As organizations that are considered to be at the apex of learning, universities attract staff and students who seek the universities’ disciplines, methods, scholarship, and ethos for the fulfillment of higher and ongoing education. Should a university be personified, it would be described as ‘learned’. Universities are also complex systems of institutions, stakeholders, bodies of knowledge, expertise, inclusive of people, who are expected to be at the leading edge of original thinking, community engagement, entrepreneurship as well as innovation (Thomas and Pugh 2020). Simultaneously, they also need to preserve seminal and long-standing schools of thought and time-honored conventions.

Within these paradoxical situations, applying new ways of practicing may seem to be inherently fraught with complications, yet change within universities is endemic and part of their raison d’être. As highlighted by Deem (1998) and Castree (2000), higher education has undergone distinct systemic changes, associated not only with the advancement to the knowledge corpus, as would be expected, but also to the very notion of what higher education and universities are. Gumport (2000) and Castree (2000) argue that university changes have been associated with a concomitant level of managerialism and professionalization. While reservations might be expressed about the professionalization of universities (Castree 2000), changes to academic roles and pressures on academics (Deem 1998; Morrish and Priaulx 2020; Teelken 2012) are such that they require university administrative systems to deliver a high standard of service that is associated with professionalism (Mushemeza 2016). In certain universities, these services are even named ‘professional services’ and this article will use that term interchangeably with Research Management and Administration (RMA). Thereto, professional services themselves have experienced heightened performance pressure (Morrish and Priaulx 2020). Assumed as part of the pressure, an isomorphic impetus to professionalize (DiMaggio and Powell 1983) has taken place. Science Communication (Trench 2017) and Research Management (Kirkland 2005; Kerridge and Scott 2018; Williamson et al. 2020) provide two telling examples of service-level transformation based on the professionalization of people and practices. Additionally, as for all other sectors, the covid-19 global pandemic ignited awareness of how paradigms may change, sometimes dramatically (Camilleri 2021). This awareness of paradigm-shifting that has been, and is, displayed through living in the times of covid-19 and its current aftermath has prompted leadership to continue to seek compelling ways to remain adaptive to daily and volatile dynamics, as well as seeking the means to lead system agility alongside change. In this regard, professional associations/organizations are often running parallel portfolios or projects so as to anticipate or respond to the advancements required within the respective systems that they guide, develop, benchmark, or even govern. Often, their support is the setting of guiding frameworks. For instance, there is a spectrum of competency frameworks for different professions and often within different country or regional contexts. An internet search refers to: Human Resources, Accountant, Librarian, Engineering and a vast plethora of health professional competency frameworks.

Within RMA, in Southern Africa, the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA) is one such organization that plays a strategically supportive role in its named domains, and for various sectors, including higher education. SARIMA has consistently provided programs that are systems-driven inclusive of action research, systems thinking, strategies and resources to support professionalization, hence there is the acceptance of RMA as systems-based. A concrete expression of this support has been in the form of a professionalization project which included inter alia a Professional Competency Framework for Research Management and Administration (PCF-RMA) as well as international professional recognition (IPR) pathways towards non-qualification-based accreditation for research managers and administrators (RMAs) (Williamson et al. 2020). The project and the PCF-RMA used participatory approaches and drew consistently on action research to ground the legitimacy of its formulation (Williamson et al. 2020). The professionalization project aims to support RMA leaders, managers and administrators in navigating their generative, exacting and often troublesome ‘third spaces’. These spaces are intermediate “crossover spaces” requiring specialized activities in support of two different functional areas, in this case academia and RMAs (Whitchurch 2008; Williamson and Shuttleworth 2021). The project is also assumed to provide progressions towards a more precise professional definition, professional development, ongoing learning and growth towards the achievement of RMA outcomes and impact within RMA and its systems.

Yet, as alluded to in this introduction, professionalization is viewed as being part of managerialism, which has come into sometime uneasy contact with the liberal, autonomous and critical ethos of universities (Castree 2000; Mushemeza 2016). This view perhaps casts the professionalization support into an ambiguous role of being, on a philosophical level, both supportive and problematic. It also problematizes how mechanisms, such as the PCF-RMA, are received and implemented in universities. What, for instance, has been the inclination of the university to take up the PCF-RMA and institutionalize its potential change-management offerings? In this regard, we posed the following central research question:

How does a PCF-RMA enter the university RMA systems and build learning outcomes?

Following on this introduction, the theoretical lenses are discussed as the second section of this article. The third section provides the methodology and context of the study. The fourth presents the collective case data, and the fifth provides the findings. The article concludes with limitations and recommendations.

