Saturday, 19 September 2015

Impact of Social Sciences – 8 steps to making your research punch above its weight


8 steps to making your research punch above its weight

How can researchers ensure their work has a lasting impact?
Thinking about knowledge exchange early in your project can help you
target and tick the right boxes. Mark Reed lists his eight
 steps to targeting, designing and sustaining the external impact of your work.

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 before anyone can apply the knowledge you’ve
generated, they have to know about it. It isn’t enough to just put
information online 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. Therefore, if you want to have an impact, you need to be
great at knowledge exchange.

My colleagues and I have been researching the mechanisms through
which knowledge exchange occurs so we can understand how to design
really effective knowledge exchange into our research and maximize
impact. Funded by the Rural Economy & Land Use programme, the Sustainable Learning project has fed into the development of Knowledge Exchange guidelines for the Research Councils’ Living with Environmental Change partnership, the largest funder of environmental research in the UK.

We distilled principles for effective knowledge exchange from
interviews with researchers and users of research from environmental
management research projects across the UK, which we then refined
through workshops with knowledge exchange professionals and experts from
academia, Government and the Research Councils. This is my take on the
principles, but for many more ideas and practical guidance on how to do
this all, follow the links below.

Target your knowledge exchange: know what you want to achieve with your knowledge exchange and who you need to work with

  • Set 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.
  • Embed key individuals who are likely to use your research in your project (e.g. via an advisory board, to give them a chance to shape your work) and vice versa, embed researchers within organisations likely to use your work (e.g. via placements).
  • Target a champion for knowedge exchange
    on your team (e.g. a Co-Investigator who has interest and experience in
    this area, or part of the job description for one of your post-docs)
    and in key organisations you want to work with.
Design 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. You can then start to think about
    exactly what sort of outcomes you want, and who is responsibile for
    delivering them (and when). You can also consider how you will measure
    success and mitigate risks associated with achieving your outcomes.
  • Build in flexibility to your knowledge exchange strategy so that you can adjust to changing needs and priorities from likely users of your research.
  • Allocate resources to
    knowledge exchange in your research proposals – Research Councils and
    other funders increasingly expect this and happy to pay.
Engage: great knowledge exchange is about relationships, and they form through dialogue

  • Engage in dialogue as equals:
    identify and implement specific mechanisms to level the playing field
    and prevent power dynamics from spoiling your dialogue, so you can
    really learn from the users of your research and vice versa.
  • 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
  •  Understand people’s motives,
    so you can make it worth their while to invest in dialogue with you,
    and you can tailor your knowledge exchange to their needs.
Facilitate dialogue to deepen relationships with stakeholders

  • Co-design communication with stakeholders where possible, to avoid jargon and make sure you pitch them correctly.
  • Work with stakeholders to interpret the implications of your work
    for policy & 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.
Impact: deliver 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 keep stakeholders on board e.g.
    information briefs based on an initial literature review, or providing
    access to data.
  • Identify key influencers
    who are well connected and respected by those who are likely to use
    your work –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 achieve, 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.
Share: make 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 –
    package the core of the workshop that you need with material/activities
    linked to the hot topics of the day.
  • Employ a professional facilitator
    to run key workshops and events – you’ll be surprised 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.
  • Make the most of social media e.g. learn from the Sustainable Learning project’s Top Twitter Tips for Academics or LSE Impact Blog’s Twitter Guide.

Sustain: make sure your research has a lasting impact

  • Identify what knowledge exchange needs to continue beyond the life
    of your project (e.g. networks, social learning), and come up with
    creative ways of resourcing this legacy so people can continue learning about your research long after the project has ended.
Evaluate: monitor and reflect on your knowledge exchange work, so you can learn and refine your practice

  • Regularly reflect with your research team and with key stakeholders on how effective your knowledge exchange is e.g.  through your stakeholder advisory panel or feedback forms at events.
  • 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, it
becomes possible to really hit above your weight and make a far greater

Bookings are now open for two new training courses based around
these principles.  To read the full LWEC Knowledge Exchange Guidelines,
click here

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author:

Mark Reed
is an interdisciplinary
researcher specialising in knowledge exchange, stakeholder participation
and nature’s value at Birmingham City University. Follow him on Twitter

Impact of Social Sciences – 8 steps to making your research punch above its weight

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