Why might practice partners seek to use research evidence?

Practice partners may call upon research for a variety of reasons. Huw Davies and Alison Powell (2010) offer a useful typology of the types of knowledge that research can provide:

  • Know-why: understand why a policy or practice action is required
  • Know-about: understand the context surrounding the issue or need
  • Know-what works: identify which interventions, policies, and strategies can lead to desired outcomes
  • Know-how: articulate how to effectively implement a practice
  • Know-who: identify the key stakeholders that should be involved and to understand their needs

For more information about how this framework can inform research use in policy and practice, see: Use of Research Evidence: Social Services Portfolio.

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What are different ways research can be used?

Research use is more likely to happen when it is intentional. For this reason, it is important for partnerships to anticipate the various ways research can be used. Some include:

  • Instrumental Uses: Research findings can support specific decisions—for instance, which program to adopt, how to allocate resources, or whether to support a reform effort.
  • Conceptual Uses: Research helps leaders understand and frame the issues they are confronting. More indirect than instrumental uses of research, conceptual uses occur when research influences how decision makers orient themselves to a problem or potential solutions.
  • Process Use: Building on earlier writing, Maciolek (2015) describes how “Process use emphasizes how the design and conduct of research, rather than just its findings, might be used by both policy makers and practitioners. Engagement in research processes can lead to changes in ways of thinking and in ways of behaving among individuals and throughout organizations.”
  • Political Uses: Sometimes decision makers have already developed their stance on an issue, and research can be used to provide support for the stance. Research can be used to persuade others to also adopt the position.

See: The Uses of Research in Policy and Practice.

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What does the conceptual use of research evidence look like?

The conceptual use of research evidence involves the ways in which research shapes an individual’s or organization’s thinking. It can take a variety of forms. Research evidence may:

  • Introduce new frameworks, ideas, and vocabulary into practice settings that can later be called upon to change practice, shape priorities, and solve problems.
  • Highlight a new way of looking at a problem. Many RPPs within child welfare, juvenile justice, and mental health settings use research findings to deepen their understanding of who they serve, the process for delivering services, and the challenges staff and clients face. They then use this information to gain a deeper understanding of the inefficiencies and gaps in a system.
  • Encourage users to uncover different approaches to problem solving. RPPs can draw upon ideas from research to rethink existing policies and practices and identify alternative approaches to improve practice.

To learn more about the conceptual use of research evidence, see: What Is the Conceptual Use of Research and Why is it Important?

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How can partners design research that is more likely to be used?

To conduct useful research, it is a good idea to repeatedly engage partners. Begin by identifying the individuals, committees, work groups, learning groups, or training cohorts who are invested in the research and may want to take up the findings. Consider what problems of policy or practice the research will inform—be it policy implementation, resource allocation, staff training, public awareness campaigns, or management practices. Jointly envision how the research might be used, and plan accordingly to make it happen.

Where possible, tie research efforts to existing system incentives so that the research can be connected to an already moving train of action. For example, if an organization is interested in identifying or implementing research-based programs or tools, a research synthesis on relevant programs or tools may be appropriate. Alternatively, systems implementing a new program may be interested in learning about how well it works or how to improve it, and evaluation designs that address these questions can aid the use of research evidence.

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What else can partners do to encourage the use of evidence?

  • Develop a theory of action for how the research will be used. Research and practice partners might articulate their vision for what they think it will take for their research to influence programs, policies, or practices and design their research activities with that understanding in mind. The best theories reflect a nuanced understanding of the local decision making context, including the processes and conditions that may be leveraged to maximize take up of the partnership’s research. See: The Next Big Leap for Research-Practice Partnerships: Building and Testing Theories to Improve Research Use.
  • Build trusting relationships. Research that is trusted or from a trusted source is more likely to be used. Further, research partners who are able to build trusting relationships are more likely to be called upon by their practice colleagues when they need help with a problem. Trust is established by demonstrating consistency, responsiveness, and an understanding of the challenging contexts in which their counterparts operate.
  • Create structures and routines that strengthen the culture of evidence use. This includes enabling open dialogue and collaborative interpretation of findings and being transparent about existing norms and work practices throughout an organization. Resources and time are also needed to support these structures (Farrell and Coburn, 2016).
  • Capitalize on formal and informal opportunities for partners to interact. Practice organizations can increase the frequency with which they engage with research ideas by consulting with researchers as advisors or and involving researchers in their strategic conversations to ensure that relevant research evidence is surfaced at key decision points.

