Research Grant Implementation

Staff Development as a Tool to Accomplish Research Activities

Article on research grant implementation.

Staff Development as a Tool to Accomplish Research Activities

Maija L. Selby-Harrington | Patricia L. N. Donat | Heddy D. Hubbard


The information presented in this article was originally published in Applied Nursing Research (Vol. 7, Number 1, February 1994). This work was supported by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR), now the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Grant Number 5 R01 HS 06507, The Healthy Kids Project.


Contents

Overview
Framework
Determining Personnel Needs
Selecting Personnel
Orienting Personnel
Supervising Personnel
Fostering Positive Public Relations
Completing Routine Office Duties
Producing Correspondence and Reports
Obtaining Informed Consent and Maintaining Confidentiality Of Research Records
Managing The Budget and Financial Paperwork
Developing And Testing Data Collection Instruments
Performing Protocols and Collecting Data
Coding and Entering Data
Monitoring and Analyzing Data
Keeping Abreast of Current Research
Disseminating Research Findings
Designing Supplemental Research Projects
Upgrading or Revising Position Descriptions
Conclusion
References


Overview

The successful completion of a research grant requires accurate and timely implementation of the scientific research plan. Given the multiple demands of a research project, principal investigators (PIs) must rely on grant staff to perform many activities. To ensure that staff members have the knowledge and skills to perform these activities in accordance with the research plan, staff development is needed. Although numerous resources address staff development in nonresearch settings (e.g., Abruzzese, 1992; American Nurses Association, 1990; McGregor, 1990; Orth, Wilkinson, and Benfari, 1990; Phelps, 1990; Weiss, 1989), little information is available to address the special staff development needs in a research project. This article addresses these needs.

Specifically, this article provides PIs with practical guidance for determining staffing needs and selecting staff for a research project. Additionally, it provides guidance for using staff development to enhance the research skills of the staff so they can assist in completing the grant activities and can grow into more seasoned researchers themselves. Particular attention is focused on providing development experiences that will enable the staff to assist the PI in the following activities: supervising personnel; fostering positive public relations; handling routine office tasks; producing correspondence and reports; maintaining confidentiality; managing the budget; developing and testing data collection instruments; collecting, entering, monitoring, and analyzing data; keeping abreast of current research; disseminating findings; and laying the groundwork for future research.

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Framework

The staff development approach advocated in this article is based on concepts from Total Quality Management (TQM) (Arikian, 1991, Deming, 1986, Kaluzny, McLaughlin, and Simpson, 1992). In the TQM philosophy of management, employees are perceived as capable, productive individuals who, if empowered, help the organization accomplish its mission. Empowerment occurs in a work environment where employees are given responsibility for performing their work and are provided with resources and opportunities to develop the skills needed to do so; an atmosphere that fosters professional growth and continuous improvement is vital. Thus, proactive staff development is perceived as a necessary component of quality management in any organization.

However, a research grant differs from other organizational entities. The organizational mission (i.e., implementation of the research plan) may be scientifically complex and may not be understood or valued by employees who do not have scientific training. The knowledge and skills needed to accomplish the mission are specialized, and certain skills are used only in research projects. Moreover, the margin for error in the work is small, whereas the consequences of error are great. Finally, the "life span" of the organization is limited to the duration of the grant. Therefore, the staff development needs of a research grant are unique. This article provides guidance for applying TQM staff development principles to meet the unique needs of a research grant.

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Determining Personnel Needs

The work plan for a research grant application provides a blueprint for achieving the aims of the grant. As such, a work plan can be very useful as the basis for determining personnel needs throughout the project. The PI must identify the skills needed to perform the tasks specified in the work plan. Then the institutional personnel office can provide guidance for deciding which positions will provide staff with these skills (Selby, Ripottella-Muller, and Farel, 1992). Alternative staffing operations may need to be considered. For example, an assortment of office tasks and budget duties may require the effort of a full-time employee. In some settings, one full-time administrative assistant clearly would be advisable. In other settings, owing to salary levels or other factors, a project might be served better by a combination of part-time personnel such as an accounting technician, a secretary, and a student assistant.

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Selecting Personnel

Generally, grant positions are not established formally until notification of funding is received. However, advance planning will help prevent delays in establishing positions and appointing personnel to the grant (Selby, Donat, and Hubbard, 1992, Selby, Riportella-Muller, and Farel, 1992). After the positions are established, applicants will need to be recruited and interviewed. Existing personnel and consultants should be considered as possible resources for these positions; individuals already familiar with the institution and with the project bring distinct advantages to a grant. Nonetheless, the qualifications of existing personnel should be weighed against those of other applicants.

