Features January/February 2024

How Research Partnerships Can Support Lifelong Learning in Technical Communication

How industry-academic collaborative research projects contribute to lifelong learning.

By Stacey Pigg, North Carolina State University

Over the years, Intercom readers have come across numerous appeals for collaboration between technical communication (TC) academics and practitioners, and they may understandably be skeptical when encountering yet another academic advocating for research collaboration. In this contribution, my aim is to provide an alternative perspective on research collaboration that emphasizes its value for lifelong learning. I discuss the value of industry-academic collaborations as sites where researchers from across professional backgrounds can integrate diverse perspectives and co-construct knowledge. Drawing on literature in the field of education, I frame research collaborations as generative sites for reflexive individual learning that can also build the profession when we share our knowledge broadly.

In technical communication, lifelong learning tends to be framed in terms of lifelong education. In other words, discussions about learning often focus on how academics and practitioners can stay on top of changes in technology and industry through various educational and training programs. For example, lifelong learning can be described as some combination of the following:

  • On-the-job training aids, knowledge transfer guides, and internal documentation
  • Professional development seminars, lunch-n-learns, and similar meetings
  • Reading practitioner or research journals such as Intercom and Technical Communication
  • Presentations and conferences such as STC Summit
  • Annual training for corporate requirements such as HR and security
  • Daily scrums, weekly playbacks, and other less formal venues to share work
  • Informal, Q&A-style learning or discussion through online forums, listservs, and chat-based communities such as the Write The Docs Slack
  • Networking internally or at professional society meetings and conferences
  • Formal training such as boot camps or courses that lead to certification
  • Continuing education, such as in-person or online learning through a university

A focus on lifelong learning through education and training aligns seamlessly with the interests of many within the TC profession who also identify themselves as educators. However, from the perspective of lifelong learning theory, the experience of lifelong learning should be understood as broader. Instead, learning is personal and social in its interactions with people, institutions, and the social facts that shape the understandings we encounter, the texts we read, or advice we are given (Billet 2010). Ultimately, lifelong learning theory positions learners as active agents shaping learning and whose learning extends beyond planned encounters (Billet 2010).

In my own research in TC, I have traced these self-directed learning trajectories for entrepreneurs whose learning and professional development needs must be met outside of formal workplace training (Lauren and Pigg 2016). In this article, I argue that research partnerships offer unique opportunities for learning through providing space for reflexivity in thought, questioning assumptions, and building new conceptual and practical frameworks for action. To make this argument, I review scholarship to define and contextualize academic/industry partnerships, while discussing my experience as an academic researching with industry practitioners. I conclude with concrete tips for building the foundation for effective research partnerships beyond the rote work of getting permission, such as from management and ethics boards, to conduct research, namely the following:

  1. Design research projects that explicitly build in time for sharing, discussing, and integrating perspectives.
  2. Use both research memos and well planned meetings for reflective and reflexive work.
  3. Prepare for the timeline to take longer when emphasizing reflexive learning than it would when working alone.
Academic-Industry Research Partnerships and Lifelong Learning

Academic literature on research partnerships emphasizes their importance for solving central problems of science and technology through “innovation-based relationship(s)” with different members and organizational structures (Hagedoorn et al., 2000). Many industries have cut long-term research efforts to save money, while higher education institutions have simultaneously lost state funding and rely primarily on federal grants for research initiatives (Gregory 1997; Shattock 1997). Researching together enables industry partners to satisfy their need and desire for research initiatives, while also providing academic partners with alternative funding sources and increased access to practicing professionals and often more advanced technologies in the field (Gregory 1997). Of course, these partnerships are also associated with many challenges that stem from differences in culture, priorities, and timelines.

Within TC, researchers have consistently and frequently called for more academia-industry research collaborations through arguments focused on their potential to bridge the gaps between practitioner needs and academic interests, as well as to create feedback loops to influence pedagogy (Blakeslee and Spilka 2004; Whiteside 2003). In this vein, Blakeslee and Spilka noted that industry-academic collaborations offer the potential to “define more and better questions in relation to industry” (78). Efforts to promote research collaborations in TC have also noted challenges: different motivations and time scales for career development, different languages and expectations for outcomes, and permissions, conflicts of interest, and intellectual property (Blakeslee and Spilka 2004). Research partnerships also create ongoing ways to maintain alumni relationships and for practitioners to further shape academic programs.

