8 principles that can enable your research to have real impact

Posted by sustainable on October 29, 2012 

At its most simple, research is about generating new knowledge. It has an impact when it is used in the real world to generate money or societal benefits. But how does it get there? Knowledge doesn’t just apply itself – it must be applied by people. Before anyone can apply the knowledge you’ve generated, they have to know about it. It isn’t enough to just put information out there – on the internet or even in a policy brief – you have to help the people who need to know about your research to learn about what you’ve discovered. I call this “knowledge exchange” – others call it knowledge transfer, knowledge mobilisation and many other things. I can’t think of a single example of research impact that didn’t involve some form of knowledge exchange. Therefore, if you want to have an impact, you need to be great at knowledge exchange.

The Sustainable Learning project

That’s why I and my colleagues in a number of projects have been researching how research knowledge travels from peer-to-peer through social networks and gets into policy and practice – or not. If we can understand the mechanisms through which knowledge exchange occurs, then we should be able to understand what works and what doesn’t work, and design really effective knowledge exchange into our research, to maximise our impact. With my colleagues on the Sustainable Learning project, we’ve used our findings to develop Knowledge Exchange guidelines for the Research Councils’ Living with Environmental Change partnership. For those of you who don’t know what LWEC is, it is a partnership of 21 public sector organisations that fund environmental research, including research councils, Government departments and agencies and devolved administrations. Since 2008, it has invested £800M, making it the largest funder of environmental research in the UK. The guidelines we developed with LWEC will guide the design of all future research programmes and investments, to ensure that they follow best practice for acheiving impact.

To cut a long story short, we interviewed researchers and users of research involved in upland and catchment management research projects across the UK, funded by the Research Councils and by Government and third sector organisations. From these interviews, we distilled a bunch of principles, which we then refined through workshops with knowedge exchage experts and professionals from academia, Government and the Research Councils, till we ended up with 8 principles for effective knowledge exchange. The rest of this blog will give you a taster of what each of these is about – for many more ideas and practical guidance on how to do this all, you’ll have to wait till the LWEC guidelines are officially launched in November.

