Research that Matters, Episode 8: Community and Industry Partnerships
Research that Matters is a 9-part podcast series featuring researchers from Torrens University Australia, who are working towards solving complex global problems and propelling innovation. For more information, and to access all other episodes in the series, click here.
In this episode, our researchers share insights into how industry, academia and government can come together to make transformational change across different sectors – from construction to hospitality.
Host: Clement Paligaru (in bold)
Guests: Dr Mandi Baker (MB)
Professor Kerry London (KL)
Dr Zelinna Pablo (ZP)
In 1821 English scientist, Michael Faraday, discovered that when a wire carrying an electric current is placed next to a single magnetic pole, the wire will rotate. This led to the development of the electric motor.
Picture a world without research.
It would be a world without sanitation systems, one of the reasons we live 40 years longer than we did back in the 1800s. A world where we couldn't listen to the radio and hear ideas, music, and sounds from all over the world, and a world where we'd never know that technology driven changes at work can impact workplace mental health and employee wellbeing. Research reminds us that there is a world of opportunity left untapped.
MB: Research matters because it gets us out of old ways of thinking. It gets us out of ruts and status quo and the traps that come with getting stuck in old ways of thinking. Research can mine out some of those problematic assumptions and research can find the facts and separate those from the anxieties and the fear mongering.
Research can raise awareness and break down myths.
KL: Understanding a little bit more about the assumptions that we have around particular areas. That's always something that I find fascinating. To build up new knowledge really requires you unpacking the topic areas that you're involved with and challenging those assumptions. And that's a lot of what I do is I work with companies in the built environment and build new tools, decision frameworks, impact on policy, impact on practises.
Research helps us put to gather the pieces of a puzzle.
ZP: I look at research as both an opportunity and an obligation. So a research role like mine, I think, is a unique opportunity to spend extended amounts of time analysing and solving complex problems. I'm in a position where I get to explore a problem from many angles possibly for months or for years at a time. Research is important because you have the unique chance to carefully shape solutions to problems that are so robust and not everybody gets a chance to do that. There might be a few people out there who still think that academic research tends to be detached from real world problems. I know some of them, I have a sister for example, who describes me as the kind of doctor who doesn't really help people, and we always have a laugh when she says that. But I think the bottom line is that the kind of industry facing research that I do can be very rigorous and very relevant.
This is Research that Matters. I'm Clement Paligaru. This series explores the work of researchers from Torrens University Australia. We’ll take you behind the curtain to hear what drives their passion and the impact their work, has on all of us. In this episode, we look at the value and importance of community and industry partnerships.
MB: I absolutely love research, and I can see incredible change in cultures in the way that people experience their work, in the way that they experience their lives through what we can learn in the research process. And yeah, ever since that passion's been on fire, my enthusiasm's not dwindled, if not, it's grown.
Hi, I'm Mandi Baker. I work for Torrens University as a lecturer and research fellow and my area of interest is leisure sociology.
I specialise in three different streams or ideas around people centred service work in the tourism, hospitality, leisure fields or areas. And those three ideas: the first is around emotion and emotion work and how employees use their emotion to deliver the experiences that are promised from these leisure experiences. I also work with theories that look at the relationships of power and how people navigate their interactions or use their power to influence and to create those positive experiences. And my third general area, and this is a more recent addition to my research agenda, has been around inclusion, equity and justice. Once you start looking at systems and relationships of power, you realise there are people that get left out or get silenced or that don't belong and that certainly has lit a fire from me around how do we make these spaces more inclusive and just.
Dr Baker works closely with individuals that are employed in these sectors, as well as their managers. Her research looks at employment practises holistically and identifies messages that aren't helpful or healthful.
MB: And when we're bombarded by messages that aren't helpful or healthful, we can start to shape our own behaviour and our own sense of identity around that. And when you shake that up, when you ask people to engage a little bit more consciously and critically with the messages that they're consuming, you can make a real shift. And honestly, in my field it's so that they don't burn themselves out. That's probably the biggest issue.
