SPOTLIGHT: THE ROLE OF BROKERS IN RESEARCH-PRACTICE PARTNERSHIPS

With Carrie Conaway, Erin O’Hara, and Jessica Vasan

As we continue to study how research-practice partnerships (RPPs) work, partnerships and leaders in the field are increasingly thinking about the “who” of RPPs. Going beyond the basic ‘researcher’ and ‘practitioner’ role, many have begun to ask, are there other, more specific roles that are essential to the success of RPPs? What are these roles and what functions do they serve? Across conversations in NNERPP, as well as within the overall RPP field, one critical role within RPPs that has emerged is that of ‘brokers.’ Also called knowledge brokers, intermediaries, or boundary spanners, brokers sit squarely between the research and practice or policy worlds, navigating the cultures, languages, and conditions faced by each in service of the partnership. In this edition of the Spotlight, we take a closer look at this important role.

Our learning on brokers began last summer, when we gathered a room full of self-identified brokers during one of the sessions at our annual conference last July to discuss the skills, requirements, challenges and opportunities associated with this role — and it was a lively discussion that could have gone on much longer. In the spirit of keeping the party going, we asked three of the brokers who were in that room last summer–and who all three are part of RPPs in NNERPP–to help us reflect more deeply on what makes a broker and why brokers matter in RPPs for this edition of the Spotlight. Please join us below to read more about key insights from Carrie Conaway, Chief Research and Strategy Officer at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Erin O’Hara, Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, and Jessica Vasan, Research Manager at the Houston Independent School District on their experiences serving as brokers.

What are the key skills needed to be a broker?

Our three brokers agree that the role is all about facilitating the interactions and connections between and across researchers and practitioners (and everyone else involved) in the partnership. Examples include “building agreement, resolving conflicts, finding the middle ground,” as Carrie describes, and “[setting] expectations for both researchers and practitioners,” in Jessica’s words. It takes, simply put, “people skills” to do this well, Erin observes.

Erin additionally notes the importance of having political knowledge of how things work for either partner and what might become an issue and why. A broker can then work to prevent these issues from coming up in the first place. The goal of a broker, really, is to “[move] fluidly between ‘we’ the researchers and ‘we’ the practitioners,” Carrie states, drawing from the group discussion during the brokers session at the NNERPP Annual Forum. If that sounds hard, that’s because it is. Two specific skills brokers need to be able to fill that role emerged in our brokers’ reflections: communication skills and organization skills.

All three brokers named communication skills — “relentless” communication skills, even — as absolutely critical to the role. Says Erin: “This is about the ability to listen really well to what researchers and practitioners are both saying, and what they aren’t saying, and then to help each to understand the other’s perspective.” And sometimes this can be even more challenging when brokers need to deliver difficult feedback, as Carrie notes, or when negotiations around differing timelines come up, according to Erin.  

Being able to communicate these aspects of the work also necessitate strong organization skills, or project management skills, as Jessica puts it. Erin agrees: “Keeping track of lots of different research work, project elements, and findings is complex. There are lots of moving parts.” Brokers must therefore be able to organize and follow through. Similarly, Carrie names the creation of organizational routines as a critical skill needed to be a broker.

Implicit in all of this is the role of trust and relationships, Erin and Jessica point out. In essence, a broker is “someone who can be trusted by all partners to be honest, to represent the best interests of each of the players in the partnership and the partnership more broadly,” Erin explains.

How critical is the role of the broker in your partnership? Why?

In short: very critical. As Erin puts it, brokers are “critical to the health of the partnership.” In fact, Erin says that her partnership actually has several brokers, some housed at the state education agency, some housed at the university, and some working directly at the partnership level.

In thinking about the effectiveness or impact of a broker, Jessica points out that this can depend on how much time he or she gets to spend on the RPP’s projects. For her, being able to spend close to 100% of her time on the actual studies the partnership is working on allows Jessica to be completely plugged in and therefore able to “accelerate project timelines and move projects forward … more quickly [and] more strategically.” She further shares that in her role as Research Manager, although she sits in the district’s research department, her salary is handled by the RPP itself, which is an intentional effort on the part of the partnership to create a formal brokering capacity.

Reflecting on the essential role of brokers, Carrie observes: “For every RPP I participate in, I can think of at least one moment where a project or relationship would likely have fallen apart had it not been for a broker stepping in. If that’s not a critical role, I don’t know what is.”

As a broker, what do you see as the most challenging part of your job?

Interestingly, Carrie, Erin, and Jessica each highlight different challenges when asked about the most difficult part of being a broker, though each challenge they name reflects the facilitative nature of the role, and the difficulties associated with it.

When it comes to district leaders, Jessica finds it most challenging to help them see the partnership as a “top-notch, free, local academic resource that helps us ask and answer the right questions” rather than an additional hassle. Leadership turnover at the district further complicates this, as Jessica has to work to build the appreciation for RPP work all over again. She also notes facilitating the sharing of research findings that are not favorable toward a district program as another challenge. With university researchers, on the other hand, Jessica’s greatest challenge is helping them understand the context and “very real challenges” of schools that can prevent school and district staff from prioritizing the partnership’s research projects.

Erin identifies representing the best interests of the RPP as a whole, rather than the best interest of any one partner, as her most challenging part of the job. “The people and players [in the partnership] may change, but the [partnership’s] goal of high-quality research influencing policy and practice to help improve education for students and educators will not change,” she explains. Placing this long-term goal and the health of the partnership above any one person’s interests or any issue that may arise “isn’t always easy in the moment” but critical to a broker’s role.

Carrie, in turn, points out another important balancing act brokers must pay attention to: That of investing enough of themselves to help get projects off the ground, without the partnership becoming so dependent on the specific brokers that it would collapse without them.

What recommendations do you have for someone wishing to become a broker?

First: Learn. Our brokers emphasized that in order to “navigate the messy space between the research and practice/policy communities” (in Carrie’s words), brokers must learn the “language and priorities” (Carrie) and “understand the perspectives” (Erin) of everyone involved in the partnership. Though brokers won’t know everything about research and practice as they start out and will have to spend time learning and listening, Erin also recommends that brokers figure out the “unique perspective and benefit” they already bring to the partnership from the start and use that to establish themselves as trusted partners. Similarly, Jessica reiterates the importance of relationship building and adds that brokers’ efforts should always point towards the common goal those from all ‘sides’ are working towards.

Second, Carrie and Erin recommend to “find friends” that do the same work — by joining NNERPP, for instance — who can help guide you, share lessons learned and common pitfalls, and learn together with you.

Finally, Jessica and Carrie agree that “early wins” are important to start off partnership work on the right foot. Two pieces of advice for what leads to an early win include picking a topic that is relatively less political and one that all partners can work on together fairly easily. Playing a long game pays off, says Carrie, as early wins pave the way for strong relationships and future projects: “While change is incremental and therefore hard to observe in the moment,” she says, “you can and will look back five or ten years later and see a big difference.”

 

Carrie Conaway is Chief Research and Strategy Officer at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Erin O’Hara is Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance; and Jessica Vasan is Research Manager at the Houston Independent School District.

NNERPP | EXTRA is a quarterly magazine produced by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships  |  nnerpp.rice.edu