Improving Communication and Collaboration Among Diverse Experts

Toni Klemm, Cait Rottler | February 2020

There are many barriers that keep interdisciplinary teams from functioning. Different technical vocabulary, different research methods, or limited understanding of decision needs can lead to misunderstandings, delays, and results that are impractical and disconnected from decision making. In this workshop, hosts Dr. Toni Klemm (Texas A&M University) and Dr. Cait Rottler (USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub) used the Compass Message Box concept to reduce the language barrier that exist between research disciplines and between researchers and decision makers, with the goal to improve mutual understanding and as a result, collaboration. This blog post is a description of the workshop. Read a story-like recount of the workshop on Toni Klemm’s website, here.

The workshop has two parts, each of which took about one hour but can be adjusted depending on the number of participants and the allotted time:

  1. Introducing the Compass Message Box concept
  2. Practicing the Message Box concept in a group setting

1. Introducing the Compass Message Box concept

Comparing scientific publications and popular science articles illustrated in a simple way the differences – and problems – in science communication. Scientific papers follow the IMRAD structure (Introduction-Method-Results-and-Discussion) whereas many news stories report main findings, followed by some back story, followed by secondary findings, what they all mean (why the work is relevant), and eventually an outlook to future work.

We further illustrated the different structures using a research study about ancient DNA studies that provide new insights on human migration out of Africa. We contrasted the original publication in Nature and a science article in the New York Times about the work (finding a match was easiest by starting with the news story, which usually links to the original research paper). Not only was the New York Times article easier to follow because of its structure, it was also much shorter and used less jargon. This shows that research findings can indeed be translated for a non-expert audience and that structure and language play important roles in it. Both structures have their place and purpose, but we argue that for cross-disciplinary communication, the latter should be applied. The Message Box concept helps with just this.

The Message Box by Compass Science Communication is a widely used concept to transform scientific research into a relevant message for non-peers and non-academic experts. It distills scientific research into five aspects:

  1. the broader issue (context)
  2. the concrete problem the work addresses
  3. why the work is important
  4. possible solutions to the problem described
  5. the overall benefits

The answers to these five points, of course, depend on the audience (or collaboration partners). For example, the same research about future climate change impacts on agricultural production has a different context for farmers and ranchers or policy makers. In the same way, solutions, benefits, and the concrete problem itself are different for them.

This targeted framing of research and addressing different audiences was the goal of part two of the workshop.

2. Practicing the Message Box concept in a group setting

Just as their interest in our work is different, so may producers’ and legislators’ language be different from one another and from our own. In part two of the workshop, we divided our audience into groups of three individuals who are unfamiliar with each other and each others’ work, and we used the Message Box concept to help everyone practice their communication with non-peers.

In 5-minute intervals, person one was the interviewer, person two was the interviewee, and person three was the observer. We prepared some guiding questions for interviewers but left room for flexibility, given that we did not know who would be attending. After 4 minutes, roles rotated within each group, and the observer communicated some observed do’s and don’ts in a brief feedback (1 minute for this transition).

After three rotations, each group member had been in each role, but had only asked or answered to one of their group partners. Therefore, we continued to rotate, such that each group member questioned and responded to both of their group partners. With each rotation, partners became more aware of their unintentional “don’ts” as well as things they did right, and gradually improved their communication.

Realistically, each of these two rounds took about 20 minutes to complete. If the workshop is scheduled for more than two hours, groups can be reshuffled for a third (and forth) round.

Feedback

After completing the last rotation, we asked participants for feedback, which gave everyone an opportunity to share their experience with each other and with us. We were happy (and relieved) that, despite the struggles some participants had, everyone enjoyed the workshop, learned something and found it inspiring in becoming better communicators and collaborators. Most agreed, that it was difficult to talk across disciplinary boundaries, and because of that they rarely do it, but this workshop pushed them out of their comfort zone. It also helped them see their work and its value from someone else’s perspective and understand how their work was important to non-peers, which was motivating for them and us. Not least, several people said, that they found new potential collaborators.

Materials

Workshop slides (Powerpoint | PDF)