The leisure industry rides on the back of relationships. When you're trying to deliver a positive leisure experience to another person, you really do have to have fairly sophisticated soft skills to know yourself emotionally, and to be able to deliver that promise. And so what we're seeing is these younger workforces coming in are not as well prepared, but from my field, the concern is that we need these quite capable, all-rounders in the soft skills area. And what we also know is that when people are really good with their soft skills, it buffers, it creates a resilience to compassion, fatigue, and burnout.
We have a burnout rate in the outdoor sector. Most people will leave within two to three years of the start of their employment. And when they leave, they don't just leave the company. They leave the industry. That's a pretty costly investment from the industry's point of view. It certainly has economic impacts when you're constantly hiring and training. There's also something we call knowledge management. When someone has worked in a field for a long time, they hold a lot of knowledge in their head and if they walk out the door, they walk out with that knowledge, it's not documented.
To demonstrate the perils of burnout, Dr Baker takes a creative approach. A big part of her role is to listen to people's stories.
MB: I'm the story collector. This one time at band camp… and people just start talking and I listen and I can hear in their tone and see in their face and recognise in their words, what emotions they're surfacing. I was doing some work, a case study with the YMCAs in Victoria, the state. I had seven to eight, nine people around a table that all work as outdoor leaders. A question I would pose would say, what is the most serious kind of incident that you've ever dealt with? You know, I get descriptions of different kinds of usually physical injuries or near miss incidents. It takes very little prompting to ask them, how did that make you feel? They're already narrating to me their experience, and the meaning of that experience to them and how they've interpreted that, how they've tried to bank that into their memory, or make peace with it or process it.
I might ask what makes you tired? Some people will talk about long hours, but generally in the outdoor leaders, they talk about the amount of emotional drain, the amount of giving they feel that they need to really put on and give out. Then they'll talk about how that's compounded by rostering long hours, big seasons working as a casual. So some of the casuals work super hard for six months and barely sleep, and then try to rest for six months. We all know already that in terms of our energy levels, it doesn't work like banking. There is no interest. You can't sleep an extra 10 hours now and it pay off in a month. And that's where I start raising questions about are the employment practises ethical? Are they sustainable? Are we doing the right thing by these folks? And how can we do it better so that we can retain them. And the answers to those questions are sometimes quite obvious.
It's an industry that isn't necessarily set up for family living. It's the same for hospitality and hotel management. I can't say that there's a single new employment practise that's going to solve everybody's problems. Although I've seen some very creative stuff done by very good clever managers in these sectors. Those solutions may not work for everybody, but what we need is for managers and employees to have a slightly different approach in terms of constantly willing to and committed to engaging in is this working? Is this status quo working for us? If not, how do we change to be responsive to the people and place and time? So there’s context and to ensuring that what we're doing is genuinely supportive of the wellbeing and the success of these employees, that despite being on the contact level and often being the lowest paid and potentially even having the lowest status, are in fact, doing some of the most sophisticated emotion work of the service provision.
The good news is this research has already started yielding results, and it comes down to an effective communications tool. Dr Baker uses a common language with employees and their managers to be able to identify their state of emotional wellbeing.
MB: So, for example, when I talked to this group, we talked about not just burnout, but the notion of brown out, and I use the metaphor of a piece of toast. You put a piece of bread in the toaster and you heat it up, which is a bit like these outdoor leaders being put under demand to be able to give emotionally you leave them in the toaster too long. And that's when you end up with a piece of toast, that's burnt somebody who's gotten to the point where they're really unable to do anything further. They can't give any further and they can't give anything further even to themselves. That's quite a scary point. That's what burnout is about. By giving that metaphor, the piece of toast and brown out those staff members can now go to their boss since say, I feel like I've been in the toaster a little too long, or somebody set the setting to four when really, I can only handle a two.
What they now have is a common way of identifying someone's emotional wellbeing. And they've made an agreement as an organisation and as a culture, that that language is going to be honoured. Burnout is a big deal in someone's life. And the cost is large, not just from an industry point of view, but on an individual point of view. Generally burnout leads to a mental health illness or issues, depression, anxiety, and it makes a person as an individual hit a point of some dysfunction. And that dysfunction isn't just in one realm that has a ripple in every pond. So whether that's with their personal connections and their families and their friends and their communities, as well as in their jobs, roles, industries, et cetera. And we know that no person is compartmentalised a hundred percent, even when we try. And that's to say that emotions and how we feel about ourselves and our identity and our wellbeing equips us better to do the job on some days, and maybe actually puts us in a position to not be able to lead a group as well on another day.
