Why is intra-campus collaboration so hard?!

University libraries find it increasingly necessary to collaborate with non-library campus stakeholder. This is particularly true for developing research support services such as data management, RIM systems, and campus-wide ORCID adoption.  

But this type of collaboration isn’t easy. For instance, a librarian leading the implementation of a campus-wide RIM system half-jokingly referred to this effort as “herding flaming cats,” to express the significant challenges of trying to coordinate highly independent individuals with different goals and interests, spread across a large, decentralized organization. In my previous career as assistant dean of graduate studies at a US research university, I also had both successes and failures in developing relationships with other campus units and leading enterprise-wide projects.  

By Nevermind2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2775045

Why is intra-campus collaboration sometimes so hard?! 

A lot of this has to do with the very nature of the university system. I’ve found extremely useful the description of universities as “complex adaptive systems” by systems engineering expert and former university leader William B. Rouse. Similar in complexity to urban systems, he describes universities as sharing these six main characteristics of complex adaptive systems: 

  1. Nonlinear, dynamic behavior. The behaviors in the university can appear random and chaotic. Individuals in the system may ignore stimuli, remaining oblivious to activities outside of their immediate purview, reacting infrequently, inconsistently, and perhaps overzealously when they do take notice. 
  2. Independent agents. Individuals, and especially faculty, have a lot of freedom to be self-directed: in research, teaching and course development, and behaviors. Their behaviors are not dictated by the university, and in fact, the independent agents may feel free to openly resist institutional initiatives.  
  3. Goals and behaviors that differ or conflict. The interests and needs of the independent agents acting within the university are highly heterogeneous, leading to internal conflicts, professional discourtesy, and sometimes outright competition.  
  4. Intelligent and learning agents. Not only are people independent agents, they’re also smart independent agents, who can learn how the complex university works and adapt their behaviors to achieve their personal goals. With such heterogeneous goals across the enterprise, individuals can end up working at odds with each other.  
  5. Self-organization. While universities have established hierarchies (like colleges, schools, and departments), there can also be self-organized interest groups that arise to meet evolving needs. This can also lead to duplication of effort and services, as a group working to address a problem may be unaware of similar efforts and act independently instead.  
  6. No single point(s) of control. Universities are characterized by a significant degree of decentralization where units, as well as individuals, operate in a federated manner with a high degree of autonomy. As a result, universities are not sites where mandates usually work—they aren’t characterized by a command and control system. Instead, they work through incentives and inhibitions. 

Rouse’s model informs a forthcoming OCLC Research report entitled Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-campus partnerships and the university research enterpriseBased upon interviews with 22 individuals from 17 research-intensive universities in the United States, this report examines the growing imperative for cross-campus, cross-domain institutional collaboration in the provision of successful research support services. It offers a conceptual model for campus research support stakeholders, including context about their priorities and contributions, and synthesizes lessons and best practices from our informants on how to optimize social interoperability in research support. 

Our report offers an explanation about why this is so hard and also offers advice for making campus collaboration easier and more successful. In a way, it provides the context and knowledge I wish I’d had during my own university career. Watch for the report in mid August.

Works cited 

  • Bryant, Rebecca, Annette Dortmund and Brian Lavoie. 2020. Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-campus partnerships and the university research enterprise. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research, forthcoming.  
  • Rouse, William B. 2016. Universities as Complex Enterprises: How Academia Works, Why It Works These Ways, and Where the University Enterprise Is Headed. New York: Routledge, 5-9.