Toolbox Concept

What is the Toolbox?

The Toolbox is an aid to collaborative, cross-disciplinary research (CDR). Specifically, it is a discovery mechanism designed to enhance communication among collaborators who may have different approaches to investigating and understanding the world. Good communication among collaborators is essential for determining an effective level of integration throughout the CDR process, from problem formulation to analysis, interpretation, and, where appropriate, application. When participants have different views about what constitutes “good” science, however, difficulties can arise. For example, differences concerning the value of qualitative vs. quantitative and reductionist vs. holistic approaches can lead to misunderstanding or disagreement among team members. Rather than being integrated, the resulting research can remain fragmented and divided along disciplinary boundaries. The Toolbox enables teams to identify potential disagreements and misunderstandings through dialogue about fundamental research commitments. It consists of a systematic set of 34 statements that probe participant views on the practice of science. Serving as dialogue prompts, these statements structure a conversation among participants that reveals fundamental research assumptions and generates mutual understanding at a deep level.

Toolbox Workshops

Based on the principles set forth in Eigenbrode et al (2007) and other sources, we offer facilitated workshopsbased on the Toolbox to help your team examine the dimensions of its collaboration and communication from a philosophical perspective. These workshops require some preparation and 3 hours of committed time by team members. We provide a summary of team member responses to the Toolbox, a transcript of the workshop and an analysis of the workshop experience with suggestions of how to apply what has been learned in ongoing activities of the team and its project.

Is the Toolbox worth it? Preliminary evidence of the effectiveness of the Toolbox approach is reported in our paper, Eigenbrode et al (2007), which provides a detailed argument for the value of exploring the philosophical dimensions of collaboration by CDR teams. Most of the responses to the more than 50 Toolbox workshops run to date have been strongly positive, as reported in O’Rourke and Eigenbrode (2010) and O’Rourke and Crowley (2010). Additional evidence that argues in favor of a generally salutary impact of the Toolbox workshops can be found in Wulfhorst and Crowley (2010).  (See our Publications page.) CDR teams are typically overburdened, and a Toolbox session represents an additional time commitment. Nonetheless, we believe that such a conversation is akin to turning on the lamp before reading—a small investment with a potentially large return.

Why use the Toolbox? Effective CDR teams break down barriers and move toward mutual understanding and respect of the different disciplines involved. Participants in CDR projects can employ research approaches that differ due to disparate disciplinary traditions or different educational, professional, and even personal experiences of participants within similar disciplines. A pressing challenge for CDR teams is to integrate the approaches used by each team member into a coherent research strategy. Among the impediments to success in this effort are what we call philosophical problems, which arise out of differences among fundamental concepts that frame how scientists conceive the research domain, methods, and the knowledge generated. Unrecognized or poorly understood philosophical differences among team members can block formulation of the incisive questions required for creative and effective research. Because philosophical differences are rooted in fundamental research concepts that are not often contemplated or discussed, it can be difficult for collaborators to spot them. The Toolbox presents these concepts in an explicit and systematic framework, designed to help CDR team members consider their own views and identify potentially problematic differences across the range of views, thereby facilitating more effective integrated research.

Who can benefit from the Toolbox? CDR teams can profit most from a Toolbox conversation early in their existence, but established teams can also learn from these conversations. Teams that comprise very different disciplines are most likely to have disparate views, but teams that comprise more closely related disciplines can also find such conversations valuable.

If you wish to inquire about setting up a workshop, make sure you visit our Workshops page.