An example of that is, say somebody went through something really tough, like a family member has passed away, and we know grief has its way of rearing its head at the most inopportune times. Say that person is a little bit distracted mentally, whilst they're tying somebody into ropes for a rock climb, they could potentially put the climber at physical risk. Now I'm not trying to say that someone who's experiencing grief can't do their job. But what I'm saying is that there is an impact about our emotional wellbeing, our personal lives, our emotional wellbeing on your ability to even do the technical skills of the job. And so the question is, do we have the backup plan so that if something doesn't go exactly to plan that participant remains safe and that the employee remains safe.
This research draws on sociology, leisure and employment theory. And it was also born out of Dr Baker's own personal experience.
MB: I used to work as a camp counsellor in Canada at home and then I worked in the outdoor education field in Australia. I certainly noticed different ways of how those industries work in these different countries, and I now look at emotion work in a number of different professions. There's certainly some people that don't belong and that are rarely invited or who are trying to speak up and they're not being heard. And that started to raise this last piece of the puzzle for me, which is this question of inclusion, equity and justice. My parents have sponsored and supported refugees. And so I think I've had a lot of exposure to this idea of belonging and who belongs and who doesn't belong. And so I guess that was always in me, but my research said, okay, you got to pull that one out and start paying attention to it, in this question of belonging.
It sounds cheesy, but my vision is to make the world a better place to create positive change for and through employees working in frontline roles where they're providing meaningful or positive experiences to others. I don't think I recognised the social justice theme in my life until I started explicitly using that language and pursuing that as a style of research or a meaning to my research. But when I reflect backwards, I can see that was a thread from the get go and the fact that it lines up with the sustainability goals by the UN, and it was sort of a happy surprise.
This research has given Dr Baker the opportunity to foster international partnerships across industry and government. It's meant she's worked with a bunch of organisations in the outdoor recreation sector, governing bodies, like the Australian Camps Association, and directly with government departments. And she shared her findings, not only in research papers, but also in seminars, keynotes and talks. She's a bit like an interpreter between the worlds of research and the worlds of practise and people have started to pay attention. Many academics around the world are already engaging with this research.
MB: I've had the real privilege of being able to work with people all over the world in terms of camps and outdoor recreation, outdoor leisure, and some of the outdoor education sectors as well. I still find myself doing lots of work after the money's run out because it's a calling and there's a passion and I want to see the work get used. I don't want to see it get put on a shelf. I will go and rework that into webinars and infographics and practitioner, grey literature for the government. Every bit of work I do in triplicate to make sure that wherever possible it can reach the people that it's going to really matter for on the ground level.
To know that other researchers and other universities are hearing what I'm saying about the need to question and shake up some of the status quo about how camps have operated for the last 150 years is super exciting and it tells me that it's resonant. It agrees with what they are seeing and thinking themselves, but I'm also offering ideas about how to really step into it in a compassionate, but change-making kind of way.
Strong partnerships have also been pivotal throughout Professor Kerry London's distinguished career. She’s the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research at Torrens University. She became the first female professor of construction project management in Australia in 2008. Starting off in architecture, she's now widely recognised as an international leader in her field of research, which is the built environment. But back when she was a student, she remembers one key lesson that was drummed into her.
KL: The Dean who was the leader of our research centre was very collaborative and worked with other disciplines and also worked with other universities around the world and really worked quite closely with the new south Wales state government on a number of research projects. And I think he was really a pioneer and that really helped to ground me in some of the principles that I still use today around developing great projects in partnership, having the respect for the contributions that your partners can bring to projects, whether it's other institutions or whether it's the industry, because I work a lot with industry and government. So that whole idea has really driven me for a long time.
The work that Professor London does now has its roots in cooperative research centres or CRCs. These are industry led research collaborations. The aim is to improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australian industries and to do that in line with government priorities. Professor London currently holds six Australian Research Council grants. Since 2009 she's led research that looks at the adoption of innovative products and processes in the Australian housing sector. This has brought together companies such as Metricon, FMG Engineering and the Master Builders Association.