The preemployment interview provides an opportunity to assess the qualifications of potential employees (LaMonica, 1990). For a research grant, it is critical to assess whether an applicant is willing and able to abide by the requirements of research. Items of discussion should include issues of confidentiality, adherence to protocols, and levels of preciseness required. Applicants should be advised that research staff are expected to follow directions meticulously, display a high level of accuracy and attention to detail, consult others appropriately, and admit and correct their mistakes. Additionally, they must interact positively with team members and outside agencies. An employee with excellent interpersonal skills and willingness to learn new skills for the project usually is a greater asset than one with excellent technical skills but an inability or unwillingness to work with others or to learn new skills.

Specific skills required for each position should be evaluated at the interview. It may not be possible to find all the needed skills for a particular position in one person. Careful consideration should be given to the feasibility of developing skills on the job; some skills are developed more readily than others. Just as alternative options may have been considered when establishing the positions, alternatives may need to be considered when filling the positions. For example, if two nurses are needed to conduct research, the applicants might include one with experience in the relevant clinical area but not in research and another with experience in research but not in the clinical area. With staff development to strengthen their weaker areas, the two together may become a well-balanced team, providing a richer complement of skills to the overall project.

Nonetheless, an applicant may seem to possess all the skills required for a particular position yet will be unable to meet the needs of the project if unable to accommodate the the work schedule set forth in the project. All research projects invariably involve some periods of intense effort when employees may need to work extra hours. Some projects require certain employees to work in the evening or on weekends or to be "on call" to contact potential research participants at odd hours. Policies, options, and expectations for completing the work should be discussed and clarified before employment to prevent disappointment or misunderstanding after employment.

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Orienting Personnel

A proactive approach to orientation and training will help foster each employee's commitment to identify their own learning needs to enable them to quality (Abruzzese, 1992). Orientation and training will help the project avoid employee actions that would be improper in any setting (e.g., fraud, waste, or abuse) as well as other actions that might be inconsequential in nonresearch settings but could have serious consequences in a research grant. Small errors in data entry or transcription could compromise the integrity of the research. All newly hired staff must be educated about the importance of adhering to the rules of research. With TQM, the staff, not just the supervisors, share accountability and responsibility for quality control. To maintain quality control, the staff must be provided with the information, skills, and resources needed to efficiently do their jobs and to identify and resolve problems proactively. They should be taught to double-check for accuracy on a regular basis, report their mistakes, and collaborate to correct the mistakes. Some individuals may react to the need for accuracy in research by becoming overly fearful of making mistakes, or worse, by covering up mistakes. Employees are more likely to respond favorably to the need for research accuracy and integrity if the PI fosters a nonthreatening, trusting work environment in which individuals are respected and occasional mistakes are viewed as needing correction rather than punitive action (Orth, Wilkinson, and Benfari, 1990, Rogers, 1969).

It is also helpful for staff members to see how their positions contribute to the scientific aims of the grant (Selby, Donat, and Hubbard, 1992). Although traditional models of management may restrict knowledge of the "big picture" to key personnel, the TQM approach emphasizes the importance of sharing project goals with the entire staff. Therefore, all employees should be oriented to the project as a whole. The types of additional information and levels of detail needed by specific personnel will vary and should be tailored to meet the needs of each employee (Phelps, 1990). For example, a research assistant will need the entire grant proposal to understand the research design, variables, data collection forms, and datasets; an accounting technician will need the budget justification and funding agency regulations.

All employees require information about their specific duties and expectations for job performance. During orientation and throughout the life of the grant, employees should be encouraged to identify their own learning needs to enable them to meet the desired expectations; training and education, based on these needs, should be made available. (Additional suggestions for training personnel are provided by McGuire, 1991).

In addition to receiving a thorough orientation to their primary responsibilities, staff members should be crossed-trained regarding any secondary responsibilities they may need to assume. In TQM, cross-training is viewed as a way to offer opportunities for employees to develop new skills that may provide an avenue for advancement or promotion, thereby enhancing employee satisfaction (Phelps, 1990). In the day-to-day life of a research grant, cross-training helps the project team continue to perform required activities even when certain members are absent, and it allows team members to "pitch in" to accomplish needed tasks when the grant faces tight deadlines.

