“It challenges members to think of their work through another kind of specialist's eyes”: Exploration of the benefits and challenges of diversity in digital project teams

Authors


Abstract

Digital project teams are by definition comprised of people with various skills, disciplines and content knowledge. Collaboration within these teams is undertaken by librarians, academics, undergraduate and graduate students, research assistants, computer programmers and developers, content experts, and other individuals. While this diversity of people, skills and perspectives creates benefits for the teams, at the same time, it creates a series of challenges which must be minimized to ensure project success. Drawing upon interview and survey data, this paper explores the benefits, advantages, and challenges associated with these types of project teams. It will conclude with a series of recommendations focused on harnessing the advantages while minimizing the challenges.

Introduction

Digital project teams are by definition comprised of people with various skills, disciplines and content knowledge. Collaboration within these teams is undertaken by librarians, academics, undergraduate and graduate students, research assistants, computer programmers and developers, content experts, and other individuals. While this diversity of people, skills and perspectives creates benefits for the teams, at the same time, it creates a series of challenges which must be minimized to ensure project success. Drawing upon interview and survey data, this paper explores the benefits, advantages, and challenges associated with these types of project teams. It will conclude with a series of recommendations focused on harnessing the advantages while minimizing the challenges.

Context

Traditionally, research contributions in scholarly fields have been felt to be, and documented to be, predominantly solo efforts by academics, involving little direct collaboration with others, a model that is often reinforced through graduate training and beyond (Bohen Stiles, 1998; Cuneo, 2003). However, work within the Digital Humanities and Libraries communities is an exception to this. Given that the nature of the project work involves computers and a variety of skills and content expertise, members of these communities are working collaboratively within their institutions and with others nationally and internationally to undertake their work. Such collaboration typically involves the need to coordinate efforts between librarians, academics, undergraduate and graduate students, research assistants, computer programmers and developers, content experts, and other individuals as well as the need to coordinate financial and other resources. However, too little is known about how these teams work or the types of supports they require to be successful.

Given this need, efforts are underway to develop the collaborative capacity within these communities. For example, McCarty (2005b) explores the ways in which computers have opened up possibilities for collaboration within the humanities and library communities. He has also explored the associated challenges of collaboration and research teams within the HUMANIST listserve (McCarty, 2005a). Individuals working on a variety of digital project teams are also reflecting on their own experiences in these teams through conference presentations and papers (See for example: J.-S. Liu, Tseng, Huang, 2005; Y. Liu Smith, 2007; Ramsay, 2008; Ruecker Radzikowska, 2008; Ruecker, Radzikowska, Sinclair, 2008; Smith Liu, 2008; Unsworth, 2007). Finally, through efforts such as the University of Victoria's Digital Humanities Summer Institute, Irish Royal Academy's Digital Humanities Observatory Summer School, the University of New Brunswick/Acadia University Fall Institute for Digital Libraries and Humanities, and other similar ventures, these communities are developing their collaborative capacity through workshops in topics such as community-specific project management skills.

This paper draws and builds upon these efforts as it explores the benefits and advantages of diversity within digital project teams while recommending methods to minimize the associated challenges.

Methodology

This research project used a two-pronged inductive approach with a combination of data collection methods. First, members of various multi-disciplinary, multi-location research teams located in Canada, United States, and the United Kingdom were interviewed. Lasting about an hour, these in-depth interviews explored the individual's research team context with a focus on the participants' definition of teams; their experiences working in teams; and the types of supports and research preparation required to ensure effective and efficient research results. The participants were chosen through personal contacts and recommendations. The interviews were conducted in 2008. Second, drawing upon themes from these interviews, a survey of members of the general Digital Humanities community was undertaken in Fall 2008 in order to establish the prevalence of research teams within the community. It was distributed to members of the Society for Digital Humanities/ Soci't pour l'tude des m'dias interactifs, Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Association for Computing and the Humanities, and Centrenet and HUMANIST listerserves. The survey provides descriptive statistics on the number of teams, their composition, and perceived effectiveness; it also establishes a baseline against which further research in this field and others can be compared. The results include a description of the community's work patterns and relationships and the identification of supports and research preparation required to sustain research teams (as per Marshall Rossman, 1999; McCracken, 1988). This two-pronged approach corresponds to similar studies (Amabile et al., 2001; Bickel Hattrup, 1995; Easterby-Smith Malina, 1999; Jassawalla Sahittal, 1998). The interview and survey questions are attached.

