By Abby Haynes on behalf of CIPHER (Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research)
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
To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:
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).
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.
6 thoughts on “Successful implementation demands a great liaison person: Nine tips on making it work”
Michael Grinder has written on Managing Group Dynamics. He describes some very interesting group “roles” that all leaders need to be aware of to ensure successful communication and change: “liaisons” and “barometers”.
Liaisons make great leaders because they are seen by some team mates as being committed to, and motivated by, productivity. Literally, a liaison has membership in multiple subgroups and can explain to one subgroup the values and perceptions of another subgroup. Because these leaders reflect the culture of a group, leaders that are liaisons have a wide range of behaviours, styles and values that are appropriate for many situations.
Barometers are the sentinels of any group. They are like rose at the end of the row of grapes – the early indicators of disease or pests. They are the people who indicate the health of the group. If you think about a group you belong to who are the 2 or 3 barometers in the group? If a leader is proactively checking in with them, and discovers that they are not OK, then they should check in with the whole group. Maybe acknowledge that “What we are doing might be…difficult…confusing…but that we will sort it out.”. Maybe it is time to implement plan B…..
Successful change requires us to recognize and utilize leaders (Liaisons) and barometers in a group. They help us pace change and get a lead on resistance in any group.
This is all pretty basic stuff – but hugely important – often overlooked by well-intended interventionists.
Michael Grinder makes explaining this to others very easy.
Thank you for this comment. I agree that we often fail to understand and respond effectively to the views of people who are receiving an intervention. Even when organisational or community leaders are involved in the design and implementation of an intervention we tend to overlook the diversity of groups, including how the interests of people at the ‘front line’ might legitimately be quite different to those of their leaders. Barometers (opinion reflectors rather than opinion leaders?) would indeed be useful. In our study, the liaison people certainly functioned as barometers for us – there was a surprising level of agreement between their views and the slower-to-emerge views of their colleagues. However we don’t know to what extent barometers contributed to the development of liaison people’s views. Worth exploring next time around.
Yes, I think the best liaison people are ‘magnetised brokers’. They are not only liked as individuals but also attractive because they are perceived as possessing knowledge, expertise and connections that are valuable to potential collaborators. This means that their role is made that much more effective because as well as seeking they are seeked out. Criminals networks have relied on this for years. We can learn from them.
‘Magnetised brokers’ – what a great term! I need to do more reading on how their characteristics differ from opinion leaders and, in the field of politics, from policy entrepreneurs. But, being sought out as ‘someone in the know’ would certainly increase influence.
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.