Practice makes perfect: Building better understanding between frontline practice and social care research
Last month I had the pleasure of chairing a workshop session at Community Care Live 2013 #cclive13. Aimed at social care practitioners, this event included an exhibition alongside a two day conference programme. Our session focused on the role of evidence in practice and discussed how busy practitioners can learn what works well elsewhere in practice and research. It was intentionally interactive and sought to share learning amongst attendees, as well as to hear from our experts. What follows is an overview of some of the key points raised and discussed – your thoughts and comments would also be most welcome.
Mr Owen Davies, Policy and Public Affairs Advisor, College of Social Work
Prof Martin Knapp, SSCR (School for Social Care Research)
Dr John Woolham, Coventry University and SSRG (Social Services Research Group)
Approximately 60 delegates at Community Care Live. We have no specific information on who was in the room but contributors included those identifing themselves as frontline practitioners working in integrated mental health services; a manager working in learning and development; newly qualified social workers; a nurse; university educators; and a Masters student and faculty member from the US.
Myth busting: practitioners aren’t interested in research
Over the past few years I’ve heard this sentiment shared quite a lot, by researchers talking about local authorities, managers talking about practitioners, directors talking about managers. Wherever you stand when considering the worlds of research and practice, no one can doubt that there was an interest in our session, explicitly billed to consider matters of research; in fact it was standing room only.
This paints a promising picture. It may be skewed somewhat by those who choose to attend events like #CCLive13 being different to those who choose not to attend, however, it’s fair to say that there were high levels of interest in matters of research amongst attendees. This was backed up by the interactions at our exhibition stand.
So the next time you consider uttering the words ‘…but practitioners aren’t interested in research’, think again and maybe consider whether you could present your information or proposition differently to engage people.
How can practitioners learn about what happens elsewhere in practice?
Panel and audience members identified a number of sources of evidence from research and practice. These are listed at the bottom of this blog post in alphabetical order. They were suggested as providing opportunities for practitioners to engage with each other, with evidence from research, and to identify what is being innovated elsewhere. More generally social media (specific mention was made of twitter and blogs) were offered as a mechanism for keeping in touch with new and emerging developments elsewhere.
Is the issue one of access or of time?
This point emerged from the discussion about sources of support. While some audience members raised concerns about not knowing where to access research, and some raised concerns about knowing but not being able to access due to prohibitive journal subscription costs, yet others articulated that they understood the need for research, had access to it provided by their employer, and yet could not identify the time to make use of it.
With decreasing resources and increasing workloads this seemed to resonate with audience members. This was particularly acute where efficiency savings had led to significant reductions in resourcing for learning and development, arguably sending a deeper message about the lack of organisational commitment to, or value placed, on these activities.
Warning: beware the straw man/woman/solution!
An example was shared from an authority that will remain nameless, previously heralded as at the cutting edge of developments in a particular area. This organisation had some innovative ideas and experiences to share, however, very quickly these became somewhat less relevant, less well delivered on the ground and yet the same area is still held up as an example of good practice.
When considering good practice there is a need to always a) ensure that the practice shared is what it claims to be and b) to consider the timeliness or relevance of the claims being offered. The discussion focused on the need to scratch the surface and see what lies beneath the bold assertions and claims. This is almost certainly an area where good evaluation and research activity would help develop social care; too often models or approaches are simply transferred from one setting to another with the hope that the associated benefits will also emerge. If it sounds or smells too good to be true then there’s a good chance that it is too good to be true!
Is social work a profession or a vocation?
The final heated debate of the session focused on the roles and identities within social care, the above rather reductive tweet highlights the two sides to the argument. While Owen from the College of Social Work was able to make an argument for the social work profession to need to embrace research as a step towards it’s professionalisation, others were less convinced at this stage. One audience member, a registered nurse, suggested we be careful what we wish for in the call for professionalisation as she felt that there were disadvantages as well as advantages to this approach. A discussion followed about clinical and medical staff failing to reach the top of their profession without retaining their practice skills and questions were asked about whether social work managers and directors are too far removed from the frontline; a criticism often levelled at researchers too. I’m confident that the debate about whether social work should be a profession or vocation has much mileage in it yet, but for now I’d like to encourage practitioners to continue to engage in research, in any way that they can, as a support to themselves in increasingly difficult times.
The organisations identified above include hyperlinks to their websites for more information. If you are particularly interested in improving understanding between frontline practice and social care research then I recommend that you take a look at the SCEIP (social care evidence in practice) project blog to learn more about forthcoming opportunities to get involved. I’d also really welcome your thoughts on the issues raised in this discussion.