Data analysis involves a grounded theory approach which focuses on the themes that emerge from the interview and survey data. This analysis is broken into several steps. First, the data is organized, read and coded to determine categories, themes and patterns. These are tested for emergent and alternative understandings within the data. This is an iterative process, involving movement between the data, codes and concepts, constantly comparing the data to itself and the developing themes (Glaser Strauss, 1967; Marshall Rossman, 1999).

As discussed below, the resulting sample is small and self-selected. The respondents are more likely to be involved in digital humanities teams. Further research will enlarge the size and scope of the sample.

Results

The seven interviewed individuals have participated in a range of team digital research projects, in terms of project objectives, team membership size, budget, and geographical locations, across their own institution, nationally, and internationally. The roles they play or played are varied and include research assistant, researcher, computer programmer and developer, project manager, and lead investigator. Despite the diversity among their teams and roles, these individuals share several commonalities in terms of their methods of interaction and collaboration within their research teams.

In total, 36 individuals responded to the survey. Like the interviewees, they have been involved in a variety of digital projects, ranging from digitized manuscripts, electronic editions, databases, software and others. Table 1 summarizes survey respondent demographics.

Table 1. Survey Respondent Demographics
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From this sample, several points of diversity can be highlighted. Respondents speak a variety of languages, represent various positions within academic institutions, and are from a variety of academic disciplines. In addition, these project teams tend to include at least three to five members, if not more. As explored below, these points create both benefits and challenges for the digital project teams.

Given the many challenges associated with team projects (as discussed below), individuals who undertake this work must derive substantial benefits to compensate for these. Within this survey, the top reasons for team work include:

  • Team members have different skill sets (90%)
  • Collaboration is more productive than individual work (63%)
  • Different methodological approaches to research by team members (54%)
  • The project schedule requires multiple staff to complete it on time (51%)
  • The volume of data to be studied (42%)
  • Enjoyment of collaboration (42%)

These reasons were also echoed by the interviewees. Additionally, one interviewee remarked that grant funding agencies were also playing a role by demonstrating a preference for funding projects that require a team approach to complete due to the project scale and scope.

These reasons for collaboration were further emphasized in open-ended questions regarding the benefits of team work. Survey respondents indicated that benefits included the development of a team spirit, the ability to be more productive and efficient and undertake more complex and larger projects, the ability to combine different expertises, skill sets, and perspectives within a single project, and the opportunity to learn from collaborators. One respondent highlighted that a team can 'produce better results than solitary work because it draws on a larger knowledge base and skill set. “They further emphasize that 'some work can ONLY be done collaboratively.” (Emphasis in the original) Further, as highlighted by other respondents, teams allow for different skills and knowledge to be combined, “pretty much required for digital projects.” In addition, survey respondents also highlighted the fact that ‘the projects tend to be more creative since people are coming from different disciplines’ and one gets “to ask different sorts of questions you could not have imagined, much less answered, on your own.” Finally, ‘working in a team helps to find better ways of working around a problem.’

The interviewed individuals also echoed these comments, with a particular emphasis on the social and fun aspect to team work. In their collective opinion, research and scholarly work are often solitary and lonely. One interviewee also suggested that an additional benefit to digital team projects is the diffused sense of responsibility with a team. Given that the work is undertaken by a group of individuals, not all the work and outcomes are “on one's shoulders if it flops.” This interviewee felt that this context provides an opportunity for a team to be more experimental within the project. They also felt that ‘interdisciplinary teams get output that is better, but is also impossible for someone with a single discipline background.’ Given these various benefits, some interviewees acknowledged that they undertook most, if not all their digital work, within collaborations.

Despite the many benefits associated with team projects, both survey respondents and interviewees also outlined many challenges. Some of these challenges are common to any work carried out by a group of people. These include the difficulty associated with scheduling and coordinating tasks, people and other resources; facilitating geographically dispersed team members, even if within the same organization; and interpersonal issues, such as conflict resolution and different work rhythms. Expectation management also becomes a priority. Survey respondents highlighted the importance of “making clear what the expectations are for each member” as well as “finding common goals.” Teams also recognized that “some members may contribute or participate more than others” and exhibited 'varying levels of commitment, among undergraduate students in particular.” Both the survey respondents and interviewees also acknowledged that team projects take more time.

However, other challenges are directly related to the same diversity that creates the benefits. As highlighted, these teams must find methods that allow them to combine different skill sets and academic perspectives. As acknowledged by one survey respondent and highlighted in the title to this paper, this type of team work “challenges members to think of their work through another kind of specialist's eyes.” At times, there may also be a “general lack of appreciation of the value of different contributions.” Other associated challenges include the variety of vocabularies used by members from different backgrounds and the necessity to train “people in disciplines and methods that aren't theirs.” Finally, teams may need to negotiate through “different values of outcomes (e.g. publications).”

