Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Research to practice

Dr. John Laub is the Director of the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the United States Department of Justice.  He hosted a discussion Friday concerning how research is translated into practice.  I represented the practitioners, and was the onion in a petunia patch of academics.  I told the group that in my view, four things must converge for research to be translated into practice.

First, there must be a champion at the agency: one or more people interested in advancing practice, willing to try things, open to change and to new ways of doing things.  While it may help if this catalyst is the chief or a highly-placed placed manager, that isn't absolutely necessary.  Change agents and opinion leaders may be, and often are, rank-and-file, first-line supervisors, and mid-managers.

Second, these agents-of-change must find out about the research findings.  Practitioners and researchers do not swim in the same pond.  You won't find many police chiefs reading the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, or attending the American Society of Criminology conference.  If you want to influence criminal justice practitioners, you better disseminate your findings in a format and venue likely to reach the intended audience.  I rattled of some publications cops are more likely to read, gave a plug for really short summaries of significant findings, and suggested a few conferences where you might actually find practitioners in attendance.

Third, the research better be actionable if it's going to impact practice.  The research has to suggest relatively clear and straightforward actions, changes, or practices that flow from the research results.  When research suggests specific actions or steps, it is far more likely to find favor among practitioners than vague or broad implications that are difficult to operationalize. Researchers should ask themselves this question: "What exactly can I suggest that an agency or individual do, based on the results of this research?"

Finally, the implementation steps that emerge from the research must be practical.  All sorts of impediments to change exist, including internal resistance, conflicting external expectations, financial constraints, political opposition, union contracts, to name but a few.  Understanding the local landscape and the land mines that police managers must tiptoe around can help researchers frame recommendations that are more likely to have a fighting chance of moving from research to practice.

Organizational momentum exerts its own gravity, and liberating practice from its pull can require considerable power.  My sense, however, is that the field of criminal justice is very interested in adopting evidence-based strategies, and that a large plurality of police officers are open to research.  My experience in fire and rescue is short, but thus far I have sensed the same thing: willingness to adapt as new technology, new research, and new knowledge as it emerges.

Here's the best way to get research in front of the practitioners, and to maximize the chance that research results find their way into the field of practice: collaborate with the practitioners on the research.  And I mean really collaborate.  Involve practitioners in framing the research questions, developing the research strategies and methodology, interpreting the results, developing the final products, and disseminating the research to others. True collaboration is a lot more than soliciting a letter of support and getting access to a set of agency data. Rather, it is a partnership.  I've had the opportunity to be a full partner in research (including some underway right now), and it is a far different experience than being a subject of research.


Anonymous said...

Great post. This applies to many research projects, not just ones from the criminal justice field. Thanks.

Steve said...

What is the impetus for this kind of research? I mean, who comes up with the idea to research some specific phenomenom, and what is in it for them? Is it mostly funded by grants? Is it justification for some commercial entity to sell a new product? Is it requested by the practitioners? I would think the motive of the researcher would have a lot to do with the likelihood of a collaborative effort such as that you describe.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog today. It doesn't apply to just Police and Fire departments. I am invested in a company that has several new products that they are trying to bring to market in identifying microbes. They are going through the approval procedures right now by various agencies like the FDA, USDA, EPA both here in the United States and around the World. When I first invested in this company about five years ago they were still in the research phase. Hopefully they will have FDA approval in December. The problems you identified in your Blog about moving from research to actual implementation of a product nailed it. The CEO of this company must read some of the same books you do.

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