DEVELOPING A CULTURE OF LEARNING THROUGH RESEARCH PARTNERSHIPS
Lesley Archer and Dorothy Whitaker©
The partnership arrangements described here are between university-based researchers and a service-providing organisation. By a 'service-providing organisation' we mean one that provides some form of social or health or therapeutic care and support, usually to vulnerable populations such as children at risk, elderly infirm people, adults with learning disabilities, or people with mental health problems. A research partnership is created for the purpose of planning and conducting a piece of research of interest to the organisation. It goes on for whatever length of time a given project requires: typically two to three years. In addition to producing research findings relevant to the operation of the organisation, a partnership arrangement can also contribute to team-building and be a form of training. If all goes well, it can create a culture or climate of learning in service-providing teams which persists beyond the life of the project.
After providing background information which shows how it is that it seemed necessary to us to devise partnership arrangements, the structures and procedures involved in a research partnership are described, first in a brief summary, and then by naming and discussing successive steps involved. As part of the step-by-step description we will point to factors which our experience to date tells us facilitate or hinder the partnership process, and give thought to whether and how hindering factors be dealt with. Some examples will be provided. A concluding section compares this partnership structure with other, perhaps more familiar, ways of mounting research, considers the issue of fit (or non fit) with characteristic organisational structures and procedures, and points to some learnings and benefits beyond those generated by the research itself.
Background: experiences which led to devising research partnerships
The two authors of this report have had an abiding interest in making research an integral part of practice. In 1981 we offered a short course for practising social workers, designed to assist them to plan and carry out a piece of research on an issue arising from their own practice experience. Two further courses were carried out in 1982 and 1983. (See Whitaker & Archer, 1985; Archer & Whitaker, 1989; Whitaker, Archer & Greve, 1990).
These courses worked well in that all of those who participated in them devised viable research plans and learned about research methods through working within a small cohort of course members. Some then carried out their research, but some did not. It became clear that when research was not carried out, it was mainly because of the worker's position in his or her employing organisation. Sometimes the worker changed jobs and the research topic was no longer seen as relevant to the new position. Sometimes staff shortages meant that to allow a worker to go on pursuing research was seen by his or her manager as an unaffordable luxury. Both course members and their managers tended to see research efforts as extra to a social worker's regular duties, and somehow a personal self-indulgence. Course members had a commitment to and a sense of ownership of their own research but their managers did not and could not, since their role was restricted to allowing a modest amount of time off (a few hours a week) for attendance at our early-evening, once a week, sessions.
This led us to see that if we wanted research efforts to count in the workplace we needed a structure which avoided placing the worker in a position in which he or she was isolated from own organisation and management. We also wanted to avoid a situation where the research became a burden on already stretched workloads for on-the-ground practitioners. If not, research became an empty exercise, often aborted.
Thus, any focus for systematic investigation, and any framework for carrying it out, had to make sense to the organisation and its management as well as to the practitioners. It needed to contain ways of sharing tasks. Some tasks were already within the compass of those doing them; others, such as those done by agency-based practitioners (who became research associates with the authors in a Project Workers Team) could be acquired by a form of working-alongside training.
We hoped that what we would achieve would be a way of conducting research that mattered to the agency, to the on-the-ground practitioners (and increasingly to their clients) in ways that included all levels of the organisation in the research. We planned that all participants would be kept in touch with both the processes and the findings from the work as it went along. We expected that the different perspectives of the staffs and the managers on the issue would become visible not just to the researchers but to each group and that this would have an impact on service provision as well as the research. We hoped for a sense of ownership to be developed. At the end of the work, we also expected that those closely involved, especially the seconded practitioner-researchers and the on-the-ground staff-teams, would have integrated a research way of thinking into their day-to-day work.
It will be seen that in order for the model to function as intended and for it to achieve its potential benefits, it is necessary to work regularly and closely with a service providing organisation: with managers at several levels, with 'coal face' staff, sometimes with clients or residents, and with different combinations of these or of their representatives.
Brief description of the research partnership structure and procedure
The research structure and procedure, as evolved, supports the interests just described. A research partnership moves through three successive phases and is supported by two groups of people, differently composed and with different functions, which exist throughout the life of a project and serve its needs.
Preliminary to any work taking place, an agreement is reached between the university-based researchers and upper management in the service-providing organisation that a piece of research will be carried out within a general topic or issue. The university-based researchers ask these managers what issues are currently pressing. From among these, one or more general issue will be selected by the key people in the organisation as important to understand better or evaluate. Any general topic also has to be perceived as potentially researchable by the university members of the partnership.
As we will show, the legitimisation for the work has to come from the top of the organisation if it is to be successfully accomplished, but the process of partnership research is controlled by staff from all levels of the agency working collaboratively with the university-based staff. Often, the issue as it is identified by managers is expressed as a general concern, for example 'the quality of life of elderly people in Homes run by the authority' or managers point to a new activity and responsibility, such as that they are now responsible for learning disabled people being rehoused from hospital into group homes run by housing associations. The focus of the research comes from agency managers. The University-based staff make clear that within this general focus they will need a range of units - some which are functioning well, and some which are experiencing difficulties - with whom to work. The idea of partnership research and what it comprises is also fully discussed and agreed in initial meetings. A three-phase structure is agreed, and the agency or department accepts that some of the time of the staff will need to be released in order for the partnership to work.
Two groups are then set up which will exist throughout the life of the project. These are the Project Workers Team and a Project Coordination Group.
The Project Workers Team is responsible for the day-to-day conduct of the work through all its three phases. They will have the authority for carrying out the research. The team includes the university-based researchers and from one to four or five employees of the organisation -- either practitioners or line managers, depending on the issue being researched. The staff to be seconded to the Project Workers Team are selected by agency managers after a full discussion with the university-based researchers about what kind of person we are seeking. Agency seconded members of the team need to be people who fully understand the focus of the research - for example social work with older people. They do not have to be 'researchers' and usually are not. Together, the members of this team plan the details of the work. They keep in close touch, through frequent meetings and telephone contact.
