Capacity building tools
Idea 1: Build skills for impact
Once you’ve done your stakeholder analysis and made a plan, the most important skill you can build is conversational. You need to get out of your comfortable, current networks and start having conversations with people outside the academy who share your interests, even if that’s just on social media to start with. Even if these conversations don’t go anywhere yet, you are building your impact potential.
It is rational to feel some fear as you contemplate meeting people from such different backgrounds, especially if you are running a workshop. You may already have had negative experiences with trolls online, and it is no fun imagining interacting with people like that in real life. That’s why I do basic facilitation training in all my introductory impact courses. While I hope that researchers might go on to do more in-depth training with companies like Dialogue Matters who originally trained me as a facilitator, I believe that a few skills can go a long way if you focus on how to manage power dynamics, and let the techniques facilitate those dynamics for you as far as possible. As with many other impact skills, practice and experience are as important as the skills themselves, so get some training and then try out your new skills in low risk situations, for example by making your teaching more interactive. Your students will thank you for making your lectures more interactive and are likely to be more forgiving if you don’t get things quite right than others might be in a more high-stakes scenario.
The skills you need to generate impact from your research will vary depending on the nature of the impacts you seek and for whom you seek these benefits. You will be able to rely on others in your institution for many of the more specialist skills, for example around patents and intellectual property, and can hire in consultants to do many other things if you have the budget, for example film-makers, designers and event organisers. There are also many skills you can learn yourself, ranging from designing workshops to creating a social media strategy, and from influencing skills to voice coaching. Find out what training your institution has on offer, and if they don’t have what you need, look elsewhere. In some cases, your institution or project may be able to pay for this. With enough foresight, you can build training budgets into externally funded projects.
If your institution can’t pay for additional training, you shouldn’t give up. You don’t give a second thought to buying home office supplies from your personal budget because having an operational printer is a priority. Many researchers also pay to be a member of a professional or academic society. In the same way, if impact is a priority then why not save up for some training? When I was an early career researcher, I took on small consultancy jobs and reinvested this in things I thought would further advance my career, like books, training and conferences. In case this sounds like I’m subtly pitching for you to come on one of my courses, I don’t run courses that researchers can book onto (I only provide training for institutions). My message is much less subtle: invest in yourself and get the skills you need to achieve your impact goals.
Alternatively, you might be able to organise your own training for free as a skills swap, if you can find an institution that needs something you could provide from your team. For example, I wanted to get training in how to do a policy evaluation, and who better to provide this than the civil servants I was working with in Government? So, I pitched a training swap: I’ll come to London and run a workshop on stakeholder engagement for your team in the morning if you do policy evaluation training for me in the afternoon. I’m organising a training programme for researchers through the UN body I’m working with, and we’ve followed a two-step process in which we first sought and ranked the training needs of the group, and then asked everyone in the group to tell us if they were able to offer training that would meet any of these needs. It is a large enough group that we were able to match someone from the group as a trainer for every topic the group had prioritised.
The act of providing training is not only an important pathway to impact. It can be a great way of enhancing your own skills in the area you’re training in. If you want to become truly expert at something, you need to do three things: learn how to do it, do it regularly, and then show others how to do it. This last step of showing others often reveals the limits of your own knowledge, forcing you to go deeper than ever before, whilst giving you the opportunity to learn from those you train, as you have to consider new application contexts and challenges as people work out how to apply what they are learning with you. You don’t have to be the world expert in something to show someone else how to do it. The first training course I ever ran was during the second year of my PhD, when I realised that the UN agency I was working with in Botswana could be collecting better quality social science data through its interviews and workshops. I wasn’t an expert – I had only just completed my own training in how to collect this sort of data. But I could see that my UN colleagues could benefit from learning what I had learned, so I showed them. Then we went into the field together and tried out what we’d learned, and they gave me as much feedback as I gave them, as I very imperfectly attempted to demonstrate what I had taught them.
Most institutions have their own internal training programmes for impact, so rather than boring you with descriptions of what these contain, I will conclude this section with some of the best ideas I have seen and heard as I have talked to training teams around the world, when I’m delivering my own sessions with them:
Many Universities offer training as part of the induction process for new staff, and increasingly impact training is part of this package for research and academic staff. I know of one University that has integrated stakeholder analysis and methods for engaging with hard-to-reach groups into their diversity and equality training, which all new starters have to attend for legal compliance reasons.
