SEVEN: Building learning partnerships between innovators and researchers

In conducting research into innovation, researchers find themselves positioned in complicated roles and challenging spaces. This chapter draws on three complementary conceptual frameworks – learning partnerships, para-ethnography and the analytic third – to explain how the project’s research relationships developed and their distinctive characteristics. The authors note how the traditional understanding of the ethnographer as distanced and uninvolved may not be possible in applied organisational settings, particularly when feeding in information and insights might enable innovators to better deal with the challenges of complex system change. The chapter highlights the importance of attention being paid to the role of emotions in innovation processes and how carefully managed relationships that acknowledge emotions can enhance the potential to realise effective innovation outcomes.

Introduction

In this penultimate chapter, we move in a slightly different direction to explore our distinctive approach to building innovator–researcher relationships. Positioning this relationship as a partnership aligns with and complements the emphasis in Chapter Two of innovation activities being a collaborative endeavour involving all stakeholders in every stage of the innovation cycle. To better understand the intricacies of this relationship, we begin the chapter by outlining three generative and compatible conceptual frames – learning partnerships, para-ethnography and the analytic third – and move on to apply these ideas by drawing on data generated from within our six case-study sites and from our Learning and Development Network activities. The chapter concludes by summarising the affordances of these collaborations in professional practice in sites of innovation in the field of social care.

Three generative conceptual frames

Understanding the characteristics of learning partnerships

Originating in the context of public policy, consultancy learning partnerships are characterised by a commitment to equalising power and authority that is built on shared trust between the respective partners. In its re-imaginings of more effective forms of government, the Centre for Public Impact proposes a learning partner to be ‘an organization that helps others build their own capacity to learn’, placing an emphasis on ‘sensemaking’: ‘Sensemaking is about creating space for listening, reflection and the exploration of meaning beyond the usual boundaries, allowing different framings, stories and viewpoints to be shared and collectively explored’ (Centre for Public Impact, 2021). The attraction of a sensemaking approach for our research is its investment in developing ‘mindsets, culture, capabilities, and tools that will enable them [our case-study sites] to commit to a process of continuous experimentation and learning’ (Centre for Public Impact, 2021). This rationale aligns with our interest in understanding how welfare organisations make sense of, and respond to, the complexities of innovation processes and practice (Lowe and French, 2021). Our interest was also sparked by our research team members – Research in Practice and Innovation Unit – who have particular expertise in creating learning partnerships. For Research in Practice, the role of a learning partnership ‘was not to undertake an evaluation, but rather to enable and support the exploration of emerging themes and send reflections at various points in the Programme’s journey’ (Godar and Botcherby, 2021: 3). Central to the understanding of the learning-partner role are: (1) a shared, collaborative partnership rather than a model of an ‘expert’ or ‘objective’ consultant maintaining a distance from the client; (2) learning that takes place in the midst of action rather than being delivered at the end of a project; and (3) an approach with swift feedback loops so that changes can be made ‘in real time’.

Para-ethnography

Historically, research relationships in ethnography were framed in such a way that researchers were conceived as having a degree of ‘power over’ the ‘relatively powerless other’ being studied – ‘the power to document, to classify, and to categorize’ (Archer and Souleles, 2021: 195–6). Para-ethnography seeks to challenge this established orthodoxy and redistribute the power flow by designing organisational ethnographies that are conducted in a ‘side-by-side way’ with a ‘quasi-peer relationship between organizational scholars and internal analysts’ (Islam, 2015: 232). To achieve this, para-ethnography seeks to emphasise the reciprocity between the researchers, who often have professional identifications with, but are external to, the spaces they are researching, and the internally situated research participants, who, through their innovative work, are often engaged in research-aligned activities. Islam (2015: 232) outlines how ‘[a]s a result of these dual processes, organisational ethnographers may be increasingly indistinguishable from those they study’. Holmes and Marcus (2008: 232), who coined the term para-ethnography, also recognise this challenge: ‘How do we pursue our inquiry when our subjects are themselves engaged in intellectual labors that resemble approximately or are entirely indistinguishable from our own methodological practices?’ Although the language used by Holmes and Marcus (2008) in their definition of para-ethnography is somewhat problematic (specifically, where they refer to those being researched as ‘subjects’), as it does not fully acknowledge the shared power and equal status inherent in this approach, their question offers a helpful provocation. Para-ethnography provides a helpful understanding the learning partnerships we established, which brought us together as equal collaborators on a shared endeavour with distinctive, but compatible, roles and agendas.

