OPINION8 February 2024

In a post-flex era, collaboration trumps specialisation

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The ability to collaborate has never been more necessary, says Annie Auerbach, who offers three suggestions for how to embed collaboration into how we think, experiment and work with clients.

colourful figures with colourful bits of paper rolled into balls symbolising creative ideas and teamwork

One of the key elements in our lives as researchers is developing expertise, skills and specialisms. These become our heartland. As the great philosopher Dolly Parton put it: “Find out who you are, and do it on purpose”. Specialism acts as a magnet. It helps people, clients and organisations find you.

It is wired into our education in the UK. We go from exploratory learning in pre-school, to subject-based learning and then in higher education we prune our intellectual landscapes even more. Our studies become a process of micro-slicing, we become ever more niche in an ever-narrowing field.

We’re being culturally coded to turn inwards, too. Our hyper-individualised social feeds produce echo chambers. In our rush for self-improvement, self-care and self-expression, we’re becoming incredibly attuned to looking within, at the expense of looking up and around.

There’s a risk to all of this. In our own fields, we develop 20:20 vision. Yet we risk myopia elsewhere. Specialism can – at its worst – become narrow-mindedness. 

In 2018, I wrote a book called FLEX, predicting a new wave of flexible living and working. Triggered by the pandemic, traditional working templates have changed beyond recognition. Flexible working norms sparked a newly inclusive culture for those who had been sidelined by rigid structures and presenteeism.

For example, the percentage of women in the US workforce with young children is higher than it’s ever been, according to the Brookings Institution. Flex breeds diversity. Research from McKinsey found that LGBTQ+ employees, women and workers with disabilities were more likely to quit if hybrid options were not available. Add to this people with caring responsibilities, neurodiversities, those coping with grief, mental health or menopause symptoms, and we potentially have more frames of reference than ever. 

As an industry, we are arguably in an expansive period. Our sector has fresh influences, more varied expertise and differing points of view. Our next frontier should be true collaboration to weave them all together. More than simply working together, collaboration actually produces something. A spark, an idea, a solution, a scientific breakthrough, a life-changing invention, a work of art. It’s generative. It’s innovative.

And it’s never been more needed.

As researchers, we’re alive to a world beset by existential threats like climate crisis, mental health, the march of AI and loneliness. We work on tricky questions without singular answers. They require leaps of faith, genuine innovation and fresh thinking. Specialism alone won’t get us there.

This is true outside of our sector. In the world of science, “great teams — rather than individual genius — have become the key to innovation”, say Dominic Packer and Jay Van Bavel, authors of The Power of Us.  They have written about the rise of ‘Team Science’ and show that larger team collaborations are on the rise. In 1955, 18% of the papers published in the social sciences were by teams, and by 2000 this number had risen to 52%.

So, how can research make the most of this post-flex era? How can we master the skills of collaboration and harness all of these broad perspectives? Here are some ways to embed collaboration into the way we think, experiment and work with our clients.

1. The skill of bisociation

Starling are not specialists; we are proud generalists. We are lucky enough to have conversations with experts all over the world who are at the top of their fields. Our job is to pay attention, connect the dots and spot patterns. Or as someone put it much better: Stop, collaborate and listen’. 

One way of doing this is through ‘bisociative thinking’ – creative collisions between unconnected, surprising combinations. These combinations could be quant findings, academic studies, expert perspectives, qualitative insights, historical trajectories and socio-cultural tensions and trends – a coalescence of many different data points and an inspiration to tell stories which weave it all together and get to fresh perspectives and overlooked places.

2. Tricky, messy questions and joyful experimental collabs

We’re at a time of ‘wicked problems’ – difficult, systemic, multi-causal problems. We need our thinking to be as multi-layered and intersectional as the issues with which we grapple. Yet often, we’re stuck in methodological ruts and silos.

Starling has embarked on a cross-disciplinary pro-bono project called The Rift. Noticing the alienation, toxic role-models and lack of pathways for young men, coupled with a backlash against feminism and the rise of male violence against women; we wanted to act. We posted on LinkedIn acknowledging this was a complex, messy brief. We hoped that together, with willing collaborators, we could unpick the problem and find ways to heal the gender rift. We admitted we didn’t know whether a random collaboration of people who had never met before would work. It would be an experiment –we would learn as we go.

And we are! At our first Zoom meeting, we discussed The Rift with brilliant, smart people based in three different continents, across at least 10 different specialisms – both inside and outside the research world. The conversation was both sobering, as we realised the depths of the issues, and uplifting, as the vibrancy of the ideas sparked between people. We’re at the start of the process – but it’s clear that the solution will be at the intersections rather than in one person’s head.

3. The new collaborative language of cultural research

Brands and research often use terms like ‘leveraging’ trends and ‘owning’ parts of culture: a brand might want to ‘own’ an emotion like happiness, fun or sociability. We need to be careful that we aren’t treating culture in the same way that nature has been treated: as a free resource to mine.

‘Leveraging’ and ‘owning’ are extractive terms.  This language implies that it’s OK for brands to colonise culture. The new collaborative language of cultural research is regenerative and has the principles of mutuality at its heart – not seeing culture as something to exploit. After all, the word culture comes from the Latin word ‘colere’, to grow. So, we should see culture as something to respect, nourish, invest in, and collaborate with.

Annie Auerbach is co-founder of Starling and author of FLEX: Reinventing work and life for a better future