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Module 2: Commencement and Collaboration – Putting Ideas Into Practice

2.6 Establishing successful stakeholder relationships

Stakeholder relationship management – such as establishing and maintaining research collaborations, networks, and virtual communities – is both a crucial and time-consuming practice. It is vital to the success of your project to identify and manage stakeholders' expectations, especially at the initial stages of the project to ensure its effective management.

Talk to your stakeholders – not only by email. Call them and travel to see them in order to develop a strong, respectful, ongoing relationship. Invite them to visit your university, and not only your team, but related facilities to demonstrate the research environment that your university offers. It is important to present your team as part of an integrated institution; indeed, you should work to make this more than words. For your own and your team's education invite other groups on campus to present at your regular team meetings. This should help form links and, most importantly, keep your team thinking diversely (but be aware of the potential budget implications of these visits).

Be inclusive of your team when you engage your stakeholders or collaborators. It is important that you lead, but make sure your team members each have an opportunity to develop a research relationship. This will increase the team's adaptability to problems/tasks. The good rapport you and your team develop with a stakeholder will hasten understanding if it happens that the two groups come from very different backgrounds/cultures. Take time to develop an understanding of their terms and usage. After every stakeholder meeting, gather your team and interpret the key points. The team members will contribute valuable perspectives if they have had a chance to really engage your stakeholder.

It is not uncommon for researchers to focus on the minutiae of their topic; indeed it is often the reduction of a process to its elemental steps which excite a researcher. Try to encourage your research team to think more broadly about the topic or project. An industrial partner, for example, might see an effect that plagues their product in a very different way to your research team. Lead your partner through your understanding, but recognise that their experience of the product will provide empirically important information. In other words, respect their experience; it all adds to the solution of the puzzle.

As mentioned in Topic 1 and elsewhere, the issue of IP can provide particular challenges and can impact on the release of information. Constraints aren't always commercial – there can be issues of privacy or even propriety. It is important to constantly communicate with your stakeholder to make sure they understand exactly what you would like to make public, and by what means. You may be able to propose a joint announcement, if appropriate, but it is important to be inclusive in this process. They will own the results too, and this is one way you can demonstrate to them that you consider them an equal partner. Always include your stakeholder appropriately in any research outputs (reports, publications, seminars, etc.). This could be by way of acknowledgement, by joint authorship, or by merely displaying their corporate logo.

Although the actual terms of your engagement may initially be within the framework of a contract (and project schedule), do not be limited in seeking to expand this scope. Some projects will evolve and offer more than the original agreement. The contract will have terms to cater for 'off-topic' work, but it will be something that will require careful management. It is not uncommon for these serendipitous discoveries to distract either or both parties. Establishing a good rapport will permit you to gauge your stakeholder's enthusiasm for these non-funded activities. If they are not interested then respect their project and re-focus your team. It is usual for a contract to deal with the ownership of these non-funded activities, and once sorted out you might seek to continue work using other resources. It is the great value of working outside your field that you have the chance to discover new approaches. You need to be constantly finding and filing these off-topic ideas in order to sustain the next partnership or student project. The only caution is never to lose track of your current stakeholder's needs.

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