The New ABCs of Research: Part 2

At his MITRE Innovation Speaker Series talk this past May, Ben Shneiderman talked about his newest book, The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, a guide for junior researchers and a manifesto for senior researchers, academic administrators, business leaders, and funding agencies. After engaging participants in a conversation about principles underlying effective research (Work on real problems! Blend science, engineering, and design!), Shneiderman turned to the centerpiece of the design process: the people who do the work. We need people to design tools—of course. We can also use the tools we design to pick the right set of researchers for the next set of tools. —Editor

Author: Nahum Gershon

As a master of the human-computer interface, Ben Shneiderman understands tools and how we might make the best use of them. We have excellent tools and  forums for empowering effective research, he observes: the web, social media, forums like Meet ups, hackathons, and makers meetings, and collaboration tools (e.g., Skype, Google Drive for shared documents). These new technologies have dramatically empowered researchers to read more from diverse sources and to collaborate more effectively. As a result, more ambitious studies are now being done in much larger teams than in the past.

People now read more and read more diversely. Twenty years ago, researchers read, on average, 175 papers a year. Now, researchers might read 400 papers a year. In addition to finding articles the traditional way, they hear about their colleagues’ work through social media and though their larger circle of friends. They share documents.

As a result, teams have bigger ambitions than in the past. A research project more frequently involves global partners from multiple locations. Previously, small teams from one research center would have evaluated treatments at a single hospital. Now, studies may involve eight or more hospitals around the world involving dozens of co-authors, and hundreds of patients at each of the hospitals. Larger teams and more ambitious studies are common in many research areas.

Building effective teams requires paying attention to their composition

Modern communication and collaboration technologies facilitate teamwork, but building effective teams requires paying attention to their composition and management.

Shneiderman is interested in what makes a team effective. He suggests that team leaders check the collaboration history of the people they want to work with, choosing people with successful histories because people who already know how to collaborate will be able to build the relationships any research project needs.

Good collaboration often comes when team members bring diverse skills that are relevant to their problem: people with different data mining skills, ethnographic skills, writing skills, domain specific knowledge. Gender, age, and personality diverse can also lead to productive discussions that improve research. Successful teams are not quiet and tepid. They may be turbulent and lively, but they must be safe places where bold ideas are valued, rather than challenged. The study done at Google (What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team) emphasizes the psychological safety of the people in the team: people must be able to rely on the support and empathy of the other team members.

In addition, members of a successful team should be ready for collaborating and be familiar with the technologies for remote teamwork and collaboration.

Once the team is assembled, it has to be managed well to ensure it functions effectively. When big tasks are decomposed into appropriate chunks and assigned to individuals to push the work forward in a rapid iterative way, the quick feedback trims failed ideas and accelerates good ones. Clear communication with promises of specific contributions, builds trust that enables the next task to be performed more successfully. When teamwork goes smoothly it is not only effective and satisfying, it can also be fun.

In your organization, how do you build effective research teams?

Nov 14, 2016



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