Suggested Citation: Lipovsek, Varja and Alisa Zomer. 2019. “How to Have Difficult Conversations / A Practical Guide for Academic-Practitioner Research Collaborations”. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB).

This guide is meant to be a living document. As part of the next version, we will be gathering short testimonials to illustrate the various challenges and trip-wires common to academic-practitioner research collaborations. We welcome your feedback and experiences at mitgovlab@mit.edu.

Why difficult conversations?

You are entering into a partnership because you have presumably decided that there is enough of an overlap in your interests and actions to pursue a joint agenda. But where do you diverge? Frequently, we start collaborations with different—but unsaid—expectations. An academic might be working towards a peer-reviewed publication or looking to test out a new data collection method. A practitioner might be looking for data to help design a new initiative, or looking to evaluate an existing program’s effectiveness.

Bringing academia and practice together to address pressing problems is nothing new. In the last two decades these collaborations have become more common in political science as academics have sought new opportunities to develop innovative research, and for their results to have more real-world relevance. At the same time, new data and technologies combined with more data-driven decision-making have led government as well as non-governmental practitioners to seek more sophisticated ways to measure their impact and to inform their interventions.

These conditions have led to an increased interest in academic-practitioner research collaborations, especially in developing-country contexts where MIT GOV/LAB often operates. Partnerships have proliferated but these relationships can be challenging to manage, with different incentives, expectations, needs, and timelines. Some of these challenges are institutional and difficult to change—such as the tenure-track requirements within academia which favor publications in academic journals over the applied nature of collaborations. We think these systemic challenges need to be addressed, but change is likely to be slow. In the meantime, the academic-practitioner collaborations that exist today can be managed better and yield better results for all by creating more functional partnerships.

“We need to talk”

This document is meant to highlight and provide guidance on how to have “difficult conversations” that often arise when academic researchers and practitioners decide to collaborate. The focus here on difficult conversations is intentional because we want to hone in on pivotal decision points and issues that are frequently overlooked, or brought up too late.

At MIT GOV/LAB, part of our mission is to produce and promote engaged scholarship on how to encourage citizens to voice their needs and engage their governments in productive ways. Our working definition of engaged scholarship is rigorous research that is co-created by practitioner organizations and grounded in field work. This collaborative process increases the likelihood that practitioners will be able to use research results and apply them to their work. Our engaged scholarship model is based on values of equitable exchange between practitioners and academics. For us, equitable exchange starts with outlining potential costs and benefits and acknowledging potential power asymmetries to spread risk out more evenly and maximize learning for both parties.

Over the years, we’ve collaborated with numerous practitioner partners in diverse geographies on projects small and large—and we’ve learned a lot along the way. This guide builds on MIT GOV/LAB’s deep experience of learning in the field and from many honest conversations with partners reflecting on “what could have gone differently.”  Based on our experience and the principle of equitable exchange, this guide focuses on research collaborations related to political science, with an emphasis on empirical evidence, and with practitioners who are often based in developing countries. Practitioners can be a diverse set of actors, and MIT GOV/LAB tends to partner with groups grounded in local contexts, oftentimes within civil society or local government who have long-standing presence in the communities we seek to engage.

Over the years, we’ve collaborated with numerous practitioner partners in diverse geographies on projects small and large—and we’ve learned a lot along the way. This guide builds on MIT GOV/LAB’s deep experience of learning in the field and from many honest conversations with partners reflecting on “what could have gone differently.”  Based on our experience and the principle of equitable exchange, this guide focuses on research collaborations related to political science, with an emphasis on empirical evidence, and with practitioners who are often based in developing countries. Practitioners can be a diverse set of actors, and MIT GOV/LAB tends to partner with groups grounded in local contexts, oftentimes within civil society or local government who have long-standing presence in the communities we seek to engage.

Who is this guide for?

This guide is intended for academics and practitioners who want to improve the collaborative research process. Equity is an essential guiding principle for most practitioners and academics, but the fact is that power is almost never distributed equally between partners. Decision-making power in a partnership often aligns with funding, and this can feel contrary to the principle of equity. This guide cannot rectify major imbalances, but in our experience, there is significant room for improvement in how partnerships are designed.

For practitioners, this guide sheds light on some of the common motivations and incentives in the academic world that can influence research projects. It should also help practitioners manage their partnerships in a way that boosts learning opportunities for their organizations. For academics interested in engaged scholarship, this guide is one way to start designing and implementing research with values of mutual respect and equity. In particular, we hope early-stage graduate students and staff at practitioner organizations will find something new and useful to apply in their work. Finally, we hope this guide helps both sides manage their partnerships so they can learn from each other’s strengths and create lasting skills in their own organizations.