What is Implementation Science?
Implementation Science (IS) or the science of implementation is an emerging field with the goal of generating new knowledge and ensuring the efficient and effective uptake and application of existing knowledge and experience in real-world settings. While the term ‘implementation science’ has been widely adopted, its precise definition differs across different organizations and agencies. At SISN, we have adopted a broad definition of IS as ““an interdisciplinary body of theory, knowledge, frameworks, tools and approaches whose purpose is to strengthen implementation quality and impact.”
Are Implementation Science and Implementation Research the same thing?
No, see Figure below.
Implementation Research (IR) is the component of Implementation Science (IS) that generates new knowledge through empirical investigations.
What are the key components of Implementation Research?
SISN defines Implementation Research (IR) as “a variety of methods of assessment, inquiry and formal research whose purpose is to systematically assess, build on strengths and address potential weaknesses within and between the many factors that affect implementation or the phases of implementation”.
Based on this comprehensive definition, diverse study designs can be applied in IR depending on the nature of the challenge or research questions. These include quantitative, qualitative and mixed-method approaches. While IR can sometimes employ experimental trial designs to address certain questions, it can use a wide range of other methods depending on the questions or challenges at-hand. These include but are not limited to stakeholder analysis, opinion leader research, formative research, rapid assessments, operations research, special studies, process evaluation, costing studies, Delphi studies and various forms of quality improvement or quality assurance.
Illustrative examples of IR can be found here.
My work involves implementing nutrition programs. Am I doing implementation research?
Maybe. It depends on whether and how you are using systematic methods to identify and address implementation bottlenecks and improve program performance. This might take the form of process evaluation, operations research, rapid assessments, quality improvement systems and more. Note that these activities qualify as IR even if they are not intended to be published in scientific journals. The key criteria are that they are systematic, empirical and designed to improve some aspect of program performance.
I sometimes hear it said that Implementation Research is not sufficiently rigorous, but there often is not enough time, skill or resources to meet high standards of rigor expected in conventional research. What should be done in such situations?
The overarching objective of Implementation Research (IR) is to generate knowledge that is useful for improving the design or implementation of policies, programs, interventions or practices and/or the enabling environment for these. To be useful, it must be relevant (to a real implementation need or question), timely and generate trustworthy information. It also must be shared with decision makers in ways they can understand and act upon. In real-world situations these criteria require research strategies that are pragmatic, flexible and mindful of the trade-offs. Given the diversity in forms and purposes of IR, and in country/program contexts, it is not possible to prescribe research methods or standards that would be appropriate in all situations. As the practice of IR continues to develop and mature it will be possible to develop norms and guidance for reconciling these trade-offs based on the accumulating experience.
I am interested in Implementation Research but I find all the information confusing and overwhelming. How can I get started?
Implementation Research (IR) can at first feel confusing and overwhelming in part because it can take so many forms. SISN’s Integrated Framework for Implementation Science (IS) and Classification Scheme for IR are intuitive, comprehensive and practical tools developed to enhance and guide our understanding of this field and are relevant to a wide range of applications and settings. Reviewing these tools are a great place to start if you are new to IS/IR or even if you are a seasoned researcher!
SISN members are provided with opportunities to share their work, develop technical skills and gain relevant experience. If you are passionate about implementation in nutrition and are not yet a member apply here.
Where can I learn more about Implementation Science?
We recommend you read these key resources.
- Theobald S, Brandes N, Gyapong M, El-Saharty S, Proctor E, Diaz T et al Implementation Research: New Imperatives and Opportunities in Global Health (2018) The Lancet 393 (10160) 2214-2228
- Peters DH, Tran NT, Adam T Implementation Research in Health: A Practical Guide Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, World Health Organization, 2013.
- Implementation Science in Nutrition: Rationale, Frameworks and Introduction to the Society
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