Collaborative research can also provide powerful learning experiences for participating researchers. Through lifelong learning theory, we can recast collaborative research as a site for reflexivity and co-construction of knowledge at the individual level: a space that exists outside institutes, professional credentialing, and in-workplace training on one hand or attending conferences or reading journals or blogs on the other. Edwards and colleagues (2002) argue that reflexivity must be central to active theories of lifelong learning, particularly when posited as learning that helps individuals adapt to changing and uncertain economic and professional circumstances. Defining reflexivity as “the capacity to develop critical awareness of the assumptions that underlie practices, especially the meta-cognitive, interpretative schemata that constitute worlds,” Edwards and collaborators emphasize the importance of learning with others who have different experiences and backgrounds from one’s own (533). To do so requires accessing alternative perspectives, engaging in dialogue, evaluating one’s own assumptions, and disrupting routines or reactive responses. Learning in this sense is not inevitable: it is associated with deliberate engagement and connection to networks that promote exchange and reflection.

Case Study of Collaborative Research

My thoughts about how and why academic-industry partnerships can promote this unique form of learning are shaped by my recent collaborative research study with Arthur Berger on professional development practices in one large IT firm. In this project, we explored a group of documentation writers in order to learn more about their ongoing peer learning processes and found that their learning was oriented most toward improving their team function and improving their product, which often involved a focus on business operations and writing practices (Berger and Pigg 2023).

Arthur and I knew each other because of our shared relationship to the Master’s Program in Technical Communication at NC State, from which Arthur graduated and where I am a faculty member. Because of this background, we shared similar interests, experiences, and language that helped us overcome some pitfalls that collaborators from across industry and academia are likely to encounter when beginning a new project. We also shared a social network due to our relationship to NC State that enabled us to overcome logistical problems such as permissions for research in industry, and IP and timeline concerns that often derail collaborative research projects. Yet, in spite of these similarities, our research stance enabled us to emphasize our different perspectives on TC work, which created moments consistent with conditions needed for reflexive learning. That is, because we had different perspectives on TC work and respect for one another’s knowledge, we approached our project in a way that emphasized sharing diverse perspectives, listening to interpretations that differed, and reflecting on our own assumptions about practice as we engaged with one another.

Strategies and Support for Researching to Learn

Collaborative research is difficult, time consuming, and not for everyone. However, for those who want to learn and grow in their knowledge of the profession, while also contributing to our profession’s broader knowledge base, collaborative research offers a unique opportunity to transform perspectives through active dialogue and integrating perspectives from across industry and academia. For those who wish to enact similar processes, the existing research has useful guidance for establishing effective research partnerships in any collaborative context. For example, any effective collaborative research involves taking time to build trust, setting shared expectations about project roles and communication, aligning goals for the products and processes of the research, and making clear guidelines about data management and intellectual property. With academic/industry collaborations, there are further issues to consider, such as the ethical considerations that include permissions for research, conflicts of interest, transparency, data privacy, and the impact on academic independence and research integrity. In order to cultivate conditions for effective dialogue that lead to learning, I recommend three steps, which I will discuss in the following paragraphs.

  1. Design research projects that explicitly build in time for sharing, discussing, and integrating individual perspectives.

Many moments for conversation and shared decision making exist in collaborative research projects. For example, during project design and planning stages, team members must work together to define goals and objectives, discuss research scope, make decisions about division of labor, discuss research needs and gaps in existing knowledge, choose relevant research methods, and set research timelines. To maximize the potential for individual leaning, building in time to make these decisions together enables more discussion and dialogic work.

In our project, we also found that data analysis moments were helpful moments for dialogue and discussion. Our methods involved qualitative coding of two artifact types. In order to facilitate the timeline, we separated the coding of the project in ways that allowed each of us to take a pass at open coding our first data set (video captures of meetings) before meeting with one another to explain and talk across our codes. This enabled each of us to see the activity in front of us fully from the other’s perspective, which led to a much richer understanding of the work we had encountered. Coder agreement was ultimately important for this project, and so we drew on both our individual perspectives in generating thematic coding categories together after our initial passes that merged our expertise. Once we coded the data using our shared coding categories, we also built in time to discuss all of the codes that we’d understood differently.

