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Home No. 76: Foreign subawards: Effectively managing your collaborations

May 16

No. 76: Foreign subawards: Effectively managing your collaborations

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Foreign subawards: Effectively managing your collaborations

Reader question: My proposed project involves working with foreign collaborators. Are there any effective strategies for monitoring their work so that I can be sure it’s getting done on time and to a certain standard? But I don’t want to appear that I’m micromanaging the situation. What should I do?

Expert comments: There is a real need to balance monitoring with micromanagement. From the lead PI’s and institution’s standpoint, you must make sure that the project comes out well in the end — that you get what you’re paying for and that everyone meets the project goals.

Here are two suggestions for achieving that balance:
  • Communication — Keep in frequent, informal contact by phone or email. That can help you to get an indication of the project’s progress and give you a sense of the sub-recipients’ understanding of project goals, methods and specifications.

    If you hire within the United States, you expect performance will meet the contract. In many foreign countries, this may not be the case, and having a relationship with the subawardee is critical — they have to know you and you know them.

    So with foreign sub-recipients, setting up regular times for communication is vital. Say, “How about we discuss this every Friday?” That way, you build regular contact into a habit.

    Regular, planned communication — because it builds and maintains relationships — helps avoid the problems of micromanagement. In addition, avoiding micromanagement is mostly a matter of tone. You have an informal discussion during which you can ask questions rather than say something like, “Send me your data every afternoon.” During your talk, you listen for signs of progress or red flags that something isn’t going as planned — and especially to ensure everyone understands your expectations.

    Important: Don’t give only negative feedback. Positive responses can readily steer your partner in the right direction.

  • Review invoices — Examining your sub-recipients’ invoices is important if you’re paying their actual expenses. Make sure the contract supports the personnel they are requesting payment for and the percent effort are . Look for red flags that they’re spending too fast or too slowly for what you normally expect.

    This is similar to working with a domestic collaborator in terms of the project resources needed. If they expected one tech and suddenly charge you for two, you should call and ask why that changed. You are looking for alterations from what was originally proposed.

Expert comments by Janet Simons, director of research policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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Comments (3)
written by shortoncash, May 16, 2011
We have a regularly scheduled weekly meeting to make sure everything is meeting the expected deadlines, and I always reinforce that they can call/email me anytime. I've been woken up a few times, but it was worth it after I heard about the relatively minor, but impactful situation the collaborator was unsure about.
Research Administrator
written by TK6200, May 16, 2011
It's still a rough road, no matter what you did, but can be well worth it with the right collaborator. We found with a Central African collaborator that the key was to get one person we built a relationship with and could trust. That person was able to translate the cross-cultural communications into language the locals understood -- and vice versa. The result was we were able to take some of the headaches out of the process.
written by David E Harrison, May 24, 2011
The key is trust, as implied by the second comment. Your collaborator must be trusted and must be worthy of that trust. This means you must treat the collaborator with honor and integrity and require the same in return. Personally, I do a minor collaboration first, and if I am not comfortable trusting the collaborator, we never collaborate again.

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