Supportive, inclusive & collaborative research cultures

Presentation in a course for Research Deans organised by the Chartered Association of Business Schools and the British Academy of Management

Early 2022 I presented at a course for Research Directors, organised by the British Academy of Management and the Chartered Association of Business Schools. The theme of my presentation was building supportive, inclusive, and collaborative cultures. It consisted of four parts. You can jump straight to the part you are most interested in with these links:

Post-92 context: challenges & opportunities

Improving the research culture is important for any university. But it is even more important for universities that are not part of the country’s elite research-intensive universities. In the UK, there is a large group of universities that are former polytechnics. This means that traditionally they focused on teaching more practical skills. Lecturers in these universities did not generally engage much in research. However, 30 years ago they all became universities. That’s why as a group they are often called post-92s.

Since then many post-92s, including Middlesex University, have dramatically improved their research performance (see: Middlesex University Business School top-ranked in REF 2021 for research impact). This is true even if their research performance is not as widely spread across staff as in the traditional research-intensive universities and their research cultures are emergent rather than well established. At the same time, they maintained their emphasis on caring for students and external engagement. So, in fact we could call them triple-intensives: focusing on research, teaching, and external engagement equally.

The biggest problem for triple intensives is their lack of a strong research reputation. Even if they are performing well on objective metrics such as publications, citations, and funding, their external reputation often lags behind their objective performance (see above slide). This can create a vicious circle as their lack of reputation might make it harder to compete with elite institutions for scarce resources such as for instance research funding, positions on research councils, or other prestigious positions in the HE sector.

You can nurture and develop emerging research cultures into strong supportive and inclusive research cultures as we have done at Middlesex University. However, changing an institution’s reputation takes a long time, especially in a Higher Education system that is as stratified as the UK. On the other hand, I think many non-elite institutions might have some advantages over elite institutions in building collaborative and inclusive research cultures:

  • They may have more flexibility in job-crafting. Non-elite institutions might be more willing to acknowledge that different colleagues simply have different skillsets.
  • Non-elite institutions make less use of tenure tracks and often give academics permanent jobs after a short trial period. This generally leads to more commitment to the institution.
  • Secure employment often leads to more collegiality, staff are not in competition with each other for a limited number of jobs. Most are also truly committed to social mobility for students and using their research to make a difference for those less fortunate in society.
  • Given that many staff haven’t had the advantage of a top-notch doctoral education they also tend to be more appreciative of developmental activities.

Leadership for collaborative and inclusive research cultures

I briefly outlined three leadership options for building collaborative and inclusives research cultures. The first option would be to simply include responsibility for this in the Research Director role. This might work well in smaller institutions and in the early phases, but this is very hard to scale up. The second option could be to work with distributed professorial leadership. This might work well in some institutions, but you do need to have professors who are intrinsically motivated to do this, and who are not too focused on their own career. The third option would be to have a dedicated role as in my own role at Middlesex. I also speculated about some criteria that might make for a good candidate.

  • Experience with Research Director role or similar for context
  • Well-connected to allow linking junior colleagues to external networks and opportunities
  • Very established in career, so willing to serve others, and less focused on own career

Middlesex Programme of Research Support

In this part of the presentation, I outlined the programme of research support we have designed at Middlesex in some detail. It might provide a useful source of comparison with your own institution. This part of the presentation was divided into six key areas:

  1. Time and money
  2. Workshops & Training
  3. Informal meetings
  4. Individual support provided internally at Middlesex
  5. Individual support derived from external sources
  6. General culture building, largely through social media.

Where to start? Advice for Research Deans

The last part of the presentation included some practical tips on how to start building up a research culture if you have very little time and money. There are many free or inexpensive resources out there. You can join CARMA research methods consortium for development of research skills and can encourage female academics to join CYGNA. CYGNA is free and CARMA costs less than 50 pounds a month (for the whole institution!). You can also refer academics to my Working in Academia page and YouTube channel, where they will find all sorts of resources to use individually.

You can build up involvement gradually with monthly research lunches, research receptions, and setting up research clusters. Then, in the next tranche you could consider running training sessions related to publishing, funding, and impact. Decide where your institution's strongest needs lie and whether you have the right senior expertise for it. If you can’t commit to regular training sessions, just run one or two ad-hoc sessions a year. They might gradually develop into something more regular. Other activities outlined in my presentation below are either more time-consuming or more costly or both, but most should be achievable in normal times for most institutions.

That said, don’t forget that a little kindness goes a long way. Here are some of the little things that I have found making a big impact:

  • Connecting with colleagues before they join.
  • Providing practical information before joining, especially if they are moving countries.
  • Buying them a welcome present. I like giving new colleagues a book on publishing in top journals as it is both a present and a developmental resource.
  • Reassuring them that what they are experiencing is normal. I do this a lot in the monthly group mentor meetings I am running with my female mentees.

Challenges? Advice for Research Deans

The last part of my presentation focused on the institutional and personal challenges (see slide below). Although there are many challenges, one of the most important ones is the sustainability of your work. What will happen if you step down, can someone else take over? This is the stage I am currently at at Middlesex University. Many of my current initiatives are explicitly directed at ensuring sustainability. Not that I have any plans to leave Middlesex or my current job, but we never know what might happen.

First, we need to create institutional memory. I have done this through several routes:

Second, we need build capacity by inspiring others. Currently, I am very active in talent spotting, trying to identify not only who can take over my role when I am no longer available, but also those who can engage in peer and team leadership. 

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