7 Ways to Be a Research Enabling Manager

Producing, using, and translating research evidence that is relevant to healthcare policy and clinical practice is critical to maximising healthcare effectiveness, efficiency, and safety. However not all organisations are equally effective at creating a culture that is supportive of research. This article looks at how to become a research enabling manager to better support the development of a research culture in your organisation.

RCB strategies target individuals, organisations or structures and systems. Strategies that targeted at all three levels are considered optimal.

Individual-level RCB strategies typically include research training and education to enhance research knowledge and skills needed for allied health practitioners (AHPs) to use research in clinical practice and to undertake research to produce new knowledge. Global RCB strategies include health research policy and system-level strategies.

Most barriers to research in health settings are caused by organisational factors. These include a lack of research infrastructure, absence of research partnerships, lack of leadership and research visibility, and an immature research culture.

Allied health managers (managers from here-on-in) are central to the organisational research culture and climate, but not all managers have research skills, knowledge, and/or experience. This means they may lack the confidence to support research activity including research translation.

Managers don’t need to have PhDs or be experienced researchers to support a positive team and organisational research culture. This article identifies 7 ways to be a research enabling manager.  

1. Research enabling managers make informed decisions about research activities

Research enabling manager and team discussing research priorities
Research enabling managers make informed decisions about research activities

Managers are faced with decisions about what research activity to support and prioritise. Potential research activity may include AHP team member-led initiatives, opportunities to partner with academic researchers or decisions about what research evidence to translate into practice. They simply cannot support every endeavour, so strategic and informed decisions need to be taken to ensure that research activities are viable and will give the biggest bang for their buck.

Organisational tools to support management decision making include mature research governance systems and research strategies to guide research priorities.

At the individual level, research enabling managers:

  • Understand their clients’/patients’ needs and priorities
  • Understand the commitment needed for the various research endeavours in terms of AHP time and resources
  • Are willing to consider research ideas, partnerships, and translation in the context of their organisation and team priorities
  • Have strong and diverse networks that include researchers, practice change champions, colleagues within and beyond their organisation that they can check in with and bounce ideas off

The things managers can do to make informed decisions about the research activities they support include:

  • Map potential research activities against organisational and/or research strategies, and to team-level priorities and gaps in practice – this ensures research activities are close to practice
  • Have regular discussions (e.g., at team meetings) to proactively identify knowledge and practice gaps so that when opportunities to engage in research arise, they feel more confident in decisions to support these activities
  • Implement processes to support regular and deliberate engagement with clients/patients
  • Communicate with colleagues within and beyond their organisation to get a sense of the broader research context and priorities

2. Managers see research as a means to increasing quality and efficiciency in clinical practice

Arrows pointing in two directions
Research and service delivery are often seen as competing priorities

Research-active health services actually provide better patient care and services and yet, research is often viewed as an activity that detracts from clinical priorities and service delivery. This puts managers in a difficult position where they feel they have to choose between the apparently competing priorities of doing research and delivering clinical services efficiently.

Managers that consistently prioritise service delivery over research may become barriers or blockers to AHP-led research activity and the implementation of evidence-informed practice.

Research enabling managers:

  • Recognise research activity as a key way to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare delivery
  • Make strategic decisions to support research that addresses their patients’ needs and to increase efficiency in service delivery
  • Understand that research that is close to practice can be embedded in clinical practice

3. Managers promote and endorse research

Research enabling manager with a megaphone
Research enabling managers promote and amplify their team members’ research work

Managers are well-positioned to promote and endorse both individual research projects and research more generally in both “vertical” and “horizontal” directions (depending on the organisational structure). Managers that promote and endorse research send strong positive messages to junior healthcare team members. They can also raise the profile of AHP research within the team.

Few managers have marketing degrees and may not have the time to actively promote and endorse research across their organisations – let alone, beyond! Many organisations will have a communications department that is responsible for public relations including social media. This organisation-level enabler can be leveraged by some individual-level manager qualities and enablers:

  • Interest and engagement in the research activity as it progresses (e.g., request for weekly or fortnightly updates)
  • Social media literacy and engagement
  • Engagement with research and clinical networks

The things managers can do to promote and endorse their team’s research activity include:

  • Take opportunities to celebrate and recognise AHP-led research activity within their team, with senior managers, executives, peer managers within and beyond their organization
  • Put research on individual and team meeting agendas so that it becomes core business
  • Use social media to support and promote AHP-led activity
  • Share research activity/findings with research and clinical networks to raise the profile of their team’s research and to increase the uptake into clinical practice

4. Protect and create time for research

Clocks in the sky
Time is finite but research enabling managers we can optimise the way it is used

Time – or lack thereof, is one of the most documented barriers to AHP-led research activity. Managers are positioned to support or veto the allocation of time to research and other non-clinical activities.