Reviewing the Literature Towards the Theoretical Lenses

Theoretical lenses selected to address this research question are systems thinking and the learning organization, with a revisiting of these seminal concepts as was conceived by Senge (1990) in the Fifth Discipline. Many concepts and methodologies that enter into systems and management schools of thought are open to being buzz words or management fads. Senge’s work has also been exposed to such vagaries and scholarly critique (Örtenblad 2007; Vince 2018). Yet perhaps the persistence of common sense included in systems thinking (the fifth discipline) by Senge (1990), has convening potential (Flood 2010). Within a review of systems thinking, Flood (2010) positions Senge’s work as applied systems thinking and underlines its intrinsic linkage to the learning organization. Flood (2021) more recently invokes systems to probe conventional wisdom and provide “further ingredients for thought”. He further reflects that “systemic tools for thought coming from professional communities promise[s] to combine to challenge and bring about change”. With a view to one of the professional communities (RMA), in addressing a research gap, we therefore deemed it opportune to revisit the notion of the learning organization and systems thinking, bringing these ideas into play at a time and place where their provocations, stability and ‘conventional wisdom’ (Flood 2021:604) may be unexpectedly useful when applied to alternative landscapes of the RMA professional community. Hoe (2019:54) has also applied Senge to recent developments around “digital ecosystems”. Building on an established foundation of Senge’s five disciplines, and the critical fifth discipline of systems thinking, she translates the model to demonstrate its implications for a changing world, given the mega-trend of digitalization and technology. Four of the ‘disciplines’, she claims, inculcate a systems culture while the fifth discipline is fundamental to the construction of the digital ecosystem itself. Concluding her work, she suggests extended research around systems change. We respond to this confluence presented for extended research in deeming that RMA is a profession engaging with systems change and opportunities (Örtenblad 2007), driven by professionals following systems thinking. We posit that their ongoing systemic engagements contribute to a learning organization. RMA, as well as the whole organization, benefit from learning organizations as sites of healthy exchanges of knowledge, reinforcement of mutual learning, improved trust and ethics within relationships and an overall ownership of performance success (Hassani et al. 2022). In the often frustrating interpersonal and professional spaces that RMAs find themselves (Williamson and Dyason 2023), attributes such as these improve morale, researcher support and research impact.

Thomas and Allen (2006) have also indicated how the variable of learning within organizations has become progressively important, more so now, than in the past, in light of the pace and nature of change in world-wide realities. Organizational assets and resources, they argue, are not only concrete and tangible infrastructure. Additionally, they are, in essence, agile and creative knowledge that is embedded in people, processes, organizations and technologies, and deployed, as such, for sustained advantage. Such achievement occurs in the future-focused, adaptive systems of the learning organization. “The learning organization concept is about building learning and knowledge creating capacity in individuals and enabling the effective dissemination of this knowledge through the organization” (Thomas and Allen 2006:126). These views are echoed by Hassani et al. 2022 who argue that learning organizations provide the essential means to crystalize unconnected and disparate variables and layers of the organization towards heightened interpersonal co-operation and comprehensive harnessing of competitive knowledge. In the same vein, RMA, as “a highly professional and strategic function within universities” also seeks to provide crystallizing conditions to unlock deep expertise required for the competitive advantages of research-intensity (Bosch 2011:20).

In this regard, as signaled in the introduction, universities are in special focus in terms of being custodians and purveyors of learning, ‘holding the keys’ so to speak, to current and future knowledge assets, while they themselves are also required to learn. Research, and the professional services thereof, is a critical systems lever for learning and how knowledge bases unfold to become established and evolving paradigms and schools of thought. RMA is thus also a system, within a system, and may well be impelled by systems thinking for the critical performance areas that strategically RMA must support in knowledge generation. One such example of systems thinking is the communal and codified expression of core and transferable competencies for RMAs as contained in the PCF-RMA (Williamson et al. 2020). Systems thinking may therefore serve as an interpretive lens for the PCF-RMA influence on university systems. We suggest that systems thinking is bolstered and shaped through RMAs engagements with the “information” of the PCF-RMA, which according to Thomas and Allen (2006) may be an exemplar of systematized documentation that informs recipients of useful applied and practice-based ‘technical’ capabilities. The recipient, in turn, internalizes this as “knowledge”, which dynamically becomes co-embedded within the richness of their existing and inherent repository. Following complex processes, individuals may then move towards “a holistic appreciation” of that which they apprehend and internalize. From there onwards, systems thinking may emerge. Arnold and Wade (2015:670) attribute systems thinking to Richmond, who provided the initial defining point as “a common language and framework for sharing our specialized knowledge, expertise and experience with “local experts” from other parts” within an interconnected ethos. Arnold and Wade (2015:671) layer the definition to include three essential elements that are needed to pass “the system test”. They are 1) purpose, 2) elements, and 3) interconnectedness. For the purposes of framing this article, we reflect their definition (Fig. 1) with a posited extrapolation of the ‘test’ to equivalents in Senge’s five disciplines and the learning organization.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Adapted concepts of five disciplines for a learning organization

Source: Authors 2023

Purpose means providing a rationale and a distinct direction such that there is the achievement of an outcome emanating from actions of daily life, and to improve the same. Elements are the components parts of the systems which, in turn, are interconnected and also dynamically configured in such a way that the system is dynamic and active, with generative abilities, such as those contained in the act of thinking. These three elements are visible as equivalents in Senge’s Five Discipline framework (See: shared vision; mental models; team learning; personal mastery; systems thinking). Senge creates this ensemble of disciplines, and yet also privileges systems thinking as the holistic and critical dimension. The learning organization requires these five disciplines, yet also needs to become its own purposive whole. The learning organization moves and changes its systems and capabilities in line with generating its own relevance into the future; therefore, is never fully realized, but always co-evolving in learning (Senge 1990).