A number of institutions are now tailoring their impact training to the needs of their staff through the creation of individual training plans, providing access to a series of training modules that can be selected to meet the specific needs of the researcher and the impacts they want to generate. These often also include one-to-one coaching, either provided by the training department, by external coaches or via peer coaching. Towards the end of the programme, researchers can opt for highly specialist options, tailored to their needs and often provided by external specialist trainers.
I know many research groups and Centres that have run online impact training with group workshops at the start, middle and end to enable colleagues to discuss what they are learning. You can use the same model for one-to-one mentoring using my free online impact training, knowing that the person will receive six emails over six weeks with each stage in the course, so they can organise their meetings around this schedule. Many Universities now have their own online impact toolkits that include training resources. A quick way to build these up is to ask external trainers if you can record their sessions with a professional film-maker, later breaking these up into bit sized chunks to integrate with written materials, tools and case studies.
Offer employment and CV-building opportunities to PhD students and postdocs to help provide continuity of employment between projects, for example helping with event design, organisation and facilitation or impact evaluation and evidence gathering. The impact skills and contacts they gain can help build their own impact potential and capacity for future research, while helping the projects they are assigned to. Such posts are typically funded by Universities, but targeted effectively they can be a cost-effective way of supporting established teams in their impact while retaining talented researchers in the institution. Some institutions have gone further and have long-term positions for researchers that want to focus on impact without swapping from an academic career path to professional services. I helped set up and train a cohort of Knowledge Exchange Fellows across the N8 group of Universities in the north of England, and the majority of these researchers have since gone onto secure permanent academic positions. For this to work, it is important to ensure they get significant time for research as well as impact, and we also encouraged colleagues in more applied disciplines to integrate their impacts into their papers, or write papers about their impacts where possible. Ghent University offer open-ended postdoctoral contracts for co-ordinators of Interdisciplinary Research Consortia, which are centrally funded to deliver impact from research across the institution. They have also adapted their promotion procedures so that it is possible to progress on an impact track, all the way to Professor, alongside excellent teaching and/or research.
Not all of these ideas will be possible in your institution, but if these ideas are out of reach because you lack resources, then you might want to consider some of the ideas in the next section.
Idea 2: Resource Impact
If impact is a strategic priority for your institution, then you can reasonably expect some resources to be allocated to stimulate and support the generation of impacts from research. However, it can be challenging to convince University Executives to put their money where their mouth is. One of the most impressive success stories I’ve seen of an impact team that made the case for internal resources was the team at Northumbria University. Their first Impact Manager, Dr Lucy Jowett, was made permanent and a second Impact Manager, Dr Alisha Peart, was appointed in 2017. Lucy and Alisha knew they needed more help to support the volume of work needed in the lead up to the next Research Excellence Framework deadline in 2021. There was limited understanding or engagement with impact from academics at the time, and little appreciation of the scale the task ahead from senior leaders. To tackle this, they set about engaging with key staff, gaining trust and assessing impact across every research group and department in the University, assessing the significance and reach of each impact, the strength of evidence to support impact claims and the quality of research underpinning the impact. Once this was complete, it was clear that the majority of impacts submitted to the process needed significant work, if they were to be genuinely significant, far-reaching and well evidenced. On the basis of this evidence, two more permanent Impact Coordinators were appointed in 2018. After repeating the impact assessment process and showing there was still much work to do, a further six fixed term Impact Officers were appointed later that year, increasing the size of Lucy and Alisha’s team from one and a half people (Lucy and Alisha both work part-time) to a team of 10 full-time equivalents in less than two years.
An alternative approach is to seek external funding, for example for large strategic investments as a University or collectively with other Universities around specific challenges or sectors to create boundary organisations (see Chapter 14). Alternatively, it is possible within Schools and Centres to organise teams so that researchers agree to include impact-related roles in all their research proposals. Each proposal might only fund 5-10% of a role, but with enough projects it is possible to support someone long-term. For example, Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy funded their own communications officer for almost a decade using this model, and she gained valuable specialist knowledge of the sector, editing a prestigious policy brief series and helping organise and promote events.
