Building a best-in-class research operations team

By
Noël Lamb
September 13, 2023
Building a best-in-class research operations team

Research operations is essential to building a mature research practice.

For many researchers, the presence of a research ops function in an organization is a selling point — it demonstrates an organization's focus on establishing efficiencies through process, policy, and people improvements.

After spending several years as an individual contributor, my career shifted into leading research operations teams at Salesforce, Robinhood, and Xero. In this piece, I’ll share some insights and lessons I learned while establishing my own practice and growing teams of people who do this work day in and day out. 

Aligning the business

Once you have decided to invest your heart in building a research ops practice, it’s time to align with the business. Research ops looks different across organizations, but there are a few important keystones to sort out as you embark on this journey.

Survey the landscape & prioritize needs

Ideally you should determine high-level needs and prioritize operational goals before hiring your first research ops person.

Are you solving for now, three years from now, or even further down the road?

It’s helpful to understand the maturity of your org and your near and long-term objectives. This will allow you to 1) align others around what you’re trying to accomplish with a research ops team, and 2) begin to establish leveling and background requirements as you hire people.

Making the business case

Writing a justification statement is a great first step. It can be used to communicate your vision, garner excitement, and eventually, gain approval and a budget. There are several calculations that are important to bring to the table:

1. How much time & budget is overspent on research ops activities today?

These outcomes demonstrate approximate time and financial savings for having the right person in the role. Take this simple example, where the cost of a non-ops professional managing incentives is higher than the cost of a proposed ops professional.

What this calculation doesn’t take into account is that when an ops pro is focused on an area such as incentives, they can look to minimize gaps and inefficiencies that exist in the process. They may evaluate and consolidate vendors, or they might seek automations to reduce the burden of manual overhead. This is more challenging to calculate, but important to keep in mind while making your case. Building on the example above, let’s give it the old college try:

If we imagine the right person is in the role, and we’ve consolidated tools and implemented automations, we have the opportunity to save $8,390 each month. That’s significant savings, enough where you might consider bringing on a new employee or contractor, or tooling to further evolve your practice. It’s pretty convincing when you see the calculations on paper.

2. What would having a research operations team enable you to do?

Would it free up your time for foundational or strategic research? Would it shift your focus to developing research capabilities within your team? How about implementing rituals that increase awareness of important insights? What if you had more time to enable non-researchers to get involved in doing research, safely and compliantly? These are all strategic priorities that are challenging to execute when you are elbows-deep in operational tactics. 

3. How does a research ops practice weave into company goals?

I can’t speak for all companies out there but for those I’ve been a part of, the customer often had a prominent seat at the OKR table.

During my time at Xero, there was a heavy emphasis on customer closeness — and I’ll give you one guess which team was well positioned to enable it.

While the infrastructure wasn’t yet in place to scale an all-company customer connection program, our research ops team was poised to take it beyond what was already in place for the product organization. 

4. What’s your hiring plan?

Knowing which level and capability you will hire first is an important piece of painting your vision.

Getting crisp on hiring builds confidence you have a solid direction once approvals are granted.

5. What key activities will be accomplished?

What can sponsors expect to be tackled first? Core functions are detailed in the Eight Pillars of ResearchOps, a framework some incredible humans created to define what research ops is all about. Published in 2019, the framework largely rings true for the field today.

6. When will this investment start to yield a return?

It’s hard to predict, but you should factor in time to hire, time to onboard, and of course any internal barriers that might be challenging for your ops person to overcome. For example, the time it takes to work through the procurement process will significantly impact the duration you can expect to launch a new tool.

At Salesforce, it took as little as two months to fully onboard a new tool; at another organization without streamlined processes, it took over nine months.

And if your tool requires technical implementation but tiger teams aren’t available to support the project, tack on more time for sorting through that. I blew a fuse when a solutions architect boasted that it took a peer four years to get a relatively simple and common tool onboarded. Although tooling sounds straightforward, I won't sugar coat it — these scenarios actually exist and are worth being realistic about in the business case.

7. What risks are the company continuing to accept if this function isn’t funded?

Conducting research and collecting sensitive data presents inherent risk to any organization. GDPR paved the way for privacy law awareness, and today we see various jurisdictions enacting their own version of it. The general advice across the research ops community is to comply with the most restrictive laws and apply across programs, which today is GDPR.

In 2023, the largest GDPR-related fine to date hit Meta’s desk — a cool $1.3 billion and is a warning to companies that privacy practices are serious business. 

Each company’s version of a business case template will vary. Some may not have a template at all. In that event, draw inspiration from examples people have shared online. With a strong idea of what research ops should look like at your organization, you’ll be well positioned to write your case and get others aligned with your vision.

Budgeting for a role

There’s not a tremendous amount of information in the wild about what job family research operations belongs to. I’ve seen it in non-technical program management and in the user research family, where salaries are likely to be higher. I’ve also heard the unsuccessful argument that the role should live in a general operations job family, but research ops is unique and niche and the descriptions never matched. 

My personal belief is that because research operations practitioners create and manage programs, they should belong to a program management job family. I feel so strongly about it that in my early days at Salesforce as a research coordinator, ready for a promotion and reporting to a design director, I gave him an ultimatum: if my job wasn’t leveled correctly as a program manager, I was going to leave and find a job that would.

At the time, research operations as a term didn’t exist and there were no examples for us to draw upon. I wasn’t aware of other companies or individuals who were doing this work. The bluff worked! I had a new job family and title that day and at Salesforce, the research operations program manager role was born. And it’s what I most commonly see in today’s market. If you’re out there, Ian Swinson — thank you for taking me seriously and advocating for me, because I really didn’t want to leave. I went on to spend a better part of a decade learning how to grow a research operations practice there and owe my trajectory to my champions, like Ian.