The “learning organization” has been taken forward by authors in various ways, as depicted in a meta review by Thomas and Allen (2006). For the purposes of this article, we follow Thomas and Allen (2006). They underline the assumption that core competencies should be the launch point of such learning. Given the professionalization foundation that the champions of the PCF-RMA are building through the PCF-RMA, we align ourselves with their logic. Additionally, they do not leapfrog learning directly onto the organization but instead point out that “[t]he learning organization concept is about building learning and knowledge creating capacity in individuals and enabling the effective dissemination of this knowledge through the organization.” Furthermore, they acknowledge that learning and knowledge carried over into organizations starts with the premise that people have the knowledge rooted within them and thus are the active carriers and interpreters of such knowledge. When individual knowledge is translated successfully and systemically into organizational contexts, the learning becomes a “strategic initiative”. This line of argument sets up their central premise for extended research in that the learning organization, they claim, suffers from misapplication and does not sufficiently center the individual. Their review thus concludes that researchers should continue to “reframe learning in organizations, and by highlighting attributes related to individual and team learning enabling a richer understanding [of the learning organization] to emerge”. The premises of Thomas and Allen (2006:137) are echoed in a review by Stewart (2001) and nuanced by the viewpoint that individuals and also groups of individual’s collective learning experiences are not the end point of the system, but rather the throughput means of the systems towards achieving its systemic outcomes. Considering that learning is the means, we therefore consider critically what inputs contribute towards the means of learning and where the outcomes of the learning ‘lands’ for productive purposes. The PCF-RMA provides a workable systemic framework to strengthen the desired growth in the body of knowledge by academics. In relation to these two key and inter-related concepts of systems thinking within the learning organization, the distinct contours of RMA in universities have not been sufficiently theorized through these convoking lenses. In this regard, our research question, framed in terms of the PCF-RMA entering and creating learning outcomes within the RMA system, becomes relevant.

As such, we depict the following conceptual framework for this article.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Conceptual framework for the study

Source: Authors 2023

The graphic postulates our integrated thinking, drawn down from the theoretical framing of the literature, to be a “working theory”, expressed as the conceptual framework, for this study (Maxwell 2013). A critical input to RMAs’ learning and competence acquisition for the benefit of academics and towards the learning organization is a systems-based framework, such as the PCF-RMA. Thomas and Allen (2006) indicate that learning organizations start with core competencies being in place. Within systems thinking, RMAs shape their learning proactively and responsively, cementing and acquiring professional competences, using the PCF-RMA, so as to grow academic development and knowledge resources, as described by Thomas and Allen (2006), for research to be enabled, supported and to succeed. The staff, in tandem with other resources, form the capability within the University’s RMA Offices, which are the infrastructure for, and custodian of, the RMA functions. The research undertaken by the University is integral to the University as a learning organization.

Methodology and Context

The qualitative approach for this study has its initial roots in the action research which delivered the PCF-RMA (Williamson et al. 2020). We cover both the methodology and the context of the research in one section, following Englander (2019) who argues that data meaning is found not only in the methods of research, but essentially in the context as a phenomenon. Furthermore, this standpoint makes sense for action research, where method and contextual phenomenon are inextricably co-generating as the research unfolds. Clarke et al. (2015) state that it is unsound to refer to action research as distinct from “living knowledge”, in that “it defines itself as it proceeds…as “context bound”…“on-the-spot procedure”. They further align with our position, stating that action research, as it is termed, underscores professional learning and leadership in education (Clarke et al. 2015:30). These considerations prompted us to couple context and methodology in one section.

While a detailed discussion of the action research is provided in Williamson et al. (2020), a summary for this paper is apposite. SARIMA responded to calls from their membership to provide an indigenous system, useful to the continent of Africa, and which would give leverage to the fuzzy and often overlooked expertise of RMAs, captured compellingly in Allen-Collinson (2007) article entitled “‘Get yourself some nice, neat, matching box files!’ Research Administrators and occupational identity work” and Derrick and Nickson (2014) systematic review referencing RMAs as “invisible intermediaries”. SARIMA developed a PCF-RMA, which then in turn becomes a resource for the international professional recognition (IPR) accreditation process of RMA practitioners. The IPR is governed by an autonomous International Professional Recognition Council (IPRC) (

Preceding the IPR, SARIMA drew on the learning of their membership, and the RMA system, in order to assure the accuracy and quality of the PCF-RMA using existing and bespoke systems opportunities such as: their annual strategy and funding partnerships, a reference group, a working group, international conferences, focus groups and anchoring their training cycle and membership engagements in the PCF-RMA. The PCF-RMA was approved as a ‘living document’ within the public domain at the end of 2016. Advocacy measures for systemic inclusion of the PCF-RMA, including the IPR, are continually undertaken.

The PCF-RMA provides nine detailed core competency areas and fourteen transferable competencies across leadership, management, and administration. Each of the latter levels is further differentiated with specific details of professional practices as well as soft skills (See for a summarized version). Moving toward professional recognition, the IPRC advises that the applicants have to complete a portfolio of evidence (PoE) which includes system-anchored events and structures such as: evidence of commitment and RMA employment, membership of a RMA professional body, completed training in RMA, a track record of competence at the respective levels of the PCF-RMA, with formal qualifications being required at the management and strategic levels. This detail is assumed as important, given the seminal views of Senge’s (1990) that it is the ‘events’ and ‘structures’ that create and shape the system and bring about systems change. We thus have summarized the context for this study and turn to the methodological elements.

We obtained ethical clearance for a broader-based research project, of which this study is a component (H21/05/08 issued by the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa). The sample was based on our intention to probe the phenomena as expressed in our research question. Given the membership base of SARIMA, our inclusion criterion was singularly that of participants, who are SARIMA members, at universities that had reflected their deepened interest and openness towards bringing the PCF-RMA into their university systems. One was a so-called new university which came about after democracy, while all others were established universities. Thereto, we pragmatically and purposively selected cases of universities where managers have signaled some level of PCF-RMA integration within the universities’ systems. The underlying curiosity for our research was how ‘knowing’ individuals breach systems ‘barriers’ to draw in a professionalization artefact for the performance benefit of their offices.

