Working Internationally

Image: View en route to Pulpit Rock, Norway


I’m currently working on a fantastic EU project for the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, collaborating with colleagues from Italy, Spain, Norway, Poland and Slovenia. The project's called Sharing European Memories in School and is a follow-on from another project I worked on a couple of year ago. It's a brilliant experience and I'm surprised that more UK organisations don’t get involved with international partnership projects – the success rate of funding applications is impressive and the rewards of collaboration are immense. If you want to find out about opportunities, the Cultureuro website is a good place to start. Here, in no particular order, are some things I’ve learnt about how to succeed at (and enjoy) EU partnership work.

1. Keep it simple
Multi-partner projects are complex. This means that, as far as your own work is concerned, the simpler the better. In the first partner project I worked on, which had a modest budget, we tried to do too much – involve numerous museums, two schools, an artist, an ambitious concept and a separate external evaluation project. That meant too many partners, too many needs and expectations to cater for and in short, too much work. This time around, mindful of the complexity of having six international partners already, we’re being much more focused and concise.


2.  Spend time developing the relationship with your partners
One of the rewarding things about international co-operation is learning about the cultural differences between the partners you're working with. This means nothing can be taken for granted and you need to allow time to discuss fundamental assumptions before you can work together in a productive way. Some words and concepts simply don’t translate from one language to another, and others are just complex in their own right. For example, in my latest EU project focusing on historical memory we've spent hours in person and by email debating what we mean by that term and the different connotations and meanings it has for each of us. This isn't something you can shortcut. It’s a much longer process when five of the six partners round the table are not working in their native language so discussions inevitably take longer than they otherwise would. I have also discovered the phenomenon of ‘international English’, when five other nationalities understand each other perfectly in English yet I have no idea what they’re talking about.

3. Beware exchange rates
EU project budgets are, inevitably, in Euros. This means that for countries outside the Euro zone the value of your budget will constantly fluctuate along with the exchange rate. If you're lucky this won't be a major problem, but global financial events over the last couple of years suggest it's best to be cautious and plan in some contingency particularly if there's going to be a big time lag between making the application and actually getting your hands on funding. In a strange quirk of EU budget rules, for the Comenius project I'm currently working on we have to recalculate the entire budget at the end of the project based on the exchange rate in November next year, which is causing my poor colleague who's managing the budget no end of headaches. There's not much we can do about this, other than be aware of it and be extra careful with our funding.

4. Always budget for translation
I mean always. Even if the working language of your project is English and you're not responsible for having anything translated into other languages. If you are going to receive any documents for public consumption written in English by non-native speakers, such as marketing materials or web copy, you will need to proof and edit them and that could be a major job. Even if the English is grammatically correct, stylistic conventions differ. In UK museums we use a very active and accessible voice for audience communications and I have found that many European partners write in a much more formal style than I'm comfortable with. If you can't budget for external support you at least need to make provision for this in your own work programme. Otherwise you could find yourself spending days rewriting leaflets, reports and web copy to make the content consistent and accessible, cursing the person who said you didn’t need to budget for that on the basis that everything would be provided in your mother tongue.


5. Learn to love paperwork

Some stereotypes exist for a reason, and the one about EU bureaucracy is one of those. The reporting paperwork is labyrinthine and complex, and each invoice and receipt, no matter now minor, needs to be stamped, signed, scanned and copied before you submit. I'm not telling this to put you off, but you do need to find out the finance and reporting requirements at an early stage so you can build time into your workplan and acquaint colleagues with the process. Make very good friends with your finance manager and ensure you have a bottle of wine to hand.


6. Socialise
Effective collaboration is all about relationships. Therefore you need to make time to get to know the people you’re working with. What better way to do this than to take time out after your work is done and get to know your colleagues and their culture. Don’t go to bed straight after the meeting on the grounds that you need to be fresh the next day. If you’re travelling overseas and you can possibly manage it, try to take a day off before you travel home and spend some time exploring. You’ll need to be sensitive about this – if your colleague has just spent two days chairing meetings and playing host they might not be too keen on showing you round – but I’ve found that, generally speaking, people are keen to get to each other in a more relaxed setting and will put themselves out to spend time with you. In the name of international co-operation I’ve visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao, wandered round Bologna sampling the sights and the gelato, climbed a mountain in Norway (hence the photo at the top of this post), and spent an enjoyable evening drinking Polish vodka (though I hasten to point out that none of this was at my employer’s expense!)

7. Take a crash course in the language of at least one of the countries you'll be working with
If you're anything like me your linguistic education will probably have ended at A-level. I speak reasonable French and basic German, but typically neither are any use within the partnership I'm involved with. Learning the basics of a language will be no help whatsoever in a business context. My colleagues all speak excellent English and my holiday Spanish is entertaining rather than any practical use. However, I'd still advise having a go.  When your baggage fails to turn up at the airport or you arrive in an unfamiliar city at 11pm with no idea how to find your hotel, a few words of pidgin might just be of use.

8. Don't check your bags in on flights
Seriously, don't. Buy a netbook for your work files and travel light. Unless all your flights are direct, I guarantee that sooner or later an airline will lose your bag. Sitting in an 8-hour meeting wearing the clothes you've travelled in with your paperwork still in transit is nobody's idea of fun.

9.  Enjoy!
Partnership work is about so much more than achieving project outcomes. Get to know your colleagues, their organisations and their culture. You’ll enrich yourself both personally and professionally, find that all kinds of new opportunities come your way, and the chances are you’ll make some valuable friends.

posted by Emma | 0 comments

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