Sophie Ahmad is Head of Research at OPM (the Office for Public Management)
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think my first thought was to be a doctor. My father and two brothers are doctors, and my mother is a physiotherapist, so it seemed like the natural thing to do. But then some fantastic, inspirational, History and English teachers at Brighton and Hove High School set me on another path. Miss Kelleher and Mrs Ashdown encouraged us to question everything, and taught us how to think and write clearly. I have these two teachers to thank for the fact that a life spent writing client reports has been enjoyable and (relatively) pain free!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I took a fairly circuitous route to get here! After studying Social and Political Science at Cambridge and International Relations at the Johns Hopkins University Center in Bologna, I embarked on a career in academic book publishing. After a couple of years working as an editor on the Politics list at Oxford University Press, I was lucky to get a commissioning position at Polity. When I look back on it now, at just 25 years old, I was given incredible freedom by Polity’s owners to be creative and invent new ideas for books and series. I really enjoyed lots of things about publishing – in particular the coming together of academic ideas with business imperatives. But after a while, I was hankering after a role in which I could play a bigger part in generating content myself.
What was your first professional research job?
I was interested in the ‘space’ between academia, policy, and practice, and was keen to continue in a business environment, so I chose to move into contract research and consultancy. My first position was with Compass Partnership.
And first project there?
One of my first projects there was for a leading campaigning organisation. They had a sense that key departments were not working together as effectively as they might, and wanted us to research culture, values, and ways of working to suggest how things could be improved. It was a fascinating project and my first insight into organisational research. I was particularly struck by how willing people were to talk about the joys and tribulations of working life. It felt like a huge privilege to be given the insider perspective. This experience fuelled an on-going interest in organisations and what makes them tick.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
From Compass I moved to OPM, attracted by the mix of research and organisational development they offered, their policy expertise, and their commitment to improving social outcomes. For many years at OPM, I was fortunate to be able to do a mix of research and organisational development (something I recognise may not have been possible at a more traditional research agency). For the past few years I have been leading OPM’s research team. But I’ve retained a strong interest in helping clients use insights from research to strengthen organisations and improve services.
What have been your best professional moments?
Some of the highlights of my time at Compass and OPM have been evaluation projects for third sector clients. So often the tendency, when a programme is up and running, is to race on to the next big thing. But looking back on what has been achieved is vital if individual organisations, and whole sectors, are to learn and improve what they do. Helping an organisation to really understand what works is very rewarding.
I would probably say these same projects have been the hardest too! The politics and dynamics involved in evaluation work can be challenging, especially if an organisation’s funding is at stake. Winning participants’ trust, so they feel able to be open with you, while maintaining your independence, is a delicate balance to maintain. And judgements about what is ‘good’ depend on one’s frame of reference. For both these reasons, I think evaluation is best conducted in teams, with members encouraged to test and challenge each other’s ideas and assumptions.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I have many! But I would single out Stan Cohen, the brilliant sociologist who sadly died earlier this year. I was lucky enough to publish Professor Cohen’s States of Denial, as an editor at Polity Press. He was a joy to spend time with, and his work epitomised the kind of social science I like the best: interdisciplinary, rooted in empirical evidence, but at the same time beautifully written and deeply humane.
Do you have a favourite quote?
It’s not a quote, but I think one of the most helpful questions you can ask yourself as a research consultant (and one often heard at start-up meetings at OPM) is ‘who’s the client?’ It can be surprisingly difficult to answer.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I would urge young people to think laterally about the full range of organisations with insight functions. As well as universities, government departments, think tanks, and the larger research agencies, there are many charities, private companies, and smaller, niche, agencies doing fascinating work. I would also say they should recognise how the market for social research is changing. In my experience, clients have less time to read lengthy reports and want insights that can help them achieve results, fast. So, in addition to developing their research skills, they should think about other useful skills they can offer (such as business, facilitation, or data visualisation skills), which will distinguish them from others.