Keep your friends close and your research partner closer

I (George Holt, Which?) have experienced a variety of working styles and client/supplier relationships in social research. Last year was the first time I worked with an agency in a formalised ‘partnership’ approach. For us, a partnership meant that client and research consultants worked together as one research team, using Which? time and resources to deliver the project alongside the consultants. This blog reflects on our experience of partnership working and some of the benefits and considerations when taking this approach. 


As part of the Strategic Insight team at Which?, I am one of a number of social researchers who deliver projects to understand more about the experiences, behaviour and attitudes of UK consumers. Given the UK is holding the pen on its trade policy for the first time in decades, one of our priority research projects for 2020 was to understand more about what consumers wanted trade deals to achieve. We chose Hopkins Van Mil as our partner for a large piece of deliberative research that we called The National Trade Conversation. You can read a  companion blog about the project, and our move from a face to face methodology to conducting research online, here.

Why we wanted to take a partnership approach

Our vision for the partnership was for more roles and responsibilities to be shared than is normally the case and to feel as if we were not just the commissioner but part of one project team. We wanted to have a direct relationship with consumers taking part in the research and utilise our own research and analysis skills to their full potential, such as facilitating fieldwork. We also wanted our chosen partner to benefit from our approach, such as being invited to participate in meetings with key stakeholders and trade experts. Our hope was that this approach would lead to a more efficient research project and for research and subsequent policy recommendations to become more closely intertwined. 

Articulate from the start what a partnership means to you

We decided we wanted to work in partnership with dialogue experts at the very early stages of the project. This meant we were able to set out in detail how we saw this working in the brief. This included a detailed breakdown of the weekly hours we were going to commit throughout the project from Which? staff, as well as our expectation to be involved at every stage of the project.      

We stipulated that tenders should show evidence that the partnership approach had been genuinely considered in the proposal, such as acknowledging the value of having Which? resource on the project team.      

As a result, we received tenders that provided excellent value for money considering the size and scope of the project. However, the most important thing for us when commissioning a research consultant was that they were comfortable and enthusiastic about working as true research partners and were able to demonstrate that they saw value in working this way themselves. 
One suggestion when looking for a research partner is to consider whether they are open and able to work in a flexible way. Some larger organisations may have strict protocols – such as when a certain project is worked on and how many redrafts of an output are included in the costs. These businesses may not be able to work in a partnership as well as a smaller, more adaptable organisation. 
That’s not to say that working in a partnership is code for legitimising demanding and unreasonable client behaviour – rather that it is an approach that is purposefully less rigid and more collaborative.
Formalise roles and responsibilities

At the suggestion of our partner, upon commission we agreed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that set out which responsibilities would be shared and which ones sat with one side of the partnership. In summary, the main responsibilities that we felt should be shared were:

  • Depth interviews with experts that formed part of our evidence gathering
  • Co-design of deliberative workshop structure and content
  • Facilitation of pilot and main workshops
  • Analysis, including input into a coding frame
  • Report writing
  • Co-presenting findings at launch.
This memorandum was a very important step. It allowed us to be clear about the expectations of both parties. Whilst a partnership approach champions a more collaborative way of working, there are tasks that need to be or are best executed by one side of the partnership, (such as handling participant recruitment), and agreeing these helped avoid potential confusion. 

At the end of the project, we revisited the MOU to discuss how we felt the division of roles had been. There were a number of benefits that we reflected on:
  • It was much easier to arrange fieldwork coverage as there was lots of resource to share around
  • Analysis was also more efficient as we could distribute sections to each member of the project team
  • There were often ‘mirror’ roles in both teams - such as each side providing tech support during the workshops. This often led to personal development -  as a team member could try something out without needing to take full responsibility
The only shared responsibility that we felt hadn’t worked as well as we had imagined was the shared report writing. Five people contributed to the writing of separate chapters, which meant the first draft was put together very quickly! However, it was harder to edit given the inevitable differences in tone, writing style and instances of repetition with so many authors. In the future we would consider a number of post-analysis workshops to ensure the data is used in its fullness, but delegate the writing to a smaller number of team members. 

Advantages to a partnership approach

There were a number of wider benefits to the project that the partnership approach delivered, including:
  • The project coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a wide ranging impact on us all, as individuals as well as researchers. Thankfully we had been able to establish the partnership prior to the crisis. This enabled us to better maintain momentum on the project during moments of uncertainty and investigate alternatives to our initial approach, with both sides bringing complementary perspectives to the table.
  • More specifically, we had to quickly adapt our methodology to an online approach, and our partnership model meant the planning and execution of this change was more agile and effective as we felt a joint responsibility to get it right.
  • Being part of the report writing from the beginning meant we minimised the number of iterations the report went through. Given we were already familiar with the findings, we could give feedback in real-time as to what insights were the priority to communicate.     
  • Working in partnership allowed us, as clients, to have maximum impact when liaising with our internal stakeholders. Having been part of the team conducting fieldwork, we were able to share interim findings quickly as well as disseminating findings with more confidence at the conclusion of the project.

Communication is key

A common barrier to a partnership approach succeeding is reluctance on either side to a way of working that is grounded in honesty and transparency. For example, clients could be reluctant for their supplier to meet internal stakeholders and be party to internal dynamics, whilst suppliers may be reticent to inform clients of recruitment or resourcing problems. Ensuring both sides are happy to share both the ups and the downs of their respective sides of the partnership is key. 

With this in mind, frequent communication is a good idea. We used the online communication tool Slack as a project team. Slack is much less formal than email; it functions more like a chatroom where you can write messages, tag people and respond with emojis and gifs. We used it not only to provide project updates but also to share relevant news stories and to bounce ideas off each other. It allowed information to be shared in real time, rather than waiting for a traditional weekly ‘project update’, which aided team camaraderie as well as efficiency. This meant we communicated at a frequency that felt like we were all colleagues. 

Working in a partnership with Hopkins Van Mil was a thoroughly worthwhile, valuable and enjoyable experience. I would recommend this approach to others, especially if you are an in-house researcher wanting to flex your skills on larger projects. The following is a list of things to bear in mind:

  • Make sure your vision for how a partnership should work is clear and easy to articulate
  • Prioritise research consultants’ response to working in a partnership model when evaluating tenders. Have they independently thought about how they see this working? Are they enthusiastic about working in a partnership and does their organisation allow this way of working?
  • Ensure both sides are clear about their respective roles and responsibilities, and both sides feel it is a fair and suitable division of labour.
  • Ensure that the partnership capitalises on the respective strengths, expertise and resources of each party, thus adding value.
  • Make time to live up to your side of the bargain! If you’re a client, working in a partnership will necessarily demand more of your time and energy than more traditional contracted out projects and it is important to acknowledge this.
  • If you are a client planning to undertake fieldwork as part of a partnership, will you be able to retain (and be perceived to retain) neutrality? It’s important that participants are reassured of the objectivity of their facilitators, which may not be possible if you are conducting research on your own products or services.   
  • Think about what communication channels you will use to encourage the team to interact frequently as this will bring both sides closer together.
  • Lastly: there are no set rules as to how a partnership should work - make sure your partnership fits your organisation, way of working, team member personalities and project objectives.     
Author Bios: George Holt is a Senior Policy Researcher at Which?, also known as The Consumers’ Association. She is responsible for undertaking, managing and commissioning qualitative and quantitative research, including the National Trade Conversation. Previous research projects cover a broad range of consumer issues, such as housing, food, personal finance. She has a particular focus on research into consumer attitudes towards Brexit and future trade policy.