Welcome to Research Utilization
Research utilization fosters movement from innovation into practice. The focus of this Web site is to support NIDRR-sponsored researchers who want their work to benefit individuals with disabilities, in the broadest sense. RUSH hopes to engage grantees involved in the broad spectrum of disability and rehabilitation research, whose work may be in addressing employment outcomes; health and function; technology for access and function; independent living and community integration; associated disability; knowledge dissemination and utilization; Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) technical assistance programs; capacity building for rehabilitation research; and technology assistance.
SEDL's Research Utilization Support and Help (RUSH) Project addresses three intertwined needs and challenges in the lives of researchers funded by NIDRR:
- financial resources in the form of Research Utilization Awards (RUAs) to support research utilization activities that will serve as models for successful utilization strategies
- data-based examples of successful dissemination and utilization of NIDRR research to broad-based segments of the American population
- training opportunities for all NIDRR researchers to discuss "what works" in dissemination and utilization
Although considerable improvements have been made in the dissemination of disability and rehabilitation research (Blasiotti, 1992), a gap still persists between the development of useful research findings and their availability to those who will most benefit from them. Too often, knowledge and interventions produced through NIDRR-supported research remain largely untapped due to researchers' limited resources and a lack of identified utilization goals and targets. The RUSH Project focuses on expanding NIDRR grantees' scope of work in utilization and increased evidence-based utilization strategies through integrating the needs of both NIDRR grantees and potential consumers of NIDRR-sponsored research into its design, an approach intended to maximize the effectiveness of strategies moving research to practice.
The process of dissemination is intended to produce an effect—utilization of information—on the part of the recipient. Production of this utilization effect becomes limited when a proposed scope of work simply addresses the following: (a) production of documents, and (b) relocation of those documents from Point A to Point B. NIDRR defines dissemination and utilization (D&U) individually, allowing them to be addressed in announcements either separately or jointly. For reference, a dissemination activity has been defined as:
In carrying out a dissemination activity under this [DRRP] program, a grantee must systematically distribute information or knowledge through a variety of ways to potential users or beneficiaries. (Authority: Section 202, 29 U.S. C. 761a; Federal Register, 2/6/97, pp. 5711-5721.)
Further, NIDRR has defined utilization activities as:
In carrying out a utilization activity under this [DRRP] program, a grantee must relate research findings to practical applications in planning, policy making, program administration, and delivery of services to individuals with disabilities. (Authority: Section 202, 29 U.S. C. 761a; Federal Register, 2/6/97, pp. 5711-5721.)
Many disability researchers begin planning for D&U by thinking primarily about distribution or documentation activities, such as the publication of paper-based products in the form of articles, book chapters, monographs, or scholarly papers. Few of these researchers define their dissemination activities to "fit" specific goals of utilization that address who will most benefit from the research finding, and how they can best learn about it in order to apply it. In general today, the concept of utilization is understood far less by NIDRR researchers than is the concept of dissemination.
Difficulties in research utilization
The purpose of research is to be of use—to change current practice, or to confirm it. Yet the process of moving new understandings and new products from research to practice usually takes years, decades, or even generations. Although there are good reasons for moving carefully—new research needs to be evaluated, replicated, and refined—too often the pace of change is set, not by a rigorous process of review and refinement, but by the gap between the research community and the world of practice.
Research on dissemination, or knowledge utilization as it is sometimes called, has yielded a wealth of information about what does and does not work. But, due to this gap, those understandings for the most part have not moved from the research community—those who study the process of knowledge use—to the practice community—those responsible for adopting and applying research outcomes. As a result, most dissemination practices are still based on a mechanistic, linear conception of dissemination as a process of "getting the word out."
Approaches designed to promote knowledge utilization within the fields of rehabilitation and education traditionally have been drawn from the agricultural extension model, whose basic presumption is that people will use research-based products only if they have access to information about them. The success of the agricultural extension model, along with other experience, tells us that this presumption is true, in some cases, and under specific circumstances. However, even with its long-term funding, strong coordination, and close links with practitioners, the agricultural extension system has proved to be much less effective when the research-based outcomes to be disseminated stray from agricultural production technology into areas calling for attitudinal or behavioral changes.
As a number of experts point out, most research "is not used as a can opener is used" (Huberman, 1987). Many research outcomes have implications for the ways in which programs are run, services are provided, money is allocated, information is interpreted, or materials are used. In cases where change is conceptually complex, and in cases where substantive change is demanded in individual or organizational beliefs or behaviors, the process of knowledge use is vastly more complicated.
Below is a list of findings from research on knowledge use that suggest a few of the complexities in identifying utilization "models" and encouraging their application by others. Researchers are frequently not addressing utilization goals with sufficient detail to overcome these complexities:
- The actual quality of a research design is less important, in terms of its likelihood of being adopted and used, than the extent to which it fits with users' established beliefs and experience.
- The source producing research outcomes is more important than the quality of the research design. People tend to trust sources with whom they have established relationships and/or for whom they have high levels of respect.
- The degree of credibility of information sources is related to two factors: perceived expertise and perceived trustworthiness. The more intensely people are involved with an issue, the more likely they are to question both the expertise and the trustworthiness of those whose information contradicts their own current understandings.
- When research outcomes do get used in real-world settings, the resulting practices, programs, or products are often quite different from the researcher's original conception. While researchers often produce new information, they do not routinely provide demonstrations or other utilization assistance to interpret how it "fits" into real-world environments. Additionally, utilization requires that some adaptations be made to apply new models into existing contexts.
- The extent to which the intended beneficiaries of particular research are involved in the research process, the more likely a researcher will have stories, examples, and general information that is couched from the "user" perspective. This information is often critical in promoting utilization.
The preceding research outcomes all focus on characteristics of the potential users of new knowledge or products. This attention to the user represents one of the major shifts in understanding about effective dissemination and utilization. Traditionally, D&U theories and strategies have focused primarily on the message, or content, to be disseminated (the specific "innovation," in terms of new research findings, programs, or devices) or on the medium of dissemination (the channels used to get the message out including news releases, electronic networks, webcasts, or interactive video). Traditional approaches acknowledge that utilization is affected by characteristics of the dissemination source (including intermediary information sources, called linking agents). But the primary determiners of utilization are the "users" themselves. They are the most critical element in the D&U process. The effectiveness of any "utilization model" rests upon the degree to which it "fits" a particular potential user group. The degree to which an intended user group has diversity and wide-ranging characteristics, the greater the necessity of having a range of "utilization models" to accommodate those differences (Douthitt, 1995; Flowers, Edwards & Pusch, 1996).
Experts now perceive knowledge use as a cognitive function or, in other words, as a learning activity. Research on utilization and social cognition has converged to provide deeper understandings about how people process new information as well as what is required for utilization to occur.
Constructivist learning theory and utilization
Current perspectives on knowledge utilization draw from a theory of learning known as constructivism. According to constructivist principles, knowledge is not a "thing"—a static, inert object to be sent and received. Rather, knowledge is a fluid set of understandings shaped both by those who originate it and by those who use it. "This casts the user as an active problem-solver and a constructor of his or her own knowledge, rather than as a more passive receptacle of information and expertise" (Hutchinson and Huberman, 1993).
This implies that utilization is most likely to occur when potential users determine that they have a need for particular information. This constructivist orientation is the basis for modern day marketing research and associated techniques designed to influence a user's perception of "need," and similarly, utilization models must recognize "need" as a powerful force in producing and shaping outcomes.
Past and faulty "models of knowledge utilization" have been based upon a variety of beliefs about how learning takes place. For example one "model" suggested the human mind was a tabula rasa, or a blank slate to be written upon. This knowledge utilization model also has been called "the bucket theory of the mind" (Buchman, 1982), in which the brain was viewed as an empty vessel into which knowledge was poured.
Another common and, again, faulty "utilization model" was the notion that people acted as sponges, "soaking up" knowledge, a role that is somewhat more active than that of an empty vessel. However, this model fails as well as the learner is considered to absorb knowledge taken in wholesale, without filtering or processing.
Yet another notion often used in this era of technology is that of the brain as a computer, which processes in an orderly, systematic fashion the information that is received from outside sources.
None of these "models" adequately describes the ways in which learners process information. New knowledge is not merely filtered and sorted, but transformed by the learner's pre-existing experiences and understandings. This conceptual framework suggests the building and shaping of new structures as a part of the knowledge utilization process.
What is the difference between dissemination and utilization?
Many researchers, when they begin planning for dissemination and utilization, think primarily about the "D." Dissemination is the important item on most people's agendas: how to get research results to intended audiences in the most effective, cost-efficient manner.
But utilization is a critical element in increasing the effective reach of research outcomes. Focusing only on the "D" in D&U is like dialing nine numbers of a ten-digit telephone number: You may be 90 percent finished, but unless you dial that last digit, you'll never make the intended connection.
What do dissemination and utilization address? Where does one kind of activity end and the other begin? There is no single, clear line of demarcation. Some definitions of dissemination go so far as to encompass use (NCDDR, 1996, 1999). Generally, though, dissemination has been unable to break free of its roots—its Latin roots, that is: a literal reference to scattering seed. People associate dissemination with spreading the word; the process of how ideas and information become used seems another issue altogether.
So it's helpful to pull the two ideas apart, to assure that each can be addressed explicitly. We've found the following to be a useful way of thinking about D&U:
Dissemination speaks primarily to the process of knowledge transfer – the who, what, when, and how of moving ideas and information from the source(s) to intended recipient(s).
Utilization speaks primarily to purpose and to impact—why you want people to get the research outcomes you're putting forth, what use you want people to make of the ideas, information, or products, and how people are actually using them.
Both dissemination and utilization activities must be planned and conceived to meet the needs of a specific user if each is to be efficient and ultimately successful. Utilization that may occur through activities that are not structured—for example, through dissemination activities—may just happen. This approach to utilization is not, however, desired for researchers to consistently use and assume will be effective in moving research to practice. A need exists for clear ways to link dissemination and utilization for the purpose of moving research findings into the hands and minds of those that can most benefit from them. Facilitating such utilization requires a structured, planned approach.
All utilization is not the same
The phenomenon of "utilization" varies from person to person. Even groups which may have been previously considered homogeneous, such as people with disabilities, share unique beliefs, abilities, and understandings. Strategies for achieving research utilization among such groups must embrace varying preferences and aptitudes for processing information about a new research outcome/application and rejecting it as unnecessary, as well as processing information about a new research-based innovation and applying it routinely in activities of daily living. Both of these outcomes are reflective of the wide continuum of utilization.
In order to change pre-existing understandings, groups or individuals first must recognize a certain "need." A reason has to be perceived in order to make a shift in thinking. Or, as Backer (1994) puts it, "People and organizations develop the energy to change when faced with real pain." When old ways do not seem to be working as well as they should, when current explanations cannot account for a new circumstance, when the status quo is no longer comfortable, these are times when real change in understanding and behavior are possible.
Implications for dissemination and utilization efforts
What does all this mean for those whose responsibilities include dissemination for the purpose of utilization of research outcomes? It means, first, that dissemination is not synonymous with publication. Merely creating documents or innovations and sending out information, whether via an article in a scholarly journal or the World Wide Web, will not create a "utilization model." This type of model must be developed around the intended users—their worries, beliefs, constraints, and priorities, and the people and organizations whose opinions they tend to value.
Utilization models must incorporate intended users' needs, contexts, and readiness for change for application of the new research-based knowledge to occur. The degree of detail in this portion of a utilization model rests upon the level of detailed understanding about the intended user group(s) and the nature of the research result being disseminated for use. The level of diversity and options in a utilization model depends upon the extent of diversity within a particular target audience.
A successful utilization model must rely on effective and well-defined interactions between basic process elements of the potential user, the content of the message, the context required to obtain the message, the medium of the message, and the source of the message/research result(s). Exhibit A provides a diagram of the interaction among these elements.
Exhibit A - Elements of D&U
[ Exhibit A: Text description ]
Knowledge transfer models
Many researchers (Dixon, 2000; NCDDR, 2001) in the knowledge utilization and management area describe the appropriate choice of knowledge transfer activity to be critically linked to the leveraging of knowledge from one group to another. Some examples and descriptions of knowledge transfer models follow:
- Serial knowledge transfer model – in this model, transfer is leveraged from one work "team" to a very similar work team in another similar work setting. Knowledge is transferred from individual members of the team, to the team as a whole, i.e., integrated into a commonly–held perception of what worked. This constitutes the basis of what can then be transferred to another similar team member or group.
- Best practice knowledge transfer model – in this model, transfer of knowledge occurs from a team with commonly—held knowledge to all elements of the organization within which the team exists. This transfer model is usually inspired within a competitive organization that is looking to increase its "edge" on the competition. Knowledge that is transferred is generally accepted as "best practices" within the organization, thus, encouraging utilization.
- Exemplary knowledge transfer model – in this model, the knowledge transfer is from the organizational level, and the transfer is intended to impact other organizations that may or may not be similar in scope and function. In this case, what an organization has done well is the "knowledge" subject to transfer, and generally, competitive secrets are not given away in the process.
- Strategy–based knowledge transfer model – in this model, the knowledge encompasses an overall strategy or approach in addressing a specific and often non–routine problem. Transfer is based around other entities that may recognize a similar problem and be in need of developing a responsive and effective strategy.
- Expert knowledge transfer model – in this model, individuals that may have been known to have experienced and overcome similar problems, are viewed as experts. This expertise becomes known and valued and is called upon when "problems" generally related to the original "problem" occur.
These examples of knowledge transfer models provide a conceptual framework upon which the dissemination and utilization of research results can be based. Some of these knowledge transfer models can be accomplished best through face-to-face contact. Others, however, do lend themselves to the use of electronic network and Web-based information sharing techniques.
Utilization model constructs
Developing new utilization models takes some careful thought about matching a given strategy with a specific desired outcome. A wide array of "variables" must be accounted for in this type of modeling process. For example, a utilization model must specify:
- An action that will link a specific user(s) with a specific message/research result; specific, accessible format and a respected information/research source. This may sometimes be referred to as a public information campaign.
- An action must be "matched" with known available resources required, such as staff time, budget, materials, equipment, and technology.
- Elements of the activity or activities to be conducted, such as workshops, newspaper articles, public service announcements, web sites, or others should be designed for the individuals or groups each is intended to reach such as, for example, people with spinal cord injuries, family members of people with cognitive disabilities, independent living center program directors, or others.
- Short-term outcomes can be planned as casual foundations for subsequent impacts. For example, a short–term outcome could be increased awareness of the benefits of wearing a helmet while cycling, an intermediate outcome could be behavior change in the form of routinely wearing a helmet, and a long–term impact could be the reduction of traumatic brain injuries of cyclists.
Clearly, the skillful connection of knowledge transfer efforts with targeted utilization plans produces a well-conceived, integrated approach to moving research into practice.
What is utilization measurement and why is it important?
Central to the utilization portion of D&U is evaluation or measurement. To understand how effectively you are reaching your audiences—not merely in terms of whether audience members hear a public service announcement about employment of people with disabilities, for example, but in terms of how listeners do or do not apply the information they hear—you must have some means of evaluating use. Measurement of utilization outcomes should be conducted to improve a research grantees' D&U activities. Knowing whether utilization has occurred requires a NIDRR researcher to have a plan for measuring or evaluating outcomes or use. A researcher must clarify whether utilization is determined by mere receipt of research information or (hopefully) based upon an active observation or report of implementation and resulting benefit.
There are multiple dimensions to the concept of utilization. The role of evaluation in relation to the D&U process is to help NIDRR researchers understand how much and how effectively consumers (or other targeted groups) are using the research outputs that have been disseminated. Utilization of research outcomes, then, can be considered in terms of these two basic dimensions.
When researchers think about evaluating consumers' use, they generally think of only one of these dimensions: the level or extent of use. Patton (1997) describes this dimension as the "use-nonuse continuum." Evaluation along this continuum involves measuring the degree or magnitude of use among groups of the intended audiences.
There is a second, equally important dimension, however: the use-misuse continuum. In most instances, it's important to assess the manner as well as the degree of use of disability research outcomes, asking and obtaining answers to the question: How—and how effectively—are consumers using or benefiting from a specific research outcome?
One important caution about measurement along the use-misuse continuum: the common tendency is to focus on evaluating use in terms of the researchers' intentions, that is, assessing the extent to which consumers actually use research outcomes in the way that disability researchers intended. But intended use and effective use are not always synonymous. Sometimes consumers make adaptations or find effective uses never considered by researchers; sometimes cultural differences between researchers and consumers shift the assumptions as to what constitutes effective use. Utilization measurement is made complex by the nature of "use." Exhibit B, Utilization Continuum, identifies some examples of outcomes that may represent utilization.
Exhibit B: Utilization Continuum
[ Exhibit B: Text description ]
Whether consumers use research outcomes as intended certainly is a legitimate and important function of utilization models and the measurement of outcomes. Therefore, utilization and measurement must include data collection plans that are flexible across these two continua.
Building blocks of utilization modeling
To develop the knowledge transfer base that underlies utilization, there are five common core elements that are keys to success. These core elements strongly influence whether utilization efforts will be effective:
- source - Where does the research information come from?
- content - What is the research information about?
- context - How does the research information relate to existing knowledge or products?
- medium - How can I get the research information?
- user - How can I benefit from this research information?
Exhibit C provides further descriptive information about these elements. Each element is couched from the potential user perspective. Issues and characteristics of each of these elements are highlighted.
Exhibit C: Elements and Issues Related to Utilization Modeling
||Characteristics Determining Utilization of Research Results
Where does it come from?
• Perceived competence of researchers and research organization
• Credibility of experience of researchers
• Credibility of motive
• Sensitivity to user concerns and applications
• Relationship to other sources trusted by users
• Orientation toward use or application
What is it about?
• Credibility of research and development methodology
• Credibility of outcomes
• Comprehensiveness of research outcomes
• Utility and relevance for potential users
• Capacity to be described in terms understandable to users
• Cost effectiveness
• Research design and procedures
• Relationship between research outcomes and existing knowledge or available products
• Competing or similar research-based knowledge or products
How does it relate?
• Relationship between outcomes and existing knowledge or products
• Current issues in the field
• Competing knowlege or products
• General economic climate
How can I get it?
• Physical capacity to reach intended users
• Timelines of access
• Accessibility and ease of use, user friendliness
• Cost effectiveness
• Clarity and attractiveness of the information "package"
How can I benefit from it?
• Perceived relevance to own current needs
• User's readiness to change or try something new
• Information sources trusted and valued
• Format and level of research-based information needed
• Level of contextual research-based information needed
• Dissemination media preferred
• Capacity to use and benefit from research-based information or product (resources, skills, and support)
Issues when developing disability research utilization models
Several issues are involved when designing a research utilization modeling system appropriate to NIDRR research. The ten questions below reflect some areas to consider.
- What is involved in "utilization" when research findings are the information source?
- How do you separate issues of quality of research design from issues of utilization of research results?
- What level of informational detail would a research utilization model need in order to be most helpful in guiding activities of NIDRR researchers trying to achieve outreach/impact?
- To what extent do research findings need to be demonstrated in "real world conditions" in order for short, intermediate, and long-term utilization to be clear and measured?
- How can various "levels" of knowledge transfer models (serial, best practice, exemplary, strategic, and expert) be best incorporated into a user-friendly toolbox of utilization planning options?
- Is it sufficient for RUSH Project Utilization Models to contain the basic elements of utilization goal, input resources applied/available, output activities and participants, and short, intermediate, and long-term outcomes?
- How do you define "success" within the context and scope of NIDRR grantee (staff and monetary) limitations in addressing utilization?
- How can NIDRR research announcements be developed to best clarify expectations for utilization activities and measurements?
- How does a researcher or a funding agency best tailor research activities/outcomes to address the perceived information concerns of particular target audiences?
- Can computer technologies positively expand the application of utilization models without face-to-face interchanges/contacts?
While these questions reflect only some of the complexities associated with utilization modeling, the RUSH Project design expands the knowledge surrounding each question from SEDL's real-world experiences with NIDRR research grantees.
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