KL: The work that I do now really has its roots in when I was involved with a CRC for construction innovation. I was very junior in my career, but it gave me great insights into how industry, academia and government can come together and design research projects. And we can achieve both. We can achieve high quality, impactful peer reviewed work with great theories underpinning it, and great research methodologies, but we also can actually make change and quite practical change in the industries. And I think the integration of those two things is the most important thing for social and economic change in our society.
Some of the work that I've done has been around introducing offsite manufacturing. So we started an ARC linkage project about 2015, prior to that we had a study tour in China and that was funded by the federal government as well. And on that study tour, we spent quite a lot of time looking at very successful offsite manufacturing instances in China and trying to understand how that might inform not only a research project, but would inform the industry if they were able to take up offsite manufacturing in Australia.
A lot of the work then followed around what does it look like when companies are successful in introducing an innovation such as offsite manufacturing? And from that work, we developed some quite extensive training materials. Those training materials are around collaborative practise. When you have to make transformational change in an industry that is, when you have to introduce something like robotics or offsite manufacturing, it’s really hard to do that from one particular company's perspective. The industry has so many organisations involved in it that you really need to work together. And we often talk about the integrated supply chains.
So one of the most important outcomes of my research has been around developing that collaborative practise model and actually developing the training materials and commercialising it with the Master Builders Association in Victoria. Organisations want to be highly productive. They want to be innovative. They want to have successful companies because at the end of the day, they employ a lot of people in the housing sector. It's a pretty important sector for the health of the economy. We often look to the residential housing sector as a barometer.
The building and construction industry employs almost one and a half million people across Australia. That's almost 10 per cent of all jobs in the country. It also represents around 13 per cent of GDP, which makes it an enormous contributor to the nation's economy. One of the major challenges of the sector is solving housing affordability and healthy housing. Professor London's recent research project sets out to tackle this big problem by rethinking housing and it involves simulation exercises with carefully informed actors.
KL: When we did the previous work on offsite manufacturing and efficient construction, one of the things that we constantly came across was the organisations in the housing sector, so the various developers and subcontractors and consultants, architects, engineers, often would solve the problems that they were faced with. So if they were going to bring in something innovative like offsite manufacturing, they would go to extraordinary lengths to work through the various problems. For example, there were challenges brought up from regulations. There were challenges brought through from different councils that approach development approvals in different ways. There were challenges that were outside their normal remit of doing work. And so the next study Rethinking Housing was actually trying to take it upstream and actually look at how governments, that’s local, state and federal governments, put together projects in a way that can be much easier for industry to respond to in terms of innovation.
So often we want innovation on projects and we want new ways of doing things, but sometimes we put packages together that actually hinder and are barriers to actually putting forward new ideas. So we've looked closely at how we can do that more effectively in the future. The particular training package that we put together, it's around what we've called collaborative practice. Now that sounds like, you know we'll all sit around and hold hands, but we've worked through very clearly nine very important parts of how do you actually get good business collaboration in the housing sector? And it looks at leadership, of course, it looks at investment and resources needed to institute change. We also look closely at teams and how to get the right expertise and how to ensure that those teams work well together. What we did is I designed a range of scenarios around offsite manufacturing, a range of problem-solving sort of activities and then I briefed actors on how to trigger certain behaviours from people.
So I have a team of psychologists who help to assess the behaviours and the interactions and we score those behaviours and interactions and then we give feedback. And then instead of saying, ‘isn't that great’. We give them advice and we say, ‘well, when you did this here, maybe another way to go about it is doing this’. And then we run them through another very intensive session again, where they get to practise it. It's not role play, it's real play because they are doing the job that they do in their normal life. So it's a fairly effective way to go about training and the Master Builders Association do this across a lot of other areas of research as well.
Building and construction can be a very dangerous industry in terms of physical danger. In Australia, construction remains in the top three industries that poses a risk to workers' lives. So right now, Professor London is collaborating with the New South Wales Centre for Work Health and Safety, to look at ways to make it a safer environment. This project also draws on the expertise of Lendlease, an Australian multinational construction, property and infrastructure company. Western Sydney University also plays a role. They're working with the Torrens University Australia research team in gathering data and analysing the findings and there is an industry advisory group with representatives from various organisations who have a key stake in work health and safety.
