ResearchOps: the risks and the opportunities of a life lived at scale.

Image: Roman bricks layered one atop the other to form a wall

Human research is having a moment it seems.

Everywhere, we are hearing of companies, agencies and organisations hiring whole teams of researchers in their efforts to bring our attention back to why we are all here, doing and building and making things for humans and humanity. To my political science eye, it is a lovely, positive signpost of the era in which we live- we’ve gone full postmodern in research, and so much of that is intertwined with that other signpost of our age, neo-liberalism.

Unlike a lot of what comes from being so focused on individuals, this movement, one towards the whole of humanity and what we need to survive and thrive is actually a good, if imperfect thing I think, a high note in the symphony that is us living through our times.

Knowing humans and knowing how to study them is a skill, one that takes many years and a lot of study to do. It isn’t something one can learn in a week and it takes practice and it takes commitment to return again and again to deeply analysing how one’s intra-textual and extra-textual frames influence the craft.

Thick data takes time. Good thick data takes rigor and personal bravery. It isn’t possible to research humans without constantly being confronted by all the dark corners of one’s own mind, without considering the implications of each word on the page.

How does this scale?

Not easily. Not well. Like any decision on scaling, a decision is being made about cadence, about what one is willing to forgo in order to gain either speed or quantity.

I’m sure the decision to go from home-made burger joint to huge multinational corporation is paved with the same considerations.

Right now, I’m writing, imagining the handful of people who might read this, thinking ‘what is she saying? She’s a ResearchOps person!’. Worse, along with the rest of the Board, I lead the currently 3300 person strong ResearchOps Community. Surely I am a believer in the power of research at scale? Yes, I absolutely do. But there are risks and there are opportunities, and it is these I want to talk about. It is these we must talk about if we aren’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and ruin this very hard-fought for place in this history we’re making. It is these we need to talk about if we are to walk into the unknown, ready to embrace the opportunities ResearchOps represents.

What are these risks and opportunities?

I’ve been doing this a little while now, and it feels like the biggest risk with the way ResearchOps acts as an enabler, is that it speeds up what was possible. This is exactly what ResearchOps is supposed to do.

But my mum always said to be careful what you wish for.

I say rather, know what you wish for.

What I see reflected in the ResearchOps Community, is that in the space of research repositories, the time taken to reflect on previous research and provide insights based on evidence is significantly reduced. For recruiting, the number of people one can recruit and manage increases it feels, exponentially. This generates interest in research and a capacity to consume more research and expect more research, and with each request, you want to say yes! because you’ve been years in the wilderness, building this out, evangelising, prodding, reminding, pointing out the hard stuff….just like a confectioner who moves from selling from their local market or their house to a supermarket, the desire to deliver and yet be true to who you are is strong, rightly and correctly strong.

Holding both the cadence required for rigorous research and the scale and responsiveness needed by business in both hands and holding them steady is the trick to research at scale. It can be managed by an effective research leader, but made explicit and intentional through strategic ReOps leadership.

The risk is lacking that intentionality in the Ops leadership. The risk is not comprehending what enabling research at scale does to research. That downward pressure you place on research cadence is truly the most dreadful thing that can happen to it.

I’ve seen a keynote or two by Leisa Reichelt, and hers stick in my mind more than most. She asked once if bad research was better than no research at all. Doing research at scale will test that question, and doing it with an Ops team that sets you and demand for your research into overdrive will test it even faster.

So that’s the doom and gloom.

Where is the opportunity?

It’s a whole landscape of potential. If, and only if, you can walk the tightrope, be intentional, hold the lines you didn’t know existed until they become centralised on you, Ops people.

First, you get to help researchers do their best work, and actually have a tangible impact on their lives. You get to hold their hands and raise them up and allow them to shine. Good Ops leadership works with Research leadership to hold the line on making safe and timely space for researchers. There’s so much satisfaction right there.

But if you centralise services for researchers, and bring that research pipeline to a nexus of sorts, and make it someone’s job that the research is socialised, and make it someone’s job that the research is good (to your standards, to local, national and international standards, whatever is relevant to you), and make it someone’s job that the feedback loops are closed and all the loose threads are connected and the whole thing is traceable, well then you have the makings of a revolution right there.

You have the capacity to see across the entire cycle of your work from beginning to end, to understand it even, from the perspective of your users, not from the perspective of your internal structures. And that’s huge.

I don’t think this has been said clearly before, that what ResearchOps is, is the lever to the promise of a tightly drawn and fully articulated revolution — a conductor for the orchestra of mixed-method research.

But it is a fine, fine line and the paths are not laid clear. The profession is not a linear, well-worn path. And so the lines, those silver threads of risk are not always obvious and easy to cross. Taking on Ops as a role means embracing this- there’s nothing to be done with it- it is taking the risks and pressures researchers bear individually, and placing them all squarely on the shoulders of one, two, maybe, hopefully more people. Like a stiletto becomes dangerous solely due to that bringing down of an acceptable weight onto one tiny spot, ReOps is the same.

Know what you wish for, keep your eyes on the silver threads of risk, but most of all, enjoy tugging all those loose threads and seeing what you’ve made, see what you’ve become as Research + Ops.

As always, the whole is greater, so much greater, than the sum of the parts.

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Brigette Metzler

Brigette Metzler

researcher, counter of things, PhD student, public servant…into user research, information architecture, ontology, data. Intensely optimistic.

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