Making the most of practitioners doing research

Practitioners undertake a considerable amount of research, in fact Mitchell and colleagues estimate that ‘Practitioner research in social work probably occupies a major part of the total volume of research activity in this field’ (Mitchell et al, 2010: 8).

There is evidence to suggest that practitioner research can be a valuable approach for strengthening the use of research not just for the individual practitioner undertaking research but potentially for the organisation and perhaps even the sector in which they are based.  These benefits vary depending on the support available for the practitioner and how the research endeavour in structured; which can for instance involve support being provided by other practitioners, academics or research colleagues based in-house or in external organisations.   Some of the benefits of practitioner research for the practitioner and their organisation can include:

  • Delivers research of direct relevance to practice concerns
  • Improves research capacity of individual practitioners and organisations
  • Strengthens the active role of the practitioner in the research process
  • Brings the worlds of policy, practice and research closer together
  • Helps an organisation develop the capacity for critical inquiry and a “learning orientation”
  • Supports the desire for and the use of research done by “outsiders”
  • Reduces the distance knowledge has to travel from research to practice
  • Provides a starting point for further research-practice collaboration

(Armstrong and Alsop, 2010; Roper, 2002; Anderson and Jones, 2000: 430)

However, across social services and health we are are not necessarily maximising the impact of research undertaken by practitioners for several reasons, including:

1) practitioner researchers often lack professional support and training related to the use and application of research methods and theory.

2) practitioners struggle to access existing evidence related to their work, thus potentially affecting the quality of what they are able to produce.

3) practitioners engaged in conducting research into their own team, service or organisation do not usually have the time or capacity to disseminate their research findings or to support its use in other services or organisations.

Along with colleagues at Edinburgh University (Heather Wilkinson and Catherine-Rose Stocks-Rankin) at IRISS we’ve devised and supported a practitioner research programme, known as PROP (practitioner research:older people).  PROP focused on research about older people in an attempt to respond to some of the challenges outlined above – for further information see PROP involved practitioners undertaking small scale research projects, supported by research and knowledge exchange training, a research mentor, opportunities to engage with their peers (other practitioners undertaking research), support for disseminating materials (from a graphic designer and the project team) and a project fellow to talk to for support and advice. The PROP project has been incredibly well received, though the contribution analysis report currently being finalised will provide us with evidence of the impact of the project and the reasons for this.

We’re currently writing up some of the learning and reflections from this programme and are exploring how to build on this work. Our reflections are at an early stage and at the moment are more like questions than reflections, but include:

1) Research centric: We started from the idea that the lack of research use was a problem in improving support for older people.  Would this have been the key problem identified if we’d collectively devised our focus between practititioners, researchers, policy makers and older people themselves?  And did this focus encourage an unequal environment for exchange, with one group of collaborators bringing to the endeavour specific knowledge about research?

2) Peer support: Practitioners identified that they particularly valued and benefited from regular contact with their peers, and that they learnt a lot about other health and social care roles and organisaitons. One of the research projects we supported was conducted by two practitioners based across two organisations so we wonder could this type of approach further maximise the learning across sectors and organisaitons?


3) Skills based: Our approach focused on developing research skills and was less concerned with encouraging personal and organisational inquiry and reflection.  Would there be value in also exploring what a reflective, inquiring practitioner looks like and what behaviours and attitudes support this?

Any views or observations on this would be very welcome and we will share our more refined reflections and contribution analysis report once they are finalised on – watch this space…!


Anderson, G. and Jones, F (2000) Knowledge Generation in Educational Administration From the Inside Out: The Promise and Perils of Site-Based, Administrator Research in Educational Administration Quarterly (Vol. 36, No. 3 (August 2000) 428-464

Armstrong, F. and Alsop, A. (2010) ‘Debate: co-production can contribute to research impact in the social sciences’, Public Money & Management, 30 (4): 208-10

Mitchell, F., Lunt, N. and Shaw, I. (2010) Practitioner research in social work: A knowledge review. Evidence and Policy, 6 (1): 7 -31

Roper, L. (2002) ‘Achieving successful academic-practitioner research collaborations’, Development in Practice, 12 (3-4): 338-345

Practitioner researchers in training….

Today was the first practitioner research training event as part of this project.  It was also the first time I had met the practitioners who will be undertaking research projects about older people over the next few months.

This then really represents the start of a journey, or the beginning of the next step perhaps (given its taken us over a year to even get here!).

At the event today everyone was asked to choose an image which best represented what research meant to them.  Here are the images everyone chose, and as people explained their thinking I was amazed by the perceptions and level of knowledge in the group.

Which one would you choose?

What does research mean to you?


Practitioner research resources – call for assistance

We are in the process of compiling a collection of resources on the topic of practitioners who undertake research (particularly focused on social service practitioners).

We are interested in resources, for example, which:

  • map out who practitioners undertaking research are and what research they do
  • explore how practitioners can be supported to undertake research
  • describe practitioners experiences of undertaking research
  • are examples of research undertaken by practitioners

The collection will shortly be made available for all to access on the Learning Exchange.

Please post here if you have any suggestions or contact