We chose qualitative methodology, within a social constructionist paradigm, given our interest in “[h]ow knowledge is generated and exchanged by people in interaction within organizations” involving “shifts from structures or outcomes to processes” of human-centric meaning-making (Karataş-Özkan and Murphy 2010:457). We applied Stake’s (1995) collective case design includes presenting multiple cases which may be investigated concurrently to offer diverse and common descriptions of the individual case, yet, while also satisfying a wider prevalence of the issues (Crowe et al. 2011). Sandelowski (2000:334) provided a coherent authorization for the cases to unfold descriptively. We followed her view that “qualitative descriptive studies offer a comprehensive summary of an event in the everyday terms of those events.” We conducted e-interviews with six participants, respectively, at five universities, with University B offering two interviews. We also drew on one documented case of one university which had already published on their use of the PCF-RMA in a niche approach to Researcher Development. E-methods were used, taking into account covid-based work restrictions (Roberts et al. 2021). We analyzed the data using thematic analysis and followed trustworthy principles (Nowell et al. 2017) to frame the cases. The data analysis is presented as “descriptive summary”, yielding working themes that surface “end products” and “entry points” for practitioners and future research (Sandelowski 2000:335). Each case is therefore narrated in terms of its intrinsic data (Stake 1995).

Presenting the Cases

Sandelowski’s (2000) argues too that descriptive cases are close to the data. We present the individual university as alphabetically anonymized. For the sake of anonymity, all RMA offices are called “Research Management and Administration Offices (RMAO)”, notwithstanding their different names at individual HEI, and the participants will be referenced as “managers” (P1-6), given that it captures their roles, based on the levels of the PCF-RMA. The cases are structured to provide a contextual reference point and then, in response to the research question, they present how the PCF-RMA entered the RMA functions of the university. In line with Sandelowski’s (2000) “mandate” for descriptive research, the strength of the ‘everyday’ in the cases is important in itself while also being integrated into summative findings.

University A

This university came about in 2013 when the country launched two new universities. To assist with the set-up of the university from scratch, the leadership employed a consultancy to advise on elements of human and systems resourcing of the university. Key positions were also already filled with people who had Higher Education experience and expertise, whereupon they could strategically guide the consultancy around the remit of the university’s offices. A newly appointed manager of the RMA function came into the university familiar with the PCF-RMA and responded to the consultancy’s RMAO plans (which did not include the PCF-RMA, but which had benchmarked with other universities) by actively reworking the consultancy’s plans so that the RMAO was set up strongly guided by the professional competencies of the PCF-RMA. “This is the framework I am using, and I would like to rewrite…” As such, it was used to ensure that the nine key competency areas are included in the RMAO, and attendant human resource functions (such as job descriptions, specifications, performance agreements, professional development) are aligned with the PCF-RMA. Centrally, it is used by staff for their professional benchmarking and development, but it is not formally adopted as university policy.

The manager indicated that extensive value was gleaned from the specific, finer details of each competency, as well as the three levels of the PCF-RMA. “It was the specific detail competencies in the different levels in the different areas that really helped out” (P1). The manager stated that “it gives me confidence” to set up the new office because it had been “benchmarked” (P1) specifically across the global RMA sector. While acknowledging the global context, the manager also highlighted how the PCF-RMA was developed within the African context of RMA but was not getting enough “air-time”, as such (P1). The manager indicated that the PCF-RMA is still an anchor guiding document for how the university manages the RMAO, indicating that it has entered the systems thinking within the university’s leadership. This translates into the PCF-RMA having influence on the research strategies of the university to grow knowledge resources and provide momentum for a learning organization.

University B

This is an established university, and two managers expressed an interest in being interviewed. One has the university-wide RMA remit while the other provides RMA support within an academic center of the university. Both managers reflected how, within their respective roles, they have engaged with the wider university community, inclusive of the executive leadership, to raise awareness of, and gain traction for, the PCF-RMA. In this regard, targeted meetings have been held with the Human Resource (HR) function of the university. While the PCF-RMA has been positively received by all with whom they engaged, there has been minimal response to bring it into the formal benchmarks or policies of the university, given that the university has its established standards/policies. “The responses have been positive; the reactions have been minimal” was the phrase expressed by P2. Both P2 and P3 stated that to integrate the PCF-RMA fully into the university vision for RM, the endorsement of executive leadership was a critical success factor for it to be incorporated into the university’s systems, specifically the HR infrastructure. The process remains slow. This was expressed as the university having as “one of their jobs… to keep equilibrium” (P2) noted as being “understandable” as the RMAO is already a mature office. Nevertheless, both the managers expressed the value of the PCF-RMA and are actively using it to guide their own practice of managing RMA and RMA staff. Both actively encourage career progression for their staff and use the PCF-RMA as the anchor in that regard. “It is becoming certainly nationally, if not internationally, recognized…”. One of the managers is also specifically writing dimensions of the PCF-RM into a 5-year strategic plan for RMA.

Both strongly advocate the PCF-RMA for their own and staff members’ professional development and deepening their professional practices. Within the university, this has meant that RMA staff have already achieved IPR professional designations or are applying for IPR recognition. They both reflected that the PCF-RMA has heightened the staff’s sense of induction to, and strengthening of, professional identities and their confidence in fitting into a bigger picture of work-based identity. “The formation of an identity, they belong to some form of profession, and they see some way forward and development” (P3).

