Successful implementation demands a great liaison person: Nine tips on making it work

Community member post by Abby Haynes on behalf of CIPHER (Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research)

cipher-group
CIPHER Sub-group (Participants)

When external providers deliver a complex program in an organisation, it is crucial that someone from that organisation—a liaison person—gives ‘insider’ advice and acts as a link between their organisation and the program providers. What are the characteristics to look for in filling that role? And how can liaison people best be supported?

Here we describe what we learnt about the pivotal role of liaison people during the implementation of SPIRIT (Supporting health with Research: an Intervention Trial). SPIRIT was a novel multi-component trial designed to increase individual and organisational capacity to use research in policymaking. Six Sydney-based health policy organisations took part – each nominating a member of their staff to coordinate the implementation of SPIRIT in their organisation. These liaison people turned out to be far more than administrators – they had a profound impact not only on how the program was implemented, but on perceptions, engagement and participation across their organisations.

We provide nine tips for identifying and supporting liaison people.

1. Champions: The liaison person must believe that the program is worthwhile

The ideal liaison person is:

  • a champion: someone who genuinely believes in the program and advocates for it energetically
  • an opinion leader: someone with informal organisational influence
  • a boundary spanner: someone well-connected in their workplace who can also communicate effectively with the program providers.

We found that where liaison people held an indifferent or negative view of the program they unintentionally undermined it, while those who were enthusiastic amplified others’ enthusiasm. So genuine support for the program is more important than influence or connections.

2. Credibility: The liaison person should be an authentic advocate for the program

Colleagues judged the suitability and effectiveness of their liaison person in terms of how well they modelled and espoused research-informed policymaking. This suggests that for a liaison person to be a credible champion they must be perceived as someone who believes in what they are saying and knows what they are talking about.

3. Connections: The liaison person should have sound cross-organisational knowledge and networks

The program was more creatively tailored and integrated, and better attuned to each organisation’s professional development expectations, when their liaison person consulted with colleagues and advised the program providers. Liaison people’s ability to act as intermediaries required them to have (or be able to rapidly acquire) knowledge about multiple aspects of their organisation. Broad connections across the organisation ensured that their championing efforts were not restricted to local contexts, but it was their nuanced understanding of diverse organisational needs and perspectives that enabled them to represent and respond to their colleagues so effectively.

4. Social skills: The liaison person should have good interpersonal and communication skills

The quality of connections was as important as the quantity for supporting organisational understanding and engagement. Our most effective liaison people were persuasive, approachable and well-liked: people are more inclined to do things for people they like. Adaptability and project management skills were also vital.

5. Support: Organisational leaders need to visibly back the liaison person as well as the program

Strong, visible support from managers assured liaison people that their efforts – even when they verged on ‘nagging’ – were seen as reasonable and warranted. Colleagues confirmed that evident support from above increased the liaison person’s authority and demonstrated they were acting on behalf of management.

6. Incentives: If possible, the liaison person role should be incentivised within the organisation

Liaison people were more enthusiastic about the implementation when they benefited professionally from the role. This included building tasks into performance indicators and increased organisational status or exposure. But incentives should not pressure liaison people to coerce participation.

7. Clear expectations: Organisations need clear upfront guidance about the liaison person role

The liaison people in our study had strikingly different perceptions of their role (eg., as event organisers, project managers, collaborators, connectors, translators and integrators). Liaison people and their managers needed to see the role as skilled facilitation rather than merely administration, and to understand its key attributes, responsibilities, support needs and likely time commitments. The program providers must describe these clearly and realistically.

8. Flexibility: The liaison role can be interpreted by each organisation

Providing it does not compromise implementation fidelity, it may help to take a flexible approach to the liaison role, so that core objectives and tasks are specified but the strategies for achieving them are developed locally. For example, organisations might prefer to divide the role between two members of staff: one taking responsibility for administration and another for creative and strategic decisions.

9. Collaboration: The program providers should work with the liaison person in planning and problem-solving

Where liaison people shared insider knowledge, harnessed local communication channels and made suggestions for increasing the benefits of the program, activities were assessed by the program providers and participants as more attractive and useful. This suggests that working with liaison people as program development partners, rather than as conduits, could increase our ability to develop fit-for-purpose programs that respond sensitively to local conditions.

In conclusion, we found that the liaison person can ‘make or break’ a program. Does this resonate with your experience?

To find out more:
Haynes, A., Butow, P., Brennan, S., Williamson, A., Redman, S., Carter, S., Gallego, G. and Rudge, S. (2016). The pivotal position of ‘liaison people’: Facilitating a research utilisation intervention in policy agencies. Evidence and Policy. Open access online (DOI): 10.1332/174426416X14817284217163

The CIPHER Investigators. (2014). Supporting policy in health with research: An intervention trial (SPIRIT) – protocol for a stepped wedge trial. BMJ Open, 4. Online (DOI): 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005293

Participants: This blog post was written by Abby Haynes on behalf of CIPHER (Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research). Members of CIPHER involved in the research on ‘liaison people’ were: Abby Haynes (Sax Institute and University of Sydney), Sally Redman (Sax Institute), Anna Williamson (Sax Institute), Sue Brennan (Australasian Cochrane Centre, Monash University), Gisselle Gallego (University of Notre Dame), Stacy Carter (University of Sydney), Sian Rudge (Sax Institute) and Phyllis Butow (University of Sydney).

cipher-group
Photo (L-R): Anna Williamson, Sally Redman, Sian Rudge and Abby Haynes. Missing CIPHER Sub-group members: Sue Brennan, Gisselle Gallego, Stacy Carter and Phyllis Butow.

2 thoughts on “Successful implementation demands a great liaison person: Nine tips on making it work

  1. Thanks for these insights. They make perfect sense for implementation based on ‘traditional’ research, undertaken at arms length from the organization. But would this kind of role still be necessary if it was action research (or operational research or systems thinking), where those doing the implementation are actually part of the research process, developing the recommendations for implementation themselves, with facilitated support from the researchers? I reckon even the most traditional forms of research can be reconstructed so that decision makers are intimately involved in forming the research questions and working out recommendations for action.

    Of course, making this sort of change will not eliminate the need for liaison staff in many organizations, because not every ‘end user’ (I hate that term!) can be involved in every relevant piece of research, so there will still be a need for some ‘translation into action’ for those finding out about it after the event. However, do you agree that changing the way research is undertaken in the first place will at least make the jobs of these liaison personnel easier, as the research will already have been crafted with some sort of relevance in mind?

    • Thanks Gerald. Yes, I agree – if the trial requirements allowed it, a more participant-driven model of research design and implementation would not only make the job of the liaison person easier, it could reconfigure the role altogether. After all, there is no need to form a bridge between two groups if those groups are already working well together, but this can be hard to achieve in a multi-site trial. As you suggest, there would be less emphasis on translating and marketing the intervention to potential participants, and greater emphasis on facilitating dialogue about organisational needs and how best to address them. Zimmerman et al. 2013 sum this up well in their paper on the difference between ‘buy-in’ and ‘ownership’. Although we don’t see our trial as traditional—it was a hybrid— its goal of increasing the use of research in policy work did depend on a degree of buy-in, and this shaped the liaison person role. However, we also offered the participating agencies opportunities for collaboration that they were unable to take up – they wanted it in principle, but could not find the time within the hurly burly of their work. Collaborative research and implementation is productive, but also demanding.

      Zimmerman B, Reason P, Rykert L, et al. (2013) Front-line ownership: generating a cure mindset for patient safety. Healthcare Papers 13: 6.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s