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Expanding Toolbox Applications from Research into Other Modalities

Going Further Afield with the Toolbox Approach

Initially, we conceived of the Toolbox approach as something that would have value for any group of scientific collaborators who approached their project from different perspectives. At that time, we identified the approach very closely with the initial Toolbox instrument—the Scientific Research Toolbox instrument—which was designed from the top down using philosophical concepts and methods, as described above (O’Rourke and Crowley 2013; Looney et al. 2014). By using a top-down frame dividing the nature of the investigator

(i.e., the epistemological) from the nature of the investigated (i.e., the metaphysical), we believed we could map the space of scientific research collaborations no matter what their composition.

It did not take long for us to realize that our initial hope for this top-down, decontextualized approach was unrealistic. An early workshop with a health science team comprising clinical health scientists and bench scientists revealed that both the prompts and the workshop protocol were limited in ways that made them unhelpful. Specifically, the clinical scientists found the philosophy of science behind the Scientific Research Toolbox prompts to be too distant from their research concerns to warrant much engagement, and the open and rather flat nature of the lightly facilitated dialogue session meant that several clinical scientists did not participate due to the more hierarchical power structure of that particular community of investigators.

This experience awakened us to the need to be more responsive to the specificities of our partner groups. Although Toolbox dialogue is predominantly concrete and project focused, a dialogue structured by the more abstract and philosophical Scientific Research instrument tends to take longer to get down to concrete examples. While partner groups are interested in the reflexivity that emerges in Toolbox dialogue, many prefer dialogue structured in a way that is more obviously related to their own specific research. Once we recognized this, we began designing instruments that were more sensitive to local considerations while still being somewhat general—for example, the translational health science instrument (Schnapp et al. 2012).

However, even these more context sensitive instruments fell short of sounding the themes that mattered most to our partners, so we began developing instruments designed for specific project teams. This has created new challenges, e.g., finding the project-specific information we need to build instruments, and comparing very different workshops to one another for research purposes. Nevertheless, the decision to identify the core beliefs and values animating particular teams has been crucial to our expansion in the direction of community-based teams and teams that have non-research goals. The strategic planning workshops discussed below are an example of this, as they are designed with the MSU community of interdisciplinary scholars and educators in mind.

Enhancing Process as the Common Thread

Although we now work with a wide variety of groups—research teams, classes (undergraduate and graduate), academic communities (e.g., the MSU interdisciplinary community), and non-academic communities (e.g., local business forums)—a common thread that binds them together is the value dialogue has for them. If a team’s success depends fundamentally on its capacity to integrate a number of different perspectives (Salazar et al. 2012; Piso et al. 2016), then Toolbox dialogue can have value for that team.

The importance of dialogue in the Toolbox approach underscores the ability of Toolbox workshops to do more than simply disclose and coordinate epistemological commitments. It is true that Toolbox dialogue is structured by conceptual (e.g., epistemological, ontological) commitments that frame collaborative deliberation, but the dialogue itself provides an opportunity to work on ways of communicating with one another that open up channels into alternative perspectives. It can be difficult to find ways to relate to collaborators in interdisciplinary contexts—the rhetorical landscape in these contexts is complicated by different communication norms and expectations that are typically neither manifest nor coordinated, impeding the smooth flow of information and the empathetic creation of bonds of mutuality. Dialogue supports modes of engagement that can help encourage relational connection, such as deep listening and back-channel signaling (cf. Traxler 2012). Deploying philosophy as a rhetorical frame for this discussion helps by motivating deeper reflexivity and perspective taking between collaborators (cf. Salazar et al. forthcoming).

A recent independent evaluation of the Toolbox approach conducted by the Western Michigan University Evaluation Center (WMUEC) indicates that 89 percent of Toolbox participants take Toolbox dialogue to have improved their understanding of their collaborator’s research perspectives on their common project, and 77 percent feel more capable of collaborating with representatives from different disciplines (Western Michigan University Evaluation Center 2017). These gains in understanding and collaborative capacity position teams to recognize differences in perspective, a key determinant for successful project integration.

More specifically, a well-developed ability of teammates to recognize when they understand their common problem differently can enable fruitful project integration in several ways:

  • 1 By allowing them to avoid unreasonable disagreements and agreements that are based on misunderstanding or confusion, this ability can help teams recognize disagreements that really matter.
  • 2 By helping them recognize the various types of expertise in their project, this ability can guide efficient division of responsibility for various project objectives.
  • 3 When the ability reveals incompatible points of view, it positions them to explore potentially creative ways to resolve the conflict. (Nemeth and Nemeth-Brown 2003)

Where group tasks revolve around knowledge integration, the literature supports the idea that systematic, formal interventions can be beneficial to group effectiveness (Okhuysen and Eisenhardt 2002). The Toolbox workshop is a formal intervention supporting knowledge integration through greater appreciation of the expertise in a collaboration, whether the participating teams are research oriented or more community oriented.

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