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People Power: The Key Ingredient in Implementation Science

March 17, 2015 Nonprofits and Communities Tags: , , , , 0 Comments

In my last post, I gave a few examples of what it looks like when research and practice in the social sector don’t mesh. While it’s easy to agree that research and practice should get along in principle, the devil is in the details. In this post, I look to leading-edge work in implementation science to show how people power – that is, building the capacity of front-line service professionals – is our best bet for creating change at all levels of a social system.

The importance of culture

Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in the Research Practice Partnership Workshop at the 2015 International Conference of the Learning Sciences. Hosted by the Research + Practice Collaboratory and funded by the National Science Foundation, this workshop brought together researchers and practitioners focused on STEM education to explore what it looks like when their relationship is one of mutual and ongoing partnership, rather than of one being brought “to” the other.

A key question at the workshop was around whose job it is to actually create the bridge. Should universities encourage academics to get out of the ivory tower and engage with the community? Should teachers get paid time to read educational research?

Recent research has proposed new frameworks to explore questions like these about roles and responsibilities. Larry Palinkas, a professor at the University of Southern California, refers to the relationship between research and practice as one of “cultural exchange” and suggests that one of the most crucial drivers of a successful partnership is the presence and skill of a specific person – often a social worker – who can advocate for and broker the exchange. In addition, a recent article in Educational Researcher about the Youth Data Archive, housed at Stanford University, demonstrates how university researchers can also play this role when relationship- and trust-building are given priority.

The question is, how do such people come to develop those “brokering” skills and gain institutional legitimacy from both sides? These types of questions about how research-practice advocates on the ground do their work are at the heart of implementation science.

“The practitioner is the intervention”

Though part of a broader translational science paradigm, implementation science is distinct in that, as Dean Fixsen and his colleagues at the National Implementation Research Network have written, it focuses on the idea that “practitioners are the intervention.” That is, rather than only studying and trying to improve the outcomes for beneficiaries of social services, implementation science focuses on practitioners as both the unit of study and intervention. Accordingly, its key components focus on selecting, training, and coaching and supporting the people who are on the front lines of providing social and human services. The theory is, if the devil is in the details, then let’s change the details!

While this emphasis on front-line professionals is both innovative and promising, in traditional implementation science, “implementation fidelity” – or getting practitioners to adhere to rigid “recipes” for evidence-based interventions – has been held up as a kind of Holy Grail. However, a more organic, ground-up approach has recently arisen in the form of design-based implementation research (DBIR).

Recognizing that bringing research “into the wild” can be just that, advocates of DBIR respond to the wildness by embracing it. As described by Penuel, Fishman, Cheng, and Sabelli (2011), design-based implementation researchers actively inquire into how social change can happen in situations where there is limited capacity, variable context, and multiple stakeholders with vested, sometimes competing interests.

This approach is gaining steam among education researchers and practitioners who seek true partnership, and under the leadership of Bill Penuel, the newly-launched National Center for Research in Policy and Practice is using DBIR methods as part of its attempts to help educators “productively use research when making decisions.”

Practice of research on research in practice?

Of course, as useful as implementation science methodologies may be, they are still research-oriented. In other words, implementation science can be thought of as research on research in practice, a somewhat dizzying concept. So how does this impact our work on a practical level?

At nFocus, we’re fans of research that helps us build products that support our clients in achieving real-world outcomes. When we think about how implementation science fits into the work we want to support, we are most inspired by the idea that, whatever tools we build, the power to make them truly useful lies in the hands of those who wield them.

That’s why we are excited to launch a new effort on Ideas nFocus to highlight first-hand stories about how research and practice come together in the social sector. These stories will come from front-line staff, evaluators, and leaders of social service organizations doing innovative, data-driven work, as well as from researchers who work in implementation science and related fields. My next post will outline the goals of this effort and introduce some of our guest bloggers.

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