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How does impact happen?

There is one universal precursor to impact: learning. The research we publish is typically in the form of data and information (useful data), but for someone to benefit or use your work, this data and information need to be transformed into knowledge in someone’s head. This happens through learning: someone somewhere needs to learn about your work. Therefore, if you want your research to have an impact, you need to find new ways of making your work both accessible and understandable to the people who can benefit from or use your work most.


There are many overlapping terms that are often used to describe this process, including knowledge management, sharing, co-production, transfer, brokerage, transformation, mobilisation and translation. Each of these terms is used in different disciplinary or sectoral contexts to mean slightly different things. Some imply a one-way flow of knowledge from those who generate it to those who use it, whereas others imply different levels of two-way knowledge exchange and joint production of knowledge between those who need to use knowledge and researchers. For simplicity, in this book I will use the term ‘knowledge exchange’ to include all of these different approaches.

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1. Context and purpose: the impact generation process always starts in a given context, for example, the culture, educational status and interests of a particular public, or the emergence of a new challenge such as a new disease or opportunity such as a new technology. Within this context, researchers and various social groups may wish to achieve specific benefits (your purpose or impact goal), for example, learning about the work of a nationally significant artist, or finding a cure for a disease. As contexts or purposes change over time, you need to adapt your pathway to impact, considering how you may deal differently with each of the factors below. For any given context and purpose, each of the steps required to generate impact will vary significantly.

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2. Who initiates and leads on the pathway to impact: researchers, publics and/or stakeholders may initiate and lead the impact generation process. Who initiates and leads the process matters: there is evidence that impacts vary systematically based on the group that has ownership of the pathway to impact. For example, your pathway to impact may be self-organised from the bottom up, initiated and led by those seeking the benefits. Alternatively, impact may be initiated through more top-down approaches, where plans to achieve benefits are initiated and led by researchers or other external agencies, such as the government.


3. Representation: your engagement with stakeholders and publics is likely to vary from full to partial representation of different groups and their interests. Partial representation may be deliberate (for example, as part of a phased approach to engaging increasingly influential or hard-to-reach groups), or due to a lack of time or resources. There is evidence that pathways to impact are significantly affected by who is engaged in the pathway, and inadvertently overlooking important groups can undermine your attempts to achieve impact.


4. Design: the way you engage with publics and stakeholders may be designed as communicative (one-way flows of knowledge from researchers to stakeholders and/or publics), consultative (one-way from stakeholders to researchers), deliberative (two-way knowledge flows) or co-productive (joint production of knowledge). Your choice of approach should be adapted to who you are engaging with (point 3 above), who initiated and is leading the process (point 2), and your context and impact goals (point 1). 


5. Power: finally, depending on the design of the process and its facilitation, power dynamics between researchers, publics and stakeholders may be more or less effectively managed, strongly influencing the ultimate achievement of benefits or unintended consequences. 

Ultimately, the likelihood of your pathway to impact working depends on each of these five factors. Get these right, and you are highly likely to achieve your impact goals. Get them wrong, and you are far more likely to fail, potentially leading to unintended negative consequences. 


My point is that generating new knowledge isn’t enough; we have to learn how to share our knowledge if we want it to be used and to generate impacts. Making our research available online isn’t enough. People need to learn about our research if the data and information we produce is to turn into knowledge that can be applied in the real world. To do this, we need to patiently nurture relationships with those who are interested in and can use our research. This takes humility, because we need to listen and learn if we want to understand who these people are, and what motivates them. Having letters before or after our name does not make us any better (or worse) than anyone else. We have probably all been in situations where people have given us undue respect as a researcher, and in others where we are instantly mistrusted because we are researchers. If you can be yourself, you can usually cut through such preconceptions in time. It is from that place of equality that you can build the kind of two-way, long-term, trusting relationships that can enable people to learn about and apply your research.


This approach stands in stark contrast to the concept of ‘knowledge transfer’. Knowledge transfer treats new knowledge like a ‘gift’ that can be transmitted unchanged from one person to another. If knowledge is information that people have learned and know about, then people may interpret information in different ways as they learn about it. Knowledge changes as it passes from person to person through social networks, as people adapt it to their own contexts and needs (or in some cases cherry-pick and twist it for their own ends). Even if it were possible to pass on the gift of knowledge unchanged, this approach assumes that the person receiving the gift will appreciate it and be able to use it, despite the giver knowing little or nothing about their needs and preferences. We all know what it is like to be on the receiving end of well-intentioned but ill-informed gifts, which we know we’ll never use.


Although there are some situations where it is appropriate to simply communicate research findings to the people who might use them, there are very few situations where some level of dialogue with these people wouldn’t improve the flow of knowledge. If nothing else, talking to those who are likely to use the knowledge you are generating can improve how you communicate with them, and enable you to better tailor and target information. The reality is that you will probably want to engage with people who are interested in your research in different ways at different points in the research cycle. For example, you may shape the initial research through intensive dialogue with a few key players, giving way to more extensive communication towards the end of a project, so that your findings reach as wide an audience as possible.


We now live in a digital age where the rules of public and stakeholder engagement are being rapidly rewritten. Understanding the power of these new tools and how to use them cleverly and responsibly can enable you to engage with groups that would have previously been inaccessible. This isn’t about replacing face-to-face contact. If you want to be truly influential as a researcher, the warmth of a handshake and a shared conversation over coffee or in the corridor is just as important as it has always been. But by combining the efficient use of new media with everything we already know about working effectively with stakeholders and the public, we can do much, much more than ever before. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief (at least amongst the researchers I typically train), it is possible to spend less not more time at work when you engage with these new approaches to work and communication (see I want more impact online). Working with people to generate impacts from your research will take time and patience. However, the very tools we can harness to help us generate those impacts can actually save us time elsewhere in our day. That means we get time to engage with the outside world without wrecking our work-life balance. You will be surprised at how fast you can achieve some impacts from your research, if you try out some of the things on this website.

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