Further mention was made to the details of the core competencies, how they fit together and the different levels. Additionally, the PCF-RMA is open to a broader range of RMA identities than only being in/managing the RMAO, but also RMA embedded within the disciplinary domains “You are able to use the PCF-RMA to support and motivate, [despite the blur between RMA in a centralized or disciplinary-based decentralized model]…how you fit into the PCF-RMA” (P3). As such, this participant addressed how the PCF-RMA, alongside an evolving community of practice for RMA, has developed mutually reinforcing mechanisms and bolstered the meaning of each other (P3).

P2 provided evidence of external RMA spaces where they have seen the value of the PCF-RMA, inclusive of African-wide institutions. This included the African Academy of Sciences, where they have been involved around the development of a standard for Good Research Management Practice for research ecosystems. P2 argues that if Africa is focused on such a standard, they “recognize the value of research management for the continent” (P2). Thereto textured detail of the PCF-RMA potentially plays an important role in giving substance to that standard. These viewpoints create a sense of a learning organization starting as a ‘kernel’ within a university while also being bolstered by RMA systems, external to the university but creating professional benchmarks that the university may then mimetically take up into more formalized systems.

University C

Similar to University B, this is an established university. The manager indicated that the RMAO was a mature office before the PCF-RMA was developed “we are lucky… we already are well capacitated” (P4). The university thus already had established systemic ways in which RMA is implemented. The manager indicated that for “individuals and their development”, it assists the staff and the participants themselves to see how their “functions fit into the bigger picture” and for their professional development, including PR. The three levels are also particularly helpful for individuals clearly to see the progression of competencies across administration, management and strategic leadership, and use it as a basis for career advancement. P4 also emphasized that RMA is a dynamic field and there is always opportunity for expanding the repertoire of competencies, with the PCF-RMA central as part of a “living” adaptive process. “The content can be enriched by new issues coming up…such as Open Data…yet we are used to a landscape evolving constantly.” Expressions such as these attest to an existing learning organization that enfolds external learnings seamlessly into the system and systems thinking that impel knowledge generation.

In addition to the use of the PCF-RMA for the RMAO, this university used the PCF-RMA to set up a ground-breaking graduate qualification for RMA, under a broader Southern African program. The PCF-RMA was a critical frame of reference for developing the curriculum for the first-ever African postgraduate diploma course in RMA. This course is also one of the few instances of such an academic qualification in this field globally. The modules are anchored in the details of the nine key competency areas and 14 transferable competencies. The PCF-RMA was thus a critical “benchmark” and enabled the university better to contextualize the qualification in that the PCF-RMA addresses of the “breadth of insight of skills and knowledge [that African RMA offers]…in a lower capacity context” (P4). Additionally, P4 indicated that as the PCF-RMA had done participatory, grounded consultations with mainly African-based RMA professionals in terms of content, the university could work smartly and integrate the legitimacy that the PCF-RMA had had invested in it by translating the same content into its course. It helped to have the course “knit together”. “The PCF-RMA has also made the conversations [on the qualification] so much easier in that the consultation with the community has already been done… easier for them to buy in”. In this regard, the manager again highlighted the “adaptive” nature of the PCF-RMA as used for a multiplicity of purposes, for which the university serves as an exemplar.

University D

The university is another established university, also with a mature RMAO. The manager (P5) indicated that they are personally advocating for the PCF-RMA to be incorporated more consciously into the university’s systems. To build buy in, based on their usage of the PCF-RMA, they specifically took the PCF-RMA and mapped it against a university-based complementary framework to show the alignment and potential systemic usage of the PCF-RMA. “Comparing the PCF-RMA and looking at the competencies and how to go from one level to the next level…building a step”. The critical point is that P5 was able to hook the PCF-RMA onto an already institutionalized and approved competency framework, and this process might give the PCF-RMA potential for traction within the university. They also consulted extensively with HR to get the inclusion of the PCF-RMA into HR functional policy areas of the university. In this regard, critical to the traction of the PCF-RMA is an audit of RMA infrastructure, but specifically a skills audit of the RMA staff. At the moment, the executive level has accepted the alignment process and documents and is considering it as a pilot project in conjunction with HR. This participant spoke vividly of how important it is to have an organizational champion at the highest level to facilitate the uptake of the PCF-RMA. “It does help to have senior executives buy in” (P5). Furthermore, they expressed how with more funding to support, such initiatives could gain the momentum needed. Reliance on SARIMA or knowledgeable people in the university is not enough. A defined project to achieve the outcomes of the PCF-RMA, in partnership with universities, would benefit the PCF-RMA. Most critically, it is about the higher levels of management ‘buying in’ and finding entry and traction points in the system. This is a further exemplar of a mature learning system being able to find entry points to integrate novel capabilities and absorb these into both existing and unfolding systems thinking in support of the core functions of the university as a knowledge custodian.

In terms of individual professional development, the PCF-RMA was again profiled as being useful for individuals to understand the work of RMA, use it for career progression and also, as this manager had done, gain IPR through building a PoE in relation to the PCF-RMA, as is the expressed criteria of the IPR process. Additionally, they followed a deliberate process and workshopped staff in the PCF-RMA and the IPR process and continue to guide them in this regard. From P5, there was a strong commitment to the SARIMA PCF-RMA rather than the use of any other RMA frameworks. The participant is aware of other frameworks/processes but identifies with the SARIMA one as being part of a university of Africa.

