Exploring friction costs within a national scale research programme

Paul Woodfield
Auckland University of Technology

Kirsty de Yong
Victoria University of Wellington

Introduction and aim
Large scale projects involving multidisciplinary teams require robust systems and/or processes to ensure progress: they synchronise their many moving parts; level the diverging experiences, education and professional expertise of its diverse actors (Kertcher & Coslor, 2018); and mitigate potential conflict or relational disparity. When the size of a project or programme increases, the bureaucratic hurdles associated with making changes to these systems or processes tend to too. Inherent in systems and processes are friction costs, which are those “small amounts of effort that can make it much less likely that a behaviour will happen” or in other words “reduce even very small barriers to make a healthy behaviour more likely” (Hallsworth et al., 2016, p. 4).

As part of a National mission-led science programme interested in developing stronger bidirectional proclivity toward researcher-stakeholder engagement, our paper seeks to understand – through an innovation management lens – what friction costs might be embedded within our systems and processes and how these affected the choices our researcher colleagues made within their research projects. Our considerable dataset has been procured by a team of researchers conducting interviews and observational research as participant observers of researchers active within New Zealand’s National Science Challenge’s (NSC) Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI). Consequently, they have been derived from multiple, parallel, real-time case studies. SfTI’s mission is to enhance physical science and engineering capacity to encourage economic growth. This large scale research programme is largely made up of scientists who have come together under a common project. Teams are usually based on pre-existing relationships, skills and technical ability; or abilities to liaise with external stakeholders including industry, and indigenous Maori. It is a unique and valuable case study as its management structure supports proactive and rapid change to systems and processes if and when is required.

Research methodology
We followed a qualitative multi-case study design (Yin, 2014) which is accepted as a well-suited research design for reflexivity and simultaneous focus on contemporary events. Interview and observational data are drawn from a National Science Challenge involving multi-disciplinary research teams from New Zealand’s leading universities and independent research organisations, alongside external stakeholders from industry including Maori organisations. The Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge consists of nine Spearheads and numerous Seed projects covered by four overarching themes: Vision Mātauranga (Maori knowledge and knowing); Materials, manufacturing and design; Sensors, robotics and automation; IT, data analytics and modelling (Science for Technological Innovation, 2018). Each Spearhead includes both researchers, industry, and Maori representatives.

The research for this paper is conducted under a social science Spearhead entitled “Building New Zealand’s innovation capacity”. This Spearhead was designed to address human capacity (people and skills) and relational capacity (the network between researchers and industry) in the New Zealand innovation system. This group includes 13 social science researchers monitoring progress through interviews and observations of interactions between researchers and industry. An iterative process of data collection, organisation and analysis was implemented utilising NVivo qualitative software to synthesise data, establish patterns, and recognise themes.

Results and implications
Findings indicate systems and processes should be kept under regular scrutiny as they are mechanisms that underpin action or inaction of those working within them. An example of this scrutiny at a broad level is the two-day SfTI conference. This conference includes a summary of progress from each Spearhead, keynotes from stakeholders and advisors, and break-out sessions on critical topics. It represents an opportunity for the Management team and researchers to interact, and for the latter to communicate any feedback on their experience acting within the SfTI model. The benefit of our research methodology is that it establishes fast feedback loops between researchers and the management team - two of whom are active in the “Building New Zealand’s innovation capacity” Spearhead.

At a more individual or team level this regular scrutiny comes from “critical friends” who bring objective critique as they are not involved in the day-to-day running of projects. This is different from governance or an advisory board in that their interest may be more vested in academic integrity or maintaining relationships with stakeholders. This scrutiny could also be introduced by new members joining the team critical points on a project providing input on systems and processes as the project grows.

We explored friction costs within a national scale research programme and gained a greater understanding of the behaviour and interaction within researcher teams. Further studies could delve further into the mechanisms that can be developed to minimise friction cost in large-scale projects and ways bureaucratic hurdles can be reduced. It is plausible that a better understanding of the friction costs within research programmes could lead to there being a positive impact on the success of projects overall.