KL: We did a desktop review around the literature that looked at work health and safety management and digital models, building information models. When we talk about a building information model we're talking about, in simple terms, we build the building or infrastructure, whether it's a bridge or a road - so we build it virtually before we build it physically. One of the exciting things about this is that you are able to visualise where physical safety hazards might occur. And you're able to actually develop different scenarios to say, well, if we change the methodology the way we are building, or if we change the configuration of the building, if we changed things, how would that make it a safer environment either to live and work in, or a safer environment to build? So this is a really important step towards developing those scenarios and working through making changes before we actually then put it out to tender, get people to price it and then actually build it.
So getting the knowledge from subcontractors who would then be able to say, well, if we built this building this high rise in this particular way, then that would mean that it would impact on the number of times that a crane might have to lift. And if you impact on the number of times a crane might have to lift, well, then you’re reducing the possibility of some physical harm coming to people. We conducted about 25 interviews in Australia and then we conducted some spot check interviews with very work health and safety conscious people around the world as well. And out of all of that, we identified what sort of decision tools would be really helpful.
An unintended outcome of this research has been that Professor London has been invited to be a member of the Australian Standard Committee and to draft a standard on work health and safety.
KL: The research project is the integration of building information modelling to work health and safety management. So there are standards around building information modelling and there are standards around work health and safety management, but there is no standard that brings those two together. Some work that I've been doing on work, health and safety in the construction industry is now going to contribute to a new National Standard. That's really one of the most influential ways you can make everlasting and sustainable change in an industry is by impacting on the Standards that underpin the way that the industry works. And in the future, when clients are actually specifying in contracts, what sort of things they want from contractors or consultants, they will refer to that standard. As soon as a standard is referred to, then it shapes the way that particular project will play out. It's a long slow burn. These changes will not come into play for a couple of years, but they will impact for many, many years to come. That's quite exciting actually.
Also on the team that's working on this important health and safety project is Dr Zelinna Pablo her research focus has always sat at the intersection of three areas, people, technology, and the built environment.
ZP: For 17 years, I've been studying basically how people interact with one another at work or in projects in supply chains in organisations. One fundamental lesson is that, well, human behaviour is complex. It can't be reduced to cause and effect. It can't be completely predicted. It can't be completely controlled and people aren't always rational. So if you have a commercial problem as a manager that you want to solve, for example, you want people to be more productive or you want them to make higher profit, or you want less absenteeism, it's rarely a simple matter of saying, I'm going to pull this lever and then this is going to happen.
I once did a case study where a developer firm that built houses wanted to build houses with less defects, which is very reasonable. And to do that, they sort of wanted their people to start using tablets with an app that could contained checklists little checklists for them to tick off the defects as they went along. And that was such a simple and rational strategy. And even though it sounded simple, they were finding that people just didn't seem to want to use these tablets. One of the things I did was I went deep into that case study and I parsed that problem in a paper. And I found there were 20 or 25 interlocking reasons why people just didn't want to make use of a very simple and straightforward technology.
My work is to unpack the hidden human factors that shape the way a technology is designed or used. So you can have something like the internet and the kind of research that I do is there show that it's more than a neutral network of networks. One organisation, for example, might be using it for control or for surveillance and another might be using it for democratic decision making. So more often than not the perspective that I take is that a technology is not a purely technical phenomenon, it's one that's shaped by humans. It's socially shaped on so many levels. I just think that there are so few people who are doing this kind of research, so it's a gap that has to be filled.
Right now, Dr Pablo's attention is firmly planted on the building sector. She's been involved in exploring how digital technologies like 3D and 4D models can be used to make construction safer. So far evidence suggests that using building information modelling or BIM can be linked to a reduction of health and safety incidents.
ZP: So when you can visualise things digitally, you can identify hazards early on, before people start working on the ground. You can prevent many of these hazards and you can even change your methodology just so that you can do things in a much safer way. So the way this works best is when people in the supply chain come together as early as the planning stage of a project and together, they use BIM to look at a building that's represented in virtual format and to identify potential hazards and then eliminate or mitigate these hazards long before people actually start working on the ground. And that's not the practise of many people in the industry. So most supply chains, they plan very well for things like time savings or cost savings and quality, but then safety becomes relegated a little bit to the background. It becomes a matter of compliance and it's something that many people sort of tack on later.
