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Corbató: Collaboration is a critical ingredient for UIT success on campus

At the most recent UIT All-Hands Meeting last November, I had the opportunity to discuss the growing importance of collaboration as UIT increasingly works more closely with our diverse set of campus partners to help them accomplish their missions. After a few subsequent conversations, I have decided to expound on these thoughts in writing. Earlier in my career, I worked as a part of several multi-institution astrophysics projects and numerous regional, national, and international networking consortia. In both cases, the need for extensive collaboration was a given.

Why collaborate? Collaboration arises when the individual partners lack the resources and/or the specific capabilities to accomplish something – ranging from a desired objective to a complex initiative – alone. As a side benefit, the act of collaboration often helps to facilitate organizational change and modernization as well as individual professional development through the exposure to other systems and approaches. 

Who collaborates? Examples of successful collaborations abound. In scientific research, the term ‘Big Science’ has been coined to describe the large collaborations that have emerged to tackle daunting research challenges (e.g., genomics) or to exploit large, complex instrumentation (such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva). Although constrained to a degree by antitrust laws, companies can form joint ventures to tackle projects with significant financial and/or risk considerations.   We routinely see examples of these joint ventures in Big Pharma drug development, large construction projects, and even the installation and operation of transoceanic telecommunications cables. Finally, within the domain of aggressive recreation pursuits, mountain climbing parties serve as clear models of time-critical collaborations where the inherent, sometimes life-threatening difficulties as well as time-varying weather, snow, and ice conditions create very strong personal incentives for partnership.

Basic requirements. Surprisingly, the features of a successful collaboration are not complex, but the failure to master these factors has thwarted many attempts to partner. First, the collaborating parties must come to consensus around a shared purpose. Each member comes to a potential collaboration with different backgrounds and goals, and everyone must be willing to understand the other partners’ objectives and needs at the outset. However, by time the projects launches, the team has to be on the same page as to the core goals and milestones.    

I cannot underestimate the importance of developing and maintaining mutual trust throughout these endeavors. As true elsewhere in life, trust can be difficult to establish, but very easy to lose. Once trust has frayed, the likelihood that a collaboration will unravel or even fail becomes much higher. In particular, this trust is essential as it allows the collaboration leaders to share frank, honest assessments of each partner’s strengths, capabilities, and gaps during the project.

Finally, it is essential that the partners engage meaningfully and communicate thoroughly for the duration of the effort.

Final thoughts. Over the years, I have retained a few sayings that I believe help capture the mindset that makes for a successful collaboration: 

  • “It’s amazing what gets done when no one cares who gets the credit”
  • “Be yes if, not no because"
  • “DWYSYWD – Do What You Said You Would Do”
  • “We succeed when our partners succeed”

Increasingly, almost every facet of the University’s diverse mission relies on information technology. As we work as an integral part of the campus community to support our partners, it will be increasingly important for UIT team members to understand and to practice the principles of successful collaboration. 

From the individual perspective, I firmly believe that collaboration helps everyone to improve and to adapt to changing conditions faster.  In addition, collaboration often proves to be fun and personally rewarding. 

Acknowledgements. Throughout my career, I have had the benefit of many research collaborators over the years in astrophysics, hydrology, and computer and computational science, and they kindly and patiently have helped me grasp these concepts.  In particular, I would like to acknowledge Prof. Martin Berzins of the School of Computing and the Scientific Computing and Imaging (SCI) Institute at the University of Utah and my professional mentor in IT, Dr. Terry Gray, recently retired from the University of Washington.

Last Updated: 4/13/21