DARLENE F. RUSS-EFT, PHD, is Professor and Discipline Liaison of Adult Education and Higher Education in the College of Education at Oregon State University.
CATHERINE M. SLEEZER, PHD, works with Employee Training and Performance Improvement Specialists to consult on human resources.
GREGORY SAMPSON, PHD, is an educational researcher with a wide variety of professional experiences. He has worked on the design and execution of numerous high-stakes grants and contracts, as well as taught at several universities.
LAURA LEVITON, PHD, is Senior Advisor for Evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey.
Everyone who conducts applied social research, including both novice and experienced researchers, can greatly benefit from a coherent and practical discussion of management issues. Some management principles seem basic, or common sense. Yet it is surprising how often such principles get overlooked, even in the most sophisticated studies. Indeed, overlooking them in a complex, large-scale study can reverberate through planning and organization, producing tragic flaws in the methods and the findings. The novice needs the basics, but the expert might benefit from going back to basics, perhaps picking up additional expertise in the management of applied studies.
Researchers from many disciplines conduct applied social science research studies, in areas such as education, psychology, sociology, health and human services, political science, human resource development, and evaluation. These studies can be viewed as projects, which when successfully managed, "produce desired results in the established time frames with assigned resources" (Portney, 2013, p. 9).
The goal of this book is to improve the management of applied social research studies (we will drop "science" for brevity). These studies require more attention to management because they focus on the social issues that transpire in real-world environments. Such environments are often ambiguous, chaotic, and messy, in contrast to the environments for some studies in the basic sciences that are conducted within controlled labs. Therefore, researchers who conduct applied social research studies must integrate their knowledge of a study's "real world" environment with a range of other information and then manage the multifaceted activities that follow. This information includes
- Knowledge specific to the relevant social science disciplines (e.g., education, sociology, psychology, evaluation)
- In-depth knowledge of the problem area being studied (e.g., absenteeism, homelessness, career progression)
- Research design principles (e.g., experiment, quasi-experiment, ethnography, case study)
- The selected data-collection method(s) (e.g., survey, individual interview, film)
- The selected data-analysis method(s) (e.g., rhetorical analysis, content analysis, statistical modeling)
- Resources (e.g., study participants, materials, equipment)
- The timeline(s) for the study
- The decisions that reflect ethics, epistemology, and ontology*
- The expectations for the study held by stakeholders (e.g., study participants) and decision makers (e.g., sponsors, research advisor)
This list highlights the diversity of information, decisions, and relationships that a researcher who conducts an applied social research study must actively manage throughout the life cycle of the study. Novice researchers often discover that there are too many things to think about and manage effectively. Experienced researchers may also feel the pinch of too many things to manage. Interestingly, both novice and experienced social researchers use the terms research study and research project interchangeably to describe their work. However, the literature contains little information on how to systematically manage applied social research studies as projects.
Project management can provide a framework (a road map, if you will) and the tools for guiding a research study from start to finish in a way that produces efficiency, inclusion of the people who have a stake in the project, cost savings, timeliness, and ingenuity. The framework and tools can decrease the pinch on researchers of too many things to manage at any one time. Using an organized, systematic process to plan, execute, and carry out their research work means that researchers know when in the process to address each important issue instead of simultaneously ruminating on such factors as what the budget should be, who should participate in the study, who should be on the research team, how many computers are needed, and so forth. Simply stated, systematically managing applied social research studies as projects reduces the cognitive load for researchers, makes their work easier and, as we argue in the Postscript, is likely to improve the quality, ethical conduct, and usefulness of the final product.
We believe strongly in the quality and usefulness of many applied social research studies, and do not want to leave the reader with any other impression. Instead, we are setting out to correct what we believe to be a major reason that some studies do not live up to the standards for quality. Although we could find many textbooks that describe research design, data collection techniques, and data analysis practices, we could find no textbooks that focus on how to manage applied social research studies as projects.
The authors believe there are five possible reasons for the dearth of coherent writing on the management of applied social research. First, most applied social researchers, even those passionately committed to pursuing high-quality studies, tell us they were never trained to cope with research management issues. Research management responsibilities are rarely discussed in graduate courses or at social science research conferences. Yet the quality of research management frequently makes the difference between an applied study of dubious validity and one in which professionals in the field can place their confidence.
Second is the proprietary knowledge of such large contract research firms as the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the Urban Institute, MDRC, RAND, Mathematica, and HumRRO. These firms have little incentive to share their knowledge with potential competitors outside their own staff. However, as will be seen in later chapters, bits and pieces of this knowledge have been shared over time, and they are well worth sharing.
Third, most university faculty and most researchers consider research management to be a tangential part of research design. Certainly, for small studies, this may be the case. But for larger, more complex studies involving multiple sites or multiple researchers, research management can make or break the project. Even with small studies, good research management practices can make the difference between the projects that are enjoyable to work on and those that frustrate, require extra resources, and produce questionable results.
Fourth, social scientists often believe research management to be a matter of common sense. Our experience would suggest that much more know-how is involved. In research, as in all else, expertise is specific, and it is developed over a long period of time. Experts in research design or data analysis often find that they are novices when confronted with research management tasks. They must either acquire the expertise or hire it, and it is difficult to acquire all these skills at once while managing a complex project. Our advice, therefore, is to hire the expertise where it is feasible, either as employees or consultants. However, there is a prior issue of recognizing needs for expertise. Because they supervise staff, researchers require someone to optimize human resource management. Because they must manage crucial relationships with the communities and organizations that they study, researchers require someone with negotiation, relationship management, and political skills. When dealing with subcontractors and suppliers, researchers require someone with the skills of a small business owner.
Simultaneously, researchers must adhere to the research design, monitor the quality of data, satisfy stakeholders with interim results, implement database management and statistical analysis, contend with ethics review from institutional review boards and compliance with such regulations as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), oversee financial matters, organize reports, and negotiate for resources and services. Furthermore, given an increased interest in public participation, the communication and dissemination of research findings and implications have become critically important. These are only a few examples of the many management tasks that are required when conducting an applied social research study. Research managers in large contract research organizations may have the resources to differentiate among the specialized roles that are required to successfully conduct an applied social research study. For example, some organizations rely on research managers who are responsible for specified activities, such as budgeting, acquiring resources, scheduling, and so forth. However, most researchers will find themselves in the same position as small business owners-they must perform all management tasks themselves or with one or two staff members. That is certainly true for doctoral students undertaking dissertation research.
The fifth reason is that learning how to manage applied social research is difficult. Some of us, as researchers, gained our expertise by conducting many research studies and learning from mistakes about what to do and what not to do when working on future studies. We gleaned useful ideas, tips, and resources from the vast literature for business management, project management, social science, research methods, and evaluation. Because only small pieces of information from each of these fields pertain to managing applied social research studies, finding the relevant information has required both persistence and discernment.
Solving the Problem
In this book you will find
- A coherent and comprehensive framework for managing...