Kate is at the forefront of ResearchOps and has contributed to the emerging discipline by setting up an online community for researchers where they can discuss their challenges and crowdsource new ideas. We were able to chat with Kate about her experiences working as a research consultant, as well as the exciting opportunities and challenges she’s facing in her new gig as the Research Operations Lead at Atlassian.
Sofia: Why don't we talk about what you do at Atlassian? You have this lovely title - Research Operations Lead. Can you describe what you do and why it's important?
Kate: I've been at Atlassian for just under two months; I've been a consultant for 12 years, and of those 12 years, six have been focused on research and research operations, which is one of the reasons I accepted the offer to work at Atlassian. The thing is, research operations is not just a combination of all these independent tactics. If you build a lab, you now have to be able to recruit people into the lab. I don't think you always have to do that recruitment internally, but you need to have really good suppliers that help supply good participants coming into your lab. Once those people are in the lab, then you're going to be recording video, and where does that video go? Those recordings can be very sensitive, so you've got to think about information security around that video, and you've got consent as well. So now you've got to have great templates for consent, and so on and so forth. The pitch is that any which way you move, if you put in one tactic, it's going to touch on just about every other tactic within research operations.
When Atlassian asked me to come on board, I saw it as a great opportunity. I'm here for at least four years, and it gives me the opportunity to be able to deliver an entire ecosystem where I can be looking at recruitment, vendors, and all the different pieces that make up the research ops ecosystem not just for researchers, but for people across the organization doing research, and also the people who are consuming that research.
It's the first time that I'm really in a place where I'm having to explore what it means to put in the entire ecosystem. And it's very, very exciting. The thing I'm working on at the moment is customer loops actually, which is not really research operations, but still very useful information to have. And in some ways it does eventually become research operations, because you are looking at customer feedback loops and asking how we aggregate that feedback and put it in a place where it can be synthesized. I'm also working on our research repository, on recruitment, and on a vendor list. I’m also working on communication across the organization, trying to determine how we give executives and PMs across the organization regular quarterly updates.
But you know, we're early days in Research Operations, and because there's not a legacy of Research Operation Leads in companies, when you walk in as a Research Operations Lead, a lot of bits and pieces of ResearchOps work has been done already or is being done to varying degrees. You don't walk in and just take ownership of all of it, because you're one person. You can't.
It's very much about being fluid and part of the company and starting to take on pieces of the work, and letting other people carry other with pieces of it. Unless you walk in and you've suddenly got a team of five, which is very unusual in this day in age, you just need to get in and do what you can.
Sofia: What are your hopes for the ResearchOps community? How would you like things to evolve?
Kate: My first real ambition for the community was to validate ResearchOps, just because I’ve spent enough years talking to researchers who were battling with the role. The good thing is that you now have big teams of researchers who are seen as valuable, and in many places, people actually want the research, and that’s great. But the thing is that, because researchers don't have the infrastructure and support they need, they don’t have the time to get the operational bits right, and when things go wrong in a project, the execs or the PMs, or whoever, go back to the researcher and the researcher catches it - show me proof of why we made that decisions, and if there’s no good filing or recording system because it’s simply not there - because the pace is too rapid to maintain it as well as do research, it can be hard to find that proof. That’s just one example. I've spoken to a lot of researchers who were very stressed out about their workload and the pressure on them. So one of the first things I wanted to do with the community was make it a big enough thing so that ResearchOps was validated.
I wanted to get Research Operations to a place where, when you talk to your manager or your CEO and say, "We need a research operations person, or team," there's an entire industry to point at, and that's worked very well. I didn't expect we’d get it right so fast, but I now know people in banks that couldn't get a ResearchOps person, and now they're having the conversation with their bosses or whatever and they’re very open to it. The next thing that tends to happen is they'll say, "Okay, we need a ResearchOps person," and think that one person is going to come in and solve all the problems of a team of anywhere from 15 to 40 researchers. And that's just not viable.