University E

At this university, the RMAO was under-resourced, and the manager therefore used the nine key competency areas of the PCF-RMA to “[o]rganize, structure, manage, monitor and review a research support function”. The structure, as informed by the PCF-RMA, enabled additional staff to be recruited to support RMA, specifically around pre- and post-grant awarding. The PCF-RMA is also used as a guideline for developing job descriptions and specifications for the central RMAO to advertise RMA vacancies. The PCF-RMA also was a benchmark for writing policy for the RMAO. This strengthened the centralization of the RMA functions and addressed the fragmentation that the manager felt was happening in the functions. As such, the PCF-RMA has built research systems. Partners of the university have expressed confidence in the institution’s research management capacities, and they are now experiencing an increase in externally funded projects.

In a like manner to University F, the Researcher Development competency guided a mentorship program for early career researchers. Both the competencies above complemented and bolstered skills around grant management both pre-and post-award. The university built up a database of research proposals, developed as part of Researcher Development, but also as potential proposals for grants.

As with universities A-D, the PCF-RMA was also used for existing and new staff to define their professional development and for building confidence in providing RMA services within the university. The university has since supported the RMAO with funding for professional networking, such as membership to a professional RMA association as well as their enrolment for the IPR.

The manager (P6) summed the benefits up as follows:

Clearly defined support functions for the RMA staff and office resulted in the creation of the Central Research and Innovation Office and the Director being appointed. This structure facilitated the development of the research policy, which was not in existence up until 2019. The research policy highlighted governance issues in relation to RMA and created a conducive environment that supported researchers to take up research.

The development of a research policy shows absorption of RMA into a central systemic structure for knowledge generation and may spur knowledge advancements attendant to learning organizations.

University F

University F’s case is that which has been reported in the public domain and in peer reviewed literature. A document review constituted this case. A recently constituted faculty at the university was intent on developing research intensity because this faculty largely addresses professional qualifications that meet market needs. The faculty’s staff are focused on their teaching mandate to ensure that employers and enterprise employ well-developed graduate expertise and that graduates meet a highly developed professionalization standard. Notwithstanding these requirements, as part of a university, the faculty is under pressure to have research outputs and grow the body of extant and original knowledge. Additionally, the faculty, given its strong professional roots, has a preponderance of professional qualifications, but fewer PhDs to grow the next generation of scholars. The faculty had to seek innovative and diverse means to grow a research culture for advisors/supervisors, as well as for [post]graduate students. As such, the faculty sought a framework in order to benchmark a researcher development model conceived in the faculty. Researcher Development is key competency area number 3 in the PCF-RMA. The article by Williamson and Shuttleworth (2021) reflects the case as follows:

“Faculty A’s RM leadership saw the increasing importance of a deliberate program for developing researchers (as opposed to teachers or professionals) to achieve graduate throughput, staff academic progression and to improve their publication credentials… the leadership desired a shift from the one-size-fits-all institutionalized modalities towards a more innovative, personalized researcher development model. A broad-based formulation was in place, but no articulated blueprint or precedent existed for the model.

What was in place, however, was the regional Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA) Research Management Professional Competency Framework (PCF-RM) (Williamson et al. 2020). Within this framework, researcher development, as undertaken by RM, was…articulated as: “Support postgraduate [graduate] student and researcher development across the research pipeline within different organizational settings” and included specific competencies… [namely]: 1) “demonstrate knowledge of the full research cycle”; 2) “develop frameworks to support researchers at different levels of their research careers”; 3) “scan the environment and capitalize on innovative partnerships for researcher development”; 4) “benchmark…initiatives and practices”; and 5) “adapt… for best practice” (SARIMA, n.d., pp. 13–14).”

The documentary evidence shows that the PCF-RMA legitimized the Researcher Development model, given that the PCF-RMA expressed five central RMA-specific competencies that their RMAO wished to inculcate in supervisors and graduate researchers. This example appears proximate to that of University B, where a specific hub may stimulate onward learning organization attributes, alongside an RMAO using new knowledge for its systems thinking. The article clearly demonstrates how the five specific competencies (as above) translated positively for the recipient group of researchers in the faculty, since 2016, and was found to be an example of social innovation (See: Williamson and Shuttleworth 2021).


The conceptual framework informs the findings. The numbered areas of the conceptual framework (1–4) provide the summative finding, while the dual conceptualizations of Senge (1990) and Thomas and Allen (2006) are used as lenses to integrate the data with theory. The article does not make a claim for theory-building, but rather wishes to “apply received theories in new and interesting ways” (Makadok et al. 2018:1530).

