The potential of grant applications as team building exercises: a case study.

Author:Siemens, Lynne


Faced with increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated research questions, academics are turning to the use of research collaboration and teams (Hara, Solomon, Kim, & Sonnenwald, 2003; SSHRC, 2004). The growing number of multi-authored papers and presentations provides evidence of this trend (Cronin, Shaw, & Barre, 2003; Kraut, Galegher, & Egido, 1987-1988; Qin, Lancaster, & Allen, 1997). However, researchers and academics must develop new skills in areas of communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, problem solving, coordination, and others beyond disciplinary ones to function effectively within these research teams (Amabile, et al., 2001; Bennett & Kidwell Jr., 2001; Hara, et al., 2003). As a result, research teams must find mechanisms to maximize those factors that contribute to success while minimizing the potentially negative impact of the associated challenges. In this regard, teams must develop processes to effectively plan, communicate and coordinate among individuals, activities and resources, and to select members who are oriented toward collaborative research (Amabile, et al., 2001; Cuneo, 2003). One particular challenge relates to the development of a common understanding of the interrelationships and task dependence among individual members as they relate to the overall research project's objectives. In industry, many teams undergo specific activities designed to accomplish this end. In academia, the process of developing a grant application might serve as a team building exercise and create the opportunity to negotiate research objectives, approaches, and common vocabulary while establishing team membership, allocating resources, negotiating timelines, and writing important internal governance documents. To this end, the grant application serves as an important base from which the actual research work will then be effectively undertaken (Bruhn, 1995; Kishchuk, 2005). This perspective extends Lowry, Curtis and Lowry's (2004) recommendations for collaborative writing, which tend to focus on a single document, to the development of a large-scale research project with the many interdependencies among individuals, resources, tasks and extended timelines, often spanning several years.

By examining the experience of one research team, this article explores the use of grant application development as a large team-building exercise for multi-disciplinary academic research teams. First, the nature of teams and team building exercises will be discussed before turning to the consideration of the case study. Key learning moments for the team will be explored along with the challenges faced as members continue to collaborate. Recommendations for research offices as well as research teams will be made at the conclusion.

Context: Importance of Team Building

As noted, research teams are becoming increasingly common across all academic disciplines. A team is generally defined as a group of individuals who work towards a common goal and whose tasks are interdependent (Salas, Sims, & Burke, 2005). In today's networked world, academic teams are often dispersed across campuses and the country, and even internationally. As discussed below, this physical distribution can increase the challenges faced by these teams as they undertake their collaboration. In addition, academics are often not prepared for the levels of interdependence required within team research given their academic training (Birnbaum, 1979). Inherent within this definition of a team is the assumption that members share a common understanding of the team's goals and objectives and the manner in which they will be accomplished. To be effective, team members must reach this understanding, thereby creating a common identity for the team.

One of the primary methods to accomplish this objective is through team building exercises. Routinely undertaken in the private sector, these activities take a variety of forms, and range from ropes courses to sports to virtual game shows and others (Bennett & Kidwell Jr., 2001). Whatever the specific activities may be, they are designed to solidify team membership and an understanding of common goals as well as develop trust and rules for engagement. The end result is often more effective and productive working relationships (Bagshaw, Lepp, & Zorn, 2007; Salas, et al., 2005; Svyantek, Goodmand, Benz, & Gard, 1999). At the same time, team members can learn about each other's individual skills and potential areas for contribution to a research project (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner, 1998).

This common understanding exhibited within effective teams has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Salas, et al. (2005) suggests that teams must develop "shared mental models" (p 565), while Cramton (2001) emphasizes the creation of "mutual knowledge." Regardless of the term, this common understanding ensures that team members are more likely to understand each other and be able to communicate more effectively and efficiently. Especially for those teams with a range of disciplinary backgrounds, this process can take time (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999; Sackett, 1990). Within these types of teams, the development of a common understanding can be particularly challenging given the important role played by disciplines. These communities of practice provide guidance to their members on the nature of research questions, methodologies, quality standards, funding and resource levels, career progression, authorship, work and communication patterns, and other issues (Bruhn, 2000; Cech & Rubin, 2004; Russell, 1985). From an administrative point of view, the representation of more disciplines within a research collaboration means more coordination between administrative units that control access to resources, funding, incentives, and other factors (Russell, 1985).

An important part of team development is reflection and analysis on past experiences. With this, individual members and the team as a whole can work cooperatively and effectively by examining those factors that had contributed to or detracted from success (Bagshaw, et al., 2007; Barry, Britten, Barber, Bradley, & Stevenson, 1999; Lingard, Schryer, Spafford, & Campbell, 2007; Lowry, et al., 2004; Massey, et al., 2006). Further, this knowledge can be transmitted to others in the form of best practices. For example, Bracken and Oughton (2006), Bryan, et al. (2002), and Lawrence (2006) outlined their lessons from their research projects, but did not discuss any particular lessons that they might have learned from the grant development process.

To that end, the rest of this paper explores an example of an academic research team and its efforts to develop a multi-million dollar grant application. This effort will be characterized as a team building exercise. By taking this perspective, the process of writing a grant is more than just producing the document; it is also an opportunity to develop an effective team in advance of the "real" research being undertaken, a step not often taken by academic research teams. Hence, a wide variety of activities beyond the writing itself are reflected upon in this analysis.

Methodology: A Case Study Approach

This analysis will be explored within the context of a case study research methodology as defined by Yin (2003) and Stake (1995, 2000). This research methodology is appropriate when one is considering "how" and "why" questions, particularly over a period of time, as is the case with this example (Yin, 2003). In addition, by considering a single case, one can explain a situation, explore the dynamics that are at play within that particular setting, and develop recommendations for others who face a similar situation (Eisenhardt, 2002; Stake, 1995, 2000; Yin, 2003).

The data are drawn from the author's role as participant-observer in the grant writing exercise under consideration (Marshall & Rossman, 1999; Yin, 2003). From early on, the author served as a consultant/facilitator to the research team through the full grant application process by introducing team development theory and facilitating the team's development. For this paper, the author drew upon meeting minutes and other documents, conversations and her own observations. The conclusions presented in this paper were also tested with members of the administrative team and against team development literature (Eisenhardt, 2002; Yin, 2003).

Case Study: Research Team Development Time Line

This particular research team has been in development for approximately six years. The first meeting occurred over five years ago, when several individuals who shared a history of working together and had similar research interests drawing from a variety of academic disciplines explored potential areas of collaboration. From this initial discussion, the interested individuals drew in others with similar research interests and received a grant to explore possible collaboration.

In the second year, this group met over a weekend to discuss potential research questions with the intention of applying to the first stage of another two-stage granting program. However, after these initial discussions, team members decided to delay this stage because they did not feel that they had been able to finalize the research direction sufficiently. Further, specific team membership remained fluid.

Interested individuals continued exploring potential research questions and methodology. In the following year in late winter, these individuals met for a second weekend to continue their discussion on proposed research questions and methodologies, as well as the potential involvement of interested individuals. These efforts were supported by a week-long symposium held the following summer. During this week, potential team members presented their research interests. The end result was a more refined research question and methodologies, and a more fixed team membership. Later that fall, the research...

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