Researchers In Professional Practice: Models Of Working In Firms
In 2010, a survey was distributed among researchers and practitioners who were involved with healthcare research projects, identified through Researchers in Professional Practice (RIPP). The goal of the survey was to identify barriers to research, as perceived differently by researchers and practitioners. The outcomes of this survey indicate that practitioners struggle with the research process, while researchers are mainly concerned with the existing practice model that sets limitations for research activities.
Practitioners’ lack of research expertise is usually solvable by partnering with researchers. Consequently, top barriers for research in practice will remain as those expressed by researchers. Labor hours, limited time, lack of billing strategies, and shortage of client support are all issues mentioned by researchers that need to be addressed by revisiting the existing practice model at least at the point it impacts research activities. (See Table 1.)
Research Method and Population
The survey described here took place in 2012, as a follow-up to this previous research. The 2012 survey questions addressed three main categories:
1. Practicality of research: integration of research into the design process
2. Communication of research findings: methods of dissemination, broadcasting outlets
3. Research support: sources of research funding, research supporting the business,
Initial contacts were made with healthcare architecture firms that had representatives in AIA Healthcare Design Summit and members of RIPP. The survey was distributed via e-mail to 49 representatives; 24 representatives responded (50 percent response rate). Among the respondents, 22 percent worked in offices with 1-49 people; another 22 percent worked in offices with 50 to 149 people, 30 percent worked in offices with 150 to 299 people, and 26 percent worked in architecture offices with 300 or more people. Only 5 percent of the offices had fewer than 50 staff members. Fifty percent of the respondents reported that they had at least one staff member dedicated to research in their office. Among those with research staff, 66 percent had only one person dedicated to research, 17 percent had between two and four dedicated research staffers, and another 17 percent had 5 or more people involved with research.
Practicality of research
A variety of activities, ranging from conducting Internet searches to writing scholarly research proposals, compose office researchers’ agendas. Research staff had degrees ranging from BAs to professional degrees to doctoral degrees. It was noted that most firms who hired PhD researchers had a maximum of three researchers, and 50 percent of the firms had only one PhD researcher. In comparison, firms who worked with researchers with B.A. or professional degrees had four or more researchers.
Researchers mostly collaborated with outside researchers (70 percent), educators (58 percent), or facility managers (33 percent). Their collaboration with clinicians (5 percent), vendors (5 percent), and peers (5 percent) was minimal. Research staff mostly met with clients in support of firm marketing (66 percent) or to discuss POEs (80 percent). They were less likely to meet with clients to make design decisions (53 percent) or as project leaders (5 percent).
Research staff involvement with the design process included informing design teams about evidence-based design (EBD) guidelines and latest research findings. Sixty-six percent worked with project managers to coordinate the post-occupancy evaluation execution. Research staff were mostly involved with design in the strategic planning or schematic design phases of the design process rather than design development or construction phase. (See Table 2.)
Researchers mostly collaborated with their architect or designer colleagues (93 percent) rather than marketing staff (40 percent), project managers (40 percent), or office managers (33 percent). They received assistance from support staff only 13 percent of the time.
Results of the survey indicated that most firms used a wide variety of broadcasting outlets to disseminate their in-house research findings. Firms published their research through blogs, magazines, marketing booklets, peer reviewed journals almost equally. However, only a few firms reported that they published in conference proceedings. (See Table 3.)
Eighty-seven percent of offices used firm overhead to cover costs of research partially or completely. In other cases, research funding was provided by clients (40 percent) or external research grants (40 percent). Only 5 percent of firms had research and development programs in place to fund research activities. (See Table 4.)
Discussion & Conclusion
Results of the study demonstrated that a wide range of activities, levels of expertise, and time and budget dedication can be observed across the firms. This variety suggests that each firm responds to its specific research needs differently, considering their available resources. While the flexibility and diversity provides opportunity for exploring the role of research in practice, it also suggests introducing a benchmark and framework for various research activities--ranging from literature search, literature review, post-occupancy evaluations, or simulation studies--to ensure substantiality of the research executed and its suitable incorporation into the design process.
The findings also brought into the light alternative roles of the researchers in practice. It was noted that while researchers are involved with the design process, their strongest presence is in marketing and research, indicating that research is mostly used for business development rather than informing design decisions. Achieving a higher standard of design is a direct outcome of research-informed design and can ultimately promote business development. Limiting involvement of researchers to the marketing sector may lead to short-term gain; however, a sustained development can be achieved only through enhancement of design and design process, calling for involvement of researchers in the design process rather than marketing.
The need for establishing a sustainable business model for research in practice is evident. Most firms are reliant on company overhead for funding their research efforts. While an initial investment is a sound decision to get a new research program started, the growth, development, and sustainability of the program is dependent on establishing a concrete business model. Most firms try to adopt research business models adopted by research organizations and universities, which may not be realistic considering the firm’s resources and position in the research community. Other firms may adopt the same approaches to fund research projects as they use to fund design projects. This approach may also compromise opportunities to pursue research questions that arise, usually unexpectedly, during the design process and need prompt dedication of time and resources.
During the past decades several architectural firms have implemented in-house research programs. While research seems to be an integral part of the future of practice, it is timely to open the discussion regarding the sustainability and practicality of these programs.
Samira Pasha, PhD, EDAC, LEED Green Associate, works in healthcare research and design for Perkins+Will (Washington, D.C.). She can be reached at email@example.com. Mardelle M. Shepley is a professor of architecture and the director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University.She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org