1) The PCF-RMA As Input

We confirm, as a starting point, that the PCF-RMA has entered the respective cases’ systems through already sensitized individuals, who all were members of SARIMA and had a good working knowledge of the PCF-RMA. The sample choice established these premises. Notwithstanding that, the purposely chosen individuals reflect how they intentionally seek to use the PCF-RMA in RMA office for its functional and systemic implications. In this manner, they create a hub for early thinking, incrementally rippling outwards to tangible and intangible learning organization researchers’ development (Bosch 2011; Hassani et al. 2022). Such an approach demonstrates systems thinking (Senge 1990) where individuals have used both their cognitive knowledge and systems openness to deploy the PCF-RMA, located in a broader external professionalization domain, for improving RMAO functions, as we saw specifically in Universities B and C. The individuals also harness applied systems thinking which focuses on the PCF-RMA as a methodology or artefact entering functional units of the broader system to optimize the respective and holistic organizational outcomes (Flood 2010). This provides a distinct mental model (Senge 1990). Thomas and Allen (2006) indicate that a precursor to the learning organization is the presence of articulated core competencies within a system. Hence the specificities of the documented PCF-RMA, where attention to detail was appreciated by most of the participants, create a stable representation of critical competencies to be used within organizations and a profession: “well-developed core competencies serve as a launch point for new products and services…critical to sustainable competitive advantage”. This is demonstrated when, a novel Researcher Development model (F), is found to be socially innovative, as anchored in the PCF-RMA while for another case (C), the PCF-RMA is part of the core foundation for a first-ever graduate qualification for RMA developed in Africa, as well as being part of but a few global formal qualifications routes. This is another powerful example of the novelty engendered by the PCF-RMA and how academics’ research capability is supported.

2) Individuals are Dynamically Learning And Acquiring Competencies

Of all the findings, this one was most profoundly evinced with the participant individuals themselves articulating their strong convictions of the usefulness of the PCF-RMA for their own personal learning, as well as to map out the professional development learning pathways for the staff within RMAOs. All cases confirmed that the PCF-RMA is used for deepening individual professionalization. RMAs thus became the carriers of, and advocates for, the PCF-RMA. The PCF-RMA develops personal mastery and also was used for team learning (Senge 1990) within the system. Systems thinking is also how the individual tunes into opportunities for bolstering and developing a system, while also considering more collective system benefits, given the interplay of “systems thinking” with the other four disciplines, namely, personal mastery, mental models [individual], shared vision and team learning [collective]” (Hoe 2019:54). Individuals are also seen to be fundamental to the learning organization in that it is their personal agency that learns first and foremost and this is translated into the organization (Thomas and Allen 2006; Stewart 2001). Bolstering PCF-RMA usages is also the individuals who applied for IPR accreditation, which requires RMA expertise and experience across three of the nine key competency areas. Other than university F, all participants reported on how individual staff’s experiential learning and evidence of competencies were effectively formulated in response to the PCF-RMA. This again confirms Thomas and Allen (2006) contention about the primacy of core competencies for individuals to drive sustainable competitive advantage, which in the case of the universities, is centered on academic and knowledge outcomes.

3) RMAO Of The University

The details of the PCF-RMA, inclusive of its three levels of hierarchical RMA functioning, are especially appreciated in this regard, and for some, the details are used not only to articulate the functions of the RMAO through policy and practice, but also for textured benchmarking to claim effective optimization in terms of RMA professional services. Two of the five universities (A & E) used the PCF-RMA as foundational system architecture to set up their offices and provided confidence that the PCF-RMA was a credible benchmark. Given the contours of learning organizations (Hassani et al. 2022), this strengthened system may work onwards to the broader academic community and improved researcher capabilities. Within RMA offices, there are core HR functions, such as RM policy, recruitment, job descriptions, training programs. The PCF-RMA was integral to formulating these in these universities. For another university, the participant was able to map the PCF-RMA against an existing organizational framework. This integration is to be piloted to explore deepened acceptance of the PCF-RMA directly within the policy framework of the organization. The RMA was also able to broker conversations with established HR Offices in terms of carving out the niche that RMA services fulfill in a university as opposed to RMA being ‘swallowed’ in terms of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to professional services as required by universities. While not being wholly successful, in all cases, the PCF-RMA was there as an anchoring document. All participants repeatedly emphasized that the PCF-RMA enabled them to illustrate their office’s needs and functions and also enabled mentorship programs and bespoke Researcher Development programs to unfold. This even applied to mature RMAs. Centrally, the PCF-RMA had a distinctive role to play if the RMA was being built from the ground up - being, in a way, a founding blueprint. At the same time, the more mature RMAOs inculcated the PCF-RMA for innovation, affirming career advancement and to bolster heightened professionalism for their services.

4) Outcome: Learning Organization

Our introduction addressed the pivotal role of learning for universities as exemplars of ‘learned’ organizations. The study demonstrates that the PCF-RMA is a critical documented component of that learning. More vividly, however, than an organization as an abstract phenomenon, the PCF-RMA’s relational interplay with individuals is tellingly displayed, in these cases, through human’s personal and team learning. As Thomas and Allen (2006) concluded, and Hassani et al. (2002) support, it is the networked learning of people that is the mediating foundation of a learning organization and not the organization as a depersonalized entity. The learning organization is thus composed of individuals whose joined-up assemblage of systems thinking, and thereto, learning, mediates the journey of the learning organization. RMA may be technologically and operationally supported, with technical specifications for an RMAO documented for an organizational system’s architecture. As such, the PCF-RMA, which is a technical, managerial framework, may be ideally available for the university to use-and the expectation is that they would eagerly grasp it, as such. In this regard, the professional association’s assumption could well be that universities would immediately adopt such a framework and bring about well-evidenced professionalization changes, given what we know of the PCF-RMA’s credible basis and that it was created wholly and solely to support better research outcomes. However, outside of sensitized RMA individuals, university structures, as such, were not immediately open to the PCF-RMA, which Hassini et al. (2002) confirm in that there is more of a flow and intermediary stage for changed performance than quick uptake. Hence, it has been up to sensitized individuals who have heard of the framework as members of the professional association, who have placed energy into ‘getting the PCF-RMA into the system’. What the data seems to suggest is that once these individuals have brokered this entry, there is a systems opportunity to change RMAs, but also for the PCF-RMA to set up a trajectory for holistic organizational change, as assumed within organizational learning theories. However, it is the sensitized individuals who have to do the groundwork. Hence, it is crucial for professional organizations to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of people/membership first and then use their leverage within the organization to create broader organizational changes that, in turn, bring about enhanced research performance.

