How to … develop people-centred research collaborations

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How to … develop people-centred research collaborations

© Fun Palaces. Photo Roswitha Chesher

By Lisa Baxter


Research partnerships between the cultural sector and academics can help provide fresh insights to inform robust policy and practice. But how can we develop ethical, people-centred research collaborations that respond to the priorities of the sector?  

This how-to guide focuses on lessons from the Centre for Cultural Value’s Collaborate programme. Over the course of four years, Collaborate has supported the development of new research projects between the UK cultural sector and academic researchers.

Lisa Baxter, Collaborate Partnerships Manager, now draws together the lessons learnt, offering practical tips on designing a successful collaboration that puts people first. 


Between 2021 and 2024, the Centre for Cultural Value ran a programme called Collaborate, which supported innovative research collaborations between UK cultural sector practitioners and academic researchers.

As Partnerships Manager for Collaborate, I had the privilege of mentoring these research partnerships as they evolved. My practice centres on experience design and putting people at the heart of processes. Working with the Centre for Cultural Value team, I drew on this to make sure each element of the programme was designed to create conditions where collaboration, new ideas and thinking can flourish.

We wanted to create a programme that was human-centred, uniquely responding to the needs of cultural sector professionals rather than shoe-horned to fit within university funding systems and dynamics.

Rising Arts Agency: This Is The Work (Photo: Olumide Osinoiki)

Certain elements were ‘baked in’ to the programme design to support a positive and productive collaboration experience. For example:

  • We offered information sessions on what constitutes good collaborative practice.
  • Cultural sector applicants were given time to meet and ‘sound out’ prospective academic applicants during a matchmaking process.
  • Time was built in to encourage meaningful partnership development.
  • We mentored research teams through any emerging challenges or issues relating to the collaboration.
  • We offered the teams the flexibility to pivot in response to emerging circumstances and insights.
  • We facilitated a series of reflective milestone meetings where each project could check in and reflect on their experience of the partnership itself, as well as the research.

This resource shares what we learned about successful collaboration from the Collaborate projects, drawn from my reflections and those of the research partners.

Thanks to the openness and honesty of those partners we can now share these insights more widely.

1. Find your shared values and common ground

Spending quality time with your prospective partners pays dividends in the long term. Create time at the outset of your research collaboration to really understand each other’s world views and come to the table with genuine curiosity about your research partners’ perspectives and motivations.

Seek to identify shared values, map common goals and test chemistry. This will lay the vital groundwork to sustain a partnership through thick and thin, avoiding the pitfalls of a ‘marriage of convenience’.

The Collaborate programme offered cultural sector applications matchmaking meetings with academics to do just this. Jess Bunyan, Co Director of Rising Arts Agency found this slow-build approach helped generate new ideas: “We had shared values. It felt like every time we had a conversation, there were a million more things we wanted to chat about.”

Practical tips

  • Ask searching questions about each other’s purpose and values in relation to their work.
  • Explore each other’s motivations and goals in entering into the partnership.
  • Tune into your intuition when it comes to your potential partner’s body language, how they talk about their work and the questions they ask of you – does it feel right?
  • When talking with your partner, look for signs of genuine curiosity in your work, together with the flexibility to listen and the willingness to pivot.
  • Do they look and sound excited at the prospect of working with you?
  • Is the conversation taking off, or is it remaining purely functional?

2. Invest in development time

A great collaboration cannot be rushed. Development time is essential for understanding how you can productively work with each other, and determining what your research partner is and isn’t able to commit to.

You can then build this knowledge into your project planning so you can work within each other’s capacity.

Practical tips

  • Be honest about your work patterns, resources and capacity.
  • Be honest about your strengths and limitations.
  • Call out unanswered questions.
  • Set clear expectations and appropriate boundaries.
  • Flag up any pinch points in your calendar that need to be factored in.
  • Establish clear responsibilities and channels of communication.
  • Identify any practical concerns or issues and co-develop workarounds.
  • Produce a partnership agreement that includes a mutual understanding of how you want to work together, establishes who holds accountability for what, and sets appropriate boundaries.

3. Address power imbalances

When designing Collaborate, we found that assumed hierarchies (for example, between large university partners and smaller cultural organisations) were often a barrier to successful research collaborations. We recognised that partners being equals around the table is an essential starting point.

Collaborate partners were encouraged to be open about where power imbalances lie, what this might mean for the collaboration and the research, and how to address them.

Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum (Photo: Irish Linen Centre)

For example, a collaboration between a small arts organisation and a large university will need to be open about the time university processes take and build this into planning. The administrative weight of the research project might be disproportionate for a small arts company. Or there may be perceived power imbalances between the research team and the research participants which could affect authentic participation.