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How can researchers better engage their practice partners to improve the use of research evidence?

Researchers’ capacity to collaborate over the life of a project is critical to the use of research evidence. Key factors include:

  • Deep understanding of the organizational context, including its politics, organizational structure, resources, and routines. This ensures that the research produced by the partnership is aligned with the organizational priorities of the policy or practice partner, which in turn improves the esteem and potential use of the resulting research.
  • Sensitivity to the history of an organization. Many agencies have a history of seeing interventions come and go. Research partners who are sensitive to this history and are able to respond to current needs are more poised to succeed than those who are not.
  • Appreciation of different stakeholder groups. This includes being aware of and adaptive to the varied priorities and concerns of different stakeholders. It may also require the targeted use of different types of evidence at different times. For example, evidence about cost-effectiveness may be especially appealing to decision-makers involved in implementation decisions.
  • Policy and political literacy, which enable an understanding of how and when political conditions will affect decision makers’ reception to the research evidence that is produced. See: Training Researchers to Inform Policy: Workshop Participant Supplement

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What are ways to bolster practitioners’ capacity to use research evidence?

One strategy for building practitioners’ research capacity is to provide resources (e.g. fact sheets, workshops, briefings, and trainings) that support them in interpreting findings and identifying ways research can be applied to their practice needs. For an example of one such training, see: Using Research Evidence: A Practice Guide.

The ability of a practice organization to use research evidence is tied to its absorptive capacity, or its ability to value, assimilate, and apply new information to organizational practices. As a result of studying school districts, partnerships, and organizational learning, Cynthia Coburn and Caitlin Farrell (2016; 2018) suggest that the following factors play a role in promoting evidence use:

  • Relevant prior knowledge and expertise among practitioners engaged in the change effort
  • Formal and informal communication pathways to facilitate knowledge sharing and problem solving within the central office
  • Strategic knowledge leadership, or a leader’s concerted efforts to create, extend, and apply new knowledge to the organization’s relevant knowledge base
  • Resources for partnering, including adequate time, staffing, and financial resources and the purchase of materials necessary to engage in the work

For more information about absorptive capacity, see: Absorptive Capacity: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding District Office Central Learning.

For other examples of conditions that enable school district leaders to use research evidence in their decision making, see: A Piece of the Action: Three District Leaders on Fostering Research Use.

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What other factors shape the use of research evidence?

Partnerships should be sensitive to the effects of timing, funding priorities, and political circumstances on potential research use:

  • Implementation timelines may constrain the extent to which evidence can be used by decision makers.
  • Unpredictable shifts in an agency’s funding priorities may affect the feasibility of research use. Under these shifts, agencies may lack the funding to act even when strong evidence exists, or they may have funding to support work in a given area “right now” regardless of the evidence available to them.
  • The allocation of resources can affect the partnership’s work and the use of research evidence. Considerations include the organization’s fiscal priorities, competing demands on the organization’s resources, or the amount of political capital that is required to implement a change effort internally.
  • Political circumstances matter. When politics raise the profile of research, partners should be ready with key, concise messages about research findings. At other times, strategic thinking is needed about ways to involve influential individuals or groups to facilitate policy-makers’ access to research evidence. Despite these efforts, there may still be times when political circumstances outweigh the consideration and use of research evidence.

For an example of how research evidence can inform policy implementation decisions, see: Partnership and the Politics of Care: Advocates’ Role in Passing and Implementing California’s Law to Extend Foster Care.

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What does it look like when research is used to inform the development of a policy?

Lorraine McDonnell and M. Stephen Weatherford (2014) provide an informative case study of how different types of research and data informed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement. The case provides insights into ways that partnerships can mobilize different policy entrepreneurs and different types of research evidence and data at different stages of the policy process, from problem definition to policy development to policy adoption. In this case:

  • Policy leaders and advocates used data and cross-national research to make a case for common standards across states.
  • The Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association then created a structure for developing and validating the standards, which included robust researcher involvement. Research expertise was complemented by the professional expertise of other key stakeholders including teachers and state education agency staff who would be responsible for implementing the standards.
  • Additional advocates then stepped in to make the case for State Boards of Education to adopt the standards, drawing less upon research than on communications and messaging strategies. For more, see: Evidence Use and the Common Core State Standards Movement: From Problem Definition to Policy Adoption.

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