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Supervising Personnel

In a large project, delegating day-to-day supervisory activities to a project director or administrative assistant can ease the PI's workload. The supervisory staff should be taught how to guide, direct, and delegate work to support staff (Phelps, 1990). In addition, supervisors must perform in a manner consistent with institutional and funding agency rules and with governmental laws and regulations. If new to supervisors, the PI and supervisory staff will benefit from workshops, meetings with representatives of the personnel office, or publications on personnel management. Large institutions usually offer workshops at no cost to their employees. Helpful publications dealing with personnel management in health care organizations include Flarey, 1991, LaMonica, 1990, and Sheridan, Bronstein, and Walker, 1984. Guidance for managing personnel in research projects is provided by McGuire, 1991, and Selby, Donat, and Hubbard, 1992.

Although individual styles may vary, supervisory personnel should understand and consistently perform one overall management philosophy, such as TQM. In accordance with TQM, supervisors will promote open communication and encourage employees to ask questions. Invariably, it is preferable to be consulted in advance rather than to deal later with the consequences of mistakes that could have been avoided. An environment that values open communication also encourages personal initiative by employees who may have creative, practical ideas for accomplishing their work and solving problems in the project. Ongoing guidance and feedback from the PI can help support supervisory staff in their roles in developing a positive work environment.

As employees become more competent and confident in their jobs, the PI and supervisors should foster the development of staff autonomy, especially for identifying and solving problems in each employee's own work domain. In the TQM model, each employee has primary responsibility for refining the process for accomplishing the needed work. In addition, staff can be given more meaningful roles and responsibilities that help them see their own contributions to the project. For example, a clerk might be given responsibility for managing the system for obtaining medical records for the study from the participating agencies, or a research assistant might be responsible for keeping the project up-to-date on legislation relevant to the topic being studied.

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Fostering Positive Public Relations

For research to proceed smoothly, positive relations are needed with individuals within the PI's institution, in collaborating agencies, in the funding agency, and with other relevant constituencies, for example, those that have an interest in the population or topic being studied. Grant staff should be helped to understand that they are emissaries of the project; their actions influence the reputation of the grant and therefore may affect the ability of the grant to accomplish its aims. Specific instruction may be needed to ensure that staff members use proper telephone etiquette, document important conversations in writing, clarify misunderstandings, and resolve minor issues before they become major problems requiring the PI's attention. Position responsibilities should be made clear so that employees do not make commitments or promises outside their purview and so that they report potential concerns to the PI or designated supervisor. For example, an outside agency may have agreed to provide a particular service for the grant, but the agency personnel responsible for the task informs a grant employee that they are having difficulty meeting a deadline. Rather than altering the deadline, which could have repercussions throughout the project, the grant employee should report this concern. The PI then may consider altering the schedule, making other adjustments to ease the burden on the responsible agency, or negotiating with the agency to ensure that grant needs are met.

In addition to maintaining the positive public relations needed for performing the research, the project must foster positive relations with other researchers and constituencies who may request assistance and advice for overcoming problems in their research or programs. Grant staff should be taught to refer requests for such assistance to the PI or key staff members. The technical assistance responsibilities of the PI and key staff can be facilitated if the project staff maintains a record of the problems encountered and solutions employed in implementing the grant, as advised by Selby, Donat, and Hubbard, 1992. The record can serve as a useful reference for remembering which solution proved successful and thereby will help ensure that the assistance given is appropriate.

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Completing Routine Office Duties

PIs should not spend time on routine tasks that can be completed efficiently by grant staff. The staff should be assisted to acquire high proficiency in techniques or procedures they will use frequently (e.g., word processing, spreadsheets, or data entry). Typists who lack advanced word processing skills, for example, may waste their own time and that of other staff (or the PI) who later must edit documents initiated by the less-skilled workers. Investment in a word processing workshop may result in innumerable hours of increased productivity over the course of a grant. Workshops on interpersonal relations, telephone etiquette, and other communication skills also may be useful. If workshops are unavailable, more skilled staff members can be designated to help train their fellow employees; they should he provided the time, resources, and recognition for doing so.