The analytic third

Our experience of engaging in learning partnerships across the Innovate Project underlined for us that the emotional impact of innovation work in the welfare sphere and the defences it generates are both under-identified and insufficiently conceptualised. In light of our growing awareness of the significance of these psychosocial dynamics (see Chapters 5 and 6), the psychoanalytic concept of the ‘analytic third’ has helped us to make sense of how learning partnerships can enhance understanding of what helps and hinders progress in innovation spaces. According to Diamond (2007: 142): ‘The analytic third is what we create when we make genuine contact with one another at a deeper emotional level of experience whether in dyads, groups, communities, organizations.’ A key feature of the analytic third is its capacity to facilitate a triadic perspective of being observed, being an observer and observing oneself. In line with this characteristic, learning partnerships and para-ethnography also recognise how the dynamic positioning of the self in relation to itself and others allow for the ‘found imaginaries’ (Rabinow et al, 2008: 70) of critical knowledges produced through fieldwork to emerge.

Learning through regular meetings

From the beginning of our relationships with our case-study sites, the researchers in each of the three Innovate Project research strands (Contextual Safeguarding, Transitional Safeguarding and Trauma-informed Practice) established a pattern of regular meetings with their key contact(s) in each site. Of particular significance for these meetings was the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which extended across the majority of the fieldwork phase of the Innovate Project. While it is hard to say categorically, it is likely that our commitment to these regular meetings was heightened by the pandemic’s impact, as we were more mindful of how important it was to establish and maintain positive and productive virtual relationships in the absence of opportunities to meet in person. In some of our sites, we were able to meet in person with our key research partners towards the end of our fieldwork stage and spend time with them in their locality. This was a rewarding experience and an important reminder of the effort needed to build and maintain trusting relationships in an almost exclusively virtual space.

Over time, it became apparent that the regular meetings served a range of purposes: (1) enabling the research team to be updated on developments and kept abreast of how the innovation work was progressing; (2) allowing researchers to be inquisitive and to express curiosity about innovation activities, barriers and enablers; and (3) providing opportunities for sites to draw on our wider knowledge of innovation in this sector and emergent learning derived from the fieldwork. Essentially, the meetings involved a dialogue that helped both us, as the researchers, and the site contacts, as the innovators, to collaboratively reflect on, and take stock of, what was happening. The emphasis of learning partnerships and para-ethnography on collaborative and mutual learning meant that intrinsic to these relationships was an understanding that, as researchers, it was neither appropriate nor possible for us to position ourselves as either ‘independent’ or ‘objective’. Rather, these approaches encourage relationships to develop that are characterised by interdependence and intersubjectivity with informants involved, ‘not only in data gathering, but also in interpretive process, collaborative critical reflexivity’ (Islam, 2015: 236).

A matter of reliability and trust

A striking aspect of these regular meetings was the value our site partners placed on the sense of stability and continuity that they generated. This was in stark contrast to the widespread experience of workforce ‘churn’ in the sector and the inevitable disruptions – senior leadership changes, organisational realignments and shifting welfare priorities – that arose across the two years in which we were engaged with the sites. For example, over the course of our research, one project manager involved with the innovation work reported to three different senior leaders and experienced periods of time when he was without a named line manager.

Our learning partners placed particular value on our ongoing presence in their organisations when the innovation activities or engagement with the processes associated with innovation slowed, stalled or even floundered:

‘I think it’s been nice to have that opportunity to, kind of, think through some ideas, but, actually, I do think it has been valuable in pushing forward certain things. So, again, from my perspective, I have really valued it, even though I’ve moaned continuously to you all. … I do think there is a level that, had we not had your support, it probably would have crashed and burnt even sooner than it has.’ (Local innovation lead)

The meeting space served as ‘a constant’, and even when it felt as if there was little to report, discussions remained lively and purposeful. Periods of lesser activity can represent a ‘risk point’ on innovation journeys, where momentum may be lost (Godar and Botcherby, 2021), and the continuous pattern of our meetings appeared to play an important role in keeping issues alive and ‘on the agenda’. This was especially pertinent when our key site partners were not members of the local senior leadership teams. It allowed them to use the outcomes of our discussions as a vehicle for keeping the people who were ultimately responsible for the innovation actively engaged.

