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 researcher.
  •  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 impact.

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
 environmental researcher specialising in knowledge exchange, stakeholder participation and nature’s value at Birmingham City University. Follow him on Twitter @lecmsr.



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