Early in the life of the project, it is helpful to develop a manual to guide the conduct of routine office work and to orient the staff to use the manual as a resource document. To aid employees new to research, the manual may include conceptual definitions of research terms (e.g., sample, control group, randomization) as well as clear descriptions of how these terms are operationalized in the project. Other helpful items to include are an organizational chart, a list of faculty, staff, and collaborators with their degrees, titles, and departmental affiliations, standardized categories and key words to be used in tiling paper and computerized documents, and policies, procedures, and guidelines for processing required paperwork and producing correspondence and reports. Preferred signature blocks for project personnel, examples of often used formats, and standard templates or models for routine letters also may be included. As changes occur over the course of the project, certain staff members can take responsibility for updating the manual.

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Producing Correspondence And Reports

The written materials emanating from the grant help set the tone for how the project is viewed by others. Employees need guidance to produce documents worthy of dissemination outside the project. All staff members should be given instructions in basic expectations for the appearance, format, and tone of correspondence and reports. The staff can use the standard templates or model letters from the office manual when requesting information or responding to routine queries, and they can personalize the templates to meet the particular needs of the correspondence; doing so will help avoid the duplicated effort involved in drafting numerous similar letters. More advanced employees can draft materials for the PI's review, thereby developing their writing skills and freeing the PI for higher level activities. Feedback, with explanations of why and how changes are needed, should be provided. The PI should review staff-prepared correspondence and outgoing reports until they consistently meet the expectations for style and substance.

To ensure that specific reports and manuscripts cite the appropriate references, employees should be taught to document the sources of all printed materials received and stored in the project office, such as journal articles, government reports, and statistical tables from participating agencies. Immediate documentation helps prevent future loss of time in searching for original sources, which may be impossible to verify at a later time. For consistency, it is preferable to use one standard format for references, such as the style of the American Psychological Association, 1983. Because future manuscripts may be submitted to journals with varying requirements for reference formats, it is very helpful to have a software program that can convert references into multiple formats.

It is also important to teach employees to label and date all project documents such as office notes, computer programs and output, and reports and to file the documents in a standard manner. Doing so will help preve nt the confusion that can ensue when editing changes are entered unknowingly onto an outdated manuscript or, worse, a scientific report is written based on outdated and uncorrected data.

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Obtaining Informed Consent and Maintaining Confidentiality of Research Records

The PI is responsible for ensuring that potential research participants are properly informed about the study in accordance with the institutionally approved written or oral consent protocol. Therefore, the PI needs to be sure that the staff member who seeks consent from potential participants is well-informed about the risks, benefits, and procedures involved in the study and is prepared to answer any questions that may arise.

The PI also is responsible for establishing procedures for storing and disposing of confidential documents and databases in accordance with the requirements of the funding agency and the agencies supplying data. To avoid potential breaches in confidentiality, staff members must be taught to adhere to these procedures. Without instruction, the staff may not realize that correspondence or other documents, including drafts, that identify individual subjects should be accorded the same confidentiality protections as raw data. The staff also should be advised to avoid the unnecessary use of subjects' names or other identifying data in verbal and written communication.

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Managing the Budget and Financial Paperwork

To ensure that project activities are accomplished within the awarded budget, careful financial management is necessary. Because the paperwork required for processing expenditures may be complex and extensive, it is helpful to assign specific staff members to work with budget-related matters. Initially, a workshop on spreadsheets and budgeting may be needed. Employees with budgetary duties should study the budget justification so they can oversee or complete financial paperwork for the PI's signature. Some staff members can learn to compare actual expenses with budgeted expenses and prepare financial reports to keep the PI informed. With day-to-day budgetary experience, staff members also may learn to draft budget justifications for continuation applications, thereby freeing the PI to focus on the scientific sections. For questions that arise in financial management, the staff should consult the PI and, if necessary, the institutional budget office or the funding agency's grants management office. Responsible administrators in these offices usually welcome proactive requests for clarification.

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Developing and Testing Data Collection Instruments

If instruments are being developed or are being adapted from existing instruments, grant staff will, of course, provide supportive services (e.g., word processing) for the many revisions that inevitably are necessary. Certain employees also may be able to provide more substantive assistance. With guidance from the PI, staff members having appropriate background and training in research may be able to develop or edit drafts of instruments to be used. These staff members may benefit from resources on instrument development, such as those by Dillman, 1978, DeVellis, 1991, Fowler and Mangione, 1990 . Before formal pilot testing, office personnel also might assist by acting as mock subjects for interviews or questionnaires. This kind of participation, usually viewed as a welcome diversion from routine duties, helps office staff feel involved in the research, especially when they see that the researchers actually use their input to refine the instruments.

