Collaboration = harnessing and managing difference

Purpose: To improve research collaborations by providing an understanding of the importance of two kinds of differences among partners, as well as providing ways of dealing with those differences.

Description: The point of a research collaboration is to harness the different expertise and attributes of various partners in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of the problem and to support action to reduce the problem. Helpful aspects of expertise may include different knowledge about the problem and different methods skills, while helpful attributes may include the ability to play different roles in a team, such as being a good co-ordinator or project finisher. These are the differences that are the reason for working together.

But collaborators do not just come with desirable differences to be harnessed. Some differences – for example in values, personality, or perspectives on the problem – can cause unproductive conflict and get in the way of collaboration. They must be managed for the research to proceed.

Whether a difference is useful or problematic depends on the particulars of the collaboration and the problem being addressed. For example, in some collaborations radically different perspectives about the problem and its causes can be an important difference to be harnessed in order to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and ability to act on it. In another collaboration such a difference may be incidental to the task in hand and instead provide a source of friction that needs to be managed so that it does not derail the partnership.

Harnessing differences

Methods for harnessing differences include:

  • dialogue to develop a shared understanding
  • building something together – this can be a model of the problem or a product to tackle it.

Managing differences

The aim is not necessarily to eliminate disagreements and the competition they often encompass, as these can provide a vital stimulus to creativity. Instead, the aim is to minimise the tensions and disputes that prevent people from working together constructively. Useful strategies include:

  • fostering reciprocity, based on the precept that partners treat each other as they wish to be treated. This provides a general foundation for satisfactory working relationships based on trust and respect. Reciprocity also requires rewards resulting from the research collaboration to be allocated in proportion to the contributions made by different research partners.
  • building on a broad sweep of knowledge about conflict resolution and building trust. This includes:
    • understanding differences in personality types, cultural norms, mental models, emotional intelligence, team role skills and so on, that – by explaining why differences exist – may result in conflict melting away
    • using specific tools, such as principled negotiation to find a fair solution to accommodate differences in interests.

What’s needed

Providing a systematic way of thinking about the role of differences in research collaborations highlights useful areas for further development in identifying useful and problematic differences, along with methods for harnessing those that are useful for the collaboration and managing those with the potential to get in the way of successfully working together.


Bammer, G. (2008). Enhancing research collaboration: Three key management challenges. Research Policy, 37: 875-887.

Bammer, G. (2013). Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems. ANU Press: Canberra, Australia. (Online):

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Posted: November 2014
Last modified: April 2020