8 principles for effective knowledge exchange

  • The first of these principles is to target your knowledge exchange: know what you want to achieve with your knowledge exchange and who you need to work with
    • Set goals: set specific and acheivable goals for your knowledge exchange work, in the same way that you would for your research work
    • Systematically identify likely users of your research: and think about what they are likely to want from your resaerch. You’ll have to identify “beneficiaries” on most research funding applications nowadays, but taking time to do this systematically at the outset (e.g. using stakeholder analysis techniques) can pay dividends later on, if it means you avoid fogetting key groups – at best these may be missed opportunities; at worst those who feel excluded may try and undermine the legitimacy of your work
    • Embed key individuals: invite key individuals who are likely to use your research to be linked to your project in some way, e.g. via an advisory board, to ensure regular communication and give them a chance to shape your work so it is more likely to be useful. If you start working with them from the outset, they may be able to help co-design your research, so you can be sure you’ll both get what you want from the research – great research that delivers impact
    • Have a champion for knowedge exchange: Include someone on your team who can champion knowledge exchange – whether a Co-Investigator who has interest and experience in this area, or part of the job description for one of your post-docs – you may even be able to hire a knowledge exchange officer via an additional funding source
  • Designdesign knowledge exchange into your research from the outset
    • Devise a knowledge exchange and communications strategy, with a clear implementation plan – you’ll probably have to make a start on this anyway in your “pathways to impact” statement if you’re applying to the Research Councils. A KE strategy will typically include the goals and stakeholder analysis I mentioned already, but you can then start to think about exactly what sort of outcomes you’d want to see when you’ve achieved each objective, and who is responsibile for delivering these outcomes and when. You can also consider how you will measure success and identify risks associated with achieving outcomes and how you’ll mitigate these
    • Build in flexibility to your knowledge exchange strategy so that you can adjust to changing needs and prioirities from likely users of your research
    • Allocate resources to knowledge exchange in your research proposals – Research Councils and other funders are increasingly expecting this and happy to provide these costs, and it will make your life a lot easier if you can employ science writers and film-makers to help you do knowledge exchange
  • Engagegreat knowledge exchange is about relationships, and they form through dialogue
    • Engage in two-way dialogue as equals: identify and implement specific mechanisms to level the playing field and prevent power dynamics from spoiling your dialogue, so you can learn from the users of your research and vice versa in an inclusive and collegial way, and be able to be open and frank with each other
    • Work with knowledge brokers – intermediaries who have connections across the groups you think are likely to use your research, and are already trusted by them – a few words by a trusted advisor are worth a thousand words of jargon from a researcher
    • Understand people’s motives: Find out what motivates the stakeholder you need to work with, so you can make it worth their while to invest in dialogue with you, and you can tailor your knowledge exchange to their needs
  • Facilitatethink about how you can facilitate the dialogue to deepen relationships with stakeholders
    • Co-design communication: Find out from different stakeholders about how they like to be communicated with, and co-design communication materials with stakeholder where possible, to make sure you pitch them correctly – this can be particularly useful to ensure you’re not just spouting jargon
    • Work with stakeholders to interpret the implications of your work for policy & practice:Involve a cross-section of stakeholders in helping you draw out the implications of your research for policy and practice – because they are so much more embedded in these contexts, they are more likely to spot relevant linkages
    • Employ proffessional communicators to design materials for you whenver you can afford it – it will have far greater impact than anything you’re likely to be able to put together yourself
  • Impactfocus on delivering tangible results that will be valued by as many of your stakeholders as possible
    • Quick wins: identify some tangible outcomes you can deliver early without compromising the rigour of your research to motivate stakeholders and keep them on board e.g. information briefs based on an initial literature review, providing access to data
    • Identify key influencers who are well connected and respected by those who are likely to use your work – make it a priority to get them on side and work as closely as you can with them
    • Get your timing right – many of your impacts may take years to acheive, but don’t be blinkered to new opportunities that you could exploit with a small tweak to your methods or the way you communicate your findings
  • Sharemake sure knowledge exchange is a two-way proceess
    • Make sure your workshops give as much as they extract: Target project workshops around key issues of interest to the likely users of your research – keep the core of the workshop that you need for your research, but package it with material/activities linked to the hot topics of the day, so your workshops give as much as they extract from participants
    • Employ a professional facilitator to run key workshops and events – you’ll be suprised at how much more productive you can be, how much happier your participants will leave, and how much less stressful the experience can be
    • Create opportunities for informal interaction between participants in all your events
  • Sustainmake sure your research has a lasting impact
    • Identify what knowledge exchange needs to continue: Work out what aspects of knowledge exchange are likely to need to continue beyond the life of your project (e.g. networks, social learning), and come up with creative ways of resourcing this, even if in a mimalistic way
    • Legacy: put in place mechanisms that will enable people to continue learning about your research long after the project has ended e.g. by embedding key lessons in future projects or other activities
  • Evaluatemonitor and reflect on your knowledge exchange work, so you can learn and refine your practice
    • Regularly reflect with your research team and key stakeholders on how effective your knowledge exchange is – what’s working, what could we do better? This could be through your stakeholder advisory panel or just through feedback forms at stakeholder events. Better to do this throughout and learn from your mistakes than to discover at the end of your project that you upset everyone on day 1 and that’s why they never replied to any of your subsequent emails
    • Learn from your peers – develop a network of “critical friends” or mentors who can comment on your work, and help you raise your game
    • Share good practice – write up and publicise case studies about knowledge exchange activities that were a real success

I believe that by embedding these 8 principles in your research, you can really hit above your weight and make an enormous impact. That’s why my colleagues and are are in the process of developing a training programme based around these principles. Keep an eye on our website for details, and keep an eye on the LWEC website for the guidelines very shortly!