The Project Coordination Group oversees the project, keeps in touch with events as it moves along, and advises on key aspects of the work (such as the form of the final report and dissemination procedures). This group includes all the members of the Project Workers Team plus managers and workers up and across the organisation, and sometimes people from outside concerned with the issue or with that aspect of the organisation's work. Core members of the group are selected in initial discussions with managers when the focus for the work is identified. Sometimes, others join the group as the work proceeds. The group meets every four months or so through the life of the project.
The membership of these two groups is established as soon as possible after a general agreement to pursue the work is agreed. All members of these two groups contribute to the partnership character of the work in different ways. The members of the Project Workers Team are most closely and consistently involved, and take joint responsibility for moving through all three phases of the work and for communicating to the Project Coordination Group. The members of the Project Coordination Group receive information and reports from the Project Workers Team and use this as a basis for commenting and advising.
The project moves through the following three phases:
Phase 1 has to do with planning: it 'maps' the organisation, identifies that which is already known and understood about the topic or issue by organisation members, and spells out what needs to be understood better or evaluated. Workshop methods are used with members of the organisation with direct experience of the issue. Often, these are on-the-ground workers -- those who provide direct service or care in their day-to-day work. The outcome of this phase is the identification of specific detailed purposes within the general topic or issue already agreed.
Phase 2 has to do with such detailed planning of research design as is then necessary, and with carrying out a piece of research which meets the purposes which have been defined. This is the longest phase of the three. Its outcome is a full written report of the completed research.
Phase 3 is a dissemination and research utilisation phase. Once the findings are available, ways of making them known throughout the organisation are worked out, and one or more 'research utilisation' activities is planned and carried out. This phase seeks to make the research 'count' in the workplace and to make a difference to practice.
This structure -- that is the two groups set up for the life of the project and the three phases -- is firm enough to contain a piece of partnership research and at the same time flexible enough to accommodate different topics and organisational structures. For example, while there will always be a 'Phase 1' which uses workshop methods, the number of sessions, those invited to attend, and the tasks to be worked on can all be varied to suit circumstances. While there will always be a 'Phase 2' in which the research is carried out, design details will differ from project to project, and best data sources will also be different, depending on the focus of the work and the ways in which work units are organised and responsibility for work allocated. A partnership research structure can contain research which is essentially exploratory, evaluation research, process-outcome research, or action research. (See Whitaker & Archer, 1989). It tends to be small-scale and intensive in character -- perhaps because this is the preference of the university-based researchers, but also because the issues which the organisation wishes to pursue are usually close to practice, which means close to the interactions between staff and clients/residents. In all pieces of partnership research, there always is a final report and a 'Phase 3'. It will, however, be up to the Project Coordination Group to think out how the report can best be 'mined' for points to put before different target groups within its own organisation and beyond.
Successive key tasks in a partnership research project
1. It is useful first of all to speak informally with someone in a management position in the agency, in order to establish an initial point of contact and get some idea of what issue might be of interest and what operational group(s) it might make sense to work with.
It has proved very helpful if we already have contact with someone in an agency who has a potential interest in research and can clue us in to the character and structure of the organisation. With such a contact person we can get some idea of what issue or issues might be of interest to the agency and identify which managers within the organisation should be contacted to take the next steps forward. Sometimes these contacts are made in the course of other tasks which we are engaged in, sometimes someone from the agency will approach us and sometimes we make contact with someone we know to ask if their agency might be interested in being involved in such a piece of work.
2. The next task is to meet with those managers within the organisation who can confirm or agree an overall purpose or focus for the work and release resources.
Sometimes, our original contact person will form part of this small group. Sometimes he or she negotiates directly for overall permission on our behalf and then becomes the key operational manager within the Project Coordination Group. Sometimes he or she provides names and is not further involved.
The negotiation with key managers includes agreeing the overall focus for the work, the operational groups it might make sense to work with and setting up the partnership arrangements, for example how cover will be provided in a residential Home whilst the whole team meets.
We have found that at this stage it is possible to be blocked in our hopes for a partnership arrangement to go forward. We think this is because the term 'research' carries meanings for some managers which puts them off the idea. They may assume that research is something which researchers come in and do 'to' people rather than with them and expect our work to be like this. They may have ideas that research has to be quantitative and 'objective' to be 'respectable' and if so, this much restricts what can be done. They may, when they have been told something of the framework which we propose to use, assume that they 'do that already', in their training section or in the normal course of the work. This phenomenon of saying 'we do that already' has been noted by other research done by other researchers. (See Marsh & Fisher, 1992). It is an argument hard to counter, even when it is evident (to us) that this is not the case.
When we say that what we are doing is research but also training and team-building, managers sometimes do not know what to do with this. They don't know which pocket to reach into in order to support a partnership effort. If money is to come out of a training budget, it looks and is very expensive, considering how training budgets are ordinarily used. However, we have also found that our explanation of partnership research provides enthusiastic managers, who catch on to what we are doing, with degrees of flexibility in both presenting the package to Committee and in finding the money. For example one manager, who wished to extend the dissemination phase, found spare money in a mental health budget and argued successfully that the planned workshop was likely to improve the mental health of both his staff and the client group.
3. Decisions now need to be made as to who from within the organisation will function as Project Worker(s), which people or units will be the primary foci for the work and/or providers of data, and who will become members of the Project Workers Group.
Once a topic is agreed and the partnership structure thoroughly discussed, these decisions usually follow without difficulty.
Managers know their staffs well enough to judge who might be interested in and capable of working along with us as Project Workers. Any nominated person can of course decline to participate, but on the whole we have found enthusiastic responses to the opportunity to look closely at some aspect of the work. All Project Workers with whom we have worked have had a commitment to the practice issue and a wealth of experience on which to draw.
At this stage it becomes evident to both the managers and the university-based researchers which individuals or units are appropriate as sources of data or foci for investigation. For example, if the overall purpose already agreed is to understand better what constitutes and contributes to a satisfactory quality of life for elderly people in residential care, then it will follow that X number of residential facilities with Y number of elderly residents and Z number of staff might become the focus for the work.
