Fresh ways to help your colleagues become research experts

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A while ago while working at a charity, I got chatting to a colleague about what we both did.

I said I worked in science communications, helping staff and supporters understand the research we fund. He then said (as people often did), “oh, well I don’t know anything about our research!”.

I was shocked – I couldn’t believe it. How could he not know anything about our research? Inconceivable!

I knew for a fact that he had sat through my extensive two-hour PowerPoint presentation given to all new starters.

I knew for a fact that maybe only three months ago, I had sent an email to his team pointing them to a folder on our shared drives where they could find 100+ examples of our research.

I knew for a fact that after every research talk, I would always say “come find me if you have any questions”, and he had in fact NOT come to find me with any questions.

How could he possibly not know anything about any of our research?

It then dawned on me.

Perhaps, maybe, formal training presentations with dozens of PowerPoint slides aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (especially not in your first week, alongside fire safety measures and a brief overview of brand guidelines).

Maybe sending people to a shared folder with lots of Word docs can be a just a bit overwhelming.

And it’s possible that my genuine and heartfelt invitation to him to walk across the office to ask me a question in front of other people could be quite intimidating.

Why we need to think differently about training

a classroom with a group of children and a teacher

Along with your other responsibilities, you might be responsible for ensuring your colleagues have up-to-date knowledge of your charity’s work. For shorthand, we’ll call this ‘training’, but we could equally call it ‘learning’ or ‘development’.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with formal training sessions using presentations – they have their place. Nor am I suggesting that people shouldn’t have access to information via shared folders, or be able to come to you to ask for questions.

But it’s too easy to assume that a one-size-fits-all approach works: that, because all your colleagues have seen the same training presentation, they all have the same level of knowledge.

Everyone is different. Some people get a lot out of formal training sessions, while other prefer self-directed study. Some people will soak up information like a sponge, and for others it’ll take time to filter through. Some people learn by reading manuals, others by watching YouTube. And some people might have health conditions or disabilities which could mean that presentations are difficult to follow, or that written information is hard to understand.

In an ideal world, those responsible for training should be providing a range of different ways for people to learn, allowing people to select the ones that suit them best.

Depending on your organisation, it could also be important to consider geography. Maybe your charity has regional or international offices. Maybe you have distributed teams with people who work from home or remotely. How will you reach people who don’t work in the same office – or even in the same time-zone – as you?

Ideas to make training less boring, and more inclusive

people at a table learning from books

I’ve come up with a few different ideas which can help people familiarise themselves with your charity’s work.

There’s a variety of ideas here, and not all will be applicable for every organisation. But some common themes amongst these ideas are:

  • Informal, rather than traditional ‘presenter-led’ training
  • Happen in unexpected places
  • Allow people to serve themselves
  • Can be adapted for organisations where not everyone in the same office
  • Don’t always put the onus on one person/team to ‘be the trainer’
  • Focus on one project or theme at a time

I’m focusing on medical research charities here, because it’s what I know best. But these ideas could just as easily work for other charities too.

Without further ado, here we go!

Cameo appearances in regular meetings

Do you have all-staff huddles, or regular departmental/team meetings? You could have a one-minute slot to talk about one research project everyone time.

You don’t always have to be the one doing the talking either – you could encourage other teams/departments to have a ‘research slot’ in their meetings. Or you could have a rota for someone different each time to present a research example (offering to help them, of course)

Away days

Like above, if you’re having an away-day coming up, you could invite along a researcher to talk about their work.

(Note this will probably won’t work if it’s a ‘fun away-day’ – unless you know a researcher who really likes bowling or whatever.)

Quizzes

A bit of friendly competition in an office can be a good thing! As suggested by Lisa Atkinson from Fizzy Compass, setting up a quiz with prizes for the winners can sometimes give people the motivation they need to seek out information. It can also be used to highlight little-known facts about your charity’s impact.

‘Research corner’ on your intranet

If your charity has a staff intranet, you could have a small corner of the front page which features a research story, updated regularly.

Staff update emails

Again, if your organisation has a regular internal email for all staff, ask whoever puts it together nicely if you could throw in a research story each time.

‘Ask me anything’ drop-in session

You could have a regular slot at a lunchtime or coffee break, maybe once a month, where colleagues can approach you for a 1-on-1 chat about your research. You could come prepared with an example to talk about or you could let the conversation freewheel.

(Bonus idea #1 – could one of your researchers come into the office and do this with you?)

(Bonus idea #2 – for the benefit of any regional offices or remote workers, you could do this as a virtual drop-in. Use video conferencing software like Zoom or Skype to bring everyone together at a mutually convenient time.)

A ‘research buddy’ system

Depending on the size of your charity (and how often new people join the team), you could consider something similar to ‘buddy’ systems for new starters. Everyone is paired up with a ‘research buddy’, someone who can answer ‘dumb questions’ about research. Note that doesn’t necessarily have to be a ‘research’ person, any staff member with even a bit of knowledge about where to find things could be helpful.

Posters in the kitchen

Yes, it’s can be a bit overdone, but people always need something to do whilst waiting for tea or coffee to brew. Stick up an eye-catching research story on the wall and change it regularly.

Out of Office replies

A lot of email systems allow you to set different out-of-office replies for internal and external recipients. If you have a regular non-working day, could you also include a link to a research story on your website?

Broadcast emails

The phrase ‘all-staff email’ makes people shudder, but I think it’s mostly because people get too many, or they feel the information isn’t relevant to them. Instead, you could just send research examples to the people who definitely need them – or you could have an ‘internal newsletter’ which people could opt-in to receive.

Cut out the text

If you are going to send a research examples via email, instead of writing it, could you send it as an image, or an animated GIF, or a short video which tells the story in 30 seconds? Options like Loom, where you can record your face as well as your screen, could be helpful if you need to show and tell.

(Bonus idea– get your colleagues’ feedback on these and use them externally too)

New-fangled ways of communicating

Maybe you’re so down-with-the-kids that you no longer use emails when it comes to talking with your colleagues electronically. Could you consider options such as WhatsApp groups, Messenger groups, Snapchat groups, or Slack channels instead?

Consider the message as well as the medium

a large unorganised pile of letters

I’ve shared ideas about different ways to get the message out. But it’s also important to consider what the message is, as well as how you get the message across.

Things to also consider include:

  • Context – Just like you would for talking externally about your research, put individual projects into the context of your charity’s work. Think of it more like talking about a broad theme and then using an example to illustrate it.
  • People – instead of talking about research projects, share a story about a specific person: either the researcher involved, or a person who could benefit from their work. People prefer hearing stories about people, rather than about proteins, cells, or drugs.
  • External events – has there been a big news story recently that ties in with some work you’re doing? Use it as a hook to share relevant work – it’ll help put the work into context
  • Relevant charity activities – Is there’s something big going on at your charity right now, like a campaign or a cash appeal? Is there a research example which ties into it? As well as putting the project into context, it’ll give your colleagues something else to talk about with supporters, if needed.
  • Bring in the experts – Stories are more powerful if they’re told by the person who ‘owns’ them. Bringing in researchers to talk about their own work, or patients to talk about their own experiences, can make a story more memorable.
  • Make it easy to digest but also to find out more – with any given project there’s probably a lot to talk about. Keep to the top-line message, but make it clear how other people could find out more if they wanted to.

What are your favourite ways to learn? Have you used any unusual ways to teach colleagues something? How could you make your ‘training’ as inclusive for as many different people as possible?

Come follow me on Twitter @DrRichardBerks and share your ideas.


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