Assessing the academic medical center as a supportive learning community.

Author:Gannon, Sam C.
Position:Brief article

Background & Objectives

Now more than ever, individuals involved in research administration are faced with a multitude of challenging situations that go well beyond the basics of business administration. They are expected to have a thorough understanding of compliance issues, including the requirements and regulations of sponsors, the federal government and the institution, as well as more general guidelines for the responsible conduct of research. As managers of project and department budgets, administrators are charged with detailed accounting for sponsored research activities, above the traditional institutional and gift funds, while keeping their documentation organized in preparation for internal and external audits of financial data. They must stay current on the institution's business practices and technology to conduct their department's research-related business. As research funding becomes more competitive, an administrator must become familiar with a myriad of sponsors and their manifold policies and forms. Finally, the administrator must support faculty members who conduct research in the medical center throughout the research process, because in many cases, faculty members face numerous stressors, including the need to attain and maintain adequate research funding (Smesny, 2007), which may limit their ability to manage the minor administrative details of a large project (Emans, Goldberg, Milstein, & Dobriner, 2008). To successfully navigate the challenges they face, research administrators need to be involved in learning communities, which Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino (2008) define as "a place where employees excel at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge" (p. 110). Standing on the shoulders of Senge (1990), Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino (2008) developed a concrete standard assessment tool for examining the learning organization (LO). Their survey tool allows companies to measure "the learning that occurs in a department, office, project, or division-an organizational unit of any size that has meaningful shared or overlapping work activities" (p. 110). Their instrument also includes targeted solutions and concrete prescriptions for improving the LO. In applying Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino's tool, this one-institution case study attempts to answer three research questions about the intersection of the LO and the academic medical center:

  1. To what extent is the academic medical center an LO by research administrators?

  2. Does the degree to which research administrators see the academic medical center as an LO vary by department type within the research enterprise?

  3. Does the degree to which research administrators see the academic medical center as an LO vary by sex or tenure in the unit, in the position, or at the medical center?

    To answer these questions, a modified version of Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino's survey instrument was administered in a sample of convenience to 121 research administrators at a large, private academic medical center in the southeast United States.

    Literature Review

    Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino (2008) define an LO as a highly adaptable organization, "made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge" (p. 109). While creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge are among the chief goals of the research enterprise of any academic medical center, most of these efforts are limited to the domains of the faculty, students and other non-faculty personnel, including non-faculty clinical providers. Institutions go to great lengths to foster and cultivate an environment that supports this knowledge-based system, oftentimes without considering the need to encourage such an environment for its research administrators. This approach neglects the important role administrators play in the research enterprise.

    Research administrators form a distinct professional class within the institution in both academic medical centers and more traditional postsecondary institutions. "They are an integral part of the environment of university research and they shape the work conditions, the opportunity structure, and constraints" (Schuetzenmeister, 2010, p. 4). Gardner, Verma, and Payne (2006) define research administration as "the administrative ability that focuses primarily on planning, organizing and developing processes and methodologies to ensure that the research team effort is effective, efficient and successful" (p. 1). Meanwhile, Gumport and Sporn (1985) describe administrators as "the key actors who mediate and even manage the relationships between the organization and its environments" (p. 105). Although lab managers, animal care technicians, budget accountants, and other administrators have been crucial to the research enterprise since its inception, the advent of the research professional is a bureaucratic response to the demands of sponsors, which include federal and state governments, industry and the non-profit research-based organizations that emerged with the rise of the research university in the 1960s (Atkinson, Gilleland, & Barrett, 2007). As research funding became more important to universities, and the volume of sponsored research funding grew, the role and number of research professionals and their level of responsibility grew (Gumport & Sporn, 1985). This professional role expanded to include making sense of complicated rules, systems and processes in the administration of sponsored research as well as the management of the burden of regulatory compliance with applicable laws, contracts, institutional policies and sponsor guidelines (Atkinson, Gilleland, & Barrett, 2007: Cole, 2007). As competition for federal funding increases and universities face additional scrutiny from sponsors and the federal government, the role of research administrators becomes more important and difficult, which in some areas leads to high levels of stress and high turnover rates (Vasgird, 2007). The 2007 Research Administrator Stress Perception Survey found 41.3 percent of respondents had high work-related stress, while 66 percent reported having inadequate resources to complete their jobs (Shambrook & Brawman-Mintzer, 2006). Though fostering a learning organization (LO) requires an institution to commit both time and resources, the organizational results include increased levels of tolerance, open discussion, and holistic and systemic thinking, which would likely reduce work-related stress among administrators (Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino, 2008). The need for such

    outcomes has only increased in recent years, with unprecedented growth in required compliance and administrative activity, including the administrative requirements linked to research funded by $787 billion in federal stimulus funds (Basken, 2010).

    Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino (2008) offer leaders a model of the LO and provide a concrete instrument that can be used to assess the extent to which an organization is an LO. The results of the survey and a comparison of institutional results to established benchmarks provide specific steps organizations can take to cultivate the LO, and which are tied to three key building blocks of LOs and characteristics of those building blocks, which had previously been absent in the LO literature. A unique benchmarking feature permits organizations to compare their institution to others or compare units within an institution. A review of the LO literature indicates no previous use of this instrument to study higher education or the research enterprise as an LO. However, higher education, especially an academic medical center, is uniquely tied to both the world of academia and the world of organized health care delivery, and the model was chosen for its potential to be very useful.

    This study is grounded in and focused on the world of research administrators, who usually operate outside the acquisition, creation and transference of knowledge in the research context, but who must be actively engaged in the learning process. Because research...

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