As one of the interviewees stated succinctly, “team work is hard.” Thus, these projects required flexibility and patience. As one particular challenge, both survey respondents and interviewees also highlighted issues associated with culture and language gaps that might exist between team members from different backgrounds. One participant stated that “Humanities scholars do not know a lot about computer science or technology. Computer science individuals do not know about humanities. Information scientists know about data, but not programming.”

As a result, when representatives from these different groups work together, time must be spent ensuring that they understand each other and their respective roles within the digital project. Ultimately, as one survey respondent suggested, a team project “calls upon a working style and management skills that are often lacking in the environment/training of team members.”

Building on the discussion of challenges, interviewees also explored factors that contributed to project success. Generally, digital projects are perceived to be successful when the project outcomes are met while the team is still able to maintain strong interpersonal relationships. Project success also appears more likely when every member of the team has a stake in the project. However, it is important to note that this stake does not necessarily have to be equal among team members. The interviewees also stressed that team members must have the skills and knowledge necessary to undertake the required tasks as well as understand their respective place within the project and its goals and outcomes. In this regard, one survey respondent suggested that “it is good to create and support a team environment where all voices, regardless of traditional authority, are respected and encouraged.”

While the issue of training was not addressed specifically within the survey, the participants in the interviews were asked about the role and impact of training in team success. The interviewees indicated that they generally had received little formal training in team skills, such as communication, negotiation, conflict resolution or others. Instead, most learned to collaborate by working in teams, whether in student group projects or other work settings. This reality reinforced the importance to many about the need for good people within a team project, because not everyone may be able to collaborate. One interviewee commented that they “were very choosy about whom they worked with,” especially after some less than pleasant experiences. Another survey respondent echoed this by suggesting that one should “make sure you've got good people; good people make a good team make good projects. Everything else is secondary.” In addition, several interviewees also commented that collaboration was a ‘state of mind.’ In other words, individuals working within teams need to be open to new ideas, be flexible, and ultimately, patient.

By way of summary and conclusion to the survey and interviews, participants were asked for advice for teams undertaking their first digital project. The advice given echoes the discussion of benefits and challenges of team projects. In particular, the importance of organization was reinforced. As one survey respondent stated, “the point though is to be as organized as possible and to document as much as possible.” Planning plays an important role in this regard. Here, survey respondents suggested that one should “plan as much as you can before you begin” and to “set up a structure and deadlines with milestones.” The comments also focused on ensuring that “goals and expectations are clear from the beginning” and that each team member must understand their role within the project. One also suggested that one must make sure that “all major areas of expertise you will need are represented by stakeholders in the project design, proposal, and management.” In terms of developing working relationships, the respondents advocated “enough F2F (face to face) time and opportunities to build trust and working relationships before relying heavily on electronic methods of interaction and communication.”

Discussion

This research contributes to a larger discussion regarding the nature of project teams within an academic setting. In an article examining academic-practitioner collaboration in management research, Amabile et al (2001) suggest it is necessary to understand the nature of collaboration and those factors which contribute to its success while minimizing the potential difficulties. Kraut et al (1987-1988) and Suchman and Trigg (1986) also suggest that team processes need to be understood in order to develop appropriate software tools to support them. Building upon this, Borgman (2007) suggests that by understanding the nature of collaboration between scholars, better tools, services, and policies for information access and sharing can be created.

Digital projects are being undertaken by teams of individuals with a variety of skills, academic disciplines, and perspectives. In addition, people involved in this work are engaged in multiple projects at one time, meaning that they cannot commit 100% of their time to a single project, thus adding to the challenges. They are finding benefits and advantages to this approach to digital work, despite the associated challenges. The participants also recognize that digital projects demand a team approach given the variety of skills, content and methodologies that are required. Finally, the respondents and interviewees feel that their projects have been primarily successful.

These experiences correspond with other studies on academic project teams, including an earlier study within the Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing community (Siemens, Forthcoming). As confirmed within this sample, collaboration enhances the project work by increasing the quality, depth, and scope of the scholarly work (Kraut et al., 1987-1988; Newell Swan, 2000; Northcraft Neale, 1993). The identified challenges are also similar to other contexts. Academic teams often identify difficulties and challenges associated with the various professional subcultures due to differing academic languages and research methodology (Newell Swan, 2000; Northcraft Neale, 1993).

