For the last seven years I’ve been working at Grupo FARO, an Ecuadorian Think tank based in Quito, first as a researcher in public finances, then coordinating research initiatives, and finally as the first Director of Research, two and a half years ago. As I prepare to leave Grupo FARO, I thought that a reflection on creating the post, its role within the organisation, and its future, would be appropriate to help our staff and the new director take advantage of this new opportunity. The position is now open for applications. All your comments and advice are welcome.
Why was the Director of Research post created?
During our strategic planning process in 2007 it became clear that our strategy, whether related to influencing educational, health or even environmental policies, involved: carrying out good and relevant research, developing the capacities to execute policy reform and implementation, and communicating research findings effectively. By then we already had a Director of Communications to overlook the entire communications processes and so decided to create the Director of Research post. Soon we will also have a Director of Capacity Development.
The objective of this position has always been to create the enabling environment, incentives, and rules to produce high quality research. Two specific initiatives carried out include developing an institutional research agenda and establishing a research process that aims to enrich the projects’ quality and relevance. We have developed a research agenda, which summarises and brings together different research teams and helps us stay focused. To develop the agenda we took the initiative to reflect on the topics we were working on and that we thought we could contribute to; our objective was to avoid having a donor driven agenda and instead base it on the issues that we had identified as local priorities.
We also established a research process that is now implemented by all researchers in the institution. The process includes an external peer-review process and also an after publication evaluation to keep an on-going learning process. We are constantly seeking for better strategies to communicate our work. For instance, we sometimes share research findings during the research process itself, bringing ministers or advisors to analyse our work before the final outputs are ready. This gives us more flexibility on the timing of knowledge production.
But even more importantly, the Director of Research has to help the organisation to create new narratives and visions of the future. For example, Ecuador Será, our flagship annual event, brings together a wide variety of intellectuals to discuss the country’s future in relation to different policy issues. This informs our agenda and allows us to share that vision with a wider audience.
What roles does the Director of Research play in the organisation?
Since the Director of Research is involved with all the research teams and coordinates activities with the communications team, it has become a strategic position within the organisation. It is not only about following certain research processes or policing others, it is also about generating the collaboration and promoting the culture to reflect and constantly improve our research endeavours. Some of the key roles I have had to play include:
Conceptualising: The process of conceptualising the research agenda and specific projects is usually a joint effort undertaken by the research teams and supported by the Director of Research. The Director’s role in this discussion is to bring a new perspective: remind the teams of the politics behind their initiatives, and raise the discussion beyond the specificities of their expertise on a given subject. For example, sometimes the environmental team might not see the economic considerations of their ideas, or the health team may overlook environmental considerations. The Director of Research must be enthusiastic about out-of-the-box thinking.
Challenging: This position has an important role challenging research teams on their projects. In some cases, the teams require someone to challenge their assumptions and the ways in which they frame their questions. Sometimes it is about testing the actual theory of change behind their research: will there be space for that piece of research to inform policy? Is there any added value in the approach they propose? Is this a good investment of our time and resources? These reflections need to be encouraged early on the research process and within a safe environment, where there is space to accept and learn from errors and where the team can try out ‘wild ideas’ before fully committing to a research strategy. (Seth Godin’s ideas on thrashing creative processes come to mind.)
Linking teams: Working with the different research teams gives this Director strategic knowledge on how to link and connect them. This is easier said than done. Although a lot of academic synergies can arise from joint efforts, different timing and approaches to research, as well diverging objectives, makes it difficult for teams to collaborate.
Seeing the big picture: Grupo FARO has always thought of itself, not only as an organisation that influences concrete policies, but also one that helps Ecuadorians envision and create a future beyond the current political debates. The Director of Research is responsible for using a variety of knowledge generated by the organisation and others to develop new narratives. This requires more than researching skills: mostly leadership, creativity and political intuition.
Communicating : Although initially it was not clear that this position would have a role in communications, it has developed a very important one. By being close enough to the research projects, but far enough by not authoring them, this Director often acts as a boundary worker between researchers and communicators and supports the process of creating the broader narratives of the work the organisation carries out. Additionally, the Director must be one of the key spokespersons for the think tank, not only sharing concrete research outputs but most importantly, conveying the organisations’ vision and theory of change.
What are some of the lessons that I take away?
Develop a personal research agenda: When I was conceptualising the Director of Research post, I talked to some researchers and think tankers. Many, including our Executive Director, at first wanted a Director devoted to thinking about everyone else’s research. I struggled with this idea: being a researcher I did not want to stop researching. Although for the first months my schedule was packed with others researchers’ agendas, I soon found spaces and opportunities to carry out my own research. This is quite a balancing act between assisting others and finding time to sit down and think. It was important to find topics that were strategic, aligned with our mission, and that did not compete with the specialised teams in the organisation. Despite the challenges of doing this, I feel it was a good choice that kept me developing my own thinking and research skills while allowing me to connect with the rest of the staff.
Stay in tune with politics: The Director of Research can probably be one of the most detached positions from politics: I do not have to meet with public authorities and almost never have controversial interviews on hot topics. I could easily go without following current events and political contests, but staying tuned to politics became an important aspect of my job. Although I do not follow specific debates in detail, it is important for me to understand the way in which politicians and the media see research and research centers. Do they trust research or do they contest it? Are they drawing on it to make decisions or just to validate previously made choices? Do they use only official, publicly funded research or is there space for independent research? Following these trends helped me to work more effectively with the research teams on their own research and communication strategies.
Learn from the creative industry: Early in the job I felt I needed advise on how to manage researchers in a think tank but found few places to get it. Think tanks are a mesh of different traditional organisations and therefore require a mix of managerial skills. I found a lot of comfort reading about creative processes and how to manage creative people. Somehow, reading about a designer that has a hard time letting go of a project because it was not ‘perfect’ reminded me of some of our researchers that dwell over their research for too long before letting anyone read it. Creative blocks, finding time to write, taking risks with new ideas, online communication strategies, and task management are just some of the topics that creatives can share with thinktankers with great ease. Our work, after all, is not only researching but actually finding things to do with that research.
The incoming Director of Research will join Grupo FARO at an exciting time: the position is well established and the challenge now will be to take it to the next level. He or she can expect a challenging job, both in terms of the professional skills and the personal traits required to successfully navigate a young yet important organisation as well as a complex policy context. In this sense I expect that it will develop not only his or her research competencies but most importantly, his or her leadership and political skills.