Author: Jordan Gerth

is a research meteorologist with a decade of R2O experience, interacting with academia, the federal government, and the private sector on weather satellite and software projects.

R2O as a research team member role

All applied research teams that support an organization or community with operations-minded constituents should have a member that specifically guides the research tasks toward the transition. The role of this member is to support the team leader or project manager with advice on the scientific and technical work that is necessary to position the research for a fleeting chance in the R2O cycle. Ideally, this analyst would lead or assist in guiding the applied research through the R2O cycle as the operations-facing interface for the effort. As that occurs, the nature of the role may change, however.

This analyst should bring two important skills to the team. First, the analyst must have experience working with operations or be able to align the team’s work with one of the operational mission areas. This experience will help the analyst support the project without engaging operational partners too early in the cycle, which could endanger the success of the transition. Second, the analyst should bring some technical acumen and scientific subject matter expertise. The analyst needs to achieve credibility amongst the rest of the research team and support staff for the project. Scientific and technical knowledge is also helpful in establishing reasonable expectations and making feasible suggestions about how to tailor the research in a manner that increases its viability to operations—whether considered alone or as integrated into a technical system.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find the right person for this role, and the scientific and technical roles may be split or shared between two or three people if the right versatile fit is unavailable. These roles should not be federated to the research team members, however. There are a few major consequences of not have an operations-cognizant analyst on the interface of the research team. First, without specific knowledge of operations, the research team can only speculate on what types of research improvements or ideas may achieve success within the R2O cycle. This can cost time and effort without increased promise of a formidable transition. Second, research products need to be chartered through the cycle. Without a dedicated team member serving in this role, the transition may fall short as research team members move to other tasks. While researchers may desire to see their work transition to operations successfully, an analyst can monitor the progress of the research transition in the R2O cycle well following the initial development. This maintains the roles and focus of the other team members to conduct research.

Hopefully, the R2O team member on the research project team is an advocate and leader that is an asset to the team, and the project manager especially, who is likely balancing several efforts. This role is somewhat different, though, from other facilitators in the R2O cycle, particularly those at portions of the cycle where operational assessments are occurring and the value of certain research products are compared. The R2O cycle advocates on the operational side serve a different function.


Can governance stifle R2O?

Establishing processes and procedures that control the R2O cycle is important to ensure effort is allocated appropriately and priorities are maintained, especially when it comes to organizational initiatives and major community programs. What about those smaller efforts that are ongoing and organic, though? It is easy to crush grassroots innovation with monolithic processes and governance structures that require effort solely to navigate. They can also discourage eager employees who seek to improve their organization or contribute to the community.

Most grassroots innovations and small research transitions are of only marginal cost to the organization but have the potential to modernize operations like larger efforts. More importantly, it is often in these situations that the essential R2O relationship exists; that is, there is a will for research and operations to partner together to solve a problem. That relationship is important to foster.

Effective R2O governance should scale and keep scope in mind. They should also allow for fluid and timely navigation. Excessive stages and timelines discourage R2O. In general, the greater the number of different organizations or business units, and higher cost, the more governance and formal oversight should exist, especially if the R2O initiatives are tied to major programs that are expected to translate into value for operations. This is especially true when a different organization or business unit is funded to sustain research than the initial research and development. The funding and personnel profile should be balanced or integrated across the stages of the R2O cycle.

It can sometimes be difficult to classify initiatives in order to anticipate their scale, but consider the following:

  • The number of personnel involved. If a single researcher and practitioner are engaged in a joint project, the most important aspect is for R2O governance to monitor, not manage, the activity. Only if formal resources beyond personnel time of the initial individuals are requested should managers invoke a greater level of scrutiny, but it is important to catalog all efforts to ensure there are no personnel working on duplicate tasks, and those tasks do not conflict with any new initiatives or upcoming programs. Monitoring the process also allows managers to anticipate whether funding is necessary in subsequent budget periods.
  • Applicability to the rest of the organization. If it becomes apparent that an R2O effort is going to have value across an organization, a greater level of oversight can be effective in establishing stages within the R2O cycle and ensuring that a sufficient user group is available and representative of the potentially diverse nature of the operations sector.
  • Context with relation to major programs. Though major programs may have prescribed objectives within the R2O cycle, new initiatives may develop as and after research and development commences, especially when major programs span several years. Good governance should enable these additional efforts to at least initially flourish because they stand to increase the value of the research investment, so long as these new efforts do not compete with initiatives that are already planned and in motion. For example, competition within a research organization or amongst organizations to devise different algorithms that solve the same problem can pose an unnecessary strain on R2O budgets. The best way to ameliorate such competition is to develop governance that encourages groups with different ideas to collaborate on a solution.

One major challenge with organic R2O initiatives is sustainability. Research organizations and contractors are generally not sustained over the long-term to provide consistent and reliable support for research projects that may have found a limited set of routine users in operations, but due to the lack of attention from management, or sufficient resources, were not better formalized or funded. There are no easy answers to this challenge, but it may be possible to implement a technical infrastructure in a meager funding regime that enables sustained R2O transitions absent an organizational initiative or program.


An Introduction to R2O: What does it mean to you?

The concept of research to operations (R2O) is quickly becoming a ubiquitous term in the atmospheric sciences, especially within the federal government and amongst its academic partners and contractors. However, there is misunderstanding within the meteorological community about what activities contribute to or fulfill a R2O cycle. The R2O cycle is about adding value and solving needs. There are benefits for all participants in the cycle – not just operations, as might be implied.

R2O is more than an isolated process for a single deliverable. An organization or community that is adequately immersed in a collaborative framework between the research sector and operations realizes the benefits of tight linkages that drive it forward. Part of a successful R2O culture requires the operations side to invest in new research and development that will ultimately support their mission. This may be a monetary investment, but also should include time of management and practitioners to understand what can be accomplished and establish reasonable benchmarks to achieve a longstanding R2O program. That also means the research side should be open to understanding why operations is making certain requests, and how operations is leveraging research outputs. Without this, the research and development may miss the mark.

To avert this misstep in the meteorological community, engaging the operational meteorologists in the early stages of new system procurements (i.e., a next generation observing tool) is necessary. The use of actual practitioners in addition to, or instead of, managers can actually prove quite critical here, in part because, when establishing new requirements, a large number of viewpoints should be heard in order to determine the consensus opinion on where the greatest challenges lie. And it is worth the effort; a new generation of weather satellites, for example, costs billions of dollars and takes several years to launch and build. That generation of satellites will support operations for a decade or more, either directly, through raw data and imagery, or indirectly, though future research and development byproducts.

A healthy R2O cycle creates interdependence between research and operations. R2O is not about fundamentally changing the goal of research, or burdening researchers in some way. Research and development is always about discovery and learning. R2O should not impose upon these basic concepts. Building a successful R2O cycle requires successful messaging of research results back to the field. This is where some of the pitfalls begin, and why investment in the R2O interface is necessary, particularly in large organizations or communities. This investment should first be used to place cognizant scientific and technical staff on the interface that can communicate between the research and operations, and then fund R2O transition activities (i.e., development of software, new training, etc.).

Today, too often are science algorithms and resultant products viewed in isolation. We hear that a certain product coming from years of research and development was successfully demonstrated and that operations found it “useful”. That is a low bar because the research community will almost always deliver something new, but just because it is new and “useful” does not mean it adds value above and beyond the existing capabilities. It might just be a different way to produce the same information.

We instead need to look holistically at how the R2O cycle delivers research results that fit into operations. An efficient R2O cycle should transform the very nature of operations. That is not to say that all R2O products will meet success, because many will not. But when a new product fundamentally changes how practitioners do their jobs, the R2O cycle is the impetus for growth in the community and the field. And that is the degree of success that we should strive for.