Time is finite and so no one can create more of it. That said, managers can:

  • Consider investment of time in research activity as a potential time-saver in the longer-term
  • Be crafty about how they allocate and utilise clinical supervision time, team meeting time, administrative and quality improvement time
  • Be strategic about how time is allocated to research across the team
  • Be open to research partnerships with academic and other organisations to decrease the burden on AHPs to conduct all research activities

The things managers can do to maximise the time allocated for their team’s research activity include:

  • Consider which research activity will give biggest bang for their buck (think about identified knowledge gaps and priorities)
  • Get to know their team members and the relevant skills they bring to research (is someone an Excel spreadsheet wizz? Is someone great with PowerPoint or a wordsmith? Has someone submitted an ethics application before? Does someone have a good handle on statistics?) By understanding where team members’ skills lie, managers can help to optimise the use of research time by team members
  • Allow AHP-researcher team members to take chunks of time at key stages in the research process (e.g., writing the ethics protocol, writing up a manuscript for peer review)
  • Request that AHP-researchers set clear milestones that will be achieved when they dedicate a set amount of time to research so that there is some accountability

5. Managers sign off on research applications

Research enabling manager signing off a research application
Research enabling manager signing off a research application

Research processes are riddled with time-sensitive activities. As a researcher working in a health setting, I know just how it feels to be hanging out for a manager to sign off on a grant that is due in two hours! Or an ethics application to make the cut-off for the next sitting of the committee.

I also see managers’ perspectives and their need to understand what they are signing up for and on when they approve the grant application (what happens if the applicant leaves the organisation, for instance?) or the ethics application (what resources are they committing to the project? Are they accountable for ethical breaches?)

Research enabling managers don’t need to know every detail about the grant and ethics application however they do need to have a sense of what they are signing off on.

Assuming the application relates to a research idea that they are already aware of, rather than delaying the sign-off and leaving the AHP-researcher hanging, they can:

  • Inquire about upcoming research applications deadline in one-to-one or larger team meetings and record these in minutes
  • Request that they receive a week’s notice (or another feasible timeframe) about impending research application deadlines
  • Request that all applications be accompanied by a succinct summary with the details they need to know as the manager (e.g., why the application is being made, who is involved, at what capacity, what other resources are needed)
  • Make themselves available to sign-off the application ahead of the deadline (there is nothing worse than missing a deadline because the dotted line was signed in time)
  • Recognise that sometimes last-minute bids to pull together applications happen – and to try to be supportive and accessible

6. Promote a positive research culture through leadership

Footsteps in the sand
Managers that walk the walk promote and enable research

Managers’ involvement in research activity sends a very powerful message about the value of research from their perspective. Managers are busy people and so adding on research activity to their to-do list might seem a terrible idea. Hear me out though.

Research enabling managers don’t need to lead the research – being a co-investigator on a team member-initiated or another research project is a great option. By being clear about the level of involvement and contribution, workload management is achievable all the while attaining new research skills.

If getting involved in research activity is not feasible, consider:

  • Establishing, supporting, or attending a journal club
  • Reading and appraising research relevant to clinical practice and opening a discussion about your impressions at team meetings or other forums
  • Subscribing to journals to receive articles or tables of contents in your email inbox
  • Arranging a professional development activity related to research
  • Contributing to organisational research initiatives where possible (e.g., inquire about or contribute to research strategy). Taking other opportunities to ensure that the allied health voice can influence research strategy and priorities

7. Managers are aware of the skills and competencies required for research translation

Four people putting together pieces of a puzzle
Managers identify the different and complementary skills required for research translation

Almost all research translation endeavours transcend individuals, disciplines, and teams. Successful and sustained research translation typically involves multiple strategies and requires many different individual skills and competencies. Many of the competencies for research translation are not research-specific skills, but rather relate to:

  • Understanding the nuances of the organisational context
  • Identifying relevant stakeholders/stakeholder groups
  • Practicing effective communication with different stakeholders
  • Leadership
  • Taking a collaborative teamwork approach
  • Establishing and maintaining trust with relevant stakeholders
  • Fostering innovation  

A research translation enabling manager recognises that:

  • No individual team member (or manager, academic, executive, project manager) can enact research translation alone – it is a team effort that must include all relevant stakeholders
  • Research evidence is an important part of the process, but innovation, communication, inclusivity, and promoting sustainability are key to the successful translation of research into practice

Summary

Managers are key enablers of AHP-led research. Managers with PhDs and research experience are at an advantage when it comes to facilitating a positive research culture and environment. There are, however, many non-research-specific skills that managers can bring to their role to promote and support research activity. There are also new skills they can learn and actions they can take to increase research activity and use, and translate research findings into clinical practice.

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