User Interviews recently published The 2023 UX Researcher Salary Report, where you can find a ballpark figure on salaries for people in research correlating to years of experience — and they were kind to include research operations. Because research ops is still in its infancy, there aren’t many details for practitioners outside of the US, but it is a starting point and gives some data about what to budget for.

Hiring

The case has been made, approval and budget have been secured, and you’re now ready to hire — congratulations! A best-in-class operations person has the ability to transform your team into a more mature, efficient, and effective practice. Let’s make sure you get a great match.

Your operating model

Let’s talk through the structure of your future team. I’ve worked in teams with a generalist model and in teams with a specialist model. I've also transitioned a team from a generalist to specialist model.

There are benefits and drawbacks for each, and much of the model conversation depends on the structure and culture of the larger team and company you’re working in.

The definitions don’t stray from the norm in the context of research operations — a generalist is someone who has a wide breadth of understanding, whereas specialists have a deep understanding and focus on a particular pillar or area of expertise. 

It may also make sense to combine the models for a hybrid environment, which is the shape our team took at Xero. When I first arrived, we had two ICs (individual contributors) working as generalists for a team of 45 researchers. They were incredibly capable and competent, but were working so reactively. No matter how hard they tried, they could not put out one fire before the next one began to spread. It also wasn’t clear who worked on what, and when they partnered on projects it wasn’t obvious where handoffs happened. It was downright exhausting, and the inefficiency in how our own ops team ran wasn’t serving anyone. 

We shifted to a hybrid model with specific areas of ownership. Finally, it felt like the team could breathe and start to think more strategically in their areas. They started to solve systemic problems and were able to position themselves into a more proactive way of working.

Here’s a breakdown of our team operating model at Xero:

For comparison, at Salesforce we worked in a model that was mapped to portfolios and full of several specialists.

How research operations people work

Research operations has nuances and complexities that aren’t visible at first glance. What often happens is someone sets out to complete a task, and it snowballs to five others in the process. Nothing is as straightforward as it looks on the surface. Everything is interconnected. 

Each of the Eight Pillars of ResearchOps requires a combination of strategic thinking for the future and tactical execution for today. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult to do both simultaneously (see the age old maker vs. manager debate — Joe Dunn covers it well in his Maker Mind vs Manager Mind article). Research ops pros are expected to be both, and it’s simply unreasonable for one person to cover it all and do it well with their sanity intact. 

When you’re hiring, consider these dynamics and how individuals might fit or flex into the model you’re using. If you’re fortunate to be hiring for multiple roles or building upon an existing team, consider how a person's skills fill a gap or how they’ll plug into the team.

Because research operations work is interconnected, it’s critical to build a team with mindfulness and intentionality of how the players will complement each other and work together.

The fit

Research operations is still young, and we’re fortunate to have caught the interest of many individuals who bring diverse backgrounds to the field. It’s more likely than not that your hire comes from another field entirely. And the team will be better for it.

I know a law librarian who made the leap to tech from law and government work and has launched libraries at several organizations — a rarity for librarians. She is arguably the most advanced knowledge management professional in research ops and now shares her craft broadly, thus advancing the whole field.

When I was in search of a training and development specialist at Robinhood, I hired a former teacher who was looking to get into tech. Her talents were a gift to a fast-growing company where the onboarding program she managed meant new teammates were able to get up to speed months before they would have otherwise.

Many researchers are also making a leap into operations, which is phenomenal for our industry. Who understands research pain points like a researcher does? As this niche field grows legs, I’m also seeing more people enter it with technical aptitude. Their technical prowess is key for transforming systems and processes, introducing technology solutions to automate and simplify.

Please, please don’t discount the resume from someone with a fresh, diverse experience set. Your hire will wear many hats, and the world is full of incredible talent who can do this work and bring their uniqueness to the field. We need them.

Attributes

The most important skills your hire can bring to the job are empathy, a knack for problem solving, a healthy curiosity, resourcefulness, and perseverance. Remember the snowball I mentioned earlier? Having the capacity to go down a rabbit hole and not turn back is what separates the great research ops pros from the good. 

In her article, Careers in ResearchOps — All Roads Lead to Rome, A’verria Martin outlines a practical approach for professionals looking to break into research operations. A’verria highlighted learnings she gained when transitioning into UX from academia, and while the article is targeted to help the audience navigate a career change, she’s done an excellent job surfacing the important skills one needs to be successful in the field (and what you should hire for). A’verria also spoke on the topic in June 2022 at the ResearchOps Conference. You can watch the video of A’verria’s talk here.

Related read: What's make a great ResearchOps pro? by Mia Mishek

Socializing the role

You’ve made it this far and are ready to socialize your position — woop! Aside from the usual job boards and referrals, there are a couple communities you can lean on to source great talent. The Cha Cha Club is a targeted community of research ops pros who do this work day in and out, and is a great resource for reaching experienced players. The ResearchOps Community is the backbone of our field, and they’ve done some really important work to define the field and invite people into it. You’ll find thousands of members with an interest in research ops who may also take on some elements of it in their day jobs.

The bottom line

A well-oiled research operations team can influence the culture of research, compound competency, reduce operational risk, and help connect everything in between. With these tips, you’re well on your way to building a best-in-class research ops team.

Noël Lamb has built a career in Research Operations over 15 years, most recently establishing teams and infrastructure at Xero, Robinhood, and Salesforce. She fell in love with Research after teaching the Design process to peers at T-Mobile and the proximity to customers felt natural after spending many foundational years in the service industry. Noel is based in Boise, Idaho and spends her free time roaming foothills with her littles and growing her plant lady collection.

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