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Science Matters: Global R&D Demands Effective Communication

Collaborating and communicating effectively around the world should be a top priority for most science companies and labs if they hope to compete on a global level.

by Alan Edwards
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Over the course of my career in the sciences, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand the power of long-distance collaboration. For one research and development project, work was done in San Diego, California; Madison, Wisconsin; France; Germany; and Switzerland.

To the outsider, this may have seemed like a logistical nightmare, and in some respects, trying to work with people around the globe is indeed a challenge. But in the sciences today, any perceived inconvenience in such collaboration is overshadowed by the quality of work that can come about when project managers are open to gaining knowledge and perspective from those most qualified to give it.

In the case of this particular R&D project, things that could be done in Madison couldn’t be done in France—and vice versa—but each workforce in each location was a critical component in the overall process. Such “sequential” work is fast becoming the norm, as everyone in the sciences knows. Jobs that need to get done are rarely conducted in isolation. Largely because of the vast amount of knowledge sharing that has occurred as a result of the Internet and cross-collaboration, life sciences companies both large and small quite frankly would be limiting themselves if they didn’t explore how partnering with people around the globe could add value to their projects and, ultimately, their businesses.

Collaborating and communicating effectively around the world, therefore, should be a top priority for most science companies and labs if they hope to compete on a global level. It seems easy enough—and obvious—that this should be the case. But I wonder if managers actually think about such communication and collaboration in a strategic way with the goal of getting the most out of their workforce and what their talent can do for them.

After all, something as simple as “communication” and the inability to do it well can potentially derail a project that is vastly more complex in its details than the process required to effectively relate with colleagues around the globe.

So managers in today’s labs need to take effective communication seriously. First, they must learn the soft skills required to relate to their own colleagues close to home. It’s something I’ve talked about several times in this column over the last year, but it always bears repeating: knowing the emotional and social pulse of your organization— and having the core skills to deal with everyone on a more human level—will strengthen practically every aspect of your business, no matter the industry. This means knowing the culture of the workplace well so that managers can relate to and communicate with employees through means they are used to.

If you’re working with a team from France, for example, it’s essential that you commit to knowing how these foreign work cultures work as well—just because everyone is working in a scientific environment does not mean that certain processes will be completed in the exact same way.

Luckily, technology has made it easier to communicate and learn the skills necessary to foster the most effective communication. Social media, as well as specialized scientific communities on the Internet, allows collaboration to take place as if in real time. But using all these tools is not necessarily intuitive. Lab managers must definitely do their homework when it comes to researching all the tools available, such as cloud computing and specialized social media for the sciences, in order to take full advantage of the ways these powerful tools can facilitate communication and collaboration.

As the science industry continues to evolve and increasingly rely on many moving parts to achieve business goals, the value of good communication and collaboration will only become clearer. When processes are in place to not only do the best work but also communicate in the best way possible, overall costs will shrink, research and development will become more efficient, and products will get to market faster.