Research operations is, to my mind, a series of small businesses. If you're trying to run a recruitment service and you’ve got a panel and/or you're finding good agencies to work with, that internal recruitment service is a company. You're running a small internal service, and you can't expect one person to start the company, make it profitable, and then run all the recruitment and do all the admin work, and look after all the other operational elements. When you look at research operations and all the aspects of it, you've got legal, which is comprised of consent forms, data security and anything else relating to rules and regulations. Sometimes you've got travel, unless the company itself has some kind of mechanism for that. You've got asset management, which is not finding the research, it's just putting it in a place where you know it's safely stored and you can find it. And then you've got knowledge management - for me, the shelf that the books go on is different from how you find the right book on the shelf, if you see what I mean.
Career development is strong in research, at least from what I've seen. As a researcher, you want to know how you can grow. Because a lot of people come in as junior, then they might go to mid-weight, then to senior, and then they become a head of the team. But not everybody enjoys that progression. So what do you do? Where do you go? ResearchOps can be about simple things like getting speakers to come in to keep the team learning and growing, organizing subscriptions, books, other learning opportunities, or any combination of those activities - all of that can be part of research operations.
This is the reality check - If you want to do operations properly, over time you're going to need a team, and that team is going to have to be a minimum of five people to really do it well. And if you don't have those resources, well then you need to be realistic about what researchers can do. I'm seeing companies trying to hire one person to do the job of Research Operations, and that’s just not realistic. When I was asked to go and work at Atlassian, I said to them, "What are my hopes of getting a team together there? Because I can't deliver research operations for Atlassian as one person.” And to be honest, I wouldn't have accepted if they had said there's no hope of you having a team, because it just wouldn't have been worth my while. The good news is that I've already got a new hire coming in, which will make me a team of two.
What I found really interesting about the ResearchOps Community is if you look at a lot of the conversations in the Slack group, it's not necessarily all about operations; a lot of conversations are about research methodology. And one of the big things I want to work on is to really start focusing the conversation on operations, not on methodology.
Leisa is our head of Research and Insights, and her job is strategic and methodology focused. She’s focused on who is on the team, what kind of research they are doing, how the team is structured, where they’re working, and all those kinds of questions around how the research is actually being carried out - about craft. And my job is to build the structure underneath that. I'm not saying this is the case at all, but if Atlassian were saying, "We really need to amp up on our usability research," my job would be to provide all the tools and the spaces and the infrastructure and the processes that are needed to support that. My job is not to inform best practice for usability testing, that’s the job of the the Head of Research. So I provide all the underpinnings that makes the research strategy possible, or more efficient.
Sofia: Is there anything that really surprised you about starting the ResearchOps Slack community?
Kate: I honestly didn't think that so many people would be interested, because I'd spent many years feeling very much like I was the only person in the world who really cared about it. I started the Community because big companies were phoning up to have conversations with me about the sort of work I was doing, and I realized that I was having the same conversations over and over again. And at that time, I said to a few people in these companies, "Why don't we have a place where we can get together and work this stuff out together?" One day I thought, I'm going to start a Slack channel, and invite them, and we can talk there.
I think within two or three weeks there were 200-300 members, and now it's about 1,100 people in the community. About 500 people are active and perhaps 100 or so are very active. That has been very surprising, but it’s also not too surprising when you sit back and consider that we’re trying to address the biggest pain point for researchers - all the work they need to do that isn’t actually research.
I did a talk on ResearchOps last November. And I remember thinking, “I'm going to bore the hell out of everybody because I'm going to stand up and talk about my researching researchers.” I was so convinced I was going to bore them. I actually think I might have done that a little bit in the end, but now I realize people are not bored by this. If you tell the story with a heartfelt approach and have confidence in the fact that they do care, people will care. They really are very interested.