  1. Use both research memos and well planned meetings for reflective and reflexive work.

A reflexive lifelong learning perspective means taking active steps to avoid groupthink, a phenomenon that takes place when diverse perspectives are stifled because of a desire for harmony or efficient process. A team can make the best decisions when all points of view can be heard, even when multiple viewpoints may cause dissensus or conflict. In order to avoid groupthink, teams need to find ways to invite different voices, seek out possible challenges to prevailing ideas, create a safe environment for sharing, and actively cultivate inclusive facilitation strategies.

Again, in data analysis, we used individual analytical memoing to ensure that both researchers were articulating their perspectives on the meaning and interpretation of data before attempting to reconcile our viewpoints. We planned meetings to be spaces for acknowledging commonalities in our thinking, as well as for working through areas of disagreement. The combination of individual written analysis and spoken conversation and centering initial disagreements, rather than immediately pushing for agreement, enabled us a space to negotiate shared meanings.

  1. Prepare for the timeline to take much longer when emphasizing reflexive learning than it would when working alone.

Perhaps this is clear from the prior examples, but reflexive processes are not always the fastest processes. Research timelines almost never proceed without bumps and detours, and planning for conversation, disagreement, and conflict almost always means moving more slowly than planned. This makes it even more important to schedule regular team meetings, dedicated brainstorming and active listening, and debriefing sessions after major decisions have been made.

I have emphasized reflexivity, but our project also supported lifelong learning in the traditional sense of formal professionalization efforts for ourselves and others. For example, as part of our project, we published one proceedings paper, one article, and gave one conference talk. My research with Arthur was central in moving forward my own knowledge and interest in TC, as well as my commitment to better understanding and facilitating lifelong learning. More support from professional organizations through initiatives, grants, and policies for encouraging research collaboration between academia and industry would have the effect not only of improving research products and contributions to the field, but also of enriching researchers in the process.


Berger, Arthur, and Stacey Pigg. “Peer-Led Professional Development: How One Technical Communication Team Learns on the Job.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 37, no. 4 (2023): 347-377. https://doi.org/10.1177/10506519231179964.

Billet, Stephen, ed. Learning Through Practice: Models, Traditions, Orientations, and Approaches. Professional and Practice-based Learning Series. Dordrect: Springer, 2010, https://doi-org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/10.1007/978-90-481-3939-2.

Blakeslee, Ann M., and Rachel Spilka. “The State of Research in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 13, no. 1 (2004): 73-92. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15427625TCQ1301_8.

Edwards, Richard, Stewart Ranson, and Michael Strain. “Reflexivity: Towards a Theory of Lifelong Learning.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 21, no. 6 (2002): 525-536. https://doi.org/10.1080/0260137022000016749.

Gregory, Eugene H. “University—Industry Strategic Partnerships: Benefits and Impediments.” Industry and Higher Education 11, no. 4 (1997): 253-254. https://doi.org/10.1177/095042229701100413.

Hagedoorn, John, Albert N. Link, and Nicholas S. Vonortas. “Research Partnerships.” Research Policy 29, nos. 4-5 (2000): 567-586. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0048-7333(99)00090-6.

Lauren, Ben, and Stacey Pigg. “Networking in a Field of Introverts: The Egonets, Networking Practices, and Networking Technologies of Technical Communication Entrepreneurs.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 59, no. 4 (2016): 342-362. doi:10.1109/TPC.2016.2614744.

Shattock, Michael. “University–Industry Research and Training Partnerships: The Warwick Example.” Industry and Higher Education 11, no. 3 (1997): 164-167. https://doi.org/10.1177/095042229701100307.

Whiteside, A. L. “The Skills That Technical Communicators Need: An Investigation of Technical Communication Graduates, Managers, and Curricula.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 33, no. 4 (2003): 303-318. https://doi.org/10.2190/3164-E4V0-BF7D-TDVA.

Stacey Pigg (slpigg@ncsu.edu ) is a Professor and Director of Professional Writing at North Carolina State University. She has written one book and over 40 article-length works focused on how digital technologies impact work, learning, and engagement.