Embedding researchers in service organisations: what do initiatives look like and how can they be cultivated?

Dr Vicky Ward

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy articles ‘Embedding researchers into organisations: a study of the features of embedded research initiatives‘ and ‘A framework to support the design and cultivation of embedded research initiatives‘.

Embedding researchers in service organisations is the latest in a long line of approaches to better link the worlds of research and practice. Embedded researchers have become particularly popular in the field of healthcare, but can also be found in education and local government. As with any new initiative, one of the big questions on people’s minds is ‘does it work’? The problem, though, is that until now we haven’t had a clear picture of what ‘it’ (i.e. embedded research) is and how those interested in the approach might design an initiative.

To address this, our research team (a diverse group including researchers and healthcare managers) set out to better understand what embedded research initiatives look like in practice and produce a practical framework for anyone involved in designing or cultivating an initiative.

What did we do?

We reviewed a range of literature on embedded research from different fields and settings. With the help of Twitter and our networks we identified and gathered documents on 45 embedded research initiatives in health settings across the UK and interviewed people from 12 of those. We analysed our data to identify the key features of initiatives. We then held a day-long co-production workshop with people involved in embedded research initiatives to adapt and visualise the features we had identified.

What did we find?

Embedded research initiatives come in a range of different shapes and sizes and many of them change over time. This means that there is no single model of embedded research. Instead, there are ten common features across initiatives that concern the underlying intent of the initiative, the structure of the initiative and the processes and activities carried out within the initiative. The ten features we uncovered were:

  • the intended outcomes or benefits of the initiative (intended outcomes)
  • the power dynamics that surround the initiative (power dynamics)
  • the scale or size of the initiative (scale)
  • who will be involved in the initiative and how they will be involved (involvement)
  • how close or otherwise embedded researchers will be to the settings they are working in (proximity)
  • how embedded researchers will be supported to belong to the worlds of research and practice (belonging)
  • the specific activities that embedded researchers will undertake within the initiative (functional activities)
  • the range of skills and expertise that an embedded researcher will need to fulfil the intended outcomes of the initiative (researcher skills and expertise)
  • the role that embedded researchers will play (relational role)
  • the mechanisms that will be used for monitoring and learning about the initiative (learning and reflection)

A framework for designing and cultivating an embedded research initiative

Our research enabled us to form a much better understanding of the various features at play within an embedded research initiative and the choices that face anyone wanting to design an initiative. Our framework consists of a visual representation of the ten choices (features) and a series of questions to help those involved in an initiative to reflect on their choices. The visual representation uses the metaphor of a garden to represent the growing, emergent nature of embedded research initiatives and the work which needs to go into planning and maintaining initiatives (see the image at the top of this blog). An interactive version of this visualisation that includes further information about each feature can be found on our website.

Acknowledgement: This blog post is based on work was supported by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Health Services & Delivery Research (HS&DR) programme under grant number 16/52/21. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

Vicky Ward is Reader in Management at the University of St Andrews. Her work focuses on how people share and use knowledge and how they can be better supported to make use of research and other forms of knowledge. She is Co-Director of the Research Unit for Research Utilisation and leads the UK Knowledge Mobilisation Forum.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Ward, V. Tooman, T. Reid, B. Davies, H. and Marshall, M. (2021). Embedding researchers into organisations: a study of the features of embedded research initiatives. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16165177580453. [Open Access]

Ward, V. Tooman, T. Reid, B. Davies, H. O’ Brien, B. Mear, L. and Marshall, M. (2021). A framework to support the design and cultivation of embedded research initiatives. Evidence & Policy, DOI:10.1332/174426421X16165177707227. [Open Access]

Image credit: Embedded research design framework Illustration by Chris Redford. Used with permission.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Knowledge brokers or relationship brokers? The role of an embedded knowledge mobilisation team

Collective knowledge brokering: the model and impact of an embedded team

Reflections on the Researcher-in-Residence model co-producing knowledge for action in an Integrated Care Organisation: a mixed methods case study using an impact survey and field notes

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