In contrast to the regularity and reliability of these meeting spaces, the meeting structure was intentionally looser and more fluid, enabling the meetings to be responsive to the needs of the research sites at particular points in time. Our role as ethnographers with an interest in social care innovation more broadly, rather than as evaluators who were focused on the effectiveness of the sites’ specific innovations per se, also helped to establish our benign neutrality, akin to a ‘critical friend’. This was vividly described by one local leader as us embodying an “inquisitive, not inquisitional”, approach. This enabled our learning partners to experience the research as a non-threatening, generative activity that allowed them to learn about: (1) their own organisation’s idiosyncrasies; (2) features of their site-specific innovation journeys; and (3) their individual responses to the challenges faced by young people experiencing extra-familial risks and harms in their specific localities.

The loose definition and structure of these meetings was underpinned by an understanding that the space was shared equally, with both the research teams and site partners bringing information, updates or queries. As the researchers, we would pose questions and offer insights or reflections in response to site updates on activities. Discussions incorporated theoretical or empirical knowledge and wider contextual issues (emotional, social and political) that expanded the understanding or scope of innovation. The conversations that developed invariably focused on the complexities of the innovation journey, which have been reflected on throughout this book. Rather than resulting in defined action plans, however, discussions concluded naturally, allowing all of us to retain our distinct roles as researchers or innovators. Each partner took away insights, and actions were progressed independently or together, as appropriate, in relation to our specific research or innovation agendas. For us, as researchers, the discussion might organically lead to the identification of a previously unknown professional, team or service within the organisation that it was appropriate for us to engage with. As innovators, our research partners could find that the conversation triggered a thought about how to address an aspect of the innovation that they felt had got stuck or that had not occurred to them. These fascinating dynamics are at the heart of para-ethnographic approaches, where ‘researchers note their occasional insightful leaps of imagination, but also their self-serving biases and their moments of ingenuousness and learn about their own project in the process. Thus, para-ethnography involves a mirroring of ethnographer and informant roles, as these roles interpenetrate each other’ (Islam, 2015: 238).

In the sites where an open and responsive attitude came to characterise these meetings, a sense of trust was fostered that helped mitigate the ever-present possibility that the sites might feel ‘done to’ or positioned as ‘an object of enquiry’ by the research process. This type of relationship was in stark contrast, we realised, to most local authorities’ experiences of the relationships associated with inspection regimes and external evaluations, which invariably operate somewhat covertly, only sharing outcomes on completion of the exercise. Given how widespread these practices have become in the public sector, local authorities have become familiar with these dynamics and developed their own strategies for managing them. The principles informing para-ethnography recognise the ‘hybridity, institutional complexity, and discursive struggles’ (Islam, 2015: 244) that characterise contemporary organisations, and this realisation further underlined for us the importance of establishing reciprocal learning partnerships. One of our sites had faced significant organisational and system-wide difficulties in progressing their innovation plans. The fact that they were willing to meet with us at the end of the fieldwork phase to undertake a journey-mapping exercise suggests that they had experienced us as sufficiently embodying the respectful and non-judgemental principles of para-ethnography and learning partnerships to feel safe doing so.

A matter of reciprocity

In addition to these regular meeting spaces supporting innovation activity, our learning partners also acknowledged their contribution to promoting the well-being of the professionals engaged in the work. In one site engaged in trauma-informed innovation, the learning partners explicitly acknowledged how the regular meetings with the researchers were “like having therapy” or like a “proper” form of supervision, as their current supervision experiences were not deemed to be fit for purpose. One of our Transitional Safeguarding site partners said that they “got what they needed” from the meetings and felt that the strategic leaders driving the innovation would also have benefited from participating in these regular sessions, described as spaces to think, to “horizon-scan” and to develop the “best way to build this approach”. The mutuality of this was explicitly named by another Transitional Safeguarding partner:

‘So, no, I think from our side it is … I think it’s been really helpful, and I’ve really enjoyed working with you both, but also just … it’s just thinking about how I can improve things and reframing how I would do certain things and learning. I just feel like it’s been a really kind of … from my side, I’ve also benefited from the learning there as well, and so I don’t want it … it feels like it’s been … I hope it’s been mutually beneficial for you as well.’