The managers and the university-based researchers also agree as to who should become members of the Project Coordination Group. This is done by role within the organisation. For example when the foci for a project were homes for elderly people, the Heads of each Home and the neighbourhood team managers, who were their line managers, were invited to join the Project Coordination Group. Sometimes people outside the organisation become members of the group, for example, foster parents, when the issue had to do with decision-making for children in care.
4. An initial series of meetings of the Project Workers Team takes place to do the necessary planning for Phase 1 and to induct the agency-based workers into partnership research.
The research-related tasks undertaken in this set of meetings include:
- planning the Phase 1 workshops;
- gaining entry to those functioning units which are to participate in the workshops;
- identifying and carrying out related administrative tasks; and
- making brief preliminary visits to units in which workshops are to take place.
At the same time, attention is necessarily paid to getting established as a group which is to work together for a considerable period of time. This involves sharing background and interests and includes, in particular:
- the university-based members sharing something about their own practice backgrounds and their stance toward research;
- the agency-based members sharing something about their practice or supervisory experience, especially when it bears focus for the research;
- dealing with any assumptions or fears on the part of agency-based members about what research is and what working with university-based staff is likely to be like.
We are making a distinction here, familiar to social psychologists, between task and group-maintenance functions of this operating group. The first set of tasks has to do with the work itself; the second set has to do with establishing and maintaining the group as a group. Since this group is to take on so much responsibility for the work, it is essential that it become a well-functioning team. Our experience to date is that, providing we have got this far in a partnership research project, creating a well-functioning team is no problem. When such a group works together over a long period of time, relationships between members of the group become very close. Time is necessarily spent in learning about each other as people as well as researchers.
These initial Phase 1 tasks and activities can take a longer or shorter time, depending on the nature of the work and the degree of sophistication and knowledge of the agency-based members. Any concerns on the part of agency staff about working with University staff are soon dispelled, once we have met and acknowledged our different roles, and it has become clear that agency-based staff have something important to bring to the research task and will be taking on tasks not dissimilar from familiar work. The way in which the project workers work together evolves: as experience accumulates and confidence builds, agency-based members take on more of the research tasks.
It is almost always the case that a certain amount of time is spent in talking about the agency-based members' positions in their own organisation, especially if the agency is undergoing significant changes. We note what is said as we go, since what they say often provides valuable contextual information.
5. From two to five Phase 1 workshops are carried out with one or more staff groups who actually provide the service or care in their day-to-day work.
The staff groups who participate in the Phase 1 workshops may be jointly responsible for a home for elderly people, for work with children at risk, etc. The key point is that they will have had direct experience of whatever is the focus for the research.
Usually, one or two of the university-based members of the Project Workers Team work with one of the agency-based members in each of the units. This proves to be a good combination, since the agency-based members know the language and ethos of the staff team or group participating in the workshop(s) and the university-based members know the research requirements and are experienced in workshop methods.
The details of these workshops will vary from project to project, but they always involve opportunities for workshop participants to share their experience-based understandings of the task (their 'practice wisdom'), to give thought to issues which puzzle or concern them, and from this formulate views as to what it would be useful to understand better or evaluate. In order to assist in achieving this, the Project Workers Team works out a framework for the workshop series, framing questions to stimulate discussion in either the group as a whole if it is small enough, or in sub-groups. For example, a group of staff in a home for elderly people might be asked to explore: 'If your mother or father or uncle or aunt had to come to live in a home for elderly people what would you look out for in selecting the home?' or a group of specialist child protection staff might be asked to tell one another about recent referrals to the caseload, how they felt about these and what they did as a consequence of the referral.
Any Project Workers Team has to develop considerable skills in order to manage Phase 1 of the work: the framework has to match the interests and ability level of the staff with whom we are to work; there has to be a willingness to accept all opinion as legitimate; there needs to develop an understanding of group dynamics such that the facilitators are aware of group defences, affect and sub-grouping. The skill lies in becoming aware of group dynamics and noting these. We would intervene if and when we judged that certain of the group dynamics were interfering with the task. For example, if a staff group got into an argument over whose opinion was the correct one, we would intervene to legitimise contradictory views. We have always been fortunate in working with agency-based workers who have training in such understandings or who are open to learning such skills.
Workshops are lively and exciting experiences - especially with groups of staff who may never have been brought together as a group and may have little experience of group discussions. Alongside the tasks discussed below, members of the research team sometimes have to help inexperienced participants not to talk all at once.
Key tasks for the project workers include:
- facilitating the discussion;
- hearing what is being said without judging in any way;
- asking for clarification but not otherwise interrupting the flow; and
- recording what has been said.
Members of the Project Workers Team take full notes of the discussions. Everything is recorded, even when it may be contradictory. The point of these workshop meetings is not to arrive at consensus (though there is often substantial consensus) but to gain as full a picture as possible of the experiences and views of those participating. What has been said is written up by the Project Workers Team: points may be re-ordered and re-grouped but nothing substantive is changed or omitted. These 'minutes' are brought to the next meeting, for discussion and amplification. If the minutes reveal that any misunderstandings occurred within the staff group, or between that group and the researchers, these are corrected. When workshop members hear this feedback, their practice wisdom, their views, and their concerns are immediately evident to them. It is at this point that contradictions can be addressed -- sometimes resolved but often simply held as offering differences which characterise the team.
Once Phase 1 workshops are completed, a draft report is drawn up which includes a summary of all the themes discussed in all the units worked with, and a preliminary list of detailed purposes for the research proper. This report is used as the basis for the next steps.
In our experience problems do not arise with such workshops (although we do not always negotiate our way into setting them up). We believe that the reasons are that the workshops provide opportunities for those participating to reflect on their experience, to have their views heard and respected (and never misrepresented), and to receive a message from management-sanctioned researchers that what they have said is important and will be attended to. We often have noted that the typescript record of discussions surprises the participants. They see that their comments are 'taken seriously'. A less sophisticated group of staff are often amazed by how much they know and there is often a good deal of humour when they recognise what they said, recorded exactly as they said it. With more sophisticated or cynical groups we believe that the fact that their views are presented fully and uncritically does much to counter any doubts they may have about the idea that we mean what we say: that this is a partnership between us and them.
