JISC 10: Bridging the gap

On every project that involves more than one discipline, there will be problems with communication. A facilitator who can bridge the gap between disciplines and help co-workers to understand each others’ needs can be vital. But picking a good facilitator can be a challenge. As three facilitators explained during ‘Bridging the Gap’, their role can require them to pick up expertise in order to win trust – but not too much expertise or risk losing that trust.

Dr Ségolène M Tarte of Oxford e-Research Centre is an image processing expert by training. But on a project that involved enhancing the scratches left on Roman wax tablets, she found herself having to bridge the gaps in communication between classicists, web developers and grid-computing specialists. Although she had some Latin knowledge from her French education, she had little experience of grid computing technology. But this she found was a benefit.”

“I was aware that as soon as I got into the language of grid technology, I would be completely incomprehensible to the classicists.” She learned enough about the technology to earn the trust of the grid computing specialists on her project, but not enough to make her separate from the classicists. She found that when trying to learn too much on a medical project, she had been close to losing the trust of the medical specialists, who were worried they would no longer be needed. Her message to facilitators: “Be adaptable, establish trust early and have frequent – but short – face-to-face meetings.”

Tarte is both a facilitator and a researcher, but on bigger projects, a separate facilitator might be necessary. Jonathan Tedds, senior research liaison manager at the University of Leicester, joined the university as a researcher. But he soon discovered that the university needed institution-wide expertise in IT support. He approached IT services to act as a facilitator between researchers and the department and was welcomed with open arms: “We’ve been looking for someone like you for quite some time.”

He found that his expertise as a researcher meant he knew the kinds of questions to ask fellow researchers about their computing needs. His IT knowledge meant that he was able to help researchers make requests for things they didn’t even know they needed. “I was able to bring in a Java expert when one group didn’t even realise they needed a Java expert.”

However, Martin Turner of the University of Manchester pointed out that facilitators still don’t necessarily have career paths. “The problem is persuading management that there is a career problem – that there needs to be a career path and that a good labour force needs to be rewarded.”

Even when there isn’t that background, a facilitator can still gain the knowledge necessary to speak to researchers’ needs. Steve Crouch, a software architect at OMII-UK, interviewed 50 scientists about how they used computers, and from the transcripts of the interviews, extracted best practice for working with them. He found that as a facilitator, assumptions he and other teams made were the biggest problem.

As all three presenters agreed, facilitators need to be chameleons. But with a lack of career path for facilitators at most institutions, there are few volunteers who want to be facilitators exclusively. And as a show of hands by participants at the presentation revealed, few institutions have dedicated facilitators to bridge the gaps between disciplines.

Nevertheless, the need for these chameleons is growing and the skills they will need are going to have to be nurtured.