On Collaboration


JLESC was designed to promote collaboration across the centers. One of the major products of each workshop are collaborations among participants from different supercomputing centers. It is an opportunity for you to learn and also for creativity and major advances in supercomputing.

Collaboration takes effort and commitment. Collaborators need to be aware of one anothers’ approaches to collaboration. Realize that they may differ and try to be sensitive to your partner’s way of working.

Collaboration and team science also often require interdisciplinary teams. An interdisciplinary team includes members from two or more disciplines or having different skill sets. This is clearly the case when you build applications for astronomers, biologists or other scientists. But it is also the case when working with your peers as each center has great diversity in terms of areas of expertise, academic orientation, and practical experience. Bringing together people from different disciplines has the potential to spark creativity and improve problem solving.

What is Collaboration?

Collaboration is the joint activity of two or more people which:

  1. is directed by a shared purpose, or regard for all parties’ individual goals, or both;
  2. honors the perspectives and contributions of all parties involved; and
  3. strives for a high quality experience and outcomes for all parties.

Notice that by this definition collaboration is an ongoing process that all parties must work to sustain. Collaboration is a skill and it can be learned.

What Makes a Good Collaboration?

Decades of research suggest several characteristics of a good collaboration. As you collaborate you might want to check whether yours is like this and try to make it so:

  • An effective collaboration is active. Collaborators focus on action, on solving a problem, creating a work of art, discovering something, completing a task. It is in activity that collaborations are realized. Collaboration is a process, not a one-time occurrence. As activities, collaborations are focused on the doing, not on the being of the individual collaborators. Collaboration is a process that unfolds through time and patience.
  • An effective collaboration has open communication and relationship building. Collaboration requires engagement and interchange. Collaborators have to be open with each other. This does not mean they have to constantly interact. Often they work individually, but they ensure that everyone knows what is going on, what problems there are, and they often work on solutions together.
  • An effective collaboration is sometimes confrontational. Collaborations are not always supportive. Collaborators air differences and work them out. Handled properly, differences inject new ideas and possibilities into the collaboration that promote creativity. Confrontation also challenges collaborators to evaluate and sometimes to question their activities, enhancing the quality of collaborative outcomes.
  • An effective collaboration is empowering. Participants must have space to exercise their talents and to contribute freely and spontaneously. A major impediment to this is power and status differentials among collaborators. To the extent that one or a few members can potentially control the others, free and creative interchanges are less likely.
  • An effective collaboration has an element of surprise. Good collaborations are surprising, generating interactions and outcomes that none of the collaborators could have foreseen. The well-worn term “synergy” is apt here: good collaboration is more than the sum of its parts and interactions among collaborators produce emergents that none of them alone could have brought about on their own.

Overcoming Barriers to Collaboration

Research has also identified a number of things that can inhibit collaboration. Keep these in mind and try to counteract them.

  • Differences—Disciplinary, national, cultural: When you work with someone from a different discipline or background, a different nationality, or a different culture, you should not assume that they have the same work approaches as you. Try to find out how they typically approach their work and take that into account when you interact with them.
  • Power differentials—Differences in reputation, position, or seniority can create imbalances in power that stifle effective collaboration. If one or more of the participants in a collaboration differ in these respects, try to make sure they don’t inhibit the lower power participants from having their say and from participating.
  • Bias in attribution of credit—It is natural to think that we are more responsible for successes than others in our group. Psychologists have shown that this error is very common. Make sure to realize that your collaboration is a joint project and that every collaborator has a part in its success
  • Complacency—It is common to assume that a collaboration will just work out, that it comes naturally. Research has shown a number of tendencies that we have that undermine collaboration. You should assume, instead, that collaboration takes a lot of work and plan ahead. You get out what you put in.

Here are some resources to help you in your collaborations: