4. Skills for collaboration

This section looks at the skills that students need to acquire in order to effectively conduct collaborative activities, whether offline or online. The question of how many of these to directly address with students, and how many are best left for them to learn by experience remains open. We suggest raising them as things to be aware of, then observing students to see if failing to acquire them is particularly impeding their ability to conduct the activity, at which point some remedial additional seminars on the skills could be implemented. These skills are, in general, applicable to any subject discipline. They are also applicable to collaborations that are intra-organisational (although inter-disciplinary) only. Inter-organisational and international collaborative skills are addressed in the online section, since inter-organisational and international collaborations are likely to be conducted online. Where the subject discipline of the BIM-Hub collaboration has an impact on the guidance, this is noted.

4.1 Encourage students to develop a positive attitude towards collaboration

The most important thing to support effective collaboration was for all of the students in the team to commit fully to meeting the demands of deadlines and meeting allocated tasks. Where this was not the case, students had little control over whether to ensure input from their colleagues and needed to refer this to teaching staff to sort out. Delays here had long-term impact on meeting schedules and so a quick route to intervention is recommended. The biggest issue for students is the failure of their team-members to contribute. In some cases students were honest about their own inabilities in this area. Failure to provide work was cited as a major cause of annoyance. Once team-members failed to contribute, then there was an absence of trust which was very difficult to overcome.

4.2 Make students aware of the problems with being too dogmatic with role allocation

In multi-disciplinary projects it can appear that the roles to be adopted within the project are self-evident, however, successful collaborations were those in which there was flexibility with allocating roles, and tasks, so that any student had the opportunity to contribute to each part of the team. This was particularly evident when management tasks were shared. A positive aspect of sharing or taking roles in turn was the opportunity to learn from each other’s disciplines. Establishing a protocol early on for enabling everyone to take part in every task if they wanted to helped here.  One of the biggest causes of resentment was when the roles were divided too exclusively along disciplinary lines. In teams in which students assumed that roles would be divided according to the discipline of the course they were on, resentment arose from those students who wanted roles according to their own individual abilities.

4.3 Make students aware of the problems with being too focused on their own tasks to the exclusion of the project as a whole and their team-members’ work

In many teams, the tasks required to complete the project were divided up and assigned to different parts of the team and these were then conducted in isolation from the rest of the group, and only fed back on completion. Although this is more time effective, the collaborations in which students contributed to each other’s tasks, and reported back throughout about progress, and asked for help when complications arose, resulted in better collaborations and a better experience for the students.  Teams should be encouraged to ask for help, to give and ask for updates, and where necessary collaborate on the separate tasks, not just separately work on their own parts of the project.

4.4 Encourage students to provide feedback on each other’s work

Students expressed greater satisfaction with the experience of the project when their teammates provided feedback or suggestions on their work. Where this did not occur is usually because of the absolute division between tasks mentioned above.

4.5 Warn students to be prepared for cultural differences between disciplines

Students rarely found cultural differences a challenge, and many found them a positive experience of the project, but when unexpected these caused short term challenges. Even in a face-to-face setting there will be collaborations across different disciplines and these will have different ways of working and different priorities which can be overcome more quickly if anticipated.

4.6 Help students identify methods to develop trust in team-building

Trust appeared to be an issue for some of the groups. Those that were in successful  collaborations either had developed trust with their team-mates or had developed different techniques for managing interactions despite a lack of trust.

One of these techniques was to develop an instinct as to people’s reliability when first encountering them. Another was to be selective about whom to trust.

Some experienced challenges because of failure to complete work, or it not being completed properly. Solutions to this were to check everything and have quality assurance and to actually see the work rather than take others word that it is completed  as well as to do this repeatedly.

The students also recommended that group members set simple tasks at start to identify whether their team-mates are likely to have any issues with reliability or lack of commitment so that these issues can be addressed early.

Because of the problems caused by delays in work completion cause problems it is also best for the students to have a contingency plan.

4.7 Reassure students that with commitment, the teamworking will improve over time

The experience of the students in the BIM-Hub project was that team-working did become more effective. This one student’s description of how his/her team worked describes the state at which students should aspire.

“Towards the end of the project everything came together well, and there was a good amount of communication.  Every group member knew exactly what they had to do, and work was submitted in time for everyone to check it over and give feedback before the final hand in.  During the final phase of the project especially, while we were expected to provide more than we were expecting, the team functioned well together, work was completed promptly and everyone was aware of how their work fit into the group, as well as what the others were completing and the reasons behind it.”

4.8 Ensure students check at start that all members of the team have a common basis for collaboration

Students said that they had learnt to check understanding at the start to ensure that everyone understands the brief and also to check file transferability and ensure that all members of the team are using the same or comparable software.

4.9 Inform students of some of the methods by which collaboration can be built

The aspects that the BIM-Hub students identified as particularly helpful were:

  • Getting all members involved by making time to ask each member for suggestions and providing encouragement.
  • When project planning and forming group agreements keeping it short, simple and clear and doing it together with all person consensus. This was seen as an essential part of respecting team members; i.e. letting every team member have an input and express their views.
  • Make full use of the skills of the members of the team by giving them every opportunity to contribute.

4.10 Introduce the students to appropriate supportive software

Students developed project management documents (e.g. Gantt charts) using Microsoft Excel and some used project planning software, such as Microsoft Project, Asta Project. For built environment disciplines, the BIM-Hub students had also found about an online resource called the Building Cost Information Service http://www.rics.org/uk/knowledge/bcis/  which helped them estimate the building costs and recommended using this service early.