Working together: lessons from collaborative projects with think tanks around the world
The On Think Tanks Exchange is an initiative that aims to encourage and support exchanges between think tanks for the purpose of developing new relationships, facilitating collaboration in research projects, institutional development, and policy influencing efforts.
So far, participants from The Exchange (coming from think tanks in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Georgia, Hungary, Indonesia, Peru, Slovak Republic and Ukraine) have identified the following challenges regarding collaboration. You may recognise them from your own experiences.
1) Unequal relationships: This is a recurring issue. Collaboration becomes a greater challenge when the think tanks involved are not working together as equals. This happens when they work as part of international programmes in which one of the participants holds the contract from the funder or when a think tank hires or sub-contracts another to undertake a specific task as part of a broader project.
In theory, these ‘contracts’ should make things easier. They should define roles and responsibilities and protocols to deal with conflicts -if they arise.
In practice, however, these contracts often evidence something else: that someone is ‘in charge’. This leads to undesired outcomes.
2) Costly and under-budgeted: Collaborations take time; and time is money. The participants all agree that successful collaborations demand an investment of financial and human resources that is rarely appropriately budgeted.
Since most collaborations take part within the framework of international (or national) projects involving deadlines and processes beyond the control of the think tanks, the time that would be necessary to ‘get to know each other’, iron out any possible concerns or differences, establish good working relationships, and fine-tune the terms of the collaboration is left out.
Instead of being part of an initial pre-inception phase, all of these very complex matters need to be sorted out while delivering the projects themselves.
3) Competition: Simon Maxwell, former Director of ODI, argued that think tank networks ought to resemble airline alliances. They could cooperate when it came to markets in which only one of them had a stake in, and compete, albeit in a friendly manner, in markets where they both operate.
One could think that think tanks collaborating with organisations in other regions would find this model appropriate. But think tanks, even across the world, compete with each other when it comes to information. A key challenge reported by the participants is the resistance of ‘partners’ to share information (contacts, data, studies) and this is accentuated in situations in which the relationships are unequal.
4) Unexplored differences: Differences are to be expected. The problem is that unequal relationships, the absence of trust, and limited resources all conspire to make it harder to explore and understand those differences. Think tanks make assumptions about each other based on what they know; and they know themselves, most of all.
They project onto other organisations their own strengths and weaknesses. But even when they discover that things are not what they expected, they find it hard to address them. This is understandable, above all, we want to be polite.
But there are also incentives against rocking the boat. Donors may not look kindly on delayed projects (even if the reasons for the delay is that the think tanks sought to address issues of capacity or quality) and think tanks may not want to accept that the strong partnerships they claimed where not so much partnerships as risky contractual relationships.
5) The usual suspects: language, legal and time differences: A recurring issue has to do with more mundane aspects of collaboration. Language can be a huge challenge. When collaborating across regions the common language may be one in which none of the parties is fluent in (e.g. english may be the only language that both Ecuadorian and Indonesian think tanks could work in together). This however limits who (not all researchers will be equally fluent) may collaborate in a think tank.
Legal aspects of the organisation and the national legislation may get in the way, too. Many countries incur in significant taxes when they make foreign payments -in other cases even receiving funds may incur in charges. There are also legal constraints about the source of funding that some think tanks may accept -which can lead to complications when it comes to sorting out contracts between the various members of a group.
Finally, time differences can complicate things greatly. Collaboration requires interaction. This can be addressed with email or Skype and even shared documents but with significant time differences this may demand quite a bit of time and patience from the participants. And patience may be in short supply if we consider all the challenges above. Of course, time differences are associated to the cost of meeting face to face -something we know can be of great help.
Is there a role for a match maker?
In preparation for a meeting in Jakarta (September 29 to October 3), The Exchange’s participants prepared a few blog posts on why they have learned from their collaboration, so far:
From Brazil: From Quito to Tbilisi: international collaboration and long-distance (work) relationships
From Ukraine: Learning from differences: first steps of the think tank communication case-study project
From Ecuador: So far, so good!
From Georgia: Reflections on Being a Part of International Collaborative Project
From Argentina: Some preliminary lessons from a collaborative project with think tanks around the world
According to The Exchange organizers, the project could have a role for a matchmaker or a space to help address some of these issues identified in the blog posts. The Exchange (or something like it) could:
Help cover some of the costs of face-to-face collaboration by bringing several ‘partnerships’ together at the same time
Help cover the costs of the initial planning periods that are often left out
Providing ‘translation’ support -particularly to address some of the important things that may be lost in translation
Prevent conflicts or shortfalls by sharing these lessons with potential collaborative teams -and then providing constant feedback about lessons as they take their collaborations forward
You can follow the meeting using #TheExchangeJakarta.