IDOT’s Renewed Focus on Implementation: Barriers and Boosters to Implementation

By Juan David Pava

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Center for Transportation (ICT) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have worked together for almost a decade to seek innovative solutions for the needs of IDOT. As part of this effort, a vast range of topics has been covered, and new technologies have been adopted by implementing research findings.

To ensure that users and investigators receive the most benefit from research projects, IDOT’s Research Coordination Unit has been working to identify factors that either stimulate or hinder the implementation of research findings.

National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Report #382, Facilitating the Implementation of Research Findings: A Summary Report, states that the three factors affecting the implementability of a research project are (1) characteristics of research results, (2) characteristics of the user context, and (3) characteristics of the implementation process.

To achieve more efficient implementation of research findings in Illinois, specific barriers and boosters were identified.

Characteristics of Research Results

Characteristics of research results deal with the final product or changes recommended by the research project and with the methods by which the researcher arrived at the findings. Accordingly, it is vital that practitioners and stakeholders at IDOT are engaged in the research process from the time the research need is identified.

Some of the barriers to implementation in this category are lack of participation by stakeholders, disconnect between the researcher’s objectives and IDOT’s needs, lack of an implementation plan as part of the research process, and absence of real-world applications of the findings.

pull quotes-01To quell these barriers to implementation, IDOT has been working to ensure that personnel affected by research findings are included in the research process, on the Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) that select research projects and set IDOT’s research needs, and on the Technical Review Panels (TRPs) that oversee the project to ensure the results are applicable to IDOT.

There are other ways IDOT can be of support: The TRP should ensure that implementation guidance is part of the research deliverables and encourage clear communication and collaboration with the research team.

Characteristics of the User Context

Characteristics of the user context include any risks of implementing research findings by departmental staff and how receptive the public is to the research findings.  For this category, it is important that the TRP have the support of upper management, as well as a way to communicate possible changes to users of the final products.

Some of the barriers to these goals are management and practitioner unfamiliarity with the research objectives (which could lead to political tension about research findings), staff being unwilling to change when faced with the complexity or practicality of research findings, and unclear benefits of implementation.

pull quotes-02To address some of these barriers, IDOT and ICT produce publications and briefs (“Research Works”) to educate practitioners and the public about research findings.  IDOTs’ Research Coordination Unit is in constant communication with upper management and other bureaus within IDOT in order to help TRPs secure management support and address possible concerns while the project is ongoing.

Additional ways to boost implementation are to recognize implementation champions and highlight ways in which research findings are beneficial to all stakeholders.

Characteristics of the Implementation Process

Characteristics of the implementation process consist of the factors directly related to implementation of research findings, such as cost, ease of incorporation into current practices, and overall planning and tracking of tasks for implementation. To develop a timely, comprehensive implementation plan, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of what the final research product is intended to be.

Some of the barriers recognized in this category are lack of funding, absence of an implementation objective or plan, and lack of an implementation champion. To avoid these barriers, IDOT developed an Implementation Planning Worksheet to aid TRPs in developing a clear and comprehensive implementation plan early in the research process. It is essential that the TRP revise the implementation plan as the research progresses and collaborate with the principal investigators to estimate implementation costs and assist with implementation planning.

In the past, development of pilot projects, sample products, and training during the research (with the assistance of principal investigators) have been effective ways to avoid some of these barriers.

pull quotes-03The Bureau of Materials and Physical Research’s Research Coordination Unit wants to promote the implementation of research findings and help TRPs accomplish the intended goals of the research. One of IDOT’s priorities is to make sure that the research will help us achieve our mission to provide a safe, cost-effective transportation system for the people of Illinois in ways that enhance the quality of life, promote economic prosperity, and demonstrate respect for the environment.

Juan David Pava, P.E., is the Acting Research Implementation Engineer in the IDOT Bureau of Materials and Physical Research. He can be reached at Juan.Pava@illinois.gov.