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)

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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).

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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.

Six actions to mobilise knowledge in complex systems

Community member post by Bev J. Holmes and Allan Best

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Bev J. Holmes (biography)

What are the practical implications of mobilising knowledge in complex systems? How can the rules, regulations, incentives and long-entrenched power structures of a system be changed so that knowledge mobilisation is maximized?

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Allan Best (biography)

We propose six interdependent actions, briefly described below, undertaken at two levels, by those who: (1) are managing specific knowledge mobilization initiatives (initiative managers), and (2) are in a position to make the environment more receptive to change (key influencers). These people may not necessarily be involved in specific initiatives. Continue reading

Complexity, diversity, modelling, power, trust, unknowns… Who is this blog for?

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

This is the first annual “state of the blog” review.

This is a blog for researchers who:

  • want better concepts and methods for understanding and acting on complex real-world problems – problems like refugee crises, global climate change, and inequality.
  • are intrigued by the messiness of how components of a problem interact, how context can be all-important and how power can stymie or facilitate action.
  • understand that complex problems do not have perfect solutions; instead that “best possible” or “least worst” solutions are more realistic aims.
  • enjoy wrangling with unknowns to better manage, or even head-off, unintended adverse consequences and unpleasant surprises.
  • are keen to look across the boundaries of their own expertise to see what concepts and methods are on offer from those with different academic backgrounds grappling with other kinds of problems.
  • want to join forces to build a community which freely shares concepts and methods for dealing with complex problems, so that these become a stronger part of the mainstream of academic research and education.

November saw this blog’s first anniversary and this 100th blog post reviews what we are aiming for and how we are tracking. Continue reading

Material resources for transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Chris Riedy

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Chris Riedy (biography)

What materials are needed to support the conduct of transdisciplinary research?

Transdisciplinary research is a bundle of interwoven social practices taking different forms in different contexts. As highlighted in one prominent version of social practice theory (Shove et al., 2012: 14), social practice has three elements:

  • Materials – ‘including things, technologies, tangible physical entities, and the stuff of which objects are made’
  • Competences – ‘which encompasses skill, know-how and technique’
  • Meanings – ‘in which we include symbolic meanings, ideas and aspirations’.

Continue reading

The ‘methods section’ in research publications on complex problems – Purpose

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Do we need a protocol for documenting how research tackling complex social and environmental problems was undertaken?

Usually when I read descriptions of research addressing a problem such as poverty reduction or obesity prevention or mitigation of the environmental impact of a particular development, I find myself frustrated by the lack of information about what was actually done. Some processes may be dealt with in detail, but others are glossed over or ignored completely.

For example, often such research brings together insights from a range of disciplines, but details may be scant on why and how those disciplines were selected, whether and how they interacted and how their contributions to understanding the problem were combined. I am often left wondering about whose job it was to do the synthesis and how they did it: did they use specific methods and were these up to the task? And I am curious about how the researchers assessed their efforts at the end of the project: did they miss a key discipline? would a different perspective from one of the disciplines included have been more useful? did they know what to do with all the information generated? Continue reading

Eight institutional practices to support interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Margaret Palmer, Jonathan Kramer, James Boyd, and David Hawthorne

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Margaret Palmer (biography)

How can institutions help enhance interdisciplinary team success? We share eight practices we have developed at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) which was launched in 2011 with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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Jonathan Kramer (biography)

The center supports newly formed research teams from anywhere in the world to work collaboratively at its facility. The teams synthesize existing theories and data to advance understanding of socio-environmental systems and the ability to solve environmental problems. Continue reading