Despite the study confirming that there is a real identification with the PCF-RMA in its African identity, this also did not guarantee its entry into universities situated in Africa. It would seem that known systems of Human Resources and existing policy structures hold sway, namely long-established and mature practice that predominates. The PCF-RMA, it would appear, must be grafted onto those existing practices for entry into a system, unless the RMAO is newly instituted, as was the case for Universities A and E.

Notwithstanding these issues, if one takes systems thinking as the lens, this study shows that the PCF-RMA may indeed bring that extra flourish to Africans for its known provenance in Africa, yet, in the bigger scheme, the PCF-RMA, based on how it addresses RMA as a system, has global utility as well. While we may identify with it, because of its African constituency and its ability to show comprehensively a holistic delivery of competent services; like many systems artefacts, it translates well over boundaries and is comprehensive enough to be tailored to specific conditions, for both mature and specialized roles, as well as generic (offices addressing many roles) and evolving RM offices, which may follow specializations.

In line with previous research (Williamson and Dyason 2023), we extend the theorizing that the drive of ‘systems thinking’ is not only the purpose, elements and interconnectedness of a hypothesized systemic entity (Arnold and Wade 2015), it is the personal, unique as well as collective combinations of people’s thinking in process with, and in relation to, the systems which they both constitute and of which they are constituted that prompt learning. Theoretically, then, the learning organization in this study is therefore not the organization as/abstracted entity, which the name suggests, but the sentient work force of RM staff who, in turn, feel supported by the existence of a PCF-RM that has described their actual, and potential, characteristics and capabilities. The late Ralph Stacey, known for complex adaptive systems (CAS) recognized this theorizing and practicality when he segued the scholarship around CAS to complex responsive relational processes among people (Stacey and Griffen 2007).

The study also confirmed Senge’s (1990) five disciplines of taking on a mental model, as provided by the PCF-RMA, translating the contents into personal mastery and team learning, driven by a shared vision for RMA services and as articulated in the PCF-RMA. Each university’s RMA capability expressed its own form of systems thinking, which also aggregated to a higher system of RMA, in this case, for Africa.

The article has made both a theoretical and applied contribution. Our rendition of Fig. 1, as a higher order ‘test’ for systems, is thus confirmed in the study and we embolden Arnold and Wade’s (2015) claims for their test through aligning their three domains (purpose, elements and inter-connectedness) with the established and documented five disciplines of Senge. This brings about a theoretical confluence hitherto not argued, and which are then empirically endorsed through the descriptive cases. Additionally, we apply the higher-level theorizing of Fig. 1 to the mid-range theorizing of the conceptual framework expressed in Fig. 2. In so doing, we provide data-driven evidence for the applicability of both these theoretical postulations (See: Figures 1 and 2) to real-life cases of RMA within six universities. We make the theorized claim, therefore, that systems thinking is critically supported by a professionalization framework, but more so, systems thinking is made visible and productive through the sensitized people who relate to central systems artefacts (a PCF-RMA, generated by an external professional association, in this instance) and are able to use such codified conceptions of professionalization in different and creative ways. We also, pragmatically, confirm the necessity and daily use of the PCF-RMA in RMA services in universities who must support the work of the broader academic community. Additionally, the PCF-RMA plays an important role in professionalization of the community for which it was created. Were the PCF-RMA not there, it would appear, something fundamental would be lacking. The PCF-RMA thus appears legitimate in its credibility.

The study has shown the ways in which the PCF-RMA may enter a learned organization and bring about personal and organizational learning outcomes that are intended to enhance the research mandate of universities. We therefore have responded to the research question but acknowledged that any study will be troubled by the scope of its response to a research question: we could go wide and examine the PCF-RMA’s role over many universities in Southern Africa or we could also go even deeper and examine textured, granulated evidence. This study, therefore, has been limited by its chosen methodology of a modest six cases explored qualitatively. Theoretically, any number of lenses could also be chosen to make sense of the data: we chose systems thinking and thereby traded off other macro theories such as institutional; managerial, professional identity, legitimacy, indigenous knowledge, to name but a few. Our context was mainly one country in the world and hence our context also made our scope more conservative, but perhaps simultaneously more locally relevant. Notwithstanding these limitations, the far-reaching and long-standing institutions described here may be extrapolated to other settings, which means systems and processes proliferate, even if the research on them is still catching up. While the study has focused on RMA, we have created a light motif in terms of signaling that RMAs support the conceived learning organization of the university to systemically support the broader academic community and work alongside them in ‘systems thinking’ towards generating new knowledge and research outcomes, a key mandate of the university. Hence, given time, a systems’ change in an area with leverage may well ripple both outwards inwards and outwards to improved academic performance.

The PCF-RMA entered what may well be described as a saturated world of competency frameworks and programs of professionalization. As such, it may not have stood out or caused too many ripples in its creation, theoretically or otherwise. Yet, viewed through the eyes of the people who engage with it and a diversity of scholarship that may explain it, it may indeed pixelate usefully into a bigger and textured picture of RMA expertise for truly learned organizations.