How can expertise in research integration and implementation help tackle complex problems?

By Gabriele Bammer

author - gabriele bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What is expertise in research integration and implementation? What is its role in helping tackle complex societal and environmental problems, especially those dimensions that define complexity?

Expertise in research integration and implementation

Addressing complex societal and environmental problems requires specific expertise over and above that contributed by existing disciplines, but there is little formal recognition of what that expertise is or reward for contributing it to a research team’s efforts. In brief, such expertise includes the ability to:

  • identify relevant disciplinary and stakeholder inputs
  • effectively integrate them for a more comprehensive understanding of the problem
  • support more effective actions to ameliorate the problem.

I discuss these in more detail in a previous blog post on recognising interdisciplinary expertise.

The focus of this blog post, drawn from Bammer and colleagues (2020), is the expertise in research integration and implementation required to deal with five key dimensions of complexity:

  1. Delimiting the problem
  2. Managing contested problem definitions
  3. Managing critical, unresolvable unknowns
  4. Managing real-world constraints on ameliorating the problem
  5. Appreciating and accommodating the partial and temporary nature of solutions.

It is helpful to see expertise in research integration and implementation as having the following components, building on work by Collins and Evans (2007) and Gobet (2015):

  • contributory expertise, which is the expertise required to make a substantive contribution to a field, divided into:
    • knowing-that
    • knowing-how.
  • interactional expertise, which is the ability to understand disciplines, professional practice and community experience without being trained in those disciplines or professions or having lived in those communities.

Such expertise can be explicit or tacit.

Specific expertise in research integration and implementation for tackling five elements of complexity

1. Delimiting the problem

Know-that expertise is required to understand that complex real-world problems have no natural boundaries and that problems have many disparate causes, which are tangled and not easily apparent or readily inferred.

Know-that expertise also includes understanding that:

  • addressing a single aspect of the problem causes changes in other aspects and may lead to the emergence of new issues
  • the problem and the system in which it is embedded evolve
  • from both a research and an action perspective, everything cannot be dealt with, so artificial but necessary boundaries must be set.

Know-how and interactional expertise are then required to draw out (from disciplinary and stakeholder subject matter experts) what the relevant interconnections are, what issues may emerge, what changes are likely, as well as to help set effective boundaries around the problem.

2. Managing contested problem definitions

Know-that expertise is required to appreciate that the various parties involved in a complex societal or environmental problem have different ideas about the ‘real’ problem and its causes. Know-that expertise entails understanding that definitional challenges are intrinsic to any complex problem and can only be effectively dealt with by understanding the history of conflict around the problem and its impact on the ability of groups with different perspectives to trust, listen to, and engage with each other.

Know-how expertise, in turn, is needed to interact with different perspectives, to manage conflicts among them, to provide an understanding of how different perspectives may affect how research and action proceed, and to decide how the problem will be framed.

3. Managing critical, unresolvable unknowns

Appreciating that it is not possible to know everything about a complex real-world problem is another dimension of know-that expertise:

  • not everything that could be known will be investigated, because there is not enough research capacity, funding or interest to address every conceivable, and potentially important, question.
  • some critical issues cannot be researched effectively.
  • interpretations of available information often conflict.

Know-how expertise is then required to identify and chart a way of managing unknowns, so that they do not lead to adverse unintended consequences or nasty surprises.

4. Managing real-world constraints on ameliorating the problem

Know-that expertise is required to appreciate that:

  • ideological, cultural, political, economic and other circumstances constrain how any complex real-world problem can be tackled, and also limit the influence of research-based evidence
  • options for moving forward are often hampered by current ways of managing the problem and may change the distribution of benefits and losses amongst the parties involved
  • effectively addressing the problem often requires action across multiple poorly connected organisations
  • the multi-faceted circumstances in which a problem is embedded can make it resistant to change
  • those involved in dealing with the problem are likely to disagree about which constraints are open to modification.

Know-how expertise, for its part, is required to find openings for doing things differently and to overcome resistance to change.

5. Appreciating and accommodating the partial and temporary nature of solutions

Know-that expertise is required to understand that no effort to tackle a complex real-world problem can take all aspects of complexity into account and that any way of moving forward will:

  • cause changes in interconnected problems
  • sacrifice a way of seeing the problem that some stakeholders want to preserve or even hold as non-negotiable
  • open the door to adverse unintended consequences
  • miss some real-world constraints.

It also requires appreciation that the search is for best-possible or least-worst, rather than definitive, solutions.

Know-how expertise is required to identify and address these limitations to understanding and action.

Concluding remarks

Do these ideas about expertise in research integration and implementation resonate with you? Do you have examples to share of how such expertise has been employed in practice? How do you think such expertise could be recognised and rewarded?

To find out more:
Bammer, G., O’Rourke, M., O’Connell, D., Neuhauser, L., Midgley, G., Klein, J.T., Grigg, N.J., Gadlin, H., Elsum, I.R., Bursztyn, M., Fulton, E.A., Pohl, C., Smithson, M., Vilsmaier, U., Bergmann, M., Jaeger, J., Merkx, F., Vienni Baptista, B., Burgman, M.A., Walker, D.H., Young, J., Bradbury, H., Crawford, L., Haryanto, B., Pachanee, C., Polk, M. and Richardson, G.P. (2020). Expertise in research integration and implementation for tackling complex problems: when is it needed, where can it be found and how can it be strengthened? Palgrave Communications: 6, 5. (Online) (DOI):  https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0380-0 or https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-019-0380-0

References:
Collins, H. and Evans, R. (2007). Rethinking expertise. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, United States of America.

Gobet, F .(2015). Understanding expertise: A multidisciplinary approach. Palgrave: London, United Kingdom

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is also a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change.

Gabriele Bammer is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

4 thoughts on “How can expertise in research integration and implementation help tackle complex problems?”

  1. I really like the distinction between know-that and know-how. I sometimes think we (those of us in research related to complex problems) expect too much know-how and/or try to teach too much know-how, when sometimes knowing-that is enough. An example: I just provided a commentary on a nice paper by Haynes et al about the Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, subject being interviews with policy-makers on how they engaged with systems thinking (the centre’s methodological approach to prevention research). What it suggested to me – more than suggested, as the message was loud and clear! – was that policy-makers know-that problems are complex, and, per above, that addressing a single aspect of the problem causes changes in other aspects and may lead to the emergence of new issues, and that the problem and the system in which it is embedded evolve. But they don’t have to (or in many cases want to) understand the details of, or become experts in, systems thinking in order to contribute to solutions. Indeed, many of them appear to be put off by what they consider esoteric, rarefied bodies of knowledge such as systems thinking.

    Another thing in my mind lately is conflict, which is referred to above. We often read about the need to manage it, or to make it go away. I’m quite interested in the potential of benefitting from conflict, maximizing it, using it productively to come up with richer and more promising solutions to problems. Of course I have no idea how to do that, but would love to hear from others who do!

    Thanks as always for these great blog posts.
    The paper I refer to above by Haynes et al is here: http://www.ijhpm.com/article_3687.html

    Reply
    • Thanks for this idea and example. It shows that expertise in organising and managing a hackathon needs to be included as research integration and implementation know-that and know-how.

      Part of what we’re trying to do with the blog and also the i2S website (http://i2s.anu.edu.au) is to provide a way of gathering, evaluating and improving all the great ideas and methods that are “out there.” There’s currently nowhere to go to get easy access to the full range of expertise that research integration and implementation requires.

      Reply

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