Information-related negotiations in interdisciplinary collaborative working groups
BACKGROUND: There is a trend to foster collaborative interdisciplinary approaches for projects and for tackling complex problems in areas such as global health. This trend can be seen, for example, in criteria for funding applications. Given the commitment to interdisciplinary working in information-intensive contexts, a more detailed understanding of information practices enacted to create informational resources – including dynamics such as affordances, constraints, barriers and enablers – in interdisciplinary group settings can allow better development of environments and support infrastructures conducive to successful interdisciplinary collaborative working. Discovery, selection, use and sharing of information are activities examined by researchers in the different fields or perspectives of: information literacy, information behaviour, information practices, and knowledge management. Though these various perspectives have distinct contextual or philosophical underpinnings, they do share some areas of interest and the boundaries between them do overlap. However, there is little prior research into the experiences of arriving at shared information practices in interdisciplinary project groups. AIMS: Accordingly, this study explored experiences of collaborative information-handling by people with different disciplinary backgrounds working together on health-related projects, guided by the following research questions: a. From the perspectives and practices of individual members, what roles does information play in the construction of the group and its activities? b. How do individuals view the information practices of their disciplinary backgrounds in relation to the collaborative working practices of their project group? To what extent do the practices shape, or are they shaped by, the context of the project group? METHODOLOGY: I have drawn from the constructivist Grounded Theory approach to analyse and interpret how information practices within the group related (or not) to respondents' experiences of disciplinary differences, identity, and purpose of the group(s) they worked within. METHODS: Two interdisciplinary project groups in a health-related higher education setting were studied. The principal source of data was a series of individual semi-structured interviews designed to gather data on information-related negotiations within the group. The interviews were centred on project-related artefacts which triggered discussion about information-related interactions within the group as well as links to wider aims and impacts of the projects. Emergent themes and theories were identified as the interview series progressed for exploration in subsequent interviews. On completion of interviews, the whole dataset was scrutinised to further develop, and test for, coherence and robustness of themes and theories. KEY FINDINGS: Various forms of negotiations, whether tacit or explicit, were central to the processes these interdisciplinary groups used to create informational resources. The ways information was handled, managed, and negotiated were strongly linked to the pre-stated aims of the projects, the contexts of the working groups, and disciplinary background of participants and intended audience. From participants’ experiences of collaboratively creating informational resources, we can identify several elements that contribute to group coherence and productivity, including motivation, trust, identity, and an underpinning philosophy of the project. The collaborative creation of informational resources was an intensively iterative process of transformation. The iterations involved negotiations round identifying key messages, structure, and style. The work related to the creation of informational resources entailed learning on the part of group members, including skills related to understanding methods of analysis, learning design, or technical software skills. An important factor contributing to the successful creation of the informational resources was motivation. Shared aims, values and of ways of working were enabling factors for the project groups. There was a strong association between the informational resources and the epistemological perspectives of the project members and their intended audiences. Analysis of the interview transcripts revealed how aspects of identity played out in the work of creating these informational resources. These aspects were largely linked to discipline, but also to individuals’ roles within the project groups. KEY IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: Collaborative creation of informational resources by interdisciplinary groups is a time- and negotiation-intensive process, and motivation and trust can be key facilitators of the effort individuals need to invest in arriving at shared information practices toward completing projects. Organisations wishing to foster information-intensive interdisciplinary collaborations should consider enablers such as alignment of project aims with participants’ values, working contexts and disciplinary perspectives.