It is really interesting because now people just join the Community because it's the community to be in for now, and it's not necessarily because they are so cued in or interested in the Research Operations conversation. But at the same time, our clientele as ResearchOps people are researchers. We're developing what it is that we do and what we need to do, and who better to be friends with than all the researchers? Because it's them that we need to be really looking after in the end.
Sofia: How do you see other business functions working with the Research Ops team?
Kate: Till now, my role has always been working with a team of researchers where I'm looking after just the researchers. I might speak to brand people or whoever, but my main audience was always the researchers. And to deliver solutions, I’d need to make friends with Procurement and Information Security, Estate Management, or Communications, you name it, to deliver what we needed to. But working now in a full-time role for Atlassian, where people from across the organisation do research, my role has expanded - my clientele isn’t just the research team, it’s execs, PMs and designers across many teams across the globe, so it’s big. And I’m still needing to make friends with many parts of the business to deliver solutions. In ResearchOps, you certainly can’t be an island, or a silo. You won’t get anywhere like that. You’ve got to be very well networked. That one of the toughest, and most fun! parts about starting up Research Ops in a global company is getting those networks together.
One of the things that we're working on is recruitment and streamlining it into a service for people doing research. That project doesn’t necessarily touch on all parts of the business, but it does involve procurement, information security, and legal. There are other projects about publishing data in a way that is useful for PMs and executives, as well as the research library. You look at that and think, how are we going to create a research library that looks after people doing research, but also becomes a place where PMs can come and find research and do it in a way that doesn't replace the researcher and the skill of the researcher.
People talk about insight banks and they just make my skin crawl, because it's too easy for anyone - PM, marketing, designer - to come in and find an insight that's detached from all context and use it very innocently; just use it completely out of context or for something that it was never meant for. When you're creating research knowledge spaces, you have to be aware of how that knowledge can be used by someone who doesn't have all that context built in.
Sofia: For people reading this blog post that have never heard about the community and your efforts, what is the best way for them to learn more about it and participate?
Kate: Yeah. Cool. So we've got a waiting list just for the sake of sanity and also to somewhat control the cadence of how many people get added to the community. Every four weeks I'll add around 150 people into the community at once. It's nice for the community, I think, because I'll make an announcement saying, "Hey, a whole lot of new people are coming." And then a stream of people arrive.
We have a monthly town hall, which we just started this week. To join the town hall, you don't have to be a part of the Slack channel. It's very important to note that this is not a Slack community. This is a community that lives in person, on Twitter, wherever you want it to live. Conversations take place in Slack, and in order to get on that, you need to be on the waitlist, but you can engage on Twitter using the hashtag #researchops. A lot of people see that, or using the hashtag #whatisresearchops - that also works. You can come to the town halls, and there's a signup list for that as well. You'll get added to a Google Group which is used to manage the invites for the town hall.
We've also got a Medium which we publish on fairly regularly, considering we've got no editorial plan. I'll meet people and ask them to write something. If they do, then I'll have a look through it and post it if we like it - that's a nice way of keeping up, and you can subscribe to that. And we've got a Twitter account as well, @teamreops, which is good for watching. At the moment I'm reforming the community to run in a different way, so that it’s lighter on me and on the team of people that have been helping me make a lot of decisions behind it.
The thing that I really need are people who are willing to monitor the channels for content that doesn’t follow our guidelines. We're very strict about people not pushing their agenda on Community members or advertising themselves. And it's very hard for me to keep an eye on all the channels and make sure that all those rules are being followed. If you're interested in GDPR, or recruitment, etc. - we want a team of three to four people per channel to monitor and have the guts to speak up and say to someone, "That's out of line, you need to retract that.”
I want to start putting together a monthly newsletter of the most interesting things that are shared in the Community. So the monitors will be there also to pin up stuff at the top of the channel so that we can go through and scoop it up once a month and put together a very quick newsletter to send out to the community and say, "These are the top things that people are talking about.”