Recognising power imbalances such as these means you can put strategies in place to level the playing field.

Practical tips

4. Value difference and learning from each other

We found that the most interesting learning happens when both partners come to the collaboration without preconceived ideas and are open to the possibilities that might emerge. This created a climate of curiosity, where everyone in the partnership was genuinely interested in how each other works, which was a more enriching experience for all involved.

Holding a space for questions, ‘what ifs’ and the creative collision of ideas increased the opportunity to generate fresh perspectives and ways of working.

As one of the Collaborate cohort commented: “It’s about openness and not being restricted and stay-in-your-lane thinking... you’re laying the path as you go.”

Practical tips

  • Think about your collaboration as a process of ‘co-learning’ – it’s an open-ended and emergent process that is mutually enriching. This means being open to learning from each other and creatively engaging with possibility.
  • Think of different ways of sharing insights. For example, the partnership between Big Telly and MMU set up a virtual reading room on Google Drive where the team could upload resources to enrich each others’ thinking.
  • Delve into each other’s specialisms and immerse yourself in each other’s worlds. In The Beauty Project, for example, Quarantine, physicist Rox Middleton and philosopher Lucy Tomlinson spent time in each other’s workspaces reflecting on the other’s work. This approach enriched the research process and their own individual practice.
  • Your research outputs should meet the needs of the different partners involved. For example, while academic papers fulfil a specific function, for the cultural partner the findings might need to support real-world application or leverage further funding.

5. Be authentic in your communication with one another

You’ve discovered your common ground, you understand and value your differences, and you’ve been upfront about power balances. You’re now in a strong position to nurture open and productive communication as research partners.

Remember that academics have a particular way of talking and writing that isn’t always immediately accessible. Also, partners may have divergent understandings of certain terms. Be upfront about this and develop a mutual understanding around language.

Practical tips

  • Agree your communication channels and what each channel should be used for.
  • Establish your communication ethos. For example, honesty, clarity, transparency, timeliness.
  • Think about how you might develop a shared language across disciplines and organisations. For example, you could create a shared glossary.
  • Build in regular points of reflection and check-ins. Give space to explore:
      • How are you doing?
      • What challenges have you encountered?
      • How can we support you?
      • Do we need to flex?
      • What are we learning and what are the implications?

6. Cultivate a culture of care

We designed the Collaborate programme to be people-centred because we wanted to establish a culture of care and address the needs of everyone who took part including participants.

Practical tips

  • Establish personal and professional boundaries. Share them with the team so they understand where the red lines are.
  • Conduct regular project check-ins, be alert to each other’s workloads and be willing to flex if circumstances change or the workload becomes unexpectedly unmanageable.
  • When recruiting participants, provide clear briefings so they fully understand the reason for the research, what’s involved and what is expected of them. No surprises.
  • Offer prospective participants multiple ways to take part. For example, if they are uncomfortable in a group, find alternative ways to engage with them.
  • During the research, anticipate and meet participants’ needs so they feel well taken care of.
  • Build inclusion into your approach and create research spaces where everyone feels they belong.
  • Offer participant support if you are exploring a sensitive subject. For example, one project commissioned a therapist to be on hand.
  • Always give the participant an opportunity to opt out at any point. Their needs come before yours.


“I’ve worked on collaborative projects before, but this has been… like the truest sort of collaboration… where we’re figuring things out together, learning new things about each other. And just really working together.” - Katy Pilcher, Aston University

We’ve discovered how collaborations between cultural practitioners and academics can hold immense value, but are rarely straightforward. They can be complex to navigate and need to be carefully primed and ready for curve balls.

In some respects, a good collaboration is like improvisation: you set the ground rules and use these to navigate the unexpected, open to whatever emerges. These ‘messy spaces’ provide exciting opportunities for growth, innovation, emergence and new knowledge. We know because we have seen this first hand.

Credit: Crafts Council and Glasgow Caledonian University (London) Living Lab with Legacy West Midlands.  (Photo: Gene Kavanagh)

Watching these collaborations grow and flourish has been a hugely rewarding experience. It’s taken some partners to previously unimagined places, where the whole is definitely more than the sum of the parts. Our partners have come away enriched and inspired, with many intent on continuing their collaboration to further the learning.

Our hope is that many more cultural and academic partners will be motivated to work together in this way, as equals in a joint venture of discovery, always looking out for each other, and where everyone raises their game, powered by shared values and common goals.

Links to more resources and reading

Published: 2024
Resource type: Guide/tools