A growing number of Universities now have internal funding schemes to support impact, but one of the key challenges is getting the right people apply. If organised as a competition, you may be forced to fund the “usual suspects” who have the confidence and time to apply, while an early career colleague who needs more help but who is swamped by teaching won’t apply and therefore doesn’t get support. As such, it is worth considering how such funds can be prioritised in a transparent way to fund impacts that are particularly important or in need of help, allocating funding to those who need it most, rather than those who shout loudest. Some Universities hold back impact funds specifically for early career researchers to ensure that this group gets some of the funding for impact, even if the impacts they are pursuing might take longer to yield measurable benefits than more mature impacts that senior staff have been building for years.
Idea 3: Build your learning capacity
Now you are making, building skills and resourcing impact, it is important to learn from your experience, so you can build on what works and learn from mistakes across your institution. As a sector, we are good at identifying and celebrating what works, but we tend to be much more nervous about sharing stories when things go wrong. Yet, often we learn most from our mistakes and the tribulations of others, and when we have learned a hard lesson it pains us to see others repeating our mistakes.
Part of this is about monitoring and evaluation – if we don’t keep track of our impacts and evaluate them properly, we might never know if our attempts to generate impact worked or failed. Universities are increasingly investing in impact tracking systems, whether as add-ons to existing research management systems or more sophisticated systems developed specifically for tracking impact, like Vertigo Ventures’ Impact Tracker. However, academic engagement is limited, even with the most sophisticated and user-friendly of the systems currently available. Impact tracking is just not a priority, even for people like me who are intrinsically motivated by impact. However, like most other researchers, I curse myself for not keeping better records when I am eventually asked to report my impact.
That’s why I encourage researchers to find some sort of “dump” for anything that might possibly be impact. I don’t want to have to pause to decide whether or not something might be related to impact, or to have to open or log into a system to deposit it. I might come across something on social media, for example someone mentioning me and saying my work has been cited in a new report. Or I might meet someone at a conference who tells me they are using my research, but I don’t have any reception on my phone, let alone the time to log into an online system. I get around this by using Evernote, but Microsoft OneNote has similar functionality. I can clip webpages directly from my browser, record things directly into the app on my phone to synch when I connect to the Internet later, and email things in as they appear in my inbox or directly from my social media apps. Vertigo Ventures Impact Tracker also has email functionality, enabling you to send material into the system without leaving your inbox. If it is quick and simple, then you might just do it on a day-to-day basis. You can sort through everything you dumped once in a while, when you need to report your impact, and organise it all in your institutional repository. But at least it will all be there.
However, if we really want to learn from our experiences with impact, we will need to interact with each other and our publics and stakeholders. I’ve already suggested running various types of impact seminar series (see Chapter 12), but why not explicitly include sessions where you create a safe enough space for colleagues to share stories of impacts that didn’t go according to plan?
Most importantly of all though, the only way you will ever really know if your impacts worked is if you ask the people you were trying to help. Participatory monitoring and evaluation has a long history in international development but is only now being applied in impact evaluation. In its most basic form, the idea is to ask those you sought to help what success looks like from their perspective, and whether or not you succeeded in those terms. One of the most challenging aspects of this is that different groups will view success in very different ways, and many of the people you speak to will not have been involved at the start and so might not buy into the impact goals you pursued. While that might not seem fair, it is important to recognise that needs and contexts can change, and something that might have been beneficial at the start of your project might now be counter-productive or irrelevant. If impact can only ever be defined in relation to the people and contexts you seek to benefit, as I suggested in my 2020 definition of impact in the journal, Research Policy, then the only legitimate way to evaluate impact is through the eyes of your publics and stakeholders.
In contrast, the terms of reference for many impact evaluations in academic settings, narrowly focus on a search for measurable benefits, rather than taking a more balanced approach to understand both the positive and negative effects of research, both intended and unintended. To do this, you have to look for what might have gone wrong on purpose. When I am doing testimonial interviews as part of an impact evaluation, I will always ask if there was anything that went wrong, or that we could have done better. It is often only after I ