Podcast Episode: The little engine that could - introduction
Category: Learning and development
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
KD - Katharine Dill
Dr Katharine Dill, Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and founding Executive Director of PART, (Practice and Research Together) spoke at Iriss’s sixth annual AGM on the 27th of November 2013. Her presentation was entitled, ‘The Little Engine That Could’, creating, building and sustaining a Canadian based knowledge exchange programme. This programme is known as PART (Practice and Research together). In this introductory episode, she tells us how PART came about, grew and made an impact.
KD Well thank you so much for having me here today and I feel very, very honoured to have been invited by Alison to present. It’s really lovely actually to talk about my own life actually, I am in a new life now, I am in Northern Ireland and teaching social work, but so much of what I do every day at Queens in Belfast is very linked to the whole concepts around evidence informed practice. I think Alison wanted me to come today just to talk about sort of the story of what we did in Canada, because I think a lot of the challenges and the opportunities are very transferable to anywhere in the world and we have had a wonderful day meeting with the team, there’s just such incredible work that’s happening at Iriss and I was meeting with the team this morning and I am very, very blessed to have my wonderful friend and colleague, Dr Catherine Higgins is also with me today from Queens in Belfast, and we were just drinking in all the wonderful ideas, but I was saying that one of the things that has happened for me is that I have really known about Iriss through Alison, through an international network that we work with, and one of the things that I noticed in my journeys in Canada and then moving here, is that everyone knows about Iriss and I think that that’s a real testament to the great work that you are doing, so I am hoping that I can sort of celebrate what amazing things are coming out of a very small organisation, a ‘little engine that could’, which is similar to the talk that I am going to talk about today. I learned about Iriss through Alison, through work I had done with research and practice in England, but since I have been in Northern Ireland, every time I turn around, a lecturer has an Iriss document that they’ve downloaded on their computer and I am like, “wow, that’s fantastic”, so your work really does transcend worldwide and so I think that’s really a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the things that are happening.
I think the story, and I am sort of hoping is the story when we were all children, ‘The Little Engine That Could’, and I think that that’s really the story of what we created in Canada around evidence informed practice, but this is just really a story about a group of people that really wanted to embed and promote the use of evidence in all levels. So when Alison was asking about a title, I sort of thought, this is kind of the greatest little title, and I am sure you all remember as a child ‘the little engine that could’, “I think I can, I think I can, I know I can” … and that was sort of the mantra that we used when we started the organisation I am going to talk about.
I am a practitioner at heart, so I worked as a child protection worker in Canada for many years, then I moved into a supervisory role and I had many, many brand new protection workers that were going out to do really complicated child abuse investigations and they didn’t have any training, they had their social work degree but they had no access to evidence, they had no access to any kind of information, really complicated stuff, and that’s, I think, when I started to think about we need to get evidence into the hands of practitioners. So that was sort of my beginning journey and then I made the decision, I always think a little crazy at the time, later in life to do my PHD and I am actually really glad that I did it later on, because I think that the work that I did became more informed, because I had that practice background, and I think that that was important. But one of the things that happened was I was incredibly poor doing my PHD, I was dog sitting, you know I was doing all sort of little part time jobs and my former boss in Ottawa, I don’t know if any of you have been to Ottawa, but it’s a lovely city, she called me and she said, ‘Katharine, would you like to write a little 5 page report about this project about research utilisation?” and I said, “what is that, I don’t know”, and she said “it’s just a little report, it’s not going to really amount to much”, and I said “okay, I will do that, I could use a bit of money”, and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and that was the beginning of PART and that was the beginning of the journey, so you always have to be careful what you get yourself involved in. But I really was, I realised when I looked back at my own career, I was a practitioner doing my PHD, but doing more applied kind of research and I think that that’s the journey that Iriss is certainly on.
You know I love … what is this lovely document that you have got online that you have, it’s the … the one we looked … with the seeds, the seeds, the embedding, it’s a fantastic production and I often think what we did in Canada was similar to that and it was really about growing the seeds of an idea, and this is true I am sure for Iriss, it’s true in Scotland, it could be true for Northern Ireland as well, which is about growing the seeds of inspiration that, I, myself, came from a background of practice but I recognised that people, we were doing people a disservice, we were asking practitioners to make hugely complicated decisions, with often times of very little supervision, but very little evidence to back up the decision making process, so we decided … myself a couple of other senior leaders, let’s try something different. And I worked with one fellow who went to York University in England and he was to a poster presentation, and he learned about this model called ‘Research In Practice’, but this little organisation or this poster presentation really peaked his interest, he said, “what is it about this, this is a really cool idea, it’s about linking research and practice together. " So he brought the idea back and he said “let’s try and cook this up, let’s try and make this happen in our own world.” And there were huge, huge barriers. But I remember that when we were starting this, Celia Atherton, who actually was the Director back at the beginning, she said “it’s like growing a garden, it’s about planting the seeds”, and that’s exactly what you have been doing with a lot of your work at Iriss, is planting the garden, planting the seeds, finding the right soil and making sure that you are growing a garden to promote the use of knowledge. So I am going to talk a little bit more about what we did.
So again where it began, really this part where I developed this programme, ‘Practice and Research Together’, it started out of the UK at Dartington Research In Practice, I am sure many of you people, many people know RIP, yes, yes? And that’s really where we started. We started with this idea, but we decided, okay this is a really interesting initiative, for those of you that know about Research In Practice, it was about leveraging the world, the academic and the practice world, and not just putting together a website, but really about creating products that linked back to practice. And we sent a team over, of our senior leaders, they brought the idea back, they all put money into a pot, they each put one thousand dollars into a pot and said, “let’s try and get this initiative going”, and so that’s really kind of how it all evolved, but it’s really about promoting Evidence Informed Practice, and to be honest with you, I mean I was listening to the team today talk about ‘what does evidence informed practice mean?', and to be honest when I started running this organisation, I actually didn’t know what Evidence Informed Practice meant, I knew that at my University, the University of Toronto, everything was about Evidence Based Practice, but what did Evidence Informed Practice mean? And so I did a lot of thinking about that, I did a lot of thinking about what did that mean and how do we create an organisation and I really took it to me that, you know we were talking about this today, Evidence Informed Practice should be about informing practitioners, but not dismissing the wisdom that they have, and really cultivating a bit of an empowerment model, I think the word empowerment is missing here, about empowering people to use evidence to change the lens, change the practice that they are doing. And we did that through a number of different streams, which I am going to go through. But we really tried to create system level change and that’s not an easy thing to do.
So we were practitioner focused, and I think again that’s what you have done so well at Iriss, is really about focusing on what are the challenges for practitioners, how do we hear their voice, how do we engage them in terms of thinking about what is their knowledge, you know, and how does their knowledge help to change practice. But more than that, how does it create empowerment, how does it link to social justice, really all of those things. It’s really about empowerment and I mean when I talk about ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ I always think that practitioners are the little engines that could, you know they are the people that are just constantly overloaded, stretched, under resourced, and yet they keep going, there’s certainly a resilience, and I think what happened with the programme that we started and the elements that we created was we actually gave people a voice, that we are giving people the opportunity to share their knowledge, to share their wisdom. You know we actually had a number of different streams, we were a programme that was focused on children and families and the model that we created, and I think very similar to the beauty of what you are doing here in Scotland, is to create products but make it clear to people what products are we offering. We created a framework of different products which are very similar to what you are doing at Iriss, many different models, but I think the greatest component of success were the organisation champions and they were the link partners, and those were the people that were embedded in the organisations, they were the people that became the organisational champions, they became the people who said, “we can do this”, so they got on the little engine that could and they said “let’s get this going”. So they actually were social workers embedded in all of the organisations, there was about 50 of them that I worked with at the end, and they actually really moved the system wide change forward. So one of the things that we did do well was we actually did a thing called Webinars, which is really … I could in theory be in Calgary today and presenting to you over the internet … not the same, but still something, and so we did these … every 2 weeks we had academics from all over the world, practitioners, talking about different challenges around practice, kinship, mental health issues, all sorts of challenges around practice, and we would have them present. We also did conferences. One of the things, and I don’t know if this is true in Scotland, but our practitioners in Canada have no access to electronic resources, so we actually gave them a library, they had access to that, we had a cool little website, and the team at Iriss liked particles, particles were like reviews, so there was a bit of play on words, so we would write these practitioner focused reviews that were really cool and we had really interesting buy in.
What I wanted to talk about today is not so much the key components of the programme but what do we do to create system level change? And I think that we gave people the power to change practice. So with our Webinars, we had probably about 300 practitioners attend each one every 2 weeks across Canada, and that’s a pretty big uptake for busy, busy organisations and one of the things that we did very, very well, was we made sure that we guided the academics to communicate to practitioners. Now I don’t know about you, I know I am sitting in an academic world, we as academics are not always that great at presenting, we can be deadly boring, hopefully you are not feeling like that right now, but we can be incredibly boring, boring people, and we don’t know how to present very effectively, it’s true, I can say that, I, being one myself, and so one of the things that we heard from the practitioners was, don’t get into that regression analysis, SPSS theoretical framework stuff, just tell us how, what your study did, how is it going to help us change our practice. So I would travel across Ontario and practitioners would say, “that’s great that webinars, but boy that guy really bored me and I didn’t get anything out of it.” So what we started to do was we actually started to coach the academics to get them to present, so that their findings were relatable to the practitioners, and that really started to change the framework. We made them much shorter, we made them only 30 minutes, because people said “I can’t sit for any longer than that”, 30 minutes and then way more opportunity for dialogue at the end. And what we did was, we actually had practitioners post the question and answer period at the end, so that they actually felt like they were owning it, but one of the things that a couple of practitioners said, “you know what Katharine, guess who shows up for these webinars, and I said “I don’t know, who does, because I am moderating”, they said “we do, for the frontline practitioners, and we are becoming way smarter than our bosses”, and I thought, okay. So I thought, is that a good thing or a bad thing, I am not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but what ended up happening was this huge groundswell really of practitioners using, integrating knowledge and a huge hunger for more, a real thirst for more engagement with knowledge. Because when they have knowledge they are able to improve their practice, but they also become better critical thinkers, and critical thinking became one of the key elements of the programme design. And again we took ideas from all levels of the organisation and the system. The programme evolved to include different provinces across Canada, every single province is like it’s own little country, right, so if you have been to Ontario, it’s enormous, I think France can fit into Ontario, 5, 10 times over, so every single province is different and so every different province had a different perspective. But the way that we treated people no matter where they were located was that their voice was important and they should have an opportunity to share in the dialogue about how to put products together. So we really tried to incorporate their perspectives through online surveys, through online focus groups, all sorts of different strategies.
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