Academic journal article Innovation: Organization & Management

Teams in CSIRO: Reorganising for National Research Imperatives

Academic journal article Innovation: Organization & Management

Teams in CSIRO: Reorganising for National Research Imperatives

Article excerpt


CSIRO is the largest research organisation in Australia, with around 6500 staff. As a publicly- funded multidivisional R&D organisation, it conducts scientific research in the public interest across a wide spectrum of fields including agribusiness, energy and transport, health, information and communication technology, manufacturing, minerals resources, natural resources, and environment. CSIRO has a significant degree of independence in defining its own research theme and project priorities. From the mid-1980s, CSIRO was subjected to government appropriation cuts and pressures to find more of its own funding. Consequently the organisation has become more commercial and customer-focused.

By the opening of the 21st century and seen from a global as well as national perspective, CSIRO has been a success. In 2001 it was ranked by Science Watch as in the top one percent of the world's scientific institutions and a 'heavy hitter' of world science. In 2002, it was Australia's leading patent holder, with over 3500 granted or pending patents, and more than 70 spin-off companies were by then based on CSIRO research and technology (Dr Geoff Garrett, National Press Club, November 6, 2002). By 2005-2006, CSIRO's citation per publication rate was more than 30% higher than the world average (Institute for Scientific Information 2005/2006). In sum, CSIRO is a highly successful research organisation which tackles many of the important scientific problems of an advanced nation. It is able to do so thanks to the successful work of its teams.

The work of these teams has been expanding in scope in recent years. In 2003, CSIRO launched a National Research Flagship program to establish large, multidisciplinary partnerships to tackle some of Australia's most important challenges. The Flagships program was established in order to assemble teams of scientists from multiple institutions - CSIRO, universities, other government research organisations and industry research laboratories - to build knowledge and find solutions in the key areas of health, food, water, oceans, energy, metals and, from April 2007, in the area of climate change.

The research conducted by the 19 CSIRO Divisions and seven Flagships is carried out in hundreds of project teams varying in scope, size, and duration. A feature that distinguishes CSIRO from other Australian research organisations is the long time scale of its projects (see Mann 2005: 35), an indication of the Organisation's strategy of programmatic, long term blue sky research as well as more applied work. Many of CSIRO's project teams are established in partnership with other major organisations, such as Australia's approximately 70 Cooperative Research Centres, many of which carry out research in areas central to CSIRO's core mission.

In this paper we examine some characteristics of CSIRO project teams, describe CSIRO's emphasis on team training and development, and then report evidence profiling CSIRO teams on several indicators of team processes such as trust, conflict management, and psychological safety. We make the point that CSIRO, with its new focus on Flagship research, collaborative research and 'theme and stream' research, faces challenges that will affect both its own future and that of other Australian research organisations. Because it is the pre-eminent Australian research organisation, how well CSIRO designs, selects, and manages its project teams to perform large scale, programmatic, multidisciplinary, and multi-partner research will have a significant effect on other Australian research organisations. In our analysis of teams at CSIRO, we draw on statements made by CSIRO leaders and we also draw on empirical evidence we collected for insights into the features of CSIRO teams and how they are performing. This will provide a point of departure for a discussion of some challenges that lie ahead for teams at CSIRO.

This paper also touches on the general challenges of working in R&D teams, particularly teams that cross discipline and organisational boundaries. …

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