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Research for changing practice


An important use of research is to assist with the management of change and innovation in agencies. Essentially innovations, changes in practice and new forms of service delivery are solutions to problems. Research may provide evidence for the need for change as well as the providing direction on how and what to change.

In organisations there can be resistance to change, particularly when change seems to be about 'change for change's sake'. Much so called resistance to change can be understood as different constructs about:

  • the definition of the problem
  • the chosen solution; and
  • the way that change is managed

The introduction of "solutions" to people who do not perceive themselves as having a problem will not unreasonably be seen as an imposition, or at least an inconvenient interruption in their work.

A solution that is not seen as related to the problem as the people involved define it themselves is likely to be seen as an irrelevance.

To ask people to adopt a solution without their being able to see how it will solve the problem requires trust in the innovation and/or the innovator.

If you go along with these statements they lead to the need to ask a series of basic questions - questions that you will return to again and again as time passes and you continue to manage the process of change. You will review these questions throughout you innovation journey because it is likely to become apparent that more people are involved in change than you first anticipated, and new initiatives and other change will influence events and people. In many ways these questions may be research questions in themselves or be questions that are asked in the design stage of a piece of research. The questions are:

Who sees what as a problem?
What is the evidence that it is indeed a problem?
Who sees what as a solution?
What evidence is there that it is an effective solution?

Many difficult, persistent problems are perpetuated because some people get benefits by maintaining the status quo. It is others who suffer from the unintended consequences so it is often not difficult to find motivation to change amongst this group.

Identify 'The Problem'

  1. For whom is the status quo a problem;
  2. Who wants change and for what reasons;
  3. How do the service users or customers see the problem?

The relationship between stability and change is of the utmost importance in the management of the process.

Changing more than needs to be changed multiplies loss and the probability of unintended consequences.

Beware those
who rip up the lawn
to turn the garden
over to grass

A problem solving process

Framing innovation as a problem solving process has the following consequences:

  1. It is unhelpful to focus on the innovation alone and judge success only in terms of the adoption or application of the innovation. It is dangerous if the innovation becomes a cause in its own right. 'Success' is not the adoption of an 'innovation'. Success lies in finding effective solutions to our problems
  2. It encourages you to focus on the purpose of change. Keeping it tightly defined helps to avoid changing more than necessary
  3. It helps you to recognise that negotiation over 'what needs to change and how' is a better starting point than selling a definition of the problem and a pre-chosen solution.

When seen as solutions to problems, innovations can be:

  • A better solution, an improvement on existing practices or equipment;
  • A new solution to an old problem;
  • A new solution to a new problem;
  • A solution to an old problem that does not have so many harmful, unintended consequences as other solutions

Innovations are often some combination of all these different descriptions.

Who sees what as a solution?

Not everybody will see the status quo as a problem. Indeed some will see the innovation as 'a problem'. This is more likely if an innovation is introduced ahead of a consensus about the nature of "the problem".

Charles Handy's first injunction to managers introducing change providers a reminder of the potential role of research in supporting change. He says:

Create an awareness of the need for change. Preferably not by
argument or rationale but by exposure to objective fact.

Research can provide this objectivity for those seeking to introduce change. The change-minded manager or practitioners is a research-minded manager or practitioner.

Resistance to change

You should not assume, or expect, however, that good research evidence will be enough to produce change. Innovations are adopted by people because they are adoptable, not necessarily because they are effective in the terms that they were meant to be by their inventors.

Drawing of a Keyboard

Under your fingers (probably) is the QWERTY keyboard - an obsolete invention. Research evidence shows that the Dvorak key board is far superior -- but it has not been widely adopted.


Social work and social care, along with health are full of methods of practice that have never been appropriately researched, let alone proved to be successful.

So research evidence may play only a small part in the decisions that people make about practice in almost all fields.

Somewhat paradoxically the research minded practitioner, manager, or policy maker should take notice of the research that says that research plays only a small part in the process of spreading new forms of practice!

The research suggests that they won't take any notice of this research either! You, however, using this programme are using research to inform you practice and management of change


Innovations are often seen as one kind of solution for some groups of individuals and have another purpose for others.

For example for some people the innovation of opening community based accommodation for mental health patients and closing large mental hospitals was a professional solution to the side effects of institutionalisation.

It represented the resolution of a human rights issue for those who advocated 'normalisation' in living arrangements. It was a cost saving exercise for others.

For some at the heart of these processes they represented a massive, unnecessary disruption - and were not seen as solutions at all.

This diagram summarises the introduction of new forms of practice. The different overlapping levels of activity are represented by interlocking triangles (the triangle being a symbol of change).

Diagram that summarises the introduction of new forms of practice

To pursue the question of innovation further read Mapping Change and Innovation (Smale 1996) from which this diagram is taken. Alternatively you may find the Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship website helpful.

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