Organising for Excellence

An exploration and review of international evidence around best practices in organisational design for research funding bodies has helped to inform the design of the umbrella organisation UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The research also contributed to decisions around governance structures and strategy.

Among the recommendations: strategy development and organisational approach must reflect a number of key considerations including nationally specific goals and ambitions, existing or desired research cultures, and the size and scale of the research base. Additionally, developing a framework which integrates these principles together should start from a set of core operating values which support the vision and mission of an organisation.

Background

In November 2015, Sir Paul Nurse published his review of the research councils and the research and innovation funding system for the UK. The review highlighted the strengths of the system but also identified a number of areas for improvement.

In response to this, the UK government created a new body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which brings together seven current UK research councils along with the innovation funding body Innovate UK. UKRI oversees the research functions through Research England previously performed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). A key consideration for establishing this new funding organisation was the design of its structures and governance in order to best advance its objectives, which the Department of Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) (formerly BIS) commissioned RAND Europe to review.

Goals

To help inform designs for the structure and governance of the new UKRI, researchers explored and reviewed international evidence around best practice in organisational design for research funding bodies.

The study was conducted with the following aims, using a UK context for analysis:

  • To synthesise evidence relating to good practice in establishing strong and accountable organisations and governance structures.
  • To identify the strengths and weaknesses of different organisational models for research and innovation.
  • To identify lessons from the wider public and private sector about the strengths and weakness of different government approaches.

Methodology

The research was carried out between May and November 2016, drawing on three bodies of evidence. Firstly, case study reviews of research and innovation funding organisations across seven different countries considered how they were organised and operated alongside the content of their strategies. Secondly, interviews were conducted with individuals with experience and expertise in related fields. Finally, a literature review provided further insights into similar topics covered during the case study reviews and interviews.

Findings

Based on the analysis of the evidence, four cross-cutting themes emerged when considering current practice around research and innovation funding bodies:

Strategy and portfolio management

  • Strategy formulation processes were shared across multiple groups, but varied in their nature. Most strategies set out broad directions usually across a period of five years.
  • Bottom-up approaches and mechanisms of flexibility can help support strategic decision making.
  • Portfolio management techniques were one area that stood out as being used by different funding bodies. Though these vary, all include a need for robust data, attention to principles of a diverse portfolio and the need for analysis based on different themes or needs.

Supporting collaboration and functional networks

  • Supporting collaboration and interdisciplinary research – alongside maintaining effective, functional networks within a research funding system – are critical.
  • Interdisciplinary research requires collaboration throughout and within the funding system. It is therefore important to align external support with internal organisational mechanisms.
  • Maintaining a broad network of stakeholders through a networked governance approach is central to a funding body’s effectiveness. This is mainly achieved through mutual trust, understanding the needs and challenges faced in research, and a deep connection to the societal challenges that research and innovation will need to help solve.

People and organisational culture

  • People and organisational culture are seen as more important than underlying structure, as good leaders and people can overcome poor structure and governance.
  • Understanding organisational culture is essential to successfully implement change, whilst it is important to note that leadership has a strong influence on this.
  • Establishing the right mix of skills and capabilities within staff is also important for organisational efficiency, as is ensuring that overall aims, functions and values are closely aligned.

Structure and organisational design

  • Funding organisations need to ensure they have autonomy over both the content of their research funding, and the process of selection.
  • Larger organisations, such as research funders, tend to be more decentralised, which ensures that their decision making process makes use of all available information. However, clarity over roles and responsibilities remains important regardless of their level of centralisation.

Recommendations

This study showed that strategy development and organisational approach must reflect a number of key considerations including nationally specific goals and ambitions, existing or desired research cultures, and the size and scale of the research base. While it is clear there is no single ‘formula’ or design principle that will work for all organisations, there are however a set of governing principles which appeared to hold true across the evidence base.

Developing a framework which integrates these principles together should start from a set of core operating values which support the vision and mission of an organisation. This study shows that if both the system and the organisation governing it are not considered together, there is a risk of missing a key piece of the puzzle.

This research has been used to inform the design of the umbrella organisation UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and has contributed to decisions around governance structures and strategy.