Defining the Third Space

In August, we co-facilitated Defining the Third Space with the Sydney Informatics Hub team: an online event that aimed to explore our data-intensive research support space with the community nationally and abroadHere we share keynote speaker insights, our collective ideas and future directions.

First, what is the Third Space?

The concept developed in social theory to explore relationships spatially. Keynote speaker Dr Celia Whitchurch has previously described it in Reconstructing Identities in Higher Education (2012) as “a space between professional and academic spheres in which lateral interactions, involving teams and networks, occur in parallel with formal institutional structures and processes, giving rise to new forms of management and leadership”. Yet:

“…often such developments have tended to occur
‘under the radar’ and have not been fully articulated.”

Here we turn Celia’s ideas to our research enabling space in different institutions, discussing how we can work together to better define and advocate for our Third Space. In this second event in our series, we heard from three keynote speakers, and then discussed the themes of identity, engagement and teams.

Keynote speakers

Breakout sessions

Following the keynotes, the community discussion revolved around three important themes.

Identity — How do we define (and expand) the space we operate in.

In short — it’s difficult! Everyone creates their own meaning of the third space and, as Celia states, “only an individual can define the third space that they are in”. However, from the discussion it is clear that focussing on job titles is unhelpful. They are just too numerous and varied. It is the capabilities that people bring that matter. We need to continue to publicise what we do and our success stories. Recognition takes time.

Engagement — How do we engage researchers and help them understand what we can offer?

To engage more with researchers, “third spacers” need to convince others that they enhance research value; this means championing a broader vision of research impact to include non-traditional outputs, such as software and data. Third spacers’ transdisciplinary knowledge value-adds to projects. Their involvement in projects should become “natural” by being an integral part of the research landscape. Third spacers are often translators between technical and domain specific knowledge. It is very important that technical language is accessible, inclusive and appropriate to the domain.

Teams — How do you build and manage a successful team of Third Spacers?

Recruiting the right people with the right skills, experience and background is a real challenge. Careful attention needs to be paid to position descriptions that appeal to people with a mix of technical skills and domain knowledge. Retention of these highly-valued staff is a significant issue, particularly in the current environment. Further challenges include conflicting priorities, since third spacers typically work across a range of projects at once, and recognition and reward for academic work and digital outputs.

Where to next?

We would like to hear from you what it is you want to get out of future events and how the community can assist. To provide your input, please fill this short survey and let us know your suggestions, comments and if you are willing to help build the community.

We also invite you to learn about the first event in this series in case you missed it, and to receive information about our next event soon!

Lead image: Annie Spratt