6. A meeting of the Project Coordination Group is arranged at this point.
The summary report of the Phase 1 workshops is distributed to the members of the Project Coordination Group in advance of the meeting. At this meeting there is the opportunity for those members of the group who have not participated in Phase 1 to add in their perspective on the work, and their views as to what purposes should be addressed in Phase 2, which is the actual carrying out of the piece of research. On the basis of this meeting, the report is amended to include a full list of detailed research purposes and the report made available to all the people who have participated so far.
At this meeting agreements are usually made as to the intervals at which the Project Coordination Group will meet in the course of Phase 2. Usually a four-month interval seems about right to those concerned, and is agreed.
By this stage we have a sense of full commitment from participants at all levels of the organisation. The detailed purposes represent the views of all levels of staff, the two groups are established as groups with a common aim, and the communication channels from the 'top' to the 'bottom' and 'sideways' in a large organisation are established.
7. Phase 2 is carried out: the research plan is finalised, the research is conducted, and a report is written.
Phase 2 is the research activity conducted on the basis of plans agreed in Phase 1. It extends over a period of one to two and a half years. Depending on the purposes identified in Phase 1, it may take the form of a piece of exploratory research or a series of action-research cycles or be a piece of evaluative research. (For a full description of the kinds of research likely to interest social agencies see Whitaker & Archer, 1989).
Phase 2 requires:
- members of the Project Workers Team to carry out the actual work in the setting of one or more service-providing units;
- monitoring how this goes and trouble-shooting if indicated;
- maintaining the team as a functioning research team through frequent meetings and dealing with any problems which might arise as the work proceeds; and
- at the same time, meeting, at less frequent intervals, with the Project Coordination Group, in order to maintain communication up, down and across the organisation.
Over the agreed period of time, depending on the design and character of Phase 2, the agency-based project workers (and sometimes the university-based staff alongside) will either be collecting data in Phase 2 or be assisting one or more teams of staff to do their own action research. They will also be collecting information about the processes of their interactions with the agency teams and clients as they go. Regular monthly meetings of the whole Project Workers Team are held in which the progress and the processes of the work are discussed.
We have found that however carefully the research is designed, it is not possible to anticipate all the opportunities and problems which may arise.
The members of the Project Workers Team engaged in the field have to be alert to problems as they arise and to take action within the spirit of the overall research to deal with them. For example, in a piece of exploratory research into the quality of life of staff and residents in Homes for Elderly People we devised a structured sample of staff and residents across three Homes. (Whitaker & Archer, 1987). This meant that only some staff in each Home were to be interviewed. Staff, who had become intrigued about and interested in the research in Phase 1, felt left out when they were not to be part of the sample. Our explanations for interviewing a sample rather than everyone satisfied some staff, but there were others who still wanted closer involvement. Together, we were able to devise a secondary piece of work for them to do alongside what we were doing.
Another piece of research was planned as action research with whole teams. In one of these teams, we found that the team was without a team leader and very stretched. (Archer & Whitaker, 1991). They did not feel able to meet as a whole staff group, which was required by the research plan. They were preoccupied with their future viability, with problems of taking decisions, and with a poor relationship with their neighbourhood team. The agency-based researcher happened to come from their neighbourhood team. Staff in the unit spent a lot of time in blaming him for the failings of all the social workers in his team and beyond. We therefore decided that the action-research cycle would have as its goal helping this team to better their relationships with the team by taking some control over the way clients were admitted to the unit. Strictly, making this decision did not conform to the research design, since the plan was for teams to identify their own goals and carry out action towards them. However, it was in the spirit of the research and, as the team felt to be more in control of its admission policy through work carried out by the Project Worker, it became more interested in identifying other goals and carrying out action towards them.
In yet another project, two foci for research were envisaged initially: one having to do with the interface between care workers and residents -- in this case, learning disabled adults -- , and one having to do with the character of consortia which were managing the small group homes. As data began to be gathered and analyzed, it became clear that quality of care was highly dependent on quality of work life for staff and became an additional focus for the research.
In carrying out partnership research, problems can also arise within the Project Workers Team itself. For example, one member of a Project Workers Team, who was for the rest of her week a social worker in a generic team, found that she could not always get to monthly meetings. On one occasion we heard that her team was in a state of crisis, with two members of staff off sick, the team manager on leave and that she was the only social worker left on duty who was qualified to deal with allegations of child abuse which needed immediate action.
An interesting issue sometimes arises which has to do with the appropriate balance between research and consultation vis-a-vis the units from which research data is being collected. Sometimes, we have felt it necessary to move into brief periods of consultation or advocacy when the research effort has been threatened by events in the workplace. It becomes necessary to give proper attention to the boundary between research and consultation, and to avoid turning into practitioners with the working staff as clients.
The Project Coordination Group is an important forum for airing problems arising from staff shortages and stress. Group members also sanction any modifications in Phase 2 activity arising from what we are finding. They might take action within their organisation to ease the path of the research. For example, a senior manager might communicate to colleagues who were not part of the research that staff shortages are causing particular problems to a team. Action could then be taken on the team's behalf. When a team manager and his or her line manager are members of the Group, it is easier to sanction difficulties being shared more widely in the organisation.
From the point of view of the university-based researchers all of the above has to be held together. We have the task of seeing that the research as research is differentiated from other tasks, such as responding in sympathetic ways to snags which occur in carrying it out. With the other members of the Project Workers Team, we need counselling skills as well as research skills. We have to make time and energy to respond to crises and troubles in facilitating ways and in ways which will serve the research task.
8. At the conclusion of Phase 2, a full written report is prepared of the research.
The university-based researchers take the main responsibility for writing a report, since we have had substantial previous experience of such a task, but the partnership emphasis is retained. We draw up an outline of proposed contents which is discussed and agreed within the Project Coordination Group. This usually includes a full and extended section on data collection methods, so that the work can be replicated elsewhere in the organisation.
