The project taught us lessons both about what worked and what failed to work when engaging in this type of research. One valuable and productive insight, particularly for me, was to reconceptualize and rethink our project as field philosophy. As observed earlier, we were unfamiliar with this concept when the project began: it was only in talking with a colleague at a conference about the nature of our research that he mentioned that perhaps what we were engaged in was field philosophy. Since that time I have found the concept invaluable in thinking about myself as a researcher and articulating what I do to others, both in and outside academia. For me, it provides a conceptual tool for how I frame my work. I have also introduced the idea of field philosophy into a Capstone unit I teach philosophy majors. The idea resonates with students keen to deploy their philosophical skills in their lives outside the academy.
Returning to our project, realizing there was a gap in our skill set regarding how to identify potential partners and pitch the value of philosophy was an important insight for those of us who wish to continue to engage in field philosophy. As to what could be done to remedy this in the future, a number of options are apparent. Members of the team could actively seek to improve their skills in this respect, perhaps through training, although these skills will likely improve anyway with more experience in this kind of research. We could also be more strategic in approaching others within the university who are more familiar with packaging information for presentation to these audiences. We did this to some extent on this project by consulting with relevant people to help identify potential partners and, after the project was funded, we accessed assistance from marketing in producing professional promotional materials for the project. However, it might have been productive to have people with sales and negotiating skills actually sit in on meetings. Another way of addressing this skills deficit would be to establish, foster, and nurture long-term alliances with people and organizations with whom we were likely to share research interests. We could also seek to establish a reputation as field philosophers so that parties outside academia might approach us with research problems, or we might encourage professional organizations to promote and publicize how philosophy is relevant to real-world problem-solving in their domain of interest.
On balance, I think we managed the differing expectations of our stakeholder partners and institutional masters well. What we will do more of in the future, however, is to be more acutely aware of differences in the interest and relevance of various elements of our research to different groups, and to be more selective in what we disclose to different audiences. For example, although interviewing surgeons to ascertain their views about what constituted surgical innovation was productive, attempting to work out our definition with this group proved to be less fruitful and met with resistance. Hospital managers and medical insurers were the parties for whom these definitions mattered most, since knowing when innovation is occurring can help trigger appropriate oversight. So, for instance, we may have been better simply presenting the MSIIT tool to these groups for evaluation and further input, rather than trying to engage surgeons directly in discussions about defining surgical innovation.
For the project to be successful (and to count as field philosophy), we needed to deliver on practical outcomes for our stakeholder partners. One of the successes of the project was how productive we were in meeting these goals as well as standard academic outputs. This was due in no small part to the organization and management skills of our team leader and research assistant, as well as the way in which a large workload was divided among self-managing streams. But it needs to be acknowledged that delivering empirically robust practical outputs takes time away from activities that enable us to perform according to more standard academic metrics that are important for career progression and, in the Australian context, for how governments evaluate and disperse some funding to universities. These metrics, however, are currently in flux in ways that may be productive for field philosophers. Macquarie University, for instance, now assesses applicants for promotion on two new parameters—integration and application—with integration intended to encourage and reward interdisciplinarity, and application concerned with focusing on activities that link academia with industry, government, and community. At the same time, the government’s new research evaluation framework, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), includes sections on impact and engagement outside the academy.
In terms of how to develop this kind of project in the future, we could learn much from a field philosopher’s handbook. Having already established many of the key parameters for our research prior to approaching stakeholders placed significant constraints on our project. In an ideal world it would have been much better to have the time and intellectual space in which to build relationships from which mutually beneficial research questions might more naturally emerge. To do this, however, would require support from our institutions and a preparedness to ‘play the long game.’ If we were to engage in such relationship building we (and our institutions) would need to be cognizant of the fact that the turnover of personnel within organizations (either to another role or leaving the business entirely) may mean efforts expended on building relationships may not deliver the desired results. In fact, in addition to not being aware of historical relationships and projects, when personnel assume a new role they sometimes actively seek to forge fresh relationships and pursue their own projects.
This project reinforced to us the importance of being amenable to engagement with stakeholders and industry on their terms, to an extent. If research with practical aspirations is to be successful, at least some portion of a research team needs to be open, as our postdoctoral researcher was, to understanding and fitting in with how different workplaces function. Particularly important in our case was learning to speak the language of surgery and healthcare, and to be comfortable and familiar with that language and its acronyms, as well as common cases that were likely to be discussed. Being fluent in the requisite jargon enables one to fit in more easily, to be spoken to as a peer, and to have one’s credibility less open to challenge. This kind of knowledge also enables greater insight into problems faced and how these are viewed and prioritized by stakeholders.