Cali Nguyen is an Education Coordinator in the Office of Education and Instructional Services (OEIS) at the UCSF School of Pharmacy. She conducted this research in her previous role as an Education and Youth Development Fellow for California Education Partners.
Research-practice partnerships (RPPs)—long-term, mutualistic collaborations that produce useful, rigorous research in response to issues of practice—offer a nuanced approach to addressing complex issues in education.
However, lasting, productive partnerships don’t form instantaneously—they take time, effort, and resources. In the first or “establishing” phase, partnership members make efforts to establish relationships, build trust, and develop a workflow. Once established, a partnership can deepen in the second or “innovating” phase, by implementing new strategies, developing new knowledge, and possibly expanding in personnel. In the third phase, the RPP’s developed practices, structures, and policies can become institutionalized within partnership organizations.
“Intermediary staff” or “intermediaries” play an important role in supporting the development and progress of all phases of partnerships by actively connecting the work of researchers and practitioners. They do so by engaging in five key functions: (1) organizing opportunities to consider research; (2) priming action items; (3) supporting funding logistics; (4) advising on next steps; and (5) establishing pathways of communication. The role of intermediaries may be taken on by members of the partnership, who serve as “boundary crossers,” or by individuals and organizations specifically hired to assist in managing the partnership. In both cases, intermediary staff can play a pivotal role in the productivity of RPPs.
Here, I share the actions that intermediary staff frequently took to connect researchers and practitioners and advance joint work in two RPPs. The RPPs discussed here were collaborations between a university and local school districts. Each RPP was in a different phase of their partnership’s life cycle: one was in the “establishing” phase, and the other in the “innovating” phase. The actions of the RPPs were documented in two years of meeting notes and email communication.
How Intermediaries Took Actions to Advance Their Partnerships Across Phases
Intermediary staff may take a variety of specific actions to fulfill each of the key functions named above. In both the “establishing” and “innovating” phases of their partnership’s work, intermediaries were most frequently seen advising next steps, facilitating meetings, and passing on information. Through each of these critical actions, intermediaries promoted connections between researchers and practitioners that furthered their ability to share analyses and preliminary findings on their specific areas of research.
Action One: Advising Next Steps
In advising next steps, intermediary staff provided researchers and practitioners guidance on establishing a timeline and workflow for their projects, while taking into consideration the specific context of the research question and available resources. In suggesting deadlines and providing feedback with actionable items, intermediaries were able to assist RPPs in co-creating sets of expectations regarding their work processes and products, mitigating communication obstacles that may hinder co-development of research.
Action Two: Facilitating Meetings
In facilitating meetings, intermediary staff set agendas for meetings between researchers and practitioners, as well as asked critical questions and introduced key concepts at strategic points in the project. By carefully crafting these dialogues, intermediaries were able to project the different voices of the individuals present and promote the co-development of research questions and projects.
Action Three: Passing on Information
In passing on information, intermediaries channeled information to individuals or teams that would find it most beneficial. By providing examples of previous articles of work or highlighting opportunities for RPPs to promote their research through an education-related journal or poster presentation, intermediary staff constructed avenues of support and opportunity, while simultaneously promoting a culture of sharing information.
How Facilitating Meetings was a Key Factor in the “Establishing” Phase
These three actions—advising next steps, facilitating meetings, and passing on information—were key elements of both the “establishing” and “innovating” phases of the two partnerships. However, for the partnership in an earlier stage of development, the intermediary staff spent far more time facilitating meetings—almost double the amount of time spent by the staff in the more established partnership.
The frequency of facilitating meetings as an action taken by intermediary staff may suggest that, in starting a RPP, a significant amount of energy and time must be put into organizing those initial and follow-up meetings among partners. Members in an RPP may be approaching the situation from a variety of perspectives and with a wide range of experiences. Thus, an extended number of meetings may be needed to provide context and establish a research project that is rooted in the needs, values, and missions of a community.
RPPs also carry a greater level of formality than previously seen in collaborations in education. As a result, these meetings may also serve as the primary space for members of a partnership to build these characteristic modes of formalized communication and coordination.
How Intermediaries Can Support Different Phases of RPP Work
Identifying the specific actions taken by intermediaries can help those working in partnerships understand the key roles that intermediary staff can play as they bring together researchers and practitioners throughout the different phases of RPPs.
As RPPs continue to grow and progress into new phases of development, it is important to continue documenting and analyzing the work of intermediaries. For smaller partnerships that do not have dedicated intermediary staff, this documentation and analysis may be particularly useful as it acts as a guide for managing partnership work.
Ultimately, clarifying the roles that intermediaries play in RPPs and identifying the types of support needed by RPPs in order to produce successful, co-developed research projects with useful, actionable findings is beneficial for all those involved in advancing the work of RPPs.