A problem we sometimes encounter is that it takes a considerable time to write a full report which does justice to both the content and the processes of the work. This can mean that there is a time gap between the end of Phase 2 and the start of the dissemination phase of the work.
9. A plan for disseminating learnings is worked out.
A draft plan is drawn up in the Project Workers Team and this forms the basis for an agenda for the Project Coordination Group. In large agencies, such as Social Services Departments, dissemination plans are likely to include a report to the relevant committee of the Local Authority, a full workshop day with staff who do the same job as those involved in the research and summary reports for various levels of the organisation. In smaller agencies, meetings and summary reports may be planned for managers, and for committees or trustees who may not have been much involved beyond sanctioning the work. Other forms of dissemination for use with client groups, such as posters and the like may be drawn up from the full report by agency staff.
10. Dissemination and research utilisation are carried out.
Staffs from all levels of the organisation who have been part of the research in some capacity or other are part of this process. Sometimes the University-based researchers are involved, sometimes they are not. For example, the University-based researchers are likely to be involved in large scale workshop events, reports to committee and in writing papers for the field, usually with agency staff. However, a team of staff in a unit may devise its own dissemination exercise with a group of other staff from a nearby unit or elect one or two of its staff to try out some exercise from the research process or conclusions. For example in a project on 'Improving and maintaining Quality of Life in Homes for Elderly people' there was a workplan for assessing difficult residents and thinking out how best to respond to them. (Archer & Whitaker, 1991). One of the Homes in the study used this plan by asking a student on placement with them to carry out a survey of residents, a year after the research was completed.
11. The project is closed.
A final meeting with the Project Coordination Group is held with the purpose of marking what we have achieved together and acknowledging that the project has now come to an end. This often turns into or is accompanied by a social event, so that others with whom we have become closely involved can say their 'goodbyes' to us and to one another. While this marks the end of the partnership project it does not, we hope, mark the end of learnings and application.
Some Examples of Partnership Research: difficulties and what can be expected when it is successful
We have chosen the stories below to illustrate points where the process of partnership research can become difficult and to show what can happen when it is going well.
Example A: A project which could not be taken beyond Phase 1
We had been given money by an outside funding body to do some work on a particular issue. At the same time we had approached an agency with a view to making a partnership arrangement. We made the mistake of trying to combine the two activities. The money we had would pay for a Phase 1, and we assumed that being given permission to spend it in the Agency meant they were likely to feel committed to providing financial support for Phases 2 and 3. We also assumed that they had really understood that the Phase 1 was not of and by itself a piece of research. A Project Coordination Group was set up. However, events showed that the managers in it were not committed to the idea of partnership research. The idea for the overall focus of the research had not come from them.
It was agreed, however, that a Phase 1 would be conducted with a team of experienced practitioners, who had comparable responsibility within the organisation but did not ordinarily work together. We did not set up a project workers team, judging that a Project Workers Team could be drawn up from among the workshop members at the end of Phase 1.
When Phase 1 was completed, we produced a report which included a list of issues generated by these experienced workers which they wished to pursue further. The report also included an idea that the people whom we had brought together for Phase 1 should continue to meet on a regular basis, since they had found the whole experience to be a very supportive one. The managers received the report as if it were a full research report. They decided they could not find the money for further work. They disliked the idea of the workers meeting as a group informally without a manager being present. They thanked us for our efforts.
What had gone wrong? First, the agency had made no real commitment to the work in prospect beyond giving permission for six or seven workshop meetings with a number of their staff. The idea for the focus of the work did not come from them and they had made no financial commitment to its completion. The management group had ideas about the nature of what we were offering, which were at odds with our own, but we did not properly understand this at the time, or confront this. The agency itself had long before dissolved its own research group, as being a costly extravagance. We later speculated that the managers with whom we worked saw what we were doing as being 'training' rather than research. When we produced a full report of Phase 1, its apparent completeness was sufficient to satisfy their expectations of what we were to do. They had no commitment to finding additional money, especially for research. We also learned from this experience something about management structures and styles. The organisation was strictly hierarchical in character. The idea that workers might provide mutual support for one another, outside formal support structures, was incompatible with the organisation's assumptions about control and training. The experienced staff group was working on issues which might bring the organisation to the attention of the media. In the UK at the time we were doing this work, newspapers, radio and television were filled with reports of social workers failing in their duty to young people who were at risk. Managers consequently felt a need to be aware of everything social workers were doing, in case something happened which brought the agency to media attention. These particular staff were already supported by a supervision system within the agency and, because they were experienced, were assumed not to require anything more, especially as they were already hard pressed to cover their case loads.
From the point of view of taking a piece of partnership research through to completion, it would have been better not to start, though we could see that Phase 1 activity was useful to the participants, and we ourselves learned much about the dilemmas facing the workers.
Example B: A staff group which could not find the time or energy to cooperate with the research
The staff of a Home for elderly people had agreed to participate in a series of action research cycles as part of a larger partnership research project. They had chosen a goal for the Home and then took no action towards achieving it. We wondered why this was happening. Discussion with the agency-based Project Worker who was going into the Home regularly revealed that the staff group were suffering considerable stress. The neighbourhood team manager had moved elsewhere in the Department and temporary cover was provided by a manager who was already in charge of another team. The Home's unit manager had gone off sick with a bad back. They had lost their cook and were finding it difficult to replace her.
We decided to take steps to try to understand the stress, rather than to pursue the direct research plan. We met with two of the deputies. They began to talk about all the things which had happened in the last six months. We found that the Home was having a wing converted for the use of elderly learning disabled people at the same time as the rest of the Home was being decorated. The loss of the cook had meant that care staff were having to prepare meals. Residents were having to be moved round the Home and, as many of them were confused, this was adding to their confusion. One old lady was regularly eating the workmen's sandwiches. Other residents were becoming very ill. The support which members of staff were getting from the agency was beset with problems: a committee member of the Local Authority Committee, responsible ultimately to the electorate for the conduct of the Home, arrived with a bunch of daffodils on the day a washing machine broke down and flooded the boiler house - the staff were embarrassed to have no water to put the flowers into.
