Teams or stars? Options for restructuring the research staff – the Managing Think Tanks series

20 May 2013

Last week we discussed the importance of constant information for senior managers – so is research organisation. During think tanks’ early operations, much emphasis is placed on winning projects and completing them well than on management and organisational decisions, including research organisation. Work may be of a high quality, but it could be done more efficiently and with greater satisfaction among the staff if there were an alternative structure for some or all of its research and policy analysis.

This Managing Think Tanks chapter provides models which can structure thin tanks’ research operations and reach the goals mentioned above. It also lays out guidance for senior think tank managers who want to assess whether or not the current structure used at their institutions is the most appropriate.

There are two models for organising research – both are the result of two aspects of how think tanks conduct their research. The first aspect has to do with how research is organised:

The “solo star” model: notable and influential researchers basically work independently, with the aid of one or two research assistants. Results are usually published under the star’s name.

The team model. Think tanks that rely on teamwork tend to conduct large-scale research projects, program evaluations, and demonstration and pilot projects. The work more often includes original data collection and other field work; statistical analysis is frequently complex and rigorous.

The second aspect is staff structure. There can be either full-time staff or various types of supplemental staff, for instance associates and consultants. These two terms are restricted to projects on which these staff have a leading role. Variations are:

  • very dominant resident staff; some supplemental researchers may be present but are not integral to the institute’s operations;
  • resident staff working with consultants;
  • resident staff working with associates;
  • blend of resident staff, associates, and consultants

Which model should managers choose?

There are six factors that think tank managers should consider when deciding which model to use:

  1. Type and size of projects. If think tanks have a large workload that consists of program evaluations, demonstration and pilot projects, technical assistance projects, and other projects that require significant primary data collection, then the team model is more appropriate.
  2. Variability of the workload. If the quantity of the workload varies greatly then it is more of a challenge to maintain a consistent core staff.
  3. Flexibility of the staff. A key question is core staff’s willingness and ability to work effectively on new topics. the more flexible the senior staff in working on different topics, the better the case for having a larger resident staff
  4. Tax and social fund consequences. Since there can be important differences in the cost of hiring a staff member or consultant, think tanks may have to hire a significant amount of individuals in a consultant capacity.
  5. Institutional reputation. The more prestigious the think tank, the easier it will be to attract a senior policy analyst or researcher to be a part-time staff member or a visiting fellow.
  6. Special cases.

Think tank managers should think not only about their institutions’ present requirements but also about the goals the think tank is aiming for in the next few years. Flexibility is also important: there is no need to choose one model as the sole structure for its research. Finally, creativity is allowed for developing the best research structure for their organisation.