Frame of Reference for specialist and end-user interaction

How to Use

The Frame of Reference approach can be applied in every situation where miscommunication can arise in interaction between interdependent actors, with different states of knowledge, working on different parts of the same overall problem. In a research setting, proper handling of the interaction between researchers and end-users requires three basic skills, which are brought together with the Frame of Reference approach.

Basic Skills:

  1. The (will and) ability of researchers and end-users to interact effectively in a process of joint problem definition.
  2. The (will and) ability to focus on-going research on this jointly defined problem (effort mainly required from the scientist).
  3. The (will and) ability to adapt existing procedures and processes in practice to state-of-the-art knowledge (effort mainly required from the end-user).


Working with the ‘basic’ Frame of Reference promotes a greater involvement of the end-users during research projects and facilitates a regular confrontation of research results with developing end-user needs. A successful application of the suggested approach, however, requires an open and constructive attitude of both end-users and specialists. Willingness to co-operate, an open atmosphere and a flexible attitude are also required to provide a favourable context. Individual personalities, research management and finance regimes can either stimulate or impede the development of such a context.

Phased plan process

A key element in matching science with end-user needs, is to use the end-user’s information requirements as an explicit starting point for knowledge development and to continually confront research results with those needs. In practice, this may turn out to be unfeasible without further confinement. As a guideline, it is suggested to make at least some essential components of the decision-making process and the associated information requirements explicit, thus creating a shared ‘frame of reference’.

Analysis of practical cases, by Van Koningsveld and Mulder (2004), indicated that successful end-user-specialist interaction is associated with a ‘basic’ Frame of Reference comprising explicit definitions of:

  1. a strategic management objective;
  2. an operational management objective; and
  3. a decision recipe containing a foursome of elements, viz.:
    1. a quantitative state concept;
    2. a benchmarking procedure;
    3. an intervention procedure; and
    4. an evaluation procedure confronting the operational as well as the strategic objective.

End-user-specialist discussions may now be guided by trying to fill the blank fields on a template. Van Koningsveld et al (2005) suggested the iterative Game, Set & Match approach for this process.

Iterative method of application: Game, Set & Match

Developing a ‘basic’ Frame of Reference that can be used for coastal management, and is based on the best insights in coastal system behaviour, obviously requires many iterations and discussions. To prevent discussions that are too abstract, it is suggested to strive for a fully developed ‘basic’ Frame of Reference, using the “Game, Set & Match”-principle.

During the ‘Game’-phase, some item of the Frame of Reference is discussed; preferably starting from the strategic objective and working one’s way ‘down’. After some discussion, the actor responsible for defining the coastal management issue (or a mediator), ‘sets’ the problem at hand, summarising the previous discussion and making the crucial elements as explicit as possible (state what you do know). The result is an explicit target for the participants to ‘match’ their knowledge to. The ‘set’ Frame of Reference may now be altered, broadened or detailed by all participants. With the resulting Frame of Reference, a new ‘Game’-phase may be initiated.

In the initiation phase, several iterations may be possible during one meeting or workshop. Once an initial coarse Frame of Reference has emerged, more time may be needed to actually match new specialist knowledge, as new technologies and algorithms may need to be developed and applied. If the interval between a ‘matching’-phase and a new ’game’ of discussion becomes too large, it may be useful to apply the concept of pilot applications or prototyping to allow discussions to progress beyond the mere abstract.

As an example, the Frame of Reference method has been applied for the Dutch coastal sediment management policy of Dynamic Preservation is presented below: The main objective for Dynamic Preservation is to guarantee sustainable preservation of safety and of values and functions in the dune area. Dynamic Preservation implies the goal to make optimal use of natural processes. Consequently, the principal intervention procedure is sand nourishment.