As the deputies talked about all these events, some important, some merely irritating or even funny, we began to realise that the research effort was just another burden. We decided that we would keep a log of all their stressors and make what the staff was enduring visible to the members of the Project Coordination Group. It took a further nine months for this Home to get into a position to pursue the research.
What had gone wrong? Despite the best efforts of the staff, the external problems continued. Decorators, who came for a few weeks, stayed for months. During their stay, the kitchen was out of commission for several weeks and the cook was still not replaced. Food had to be supplied during the week by a voluntary agency 'Meals on Wheels' which normally supplies food to elderly people in their own homes. At weekends, staff had to go out and buy in fish and chips or other kinds of take-aways for residents whilst the kitchen was out of commission. The head of Home continued to have a bad back which meant that from time to time, she had to stay off work. Several residents died. The neighbourhood team manager changed twice and support to this Home from the neighbourhood team was patchy until the post was filled more permanently.
As a research team we learned a lot from this experience about what needs to be in place for a staff group to be effective. We especially learned that staff have to have time and available energy if they are to do more than do the practical care tasks. There is little room for more difficult emotional tasks and no room at all for forward planning since all energy is diverted to the twin tasks of dealing with day-to-day chaos and personal stress. We also learned how crucial it is for first-line managers to be in place and to be interested in what staff are doing. We learned that there may be less sympathy on the part of higher management for a staff group suffering from a build-up of small stressors than when a staff is faced with a major crisis.
Example C: A team of workers whose understanding of the people in their care expanded through certain of the research findings.
In a partnership research project which focused on the quality of care for residents in a home for the elderly, interviews were carried out with a sample of old people which invited them to complete sentences, of which the first few words only were provided. The stems of sentences included, for example, 'For me a good day is.......'; 'The hardest thing to get used to about this home is......'; 'When I see a new person coming here to live, I......'; and so on, to a total of about twenty such items. The results showed that residents vary considerably in what, for each, constituted and contributed to a good quality of life. A number of different and preferred life styles could be identified. When these findings were fed back to the care staff they could see that certain of their residents preferred a quiet life and creature comforts; others wanted days out and treats of a particular sort and liked being waited on; and still others wanted to do things which helped them to feel that they were competent and able to make useful contributions to others. The findings were of general interest and also helped staff to be sensitive to individual difference amongst those in their care.
This example illustrates the kind of research finding which might equally well have emerged from research conducted without an emphasis on partnership arrangements. Phase 2 of this research had been quite orthodox exploratory research except that data was collected by an 'ordinary' social worker rather than a researcher, who regularly met with other members of the research team. But the subjects of the research did not challenge the findings or regard them as any kind of external threat. The difference, we believe, is that staff paid serious attention to the results because their own ideas had been solicited early in the planning stage of the research, they knew that the research design had taken their interests into account and, during Phase 2, they had been given a lot of support by the project worker who listened to their troubles and concerns every time she came into the home. They regarded the research as being done with them, rather than on them.
Example D: Teams of care workers who participated in an action research project and internalised the idea of monitoring and evaluating their own work.
A research partnership was set up with a Social Services Department in which one focus was on work carried out in small group homes for learning disabled adults. An action research approach was adopted in Phase 2, in which staffs were encouraged by the research worker to identify goals towards which they would like to work, devise a plan, carry it out, and evaluate the outcomes. This was done in successive action research cycles. Goals might have to do with individual residents, the resident group as a whole, own organisation, the neighbourhood etc. etc. The hope was that staffs would not only be assisted to achieve good results, but that they would produce their own research data as they went.
In action research a potential for learning from own experience is present, such that habits of goal-setting, making plans which look to fit goals, close attention and observation, self-evaluation, and so on can become a habitual part of the work effort. We have seen this come about. At first a staff moves through action research cycles in a step by step fashion under the guidance of the researchers. However, especially as experience accumulates, they may move outside the 'letter' of the action research cycle whilst retaining its spirit. Some staffs have become quite ingenious about what they undertake: for example, keeping diaries of holidays or of successive accomplishments of individual residents, writing up 'A day in the life of' (the home) in which activities and interactions of residents and staff were tracked over a 24 hour period and written up. Staff have been prepared to revise goals when they have proved to be over-ambitious, and have learned to learn from apparent 'failure'.
These we consider are process learnings which can emerge from a certain form of partnership research.
Facilitating and hindering factors in partnership research projects
It will be seen from what has already been said that some stages and aspects of the partnership research process seem to present few or no problems, while others can prove difficult to manage or surmount.
Factors which facilitate the process include:
- Locating a contact person or 'transactor' who can facilitate entry into a service providing agency at an appropriate management level. (See also Smale, 1992)
- Managing to communicate the essence of the partnership idea even when it is unfamiliar to agency-based personnel and seems to them not to fit into existing organisational structures and procedures. (See also Chrisholm & Elden, 1993)
- Establishing agreements with managers at a sufficiently high level in the service-providing organisation for decisions not only to be taken but to be held to (so that agreements cannot be easily countermanded by those higher up in the organisation).
- All concerned being willing to tolerate a degree of open-endedness and uncertainty at certain stages of the work, especially in the beginning before Phase 1 has been completed.
- Relative freedom from pressure and stress in units providing direct care, such that members of staff and teams have sufficient time and energy to involve themselves in partnership work.
- Sympathetic line managers who are prepared to listen to the on-the-ground staff, and share in goal setting, planning and action.
- A management system and ethos which leads individual managers and management as a group to be open to ideas from on-the-ground staff and to respect their experience and their understanding of the task and of the people in their care. Related to this is the a readiness to appreciate that not all instruction, control and assurance of good practice has to come from the top of the organisation and be imposed downwards.
- University-based researchers who hold to the rigours of systematic research, but who are also able to fulfil a counselling role and to be sympathetic to events in the real world which inhibit the research. They also require the capacity to turn set-backs into opportunities for further understanding.
Factors which hinder the partnership process are for the most part the converse of the above:
- Failing to find at least one manager in the service-providing agency who is sympathetic and intrigued by the possibilities of partnership research, and sufficiently highly placed in the organisation such that his or her views are listened to. Without such a person there is a danger of the university-based researchers who are presenting the ideas getting into an unproductive adversarial relationship with managers, which can then prove fatal to collaborative work.
