The value of real relationships in research development

Lachlan Smith is Co-Director of Cloud Chamber.

He supports small and specialist institutions to develop their research culture, environment and income through strategy development and one to one research proposal support for academics. Clients include Newman, Leeds Trinity and Harper Adams Universities. He previously worked in research development at the University of Warwick as well as roles in the civil service, local government and economic development consultancy.

Lachlan is currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the School of Business, University of Leicester. He tweets from @HEresearchfund.


Research support professionals are always on the lookout for good practice. I should know, I’m one of them.

A common way to do this is to attend relevant conferences, and one of the largest of these – INORMS – took place in Edinburgh in early June.

Photo from @ARMA_UK's #INORMS2018 Twitterstream | twitter.com/arma_uk/status/927834525173997568

Photo from @ARMA_UK’s #INORMS2018 Twitterstream | twitter.com/arma_uk/status/927834525173997568

INORMS brings together well over one thousand people who work in research management globally. Around half were from the UK with the rest coming from North America, Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe.

These conferences are always an opportunity to catch up with old colleagues, forge new partnerships and projects and find out how the profession is changing and developing across the world.

So, what did I learn over the three days? Well, if I am honest, I don’t feel like I learnt anything particularly new.

It feels wrong to say that but, in reality, things don’t move too quickly in research management (as much as we might like to think they do).

That isn’t to say the conference wasn’t useful. I met some great new people and it highlighted some important issues, crystallising my thoughts in a few areas that I thought might be valuable to share in this post.

Much of the conference focused on the latest news relating to measuring (league tables), metrics (REF or other research excellence exercises) and different ways of capturing data and logging performance (via IT systems and algorithms). There were debates in many of these sessions about the pros and cons of different systems, approaches and measurements, but the balance always came down to preserving the status quo or at least looking to improve the way data is captured, measured or managed. There were not many advocates of scrapping metrics and measurement, or if they were there they were not making their views known! A blog discussing those issues is perhaps best left to another day! What did strike me was that the sessions (at least the ones I attended) that focused on the human and real interactions involved in research development and management tended to have fewer people in attendance. Those looking at impact, measurement, REF and other such topics tended to have full houses. Maybe this wasn’t the case over the conference as a whole, but it was certainly my experience.

What does this tell us? That we have cracked the secret of effective human relationships? That people know the value of one-to-one relationships (the ones that take time to develop, can take two steps forward and one back, but enable researchers to grow and deliver excellent research)? I don’t think so. It felt like that these important drivers of research are seen as less important than what the research management community was clamouring for: the latest way to measure something or to give a monetary value to the research office itself.

In my experience, what works in research development is real and long-term relationships between research development professionals and academic staff.

Professional staff bring a wealth of expertise and knowledge to the relationship and, if given time to flourish, can help a researcher develop short-, medium- and long-term goals that look at the whole research journey and not just the process of applying for individual grants. It is just as important to understand the researcher’s career, aspirations, networks and the discipline itself as it is to know how to craft a research proposal. Writing the proposal is only one (albeit important) part of the jigsaw.

One of the sessions I attended looked at developing research income and infrastructure in universities with low research capacity. The key route for doing this? Well, there were a number of things, but they revolved mainly around face-to-face relationships between research development and academic staff. They ranged from training and writing retreats to mentoring support and having regular contact to develop careers and research plans. Alongside this sat the key infrastructure support structures like internal funding and the ability to record, measure and show progress but I think that, without the former, the latter would be redundant.

I was encouraged that the presentation focused on people and working with them in real relationships. It was also interesting to note that these were strategies coming out of a research-intensive Ugandan institution, perhaps reflecting the fact that good research development and management follows the same principles wherever we’re based in the world.

As we move towards more measurement, metrics, processes and systems, I hope that higher education institutions and research support professionals don’t lose sight of the fact that the key to research development is long-term, supportive and meaningful relationships between themselves and the academics and researchers that they support.

The most successful academics I have worked with are those who I have been able to work with over a number of years, with regular discussions about their research aspirations and research proposals. It is widely recognised now that research development and management roles aren’t simply generic in nature, they are specialist roles.

I believe the key specialism is the ability to build effective and meaningful relationships to foster great research, whether it receives funding or not.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is an academic at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

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