Working Agilely in Science

Agile science: How can science meet the challenges of digitalization?

The diversity and dynamics of digital change are affecting all areas of society. How is science reacting to the upheavals that this entails? How far can citizens be involved in the research process and ensure that their needs are taken into account? How can issues be identified and innovative research questions developed? How can results be shared with social actors in a practical way, so that developments that are problematical can be highlighted and a quick response to them found?

While agility (i.e. the rapid, flexible response to customer needs) and “New Work” (i.e. innovative concepts for leadership and collaboration) have long been important keywords for businesses, they have largely left scientific research and its organizational structure untouched.

The Research Incubator carefully introduces innovations from “New Work” to promote cooperation both in and between research projects. Newly designed workspaces at CAIS test flexible spatial concepts and “agile” ways of working.

How can “New Work” ideas and agile ways of working change science and research?

The “New Work” movement was founded in the early 1980s by the US philosopher Frithjof Bergmann. Unlike traditional ideas of (paid) work, “New Work” focuses primarily on values such as independence, freedom (of action), purpose, and social participation, all of which are only possible in a business that has an appropriate attitude, culture and leadership (Vollmer 2019).

The process of digitalization in particular has led to massive changes in the world of work. Many people are no longer tied to (just) one place of work, one department or one office; working together in fluid teams is no longer an exception. Such flexibility has given rise to new corporate and workspace concepts (start-ups, co-working spaces) that facilitate a “life beyond permanent employment” (Friebe and Lobo 2006). This, however, also blurs the boundaries between “work” and “life” (work-life blending).

While smaller businesses and organizations, mainly from the digital and start-up sector, have long grappled with the ideas and strategies of “New Work”, some sections of public administration and universities are now also trying out such ways of working.

A further trend is the growing attention being paid to the micro-organization of everyday office life and to small-scale work steps within projects. The practice of developing software has led to the emergence of various techniques and routines under the label of “agile working”, which have been grouped under four central principles ( 2001): individuals and interactions, the effectiveness of systems, customer orientation, and the permanent readiness to adapt processes. As a result, hierarchies within organizations lose their importance, responsibility is passed on and shared out within teams, and new spaces are created for people to interact with each other in a mutually appreciative way. The design of daily work focuses on small-scale tasks, opens up opportunities for participation, and focuses attention on outcomes, customers, and the achievement of goals.

What this means for science and research is that the focus falls not only on the “scientific community”, but also on the population as “customers” of scientific research and as recipients of finished “products” in the shape of research results. Moreover, citizens can also be involved as an important target group when it comes to identifying research questions and issues, and their changed role as part of Open Science concepts should also be taken into account (e.g. as active participants in Citizen Science projects or as participants in surveys or experiments).

How does the CAIS Research Incubator implement this?

The use of agile organizational structures in science can help improve interaction both in and between interdisciplinary teams. Techniques designed to generate ideas (e.g. Design Thinking, Idea Sprint) and manage teams and processes (e.g. Task Board, Timeboxing) require testing. The possibilities offered by a flexible project management that is based on flat hierarchies could also prove their worth in scientific research projects but need adapting to the specific contextual conditions.

Figure 1: Ways of working in the Incubator

Together with the scientists involved in CAIS research projects, the Research Incubator is developing elements of a curriculum that covers the use of agile methods in the research process. The content for cross-project work phases will be developed in quarterly steps for 2020, thus allowing for short-term changes. The work progress of each individual project will be presented and discussed every week. The Incubator will also offer during the year a collaborative working process where researchers can share and do further work on ideas and preliminary findings from the projects.

Interdisciplinary interaction in the Research Incubator also serves to identify current issues, problems and research questions that will then contribute to developing future research programs, with real laboratories and Citizen Science projects, for example, also enabling representatives from the general public to become involved in these processes. This extends the mission of science: Besides research and teaching, it also has a “Third Mission”, which aims at interacting and cooperating with society.

Literature (2001). Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Abgerufen am 28. Januar 2020 von

Friebe, H.  & Lobo, S. (2006). Wir nennen es Arbeit. Die digitale Boheme oder: Intelligentes Leben jenseits der Festanstellung. München: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag.

Vollmer, J. (2019). New-Work-Urvater Frithjof Bergmann: Der alte Mann und das Mehr. t3n magazin. Abgerufen am 28. Januar 2020 von