- Misunderstandings and failures to communicate well, especially during the early, pre-Phase 1 stage of the research.
- Bad luck: especially when factors outside anyone's control put pressure on agency resources and lead key managers to feel that they cannot honour earlier agreements.
- Lack or loss of energy and available time on the part of on-the-ground staff whose participation and cooperation is essential to the viability of the project.
- An entrenched severely hierarchical management system which involves a great deal of top-down control, and a distant, blaming attitude on the part of management and a complementary defensive attitude on the part of staff further down the hierarchy are bound to interfere with the partnership research process.
- Distractions, of whatever kind and from whatever source which sap energy and generate preoccupations which are extraneous to the task and to the partnership research effort, will interfere with the process. Many of these can be dealt with if facilitating factors are largely in place and if the Project Workers Team is prepared to be patient and to interrupt the work for a period of time, but some such preoccupations are intractable and virtually impossible to deal with.
- The university-based researchers have to cope with colleagues and the research establishment seeing this kind of research as 'applied' and therefore less scholarly, and somehow diluted by bringing non-researchers into the research enterprise.
When a unit or team is unable to work to a partnership research structure because of hindering factors within the unit itself, we have employed two strategies to counter the effects of this. The first is to monitor what is happening and to make this a part of the research process and a source of learning. The second is to make use of the Project Coordination Group to discuss how problems might be alleviated.
Problems located in the larger organisation may prove to be intractable: there is no leverage available to us as outsiders. In consequence, efforts may need to be abandoned, or if serious blockages become evident early on, it seems to us to make sense not to continue with efforts likely to be futile.
The list of facilitating and hindering factors just presented has been influenced by our experience of the most likely loci of problems. There are a number of potentially hindering factors which we have not mentioned here because they have not, in our experience, occurred. There are a number of facilitating factors which we have not mentioned because they are likely to be present and so go unnoticed, as an expected part of the process. We have not said, for example, that it facilitates matters if on-the-ground staff who participate in Phase 1 workshops are responsive: we have never known them not to be so. We have not said that lack of skill and sensitivity on the part of agency-based members of the Project Workers Team is a hindering factor because we have never encountered this. We have said that increases in work pressure on the members of the Project Workers Team can get in the way of the work, because this does occur from time to time.
In this final section we consider the similarities and differences between this partnership arrangement and other, perhaps more familiar, ways of mounting research, raise the issue of fit (or non-fit) with characteristic organisational structures and procedures, and point to some learnings and benefits which go beyond producing research findings.
Similarities and differences between partnership research and more usual ways of planning and carrying out research.
We take the more usual ways of planning and carrying out research to involve one or more experienced researchers working out research aims and a research design, then seeking support for it and then seeking cooperation from those organisations or individuals who are to be data sources. The cooperation of any service-providing organisation may be restricted to permitting access to data sources, though feedback of research results to cooperating organisations is often built into a research plan. Research partnerships, as has been shown, involve collaboration throughout all stages of the work, from agreeing purposes, in many cases finding the funding for the university-based researchers' work, through to carrying out the work and providing for dissemination and research-utilisation within the agency.
In some ways a partnership structure does not affect the character of the research. As in any piece of research, purposes need careful and specific spelling out, research design and data collection and analysis methods need to fit purposes, and conclusions need to be carefully drawn on the basis of findings. However, there are also important differences.
In partnership research, planning takes longer because of the need to tap into the experience of so many people before firming up the agreed set of purposes, let alone a plan. Although the overall focus for a study is agreed very near to the beginning, a set of detailed purposes waits upon the conclusion to Phase 1. All concerned need to accept this and live with a certain amount of uncertainty during this early phase. Prior to Phase 1, a prospective plan needs to be thought out in broad outline, so that reasonable estimates can be made of the time and money likely to be required. These estimates need to include not only the costs of the University-based researchers, but also the additional resource costs of seconding staff to the Project Workers Team for part of their time, their travel expenses and those additional resource costs incurred by bringing staff together for Phase 1 meetings and to the Project Coordination Group. However, any such plan has to be held provisionally so that it can be adjusted in the light of outcomes of Phase 1.
Phase 2 -- detailed planning and the actual conduct of the research -- is undertaken by the university-based researchers together with one or a few people seconded from the agency. The agency-based members of the Project Workers Team are almost always experienced practitioners or first-line managers: they are unlikely to be experienced in research. This means that frequent meetings are required to help agency-based staff develop the considerable skills they will need and to keep the work moving along. Time needs to be invested in, for example, thinking out any differences (and similarities) between practice as an activity and research as an activity (Archer, 1990). Because the Project Workers Team works closely with operating teams or staffs, real life events affecting groups of workers while the research is going on need to be acknowledged and taken into account. Sometimes such events suggest new possibilities for investigation in Phase 2. While maintaining the integrity of the plan which was agreed in Phase 1, the Project Workers and other members of the Coordination Group need to decide whether such possibilities are too good to miss, and whether further purposes should be added in. In other words, the issue of the proper boundaries for the work is not necessarily settled once and for all at the beginning. Yet the research must not be allowed to expand willy nilly, in response to any and every intriguing development on the ground. It is also the case that now and then some aspect of the research has come to a standstill because of some crisis or accumulation of stressors amongst those providing data. The Project Workers then have to wait until the situation changes and the on-the-ground staff are again in a position to have the energy for the data-providing task.
This means that the progress from purposes to plan to execution of plan to assembling findings is not as smooth or uninterrupted as might otherwise be the case. On the other hand, by retaining flexibility in the ways described, the research effort often achieves understandings not always possible to anticipate at the start. One tends to trade certainty for richness.
One further difference between research partnerships and more conventional ways of planning and conducting research has to do with dissemination and research utilisation. While publishing accounts of the research in the usual ways for the field as a whole, there is inserted a dissemination phase (Phase 3) for the participating service-providing agency. This is one of the pay-offs for the agency and is also a rich source of learning for all concerned, as it provides opportunities for learning how findings are received, and whether or not obstacles are seen to application and implementation.
