Dear Kate: “How do I protect our fledgling ResearchOps practice from scope creep?”

January 12, 2022

#ResearchOperationsAdvice from Kate Towsey. Have a question for Kate? Ask via this form.


Research Operations Advice

Theo Bridge, Senior Manager, Design Research at ANZ: “Our business understands the value of establishing a ResearchOps practice. But how do I help our business align on where we should start, prioritize our efforts and protect it from scope creep?”


Kate Towsey ResearchOps

Kate Towsey: This is a very good and big question, and the answer depends a lot on your specific context but I can share some concepts and examples that may help you with framing your scope practically and realistically.

What most stakeholders really want to know is: Yes, yes, but what will the impact be and why is this important? Researchers work with a lot of personal identifiable information (PII) and, in my experience, showing that you want to do the right thing by customer or participant data is an excellent way to get stakeholder buy-in. Also, look for the biggest research inefficiency – often participant recruitment which is resource hungry, but also doing too much research, low quality or ill-focused research and, therefore, spending recruitment resource and research time wastefully. Once you’ve identified this inefficiency, articulate it to your stakeholders along with strategies and proposals for how Research leadership working with Operations will help in smoothing those out and, in effect, deliver more bang for the buck.

Talking about scope: In my experience, and depending on the size of your ResearchOps team, one person can only make a significant impact on one to two ResearchOperations elements – an ‘element’ being, participant recruitment, data governance, or vendor management etc. See the ResearchOps Framework for an overview of all the elements. 

In communicating with your stakeholders, be sure to communicate all the moving parts involved in delivering on an element. ResearchOps can deliver huge efficiencies, but it’s a lot more work than initially meets the eye. To get the most out of it, when you start out, you need to approach set up right.

Almost every ResearchOps element is linked to every other ResearchOps element. As in, if you’re talking about participant recruitment, you’ll also be talking about data governance – How do we look after participants data? – and vendors, tooling and your internal finances, legal, privacy and procurement teams – What vendors will we partner with? Where do we store participants data, such as a video, so that it’s useful to a researcher but also security compliant? – and knowledge management – Do we need to recruit these people for this project, or has this research already been done? After all, recruitment is resource hungry, so you want to make sure you’re aligning recruitment resources to the most impactful research opportunities in your organization.

As you can see, if you’re wanting to ‘fix recruitment’ and frame that as fixing all the parts that involve a research participant’s experience, you’ll need to look at how you deliver your service to your ‘customer’, your researchers and people who do research (PWDRs), how you take and store consent before the interview, how to manage your contact strategy so that you don’t over (or even under) contact and maintain participant diversity, how you deliver on your promise of thank you gifts, and how you store your participants data to honor consent. That’s a view of your own Ops framework with research recruitment at the hub, and everything else ‘spoking’ out from there. You can run a similar exercise with other needs in your organization, say qualitative research: tooling, communication strategy, contact strategy, consenting, data governance, knowledge management etc.

That may sound very overwhelming, and you may be feeling more than ever: Ah, where do I start?! There’s no hiding from it, ResearchOps can be as big a job as you can manage, but there are ways of starting small and being impactful. The question is: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!

So here’s the biggest tip I can give you: Don’t start by offering your researchers and PWDRs a service. Start by building infrastructure and offering training and guidelines so that they can more easily serve themselves. In almost every case, it will take one person one year to get the basic infrastructure in for a ResearchOps element. Research your researchers, start with the easy wins and build up from there.

Doing this for participant recruitment, for instance, might start with procuring a range of recruitment vendors for various needs (different geographic locations, A11Y, and specialisms) and making sure they’re always funded so that researchers can simply reach out to them when they need. Setting up office hours so that researchers can get advice from Ops on which vendor might be best for their research project. Getting self-service recruitment tools, like User Interview and Respondent (and/or Askable in Australia) procured and researchers on board so that they’ve got easy self-serve access to participants. Produce guidelines for when and how to use procured vendors and how to recruit participants via your company’s web-assets or internal customer databases. And last but not least, make sure your guidance and consent forms are in line not only with your organization’s legal and privacy regulations but also with the ethics your research team want to stand up to in engaging with research participants.

When you’ve got those basics in place, you could look at the bigger ticket items: making sure all the tooling you use for engaging with participants and holding their data is set up so that it’s as secure as possible, this might include setting up an A/V library and producing governance guidelines, and then building an internal panel or research community (something that takes long-term management), and so on.

I run a one-day workshop and offer consulting on just this question, and as you can see, there’s a lot to talk about.