For staff members who later will use the instruments in data collection, formal reliability training is essential. During training, employees can role-play and practice until consistency in data collection is ensured and reliability is established. In research involving interviews or observations, it may be worthwhile to videotape a number of data collection sessions (Selby, Donat, and Hubbard, 1992). The videotaped sessions can be used to recheck reliability periodically, to retrain staff after absences or interruptions in data collection, and to train new staff over the course of the project.

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Performing Protocols and Collecting Data

Because employees without previous research experience may not understand the impact of deviations from the scientific protocol, explicit instruction is required. Staff must be taught to (a) follow protocols strictly and (b)report immediately any actual or potential deviations, however minor, from protocols. For example, in a project comparing the effectiveness of two similar educational interventions, one given over the phone and the other in person, a research assistant inadvertently might give additional information, not included in the research plan when providing education in person. If the assistant does not report the breach in protocol, comparing the interventions might be compromised. If the assistant reports the breach, the PI can evaluate the advisability of excluding and replacing the compromised intervention subject. Again, employees are more likely to help the project meet the requirement for research honesty if the PI emphasizes openness in reporting lapses in protocol and collaboration in solving problems caused by such lapses, rather than punishment.

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Coding and Entering Data

Staff should be taught to follow standardized procedures to code, enter, and verify data. Checklists documenting the required procedures are helpful as training aids for new personnel and as reminders for established personnel (Selby, Donat, and Hubbard, 1992). It is important to explain that small errors or failures to communicate, although perhaps inconsequential elsewhere, can have adverse repercussions in research. Employees usually respond well to concrete examples of how minor and well-intentioned actions that violate established procedures (e.g., making corrections on paper data collection forms after data entry and not notifying the data entry supervisor) can jeopardize the scientific integrity of the project.

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Monitoring and Analyzing Data

When analyzing the statistics selected for ongoing data monitoring and quality control, the PI can teach selected staff members the logic and basic assumptions behind the analyses being conducted. With this information, the staff can identify and resolve problems with the data or computer programs, thus freeing the PI from these routine but critical tasks. For example, if research assistants know the denominator or total number of study subjects expected for each table produced, they can determine whether the proper cases are included in analyses and can identify sources of discrepancies.

A standardized summary form can guide staff to perform the initial review of the data selected for monitoring. The form might require the reviewer to describe specific findings, compare values across study groups, compare values with pilot data, and compare trends with the research hypotheses. The completed summary forms enable the PI to identify problems and spot trends quickly. The PI then can concentrate on resolving major issues, interpreting findings, and planning additional analyses.

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Keeping Abreast of Current Research

Researchers are expected to keep up with the literature, but PIs are unlikely to have time to read all relevant publications. With instruction from the PI, supervisors, and librarians, or from written resources (e.g., Schira and Pass, 1991), grant staff can help the PI to keep informed. Staff members can conduct bibliographic searches, locate and reproduce library materials, and document references properly. Experienced staff might highlight and summarize information for the PI's review; some might draft formal literature reviews. To help staff learn to review research reports critically, a standardized tool such as the Research Assessment Form (RAF) may be useful (Selby et al., 1990, Selby, Mehta, Jutsum, Riportella-Muller, and Quade). The RAF systematically directs the reviewer to record information about a study's purpose, literature review, framework, setting, sample, research design, data collection instruments and procedures, analyses, stated implications, and limitations. Use of a structured form ensures that information needed to evaluate the scientific soundness of a study is included in the review.

Researchers also need to keep abreast of current professional meetings and conferences. These gatherings provide excellent opportunities to network informally with other researchers and share preliminary findings as well as problems and solutions in research. Because the PI's schedule cannot accommodate all relevant conferences, it may be useful to have staff members attend selected meetings. Employees usually view conference attendance as an educational benefit for themselves. To ensure the most benefit for the project, the PI may want to establish a policy whereby conference attendance conveys an obligation to represent the project in a professional manner, attend designated sessions, and provide a postconference report to summarize important information and contacts and to suggest the followup needed.

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Page last reviewed December 1994
Internet Citation: Research Grant Implementation: Staff Development as a Tool to Accomplish Research Activities. December 1994. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/clinicians-providers/resources/nursing/funding/grants/grant-implementation1.html