The fit between the ethos of partnership research and the culture of a service-providing organisation.
The way in which partnership research is structured and the procedures it follows involve collaborative work amongst a number of differently situated and differently skilled people, most of whom are employees of the participating agency(s). Partnership research at its best creates a spirit of collaboration and a prevailing sense of mutual respect amongst those participating. Different people bring different perspectives to the work whether they be a part-time care worker or a member of higher management. These perspectives are shared, especially within the Project Coordination Group. It becomes evident that on-the-ground workers have accumulated much practice wisdom which it is useful for management to know about, and that, in the other direction, managers are aware of requirements, pressures and constraints which are unknown to or ill understood by the on-the-ground workers, even though their work lives are influenced by these through guidelines and inspection procedures.
Within a partnership project, people within the organisation who are not ordinarily in face-to-face contact are brought together, and for purposes of getting research done, views are sought from all and heard by all. Although the organisational hierarchy remains in place, within the Project Workers Team and the Project Coordination Group, there is a flattening of hierarchical relationships and an open acknowledgement of which strengths are brought to the work by whom.
Sometimes this works as intended, and the research effort is the richer for such open communication. Sometimes it works less well. We have encountered at least one situation (see Example A) in which the assumptions of management, and the associated management structures and procedures were such that the project could not go ahead. We have encountered another in which management structures and procedures appeared to harden when managers were confronted with more open communication with an on-the-ground staff group.
In other words, partnership research seems to work best when there is a degree of compatibility between the culture (expectations, assumptions, norms etc.) which is integral to partnership research, and the culture of the participating organisation. This does not mean they must be exactly alike, which is impossible given the differences in scope and task, but it does mean that they must be near enough so that the partnership effort does not threaten the integrity of the organisation as perceived by upper management, and that the organisation does not stifle the research process.
This is something we are learning more about as project follows project. We hope to have more to say about it as experience accumulates.
Some learnings and benefits that go beyond the production of research findings
One ordinarily expects a piece of research to yield findings, well supported by evidence, from which conclusions can be drawn. This is the case for partnership research as well as for any other structure for getting research done. However, we find that through the process of living through a research partnership project, understandings are acquired which cannot be said to be findings, but nevertheless emerge from the work as learnings.
What appears to happen is that this form of research immerses the researcher in events: those which occur in the settings in which data is collected, and those which occur in the temporary groups set up to support the work -- the Project Workers Team and the Project Coordination Group.
For example, in one piece of work in residential homes for the elderly, by soaking up the atmospheres of a number of homes, members of the team learned much about readily tolerable and hard to tolerate stresses on staffs; about how it is that common-sense assumptions about people's motivations can sometimes support the work but sometimes lead staff to misunderstand residents' feelings or needs; how quality of work life for staff appears to be essential to the provision for good quality care; and the like.
From noting what goes on in the Project Coordination Group meetings, we may become aware of what about management surprises on-the-ground workers, and what about everyday events in service-providing units surprises managers.
Insights so gained cannot be called 'findings' in the traditional sense of the term, since we cannot name an 'N' on which such understandings are based. We have also called these learnings rather than findings because they were not listed in the original detailed purposes of the research or added to the list of purposes as the research progressed. We did not set out to find them but having learned them within a rigorously recorded structure we were often able to make them part of our conclusions. Sometimes an important insight is based on a single or rare incidence, such as several resident deaths over a period of months, or the reaction in a Project Coordination meeting to the absence of a high level manager.
Because they do not fit into the notion of 'research findings' we do not consider that these learnings are unimportant or should be ignored. Such learnings and the processes by which they are acquired are a matter for further thought and enquiry. When and on what basis can one have confidence in an insight which takes the form of a 'learning' rather than a 'finding'? We are curious about how such learnings fit into the spectrum of that which can be understood through research.
We have already alluded to benefits which can accrue to a service-providing organisation through participation in a partnership research project.
Team-building is supported by Phase 1 activities, where all members of an operating team or staff are assisted to make explicit what they have already learned from experience, what they still need to learn, and what they would like to direct attention to. A convention is adopted that all that is said is important and worthy of noting, including views which are on the face of it incompatible but are nevertheless a part of the team's experience.
If the research is such as to involve staff further in the actual conduct of the research, for example by instituting successive action-research cycles, then this too supports team building.
Partnership research can be a form of learning on the job: through paying attention to own experience; through noting the consequences of one's efforts with clients/residents; through critically examining assumptions made about events and interpretations put upon them and comparing these with assumptions and interpretations made by others. This is especially the case for agency seconded staff who join the project workers team and also if action research is involved, when members of the staff team gain experience in setting goals proactively, making plans which can then be expected to move towards goals, noting the outcomes of efforts, registering what went right and what went wrong, and why. If this becomes established as a stance towards work, a habit of mind, such ways of thinking become internalised and outlive the project.
Partnership structures tend to increase the body of shared information available to those occupying different positions in the organisation. They can make the expertise acquired and held by different members/levels of staff visible and available to others.
In the experience of the University- based researchers such partnership structures require additional work and effort, far beyond that which is required in more conventional research. Only some of the time required for this can be costed into any proposal. However the benefits for us are considerable. We are beginning to achieve our aim of making research and research findings an integral part of practice. We have made research count in the workplace - the work we have done is taken seriously and has made a difference to the quality of life of many of those who have participated. We have been able to use our social work and group work skills as well as our research skills and learned more about what discriminates them. We have made learnings that would not have been routinely available to us if we had been doing more conventional research and still been able to hold to the demands of orthodoxy. We have not been limited by our own knowledge and expertise of the substantive issue. Our knowledge has been expanded through a partnership with the expertise of those doing the work in many fields. The research partnerships provide a variety which has kept us in touch with most recent developments in many areas of social welfare. We have, on the whole, made friends rather than enemies at all levels of complex organisations and we have had a great deal of pleasure from working close to the tasks of those who care for disadvantaged people.
These benefits are over and above what is learned from the research itself.