Wiki might work just as well if the same basic measures of encouragement are taken:
- Publish collaborations resulting from the Wiki
- Senior staff actively shows support (e.g. also by publishing under their own name and occasionally dropping a "I read that on the department Wiki" in other staff meetings)
- Create a sense of obligation to participate (i.e. everyone should want to start the day by reading the Wiki to get up to speed)
As with a seminar series I think this should then be the main venue for announcements and the use of mailing lists should be reduced. This way an important one-stop-shop could be established, which everyone actually uses (if only not to miss something important).
In conclusion, I think that in order to improve the communication within a research institution, an open and collaborative communication culture is necessary. Spreading and sharing information has to be seen as important by every member of the institution. To achieve this three things seem vital to me: make successful new collaborations known, have senior staff openly express their support and create a sense of obligation to participate.
About the author:
Stefan got his PhD in computer science from the University of Munich. Since then he has been alternating between industrial and academic research positions in several countries. After spending almost 4 years at TKTL and HIIT, he is currently research lead at a web marketing company in Germany.
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Aaron is doing his PhD in the NODES group at the CS department. His research focuses on mobile computing and energy efficient design for multi-interfaced mobile devices.
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Doris is a researcher at the CS department and HIIT, doing her PhD in the neuroinformatics research group. Her research interests include graphical models, causal discovery, and time series.