In 2004, the British Government announced its plan to support the development of Virtual Research Environments (VREs). The definition and understanding of what constitutes a VRE has continued to evolve since that time. Based on a definition put forward by Fraser (2005) and upon a variety of projects and discussion arising from those projects, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) constructed its own definition of a VRE. JISC is an advisory committee to the UK post-16 and higher education funding councils. It facilitates and promotes the effective use of information and communications technology across non-compulsory education and research. Its definition of VRE (JISC, 2006) is shown below:
A VRE comprises a set of online tools and other network resources and technologies interoperating with each other to support or enhance the processes of a wide range of research practitioners within and across disciplinary and institutional boundaries. A key characteristic of a VRE is that it facilitates collaboration amongst researchers and research teams providing them with more effective means of collaboratively collecting, manipulating and managing data, as well as collaborative knowledge creation.
The evolution of the definition is evident in the broader focus of today's work compared with that of a few years ago. In 2004, JISC defined the main purpose of a VRE as "to help researchers in all disciplines manage the increasingly complex range of tasks involved in carrying out research." By 2006, JISC had explicitly identified three main groups of VRE users: research active staff, research support staff and system administrators. This broader view of a VRE was adopted by the project team at Nottingham.
Work had already started at Nottingham on the development of electronic resources for researchers as a result of a 2003 survey (Dransfield & Wilson, 2003) that sought to ascertain from researchers and academics their priorities for improvements to the existing systems that supported research. The survey was, however, limited in its scope both in terms of the population it accessed and the questions addressed. In this project, the team wanted to obtain wider engagement with all categories of staff involved with research, whatever their role might be. Thus, as well as academics and research staff, the project team consulted research managers and administrators, technical staff, business development executives and postgraduate students. The aim of the project was to identify the electronic resources and tools that any of these groups of users would like to have available to support the implementation and management of research. The kind of resources envisaged as potentially helpful included funding alerts, tools to help the financial monitoring of projects, tools to help collaboration by identifying skills across the University, online discussion areas for sharing expertise, and tools to aid the dissemination of information about journals, seminars and conferences. By determining what researchers and research managers actually wanted, the project team could develop those tools and deliver them via a portal--a one-stop place for all electronic resources. In this way the team hoped to provide a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) for the whole of the research community at the University of Nottingham based upon users' actual requirements as acquired through the consultation.
Discovering what people actually wanted, as opposed to what the team thought they wanted, meant embarking on a user-led consultation process that included representatives from a variety of roles and across a variety of domains. Such an in-depth consultation meant that development might have been slower, but might also lead to more effective implementation in the long run as users felt more involved in the decision-making process (Moreland Council Consultation Framework, 2000). Maintaining an open, transparent relationship with users throughout the project and providing them with feedback about how their contributions were being used and how final decisions for development were made, helped to retain their engagement and ease the implementation and embedding of new technologies.
The Organisational Structure of the University
The University of Nottingham is a leading research and teaching university. In 2005, it had more than 32,000 students including over 4,000 international students from over 100 countries. Its organizational structure is described below and illustrated in Figure 1. Three main bodies apply governance: Senate, Council, and the University Court. The Senate is the academic authority of the University; the Council approves the University's strategic plans and is responsible for its finances, buildings, and stag the University Court provides a forum for involvement of external organizations and individuals in University life. The University is supported by four Centres that provide the administrative infrastructure: Information Services, External Relations, the Registrar's Department, and Financial and Business Services. Research and Innovation Services (RIS), a department within Financial and Business Services, leads the drive towards excellence in research standards and the development of new areas of research in emerging fields. It encourages the transfer of technology and knowledge from within the University to the business world, and identifies opportunities for collaborative research. Strategic decisions are made at the faculty level while day-to-day academic activity takes place at the school level. Budgets are devolved to schools and directed by a Head of School and School Manager. Some schools employ Business Development Executives (BDEs) to investigate funding opportunities, build relationships with external companies and facilitate the development of commercial activities. They report to the RIS and thus provide an important link between school and centre. There are 34 schools within the University organised under five faculties. The size of schools varies within and across faculties in terms of staff employed and students enrolled. This was an important consideration when trying to ensure that all disciplines and all categories of staff were represented in the sample.
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Choosing a methodology
As effective consultation with users was considered by the team to be essential to the success of the project, a great deal of consideration was given to choosing an appropriate methodology. It was important that users felt fully engaged in the consultation process and that the project team had a proper understanding of users' requests that was not influenced by preconceived ideas or prejudices. Several different methods were considered, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Questionnaires would have allowed access to all relevant users thus potentially providing a large sample of responses. Questionnaires are quick to administer, particularly if delivered online, and generally quick to analyse. They do, however, provide limited data in terms of the richness of the responses. They do not allow topics to be thoroughly explored, and responses may often be superficial, ambiguous and occasionally absent altogether.
In contrast, one-to-one interviews often elicit very rich data and, because they are conducted face-to-face, there is a much smaller risk of ambiguity or missing answers. Their disadvantage is that they are very time-consuming, and consequently only small samples of people can be consulted. Responses do not easily lend themselves to quantitative analysis so generalisation is unlikely. For a consultation that seeks to provide a VRE that is useful to all users, a method that uses such sampling would have been too limited.
The final method the project team considered was focus groups, which are small discussion groups of 6-10 people. Focus groups access far more participants than interviews, but far fewer than through questionnaires. In terms of the richness of the data, this method aims to promote open discussion and facilitate the expression of criticism and the exploration of different types of solution. By exchanging ideas within the group there is the potential for more creative thinking and wider opinions than afforded through individual interviews--qualities that are invaluable when the aim is to improve services (Kitzinger, 1995). While the smaller sampling may mean that caution should be applied before attempting to generalize the results from focus groups in any empirical sense, theoretical generalization may still be possible. This is especially true when the number of groups permits insights gained from the data to possess a "sufficient degree of generality to allow their projection to other contexts or situations" (Sim, 1998, p. 350). This transferability increases the validity of focus group data.
One further consideration in the choice of method was that the team wanted users to feel fully involved in this exercise. When those consulted feel fully engaged with the process, this is likely to be reflected not only in the data...