By Joern Fischer
I’m currently at a workshop with a bunch of people interested in social-ecological systems. Almost inevitably at such workshops, the question arises how the results can be packaged into a nice paper (or even several). I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with such papers, and so I thought perhaps it is worth reflecting on the pros and cons of these exercises.
On the positive side, good workshops, with the right sets of people can lead to genuinely new ideas emerging. In a good workshop, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and what emerges can be quite unique – and no individual person could have thought of it, or put it together like that. The resulting papers are typically conceptual pieces that draw on the range of expertise of the people present.
On the downside, such “synergy” papers don’t always work well. Perhaps the most important factor is whether the people at the workshop are truly synergistic in what they bring. This strikes me as an interesting trade-off. If you bring a diverse set of people to a workshop, chances of new and interesting synergies increase – but so does the risk that partcipants have nothing to say to each other (or split into sub-groups). On the other hand, if you bring an overly homogenous set of people to a workshop, “group-think” will take over, and the resulting outcomes may be deemed boring by many outside the workshop.
For workshop organisers (and to a lesser degree, participants), this leaves a few challenges. First, nice ideas and synergies cannot be forced, but they can be supported. Typically, a mix of flexibility, structure, and informal conversation is ideal. Flexibility improves the chances for “emergence” of new ideas; structure improves the likelihood of actually having something tangible at the end; and informal conversation provides an atmosphere of trust and shared spirit that ensures people with different perspectives dare to speak up and listen to one another.
And so I guess my love-hate relationship with workshop papers will continue! I’ve read papers from workshops that I found pathetic, and that seem to have largely got published because they had many famous people on the author list. But I’ve also read papers from workshops with truly nice ideas. The trouble is that one doesn’t quite know before a workshop (or before reading a workshop paper) which it’s going to be! So … don’t judge a book by its cover – some workshop papers are nice, but also, sometimes really good actors appear in really bad movies, and sometimes even together …