Ultimately, these results suggest the need for digital project teams to accept and perhaps even embrace the diversity. By starting with the assumption of differences, rather than similarities, a dialogue to determine common ground can be opened between the various team members. Liu and Smith (2007) use the analogy of a ambassador, who must learn a new culture and language when moving to a new country. This is echoed by Lutz and Neis (2008) in their introduction to a edited book on interdisciplinary research within a large scale research project. The importance of face-to-face meetings is also reinforced within this context. These discussions, even more so than email, provide the time and context necessary to negotiate differences, establish new working vocabularies specific to the digital project, and establish project objectives, outcomes and tasks (Bracken Oughton, 2006). To highlight the need for this, even a common term such as ‘model’ has very different understandings depending on the discipline, and must be negotiated in advance to prevent misunderstandings and confusion (Derry, DuRussel, O'Donnell, 1998).

Finally, the survey respondents and interviewees, in particular, reinforce the importance of identifying the right people with whom to collaborate on digital projects. As suggested, these individuals are those with flexibility, patience, and the ability to be able to leave the comfort of one's home discipline and who are prepared to compromise (Bruhn, 1995). This suggests that while the technical and content are important components of a digital project, the project's ultimate success (or not) may rest with interpersonal factors.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are designed to support and guide the already strong digital project teams that are in place.

First, building on the ambassador analogy suggested by Liu and Smith (2007), teams might make conscious efforts to exploit the benefits of diversity within their digital project teams. Project leaders could ensure that the required skills and perspectives are represented and create an environment that encourages all to participate fully within the project, echoing the survey and interview data. They need to create a space that allows the different perspectives to be voiced, thus gaining creativity, learning, and deeper and richer projects than perhaps originally planned. They must also acknowledge the challenges that will come with this diversity and take active steps to minimize these. One possibility is to begin project planning and discussion well in advance of the ‘actual’ work to allow these challenges to be negotiated in advance. Strong communication processes, both face-to-face and electronic, can facilitate this. In particular, face-to-face meetings provide the opportunity to explore these differences and establish the common understanding necessary to undertake the work. These teams may also find it beneficial to codify the common vocabulary, project plans, and work processes in formal documents. Digital project teams might also benefit from a ‘translator’ who can help navigate the language and culture gap between the various perspectives. For example, this translator might be an individual with both humanities and computer training and who can navigate between these two distinct communities by understanding the discipline-specific culture, language and methodologies. As a result, as project leaders establish digital project teams, along with the specific skill sets that are required, they could also ensure that someone is present who is able to speak across various disciplines. At the same time, the team should be aware of the amount of time this process takes.

Second, this community might consider more formal training directed to the particular needs of digital project teams. This training would move beyond content and methodology and include courses and workshops in project management, communication, negotiation, problem solving and others (Amabile et al., 2001; Cheng, 1979; Pearson, 1983). There is a growing realization that collaboration requires new skills on the part of the researchers since a team works differently than an individual (Bennett Kidwell Jr., 2001; Fennel Sandefur, 1983; Hara, Solomon, Kim, Sonnenwald, 2003; Kraut et al., 1987-1988; SSHRC, 2005). These training sessions might also be an opportunity to explore the differences within the different perspectives and establish common understanding among individuals and disciplines. One interviewee also suggested a workshop that examined ways to “balance creativity while keeping things moving.” There may also be an opportunity to ensure that students are exposed to the various disciplines and skill sets within the course work so that they are better prepared to work within these kinds of teams during their academic training and beyond.

Finally, digital project teams may find team and self reflection to be useful to ensure active learning from these projects. At the end of any digital project, a team could engage in a reflection process to explore the benefits, challenges and other factors that contributed to project success, and those that did not. It would also be an opportunity to evaluate the performance of team members and determine potential partners for future collaborations. As highlighted in the introduction, several digital teams have undertaken this activity and transferred knowledge to subsequent team endeavours (See, for example: Ruecker Radzikowska, 2008). Individual team members could also reflect on their own performance and determine if they are developing the appropriate collaborative “state of mind,” in the words of one of the survey respondents. As highlighted in the interviews and survey results, the ‘right’ people for collaborative digital projects are those who are able to see the value in other perspectives and able to capitalize on the many benefits associated with digital team work.

Research teams are widely used to undertake various digital projects. The teams in which these participants have been involved have been successful and found ways to manage many of the various challenges associated with this type of work. This study is one step towards understanding the nature of these research teams while recommending several best practices.

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