So with the research that we're doing, we're presenting a pathway for industry leaders and encouraging them to make it a requirement in major projects so that this change eventually cascades across the industry. We want a safer construction sector, one where work health and safety measures are prioritised up there along with time and cost and quality targets. We also want a sector where collaboration is very rich with the project team getting together early on, so that they can visualise a good building together. And we want a sector that values safety as much as savings and profit.
But without a hard hat and high vis, how do construction workers and building industry reps respond to academics?
ZP: It can be quite tricky when we prepare these resources for industry, we have to make sure that things are short, pithy and concise, just so that people from industry can grab what we have and then hit the ground running. And we work very hard to make sure that our resources become actionable. We're also trying to get the sector to think differently about the way that they collaborate. Now, a lot of safety incidents take place because the supply chain is actually quite fragmented. You have one company that designs a building. Sometimes they overlook issues about how constructable that building is. And so they hand over their drawings to somebody else, a contractor who will then build it and then discover that maybe some aspects of this design are actually quite dangerous to build.
So one of the things that we're advocating is for collaboration across stakeholders to take place from very early planning stages so that the contractor who gets invited into the tent early on, can now say to the designer, that's too dangerous. Can we consider a different design? Can we consider a different methodology? If the sector takes it up, I think for me, the most important impact would be lives could be saved and that injuries could be prevented, and for me, that's a very big thing.
With the data that we have, we're looking forward to doing some theoretical work as well, but for now we're focusing on developing resources that will impact in a real-world context. So a small contractor can take one of our case studies and say, oh, here's an example of a small contractor, just like us, how they got started in BIM. It seems that they're using it for something simple, like work sequencing, and maybe we can try that too. And a large contractor can look at our case studies and say, okay, this is the list of attributes that I should be looking for when I'm selecting members of the project team, when I'm selecting my subcontractors and so we’re quite happy because we think that there’s something in there for everyone.
One of the things that Dr Pablo loves about her job is analysing problems, but not just in a textbook sense. She says rolling up her sleeves and work alongside key industry players holds the promise of real impact and real outcomes.
ZP: So when industry codesigns the problem, the problem is grounded from the very start in the realities of a specific context. So I know for example, that in this case, there's something very critical that's at stake that has to be addressed. There are fatalities, there are injuries, there are hazards. So I'm no longer just an academic picking a problem from an ivory tower. I'm joining the people who are out there dealing with a real problem. Codesigning can enrich the methods that we choose to use when solving a problem and we find that the solutions are often more fine-tuned, more nuanced, more directed. And for me, at least that forces me to focus, not just on theory, but also on real world impact. And early on, industry people whom we approach for feedback mentioned that they had already started sharing insights from our drafts, with their project teams.
So the project hasn't ended, but already were getting that kind of good feedback. One of our main targets was government clients with large capital works projects, they're in a unique position to influence the entire sector. So our research findings basically say, if you use BIM early, you will get better safety outcomes. If government clients take up our findings, they would be in a position to formalise these possibly as requirements for all of their BIM enabled projects and this could lead to widespread industry practise changing. So if government takes our findings on board, we could begin to mandate for BIM supported work, health and safety, and this could lead to widespread change in mindsets and in practises leading to a safer construction sector.
I would like to see an industry where BIM for work health and safety management is the norm, not the exception.
In the next episode of Research that Matters:
Dr. Sarah Elsie Baker: When Siri was first launched into the market, obviously they'd done some user testing, but really not enough. So if you said to Siri, “You’re a slut”, then Siri would reply “I’d blush if I could”. If as a user, you said to Alexa, “You're hot”, then Alexa would reply, “That's nice of you to say”. Obviously, these are not the models of gender relations that we want.
Research that Matters was produced by Written & Recorded. This is a Torrens University Australia podcast, and I'm Clement Paligaru. To hear more search for Research that Matters on the Torrens University website or wherever you get your podcasts.