Commitment issues: Part 1
Knowledge translation (KT) is a relatively young discipline with huge potential for helping to move research evidence from academic journals into the hands of those who can implement it in practice, policy and further research. However, it is an extremely diverse process that can be fraught with challenges.
The KT Encounters video series dissects some of these challenges in interviews with leading KT experts and practitioners. Now, Chris McBride, executive director of Spinal Cord Injury BC, shares his perspectives on how researchers can successfully partner with community organizations. Next week in part two, Dr. Heather Gainforth will share the researcher’s perspective.
Commitment issues: How to get my organization to say yes to an integrated KT project
It usually starts with an unsolicited email like this:
Subject line: "Request for assistance with research study"
Please see the information below [a paragraph describing the study].
To recruit participants for this study we are reaching out to organizations working with the SCI population. Our hope is to reach participants through an email sent by SCI organizations to their respective members. We are also happy to have our invitation for participation in your newsletter to reach the maximum number of participants irrespective of Internet access. Interested organizations can contact [research coordinator] for further information. I believe results of this study will be useful for participants as well as for the organizations to initiate work towards improving the health status of the SCI population.
Please let [research coordinator] know if you are available to assist with this project.
Thank you in advance for your support.
Sound familiar? As the executive director of a disability-sector community service organization, I receive a lot of these types of requests from researchers to help with their knowledge translation (KT) projects — three to four requests per month is pretty average.
I say no to almost all of them.
Much like an unsuccessful blind date, a bad first impression is often accompanied by a list of turnoffs that prevents the relationship from developing further. Common turnoffs include:
False assumptions – Researchers, understandably passionate about their work and ideas, too often assume I will be eager to help because the study is going to be of great interest and benefit to my organization and its members. While often of academic interest, the studies are rarely as interesting or valuable to my organization and members as the researcher thinks they will be.
Expecting something for nothing – Researchers usually assume I will be more than willing to dedicate human resources and infrastructure to help with their project needs for free. I rarely am. Like most nonprofits, Spinal Cord Injury BC can't afford to be a cheap date.
One-sided engagement – When the balance of power is almost entirely held by the researcher and the scope offered for my participation is too trivial, I'm out. With no ability for my organization to help shape the project, its methods and findings are less likely to be relevant and the overall project is more likely fail.
Tokenism – This is where the role of the community organization is diminished to the point of triviality, such as merely being a passive conduit for recruitment notices or a newsletter story about a research project. It often arises because researchers need to check off the "community partnership" and "knowledge translation plan" requirements of most granting agencies these days. When all that is sought is a rubber stamp of approval or a checkbox tick, it demeans the value of the organization.
I'm not unsympathetic to the researchers' plights. Having spent 25 years in the world of spinal cord injury research — from doing the research, to managing research centres and networks, and chairing funding programs — I know all too well that community engagement and participant recruitment can be the most rate-limiting step in conducting human-based research, and that developing research and KT partnerships with community organizations takes a lot of time and energy.
I get it. But I'm in a different role now and unless researchers understand how to successfully partner with community organizations, they are not going to find the help they need from my organization.
Fortunately, some researchers do get it and to some of them, I do say yes. These are the ones who really understand the concept of integrated knowledge translation (iKT), a research approach that engages research users as equal partners alongside researchers throughout the entire research process, resulting in research that is applicable, useful, and translatable to end-users (I learned this definition from one of my favourite research partners, Dr. Heather Gainforth, who you will hear more from in a follow up blog post).
When it comes to committing to a research-community organization partnership, what alters the balance in getting me from no to yes? Keep these six tips in mind:
Arrive early and get to know me and my organization – As with any successful relationship, time spent getting things right upfront will pay off in the long term. The most successful research-community partnerships happen when engagement starts at the planning stage of a research project, preferably before grants are written. Unfortunately, most requests I receive to "partner" with researchers come way too late — like five days before a grant deadline, or worse, when project plans have been funded and ethics approvals have been granted. Basically, the researcher is coming to the table with a 'take it or leave it offer'. In these cases, with little or no opportunity to ensure tips two to six are employed, the response is usually 'leave it'.
Listen carefully – Early engagement allows iKT partners to share what the important questions about the general area of interest are, what is most relevant, and what is feasible. By listening carefully to the community organization, researchers can develop a menu of valuable options for specific research questions that are of direct interest to the organization and its members, and by listening carefully to the researchers, community partners can co-develop research plans that can achieve success through feasible design and shared motivation.
Speak the same language – Academics and community organizations often use different languages to describe the same things, so specific attention paid to ensuring all partners are using a common lexicon is vital to the success of iKT partnerships. In one example of a successful research partnership involving my organization and researchers from many disciplines we had to step back early in the project development process and spend half a day coming to agreement on common definitions for the different types of peer support roles my staff and volunteers provide — what is a peer mentor versus peer coordinator versus peer volunteer, etc. Getting the language right at the onset was a crucial step in the development of protocols for the study. I should add that it’s not a matter of academic partners "dumbing" things down: community organization staff members are smart people, they often just use different words to describe things.
Be relevant – This is where early engagement, listening and using the right language really pay off. Taking time upfront to understand what the community organization does and what its (and/or its members') priorities are will help ensure the research questions and approach align with the organization's vision and mission, how the project can align with and/or enhance operational capacity, and, ultimately, how enhanced outcomes through services provided might be realized.
Bring value – As with any partnership, all parties must understand the value proposition relating to their investment in the partnership. I run a nonprofit, which means I run a business and, like most businesses, we can't afford to do things for free. This doesn't always mean you need to bring your wallet: iKT projects can bring value in many ways, like increasing staff competencies, enhancing the outcomes and impact of our services, supporting operational sustainability, or providing direct and tangible benefits to those who engage in our organization's services. But don’t get me wrong, money helps, too, and there are many ways grant budgets can be crafted to support an organization's involvement.
Be respectful – Sounds trite, I know, but respecting and valuing the unique strengths each partner brings to the partnership and the challenges and barriers they face in doing so is essential for the success of the project, as is ensuring co-responsibility for project development and decision-making. When combined with the other tips, it is the antidote to tokenism.
Yes feels good
Despite saying no to the vast majority of requests to help researchers with the studies, I am pleased to say that we are starting to say yes more often. Some enlightened academics really get iKT and how to successfully partner with community organizations. Some research centres do as well (e.g. Spinal Cord Injury BC enjoys a mutually beneficial partnership with ICORD that directly supports research participation by people with SCI). Commitment doesn't come easily or from a decision taken lightly, but when done right, it is an absolutely rewarding and pleasurable experience that benefits all involved.
A case in point is SCI BC's partnership with Dr. Heather Gainforth at UBC Okanagan. In part two of this series, Heather will share her approach to engaging community partners in iKT projects.
Watch: Chris McBride's KT Encounters videos
Read: Commitment issues part 2, Dr. Heather Gainforth
Chris McBride, PhD
Executive Director, Spinal Cord Injury BC
Since 2010, Chris has served as the executive director of Spinal Cord Injury BC, where he brings a passion for making a difference for people with disabilities and their families. He also brings 25 years of experience as a researcher and research-community network builder. Chris' past roles include managing director of UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health's ICORD research centre, managing director of the Rick Hansen Institute, and co-leader of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research-funded Disabilities Health Research Network. Presently, he is on the executive of the SSHRC-funded Canadian Disability Participation Project and chairs Spinal Cord Injury Canada's Executive Director's Council.
Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.