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Module 6: Grant and Contract Administration

2.2 Managing a research contract

2.2.1 Communication and managing mutual understanding

(this topic also applies to research grants with multiple stakeholders and collaborators)

The importance of communication in managing a research contract cannot be over-emphasised. When communications break down problems inevitably arise, and in a worst case scenario the project can collapse. To keep the communication channels open, not only will you have weekly meetings with your research team, but you will also establish a schedule of regular meetings with collaborators and funders. Communicate regularly with your team, your collaborators, and your funder. Make sure that all stakeholders are provided with correct, consistent, and timely reports on progress. Any concerns that may arise should be addressed immediately. You need to present yourself as a responsible, responsive, and efficient manager – someone who inspires the confidence of the funder and the research team.

Outcomes and research methods. Research contracts can take a long time to negotiate, particularly if there are several parties involved. Once the contract is signed, contact all parties and re-confirm the project outcomes and the agreed methods. Initial discussions might have taken place 6 months ago, company personnel may have changed during this period, or there may be an imprecise understanding of the nature of the project. It is absolutely critical that from the outset there is mutual agreement about how the research will be conducted and what is expected to be achieved. You don’t want to get half way through the project and find that one party to the contract is at odds with the research methods, and the disagreement causes the project to fail.

Establishing protocols and mutual understanding. Please refer to Module 2, Commencement and Collaboration: Putting Ideas Into Practice, which addresses the issues of communication and decision-making. The information in that section is directly relevant to establishing protocols for communicating with your funder/collaborators and the dissemination of project outcomes. If this important aspect of managing your contract was not addressed during the early stages of negotiation, then it must be addressed before the project commences. In a team environment, it is critical to identify and record individual expectations at the very beginning and to establish mutual understanding of how the project will be managed (what will be done and by whom, what resources will be available, how it will be done, and when the results are due).

Communication. Your communication style is important, in particular at the individual level. You want your team to work well together so make sure your interactions with them are positive, emphasising how important each person's contribution is to the whole project. Negativity from the team leader will infect the group, dampen enthusiasm, and the project will end up becoming a chore.

Meetings. Routine is critical to keeping the project on track, therefore you need to establish a timetable of compulsory weekly meetings for project personnel. It is a good idea, to provide focus, to set an activity for the meeting. (Don't stifle creativity by being overly bureaucratic with team reporting requirements.) If problems arise, they can be discussed and remedial action taken in a timely manner. In the case of a large, collaborative project that has a management committee, make sure you hold regular committee meetings so that all stakeholders are kept informed of activities and progress.

Action list. This should be typed up as soon as possible after the meeting and either circulated or stored electronically where it can be accessed by everyone.

Social activities. Getting the team together informally is a good way of communicating, and of building friendships and collaborations between researchers. Include your PhD students and support staff as well. A regular get-together on a Friday evening, or over lunch during the week, is easy to organise. You can often learn as much, if not more, about what is going on at an informal gathering when everyone is relaxed!

Activity

Self-assessment of how you are managing communication and mutual understanding.

From one of the following links download a template that will guide you through the process.
Template for communication audit (Word file)
Template for communication audit (rtf file)

Communication audit

Multi-investigator research projects face a range of challenges in establishing and maintaining good communication, and in recognising and resolving misunderstandings. If you lead or participate in such a team, we recommend you work through the following exercise, and then discuss the range of options for your project with a senior researcher in your discipline who has managed a large collaborative research project.

Communication requirements differ between disciplines and projects, and individual preferences for communication styles also differ. Using the management of a current project and the template provided below, carry out a self-assessment of how you manage communication and mutual understanding. Print out your template (please feel free to add to it if there are areas that you feel should be, but haven’t been, covered) and bring your results to the workshop for discussion.

Self-assessment of a current project: Communication and managing mutual understanding

Activity

Comment

1. Stakeholders

A project often means different things to different stakeholders. Understanding and managing their expectations is a valuable skill

List the stakeholders in the project

e.g., who is the funding body, co-investigators, research team, students, admin, public?

For each stakeholder, what do they expect to gain from the project and what do they expect to contribute?

If you’re not sure, ask them

2. Responsibilities

Responsibilities can be explicit or implicit, mandated or negotiated

Who has overall responsibility for the project?

 

What responsibility is devolved to others in the project? How is it documented?

 

Do you have team members who are external to the university (e.g., partner organisation or industry representative)? What is their level of involvement?

 

What level of responsibility do postdocs have on your team?

 

How do you ensure that they have a clear understanding of their role?

 

Describe the reporting mechanisms you have in place so that you can monitor the progress of the project

 

If you have students as part of the team, who are their supervisors?

 

Describe, briefly, how you and the co-supervisor ensure that you are accessible to the student

 


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