The research-practice partnership (RPP) is an innovative, mutualistic approach to producing academically rigorous research that addresses current problems of practice that schools face. This work can be difficult, as it requires setting aside traditional roles and mindsets that have kept the two groups in silos. Enter “boundary crossers” — people or organizations who provide the connective tissue that can bridge these two culturally different institutions.
In this blog post, I share how staff from an intermediary non-profit organization takes on this boundary crosser role to facilitate a successful partnership between a large urban school district and a university’s Graduate School of Education. I identify five key functions that the intermediary staff play: (1) organizing opportunities for consideration of research, (2) priming action items, (3) supporting funding logistics and negotiation, (4) actively advising next steps, and (5) establishing pathways of communication. By making this “invisible” work visible, it can help promote collaboration in established RPPs, and encourage those who are considering starting an RPP to more intentionally take on the role of a boundary crosser.
Setting & Context
As a summer fellow, I worked with a non-profit organization that facilitates a research-practice partnership between a local urban school district and a Graduate School of Education. There are two staff members from this non-profit who serve as the intermediaries between the two educational institutions, overseeing all aspects of the partnership. This includes the creation of a shared data-use agreement, conversations with the school district leaders about their problems of practice, the process of matching researchers and practitioners that are interested in the same issues, and the actual execution of each research project. To better understand what functions the intermediary staff actually play in ensuring the success of the execution of each research project, I qualitatively analyzed a year of Salesforce data logged by the intermediary staff and identified the following five functions to make clear the often “invisible” work of boundary crossers.
1. Organizing opportunities for consideration of research
Intermediary staff periodically invite project partnerships to present on their progress. These presentations are examples of boundary objects, which require both parties to come to the boundaries of their institutions and work on a product together. While many steps in the research process are often executed by only one party, these presentations require researcher and practitioner project leaders to come together to assess how the project is doing and develop a presentation for a larger stakeholder audience. Intermediary staff play an active role in ensuring the final boundary object is a product of joint work.
This can mean being present at work sessions and ensuring both parties are creating content and providing feedback, or it could mean explicitly delegating tasks to one party that would require them to gain the perspective of the other. For example, in a presentation for practitioners who want to implement the findings of a research project, researchers may be asked to work on a section of the presentation covering the motivations and implications of research. This intentional delegation would require researchers to have explicit conversations with practitioners about why practitioners want more research on this particular topic, how the research topic actually plays out in practice, and how the findings of this study will be used in practice. Contributing to these boundary objects had strengthened team dynamics and built up momentum to move the project further. The presentations also allow for knowledge dissemination and an opportunity for those outside the research team to provide feedback before further analysis.
2. Priming Action Items
RPPs are challenging to maintain because they require investment of both time and mental capacity, which researchers and practitioners are often not rewarded for in their positions within the traditional institutional structure. As a result, boundary crossers can alleviate the workload and accelerate RPP processes by starting the action items that come out of a meeting in preparation for researchers and practitioners to eventually take ownership, what I call “priming action items.” In this RPP, intermediary staff facilitate meetings with project partners, identify “next step” action items, and get started on these tasks based on the contents of the meeting. Then, they pass the draft item (e.g. research proposal, funding application, presentation, or write-up) onto the researcher or practitioner who ultimately takes ownership of it, and more generally, the project. This action alleviates the workload by minimizing the duplication of work and encourages project partners to finish the action item.
3. Supporting funding logistics and negotiation
Funding is a sensitive, complicated subject, particularly when it involves two institutions sharing funding that usually one institution obtained. In this partnership, the tension is assuaged and the process streamlined through the support of intermediary staff. Intermediary staff are particularly effective at achieving this because they are perceived as a neutral player.
The intermediary staff have expertise on the bureaucracy surrounding funding processes within both institutions, and thus become a source of knowledge for the fund-seeker, which can be either institution, but is usually the school district. For example, in one project, a researcher was wondering if there was a compensation process for teachers participating in professional development as part of a research project. The intermediary staff was able to inform the researcher about what was reasonable and acceptable to request and how they can engage the district in this fund-seeking process. Conversations with intermediary staff provide a safe space for the fund-seeker to ask risky questions before approaching the fund-granting institution. In the funding negotiation process, the intermediary staff are trusted as an advocate that seeks to uplift the interests of both institutions. Staff also support this process by actually taking on some of the paperwork.
4. Actively advising next steps
Intermediary staff often go beyond a supporting role, using their expertise to offer advice on next steps for moving projects forward and bringing up questions for the project team to consider.
Though intermediary staff do not actively steer projects, they are able to provide guidance based on their expertise, particularly when it comes to partnership work. Intermediary staff can bring up options to the project team that they did not know they had, particularly in regards to the institution to which they do not belong. For example, intermediary staff may encourage project teams to speak with staff who sit at the top of the organization hierarchy, which team members may not have considered an option otherwise because speaking with these organizational leaders is not within their usual communication streams. This is particularly helpful for projects that engage multiple school district departments. Having an assistant superintendent who oversees all departments involved be in communication with the project team proved to be a helpful piece of advice suggested by the intermediary staff that successfully streamlined collaborative work across departments that usually do not engage with each other. Furthermore, while researchers and practitioners are most interested in achieving practical outcomes that would benefit their institution (e.g. research that can be published or research that will be useful for practice), intermediary staff emphasize process-based outcomes, such as reflecting on how the process of jointly conceptualizing, implementing, and evaluating a project has built capacity for both practitioners and researchers.
5. Establishing (informal and formal) pathways of communication
At its core, the role of a boundary crosser in a RPP is to link two institutions so that they can work together to produce more generalizable and useful research. Specifically, boundary crossers create new communication streams and encourage groups to utilize them. Intermediary staff embrace this boundary crossing role by intentionally alternating between workspaces at the district office and at the university’s School of Education to promote informal interactions such as a short check-in about a project when project partner walks by. More formally, this also looks like actively setting up meetings for project teams when communication is perceived to be low, even explicitly mapping out communication pathways when necessary.
These five key functions of intermediary staff in this RPP demonstrate some practical ways boundary crossers can encourage joint work at the boundary of institutions whose traditional structures would not promote boundary crossing. By making this “invisible” work visible, it can help promote collaboration in established RPPs, and encourage those who are considering starting an RPP the role of a boundary crosser.
Guest blogger Ray Chen was a summer fellow at a non-profit organization that supported a research-practice partnership between a local urban school district and a Graduate School of Education. He is specifically interested in exploring how academia can be leveraged to build equitable and sustainable communities and is excited to see more research-practice partnerships grow and develop across the nation.