Throughout more than two years of engagement with our sites, we sought to be continuously vigilant about our positioning, that is, ‘Not assuming participants to be insiders, and the ethnographers, outsiders’ (Islam, 2015: 241). The status of the research strand teams as independent from professional practice and leadership enabled site staff to utilise our insights or observations as leverage to influence and energise their innovation journey. The periodic internal reports we produced for each site at key time points across the project were experienced as particularly beneficial, as they provided content for the sites to reflect on, assisted them in developing their thinking and informed next steps in the innovation process. These regular forms of information sharing served to maintain a transparent engagement with our learning partners, creating a genuine sense of mutual exchange, and helped to avoid the research being caught in unhelpful protracted time frames, whereby sites did not hear about the research findings until a full analysis of the data had been completed. The provision of feedback and findings in ‘real time’ proved key to the sites being able to use the information provided to positively influence their innovation processes, including to argue for increased resources. As the following excerpt from a journey-mapping exercise with one of our Transitional Safeguarding sites illustrates, our interim report was used by the site to draw attention to the persistent lack of engagement by one part of the system. The intervention proved to be successful in securing greater buy-in across their system, which has been maintained:

‘I think the thing that, sort of, helped that pick-up was whether I should have done this or not. I don’t know how you guys would feel about this, but the report that you produced for the end of Phase 1 report, we kind of … used as a bit of a lever. I very much used it as a bit of a lever.’ (Local innovation leader)

Our experience of conducting the regular meetings was what particularly drew our attention to how the concept of the analytic third helps to explain the dynamics of learning partnerships. Through our collaborative relationship, our partners were able to adopt an observational stance on their own innovation work, and we were allowed to observe how they engaged in this space with each other, as colleagues, and with us, as researchers. These reciprocal observational positions allowed for new perspectives and ideas to emerge. Evidence of this arose when the lead contact in one of our Transitional Safeguarding sites informed us during one of our regular meetings that the plan to introduce a new children’s services panel that would assess vulnerable young people requiring a Transitional Safeguarding response had been revoked. Instead, a decision had been reached to amalgamate a Transitional Safeguarding assessment activity into an existing multi-agency adult services panel. Conversations with us in our regular meetings had explored the value of new panels, and we were struck by how the site’s new-found insight into the limitations of conventional responses to persistent challenges – that is, the creation of a new panel – appeared to have exerted some influence over them identifying a different approach. This change of perspective allowed the organisation to abandon what could be seen as a defensive response that stayed with what was familiar in favour of something innovative and new. While we cannot definitely claim that this decision was influenced by their engagement with us, it appears that the new insights that emerged might, in part, have been attributable to the relationship with us, leading to a confidence to let go of unconscious defences to innovation (see Chapter Six).

For the research team, the mutuality and reciprocity built into the learning partnership model enabled us to benefit from the rich discussion available through the regular meetings and gain in-depth understanding of the ‘on the ground’, ‘in real time’, everyday nature of innovation. Throughout the project, the research team worked together in our own reflective forums, where we shared research data, such as an interview excerpt or ethnographic observation notes, and explored our reactions to the material. As a consequence, we were able to reflect on our own conduct, as well as that of the organisations we were collaborating with, and recognise, as the analytic third conceptualises it, ‘the psychological (triangular) space between self and other, subject and object, fantasy and reality – the third dimension that emerges from two persons fully engaged in the exploration of unconscious meanings, reasons, motives and actions’ (Diamond, 2007: 142). Holding this perspective helped us to avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions about what we were seeing and hearing, and facilitated a more trustworthy and authentic analytic engagement with the data.

Learning through journey mapping

Journey mapping, derived from the world of social consultancy, seeks to capture the process that an organisation has undertaken to develop an aspect of a service or a system (Oeij et al, 2019). As part of the Transitional Safeguarding strand’s work with a wider group of local authorities who were involved in our Learning and Development Network, members were invited to take part in a journey-mapping exercise, where they could reflect on the process and progress of their innovation activities. Members of the research team facilitated the exercise and paid particular attention to the relational and emotional dimensions of the journey, with specific reference to the key ‘pain points’ or opportune moments that the sites could identify, and the emotions they evoked. In the process of conducting the mapping exercise and the follow-up conversations with our learning partners, several common experiences emerged.

A matter of feeling

One innovation leader described the journey-mapping process it as a “cathartic” experience. The tone of the comment indicated that this realisation had come as something of a surprise. For another site lead, recalling the circumstances of the vulnerable young woman that had triggered their organisation’s Transitional Safeguarding work, and the subsequent challenges they had encountered along the way, was emotionally overwhelming:

‘I’m quite happy to share why I’m crying … I loved it, as hard as it was, and by God, some of it was so hard [crying] in some ways, I feel a fraud talking about, “Oh, didn’t we do”. And we tried really hard, and I think some things we did do well. But I come down to [crying] some of the people I still feel we failed, and I don’t like that.’ (Site lead)

In seeking to account for her response, this site lead articulated how unusual it was to review the work she had been leading through “an emotional lens”, reflecting that their main focus was always on “doing” and not on “being”. She went on to reflect on the emotional toll of the work and the energy she put into providing emotional support for the staff for whom she had management responsibility. This reverberated for us as a research team, as we had noted that a number of professionals in our sites referred to their ‘passion’ for Transitional Safeguarding when describing their connection to this work. In some instances, the passion was closely connected with a professional’s personal identification or experience:

‘I genuinely believe in [Transitional Safeguarding], not only because I see what it potentially could do, but actually as a young adult … there were times where I was sitting in this space and arena, and years ago, we didn’t have this, but if we had have done, if I was a young adult now, I’d be in your cohort.’ (Transitional Safeguarding lead)

For others, it connected to having their own children who were approaching, or in, this transitional space. In such instances, it was clear that the work touched a deeply personal chord and that the mutuality and trust that were integral to our learning partnerships enabled the emotional dimensions of the work to be expressed.

The explicit attention paid in the journey-mapping exercise to the emotional dimensions of innovation work highlighted the prevalence and impact of these aspects of daily practice, as well as the lack of attention they receive. We repeat here our conclusions from Chapters Five and Six: unless the emotional impact of this work is acknowledged by practitioners and responded to by senior leaders, it is highly likely that it will, in unconscious ways, impede the progress of innovation.

A matter of perspective

One interesting feature of the journey-mapping process that participants identified as helpful was the adoption of a retrospective lens. Looking backwards served the purpose of allowing the participants to see the whole journey to date and to recognise what they had achieved. This felt of particular significance, as we heard repeatedly how frustrated individuals were by what felt like very slow, incremental progress, or, to use the phrase of one site contact, “taking two steps forward and one back” – very much in line with the recursive nature of the stages of innovation that we alluded to in Chapters Two and Three. There was evidence that the thinking of individuals undertaking the mapping exercise was dominated by prospective mindsets and a preoccupation with forward planning, which could prevent them from maintaining an accurate view of what had already been achieved. Indeed, for the Transitional Safeguarding innovation with the “two steps forward and one back” experience, the combination of us facilitating a review workshop with a range of Transitional Safeguarding partners and, subsequently, completing a journey-mapping exercise with our two main contacts from this site had significant ramifications: first, it contributed to the recognition that expectations about what is a realistic pace of change needed to be radically revised; and, second, it helped inform a successful funding request to enable the local area to adopt a more accurate, and hopefully more effective, timeline for the innovation process to unfold over.

Inevitably, innovation projects do not always go to plan, and for one of our Transitional Safeguarding sites, the progress made in the course of our involvement with them had stalled. Despite these circumstances, in the context of a journey-mapping exercise, it was heartening to hear the senior leader able to express her disappointment at not having made more progress and simultaneously maintain a realistic perspective, seeing it not as a failure but as an integral part of the iterative and recursive innovation process, as outlined in Chapter Three.

Conclusion

In this chapter, we have explored how the reconfiguration of ethnographic research relationships as learning partnerships has the potential to maximise the learning for all the parties involved. Drawing on the insights afforded by para-ethnography and the analytic third, innovators can gain new perspectives on their specific circumstances, and as a consequence, it is likely that their innovation activities will be more responsive and attuned to the context in which they are located. Our journey as a research team through these innovation landscapes has led us to experience unexpected encounters and expanded our theoretical and conceptual horizons. These, in turn, have triggered meaningful insights – the ‘found imaginaries’ referred to earlier – both for us as researchers and, in the spirit of the partnership-working practice we established, for our site contacts, the innovators.

Key chapter insights for policy and practice

  • Risks and barriers to progress are ever present in innovation contexts and must be recognised and worked with.

  • Learning partnerships can encourage attention to the impact of emotions and defensive dynamics in innovation spaces, helping to minimise their potentially adverse impact on process and progress, and maximising the likelihood of positive outcomes.

  • The establishment of effective and collaborative learning partnerships requires an inclusive, non-hierarchical attitude of ‘equal but different’ from the outset to ensure all project stakeholders start on the same footing.

  • Researchers need to cycle fluidly between an observing ‘outsider’ stance (primarily reflecting and noticing what is happening, and how things change over time) and a more involved semi-insider position (sharing insights that could generate reflexivity and change for the sites), all the while relating to the sites as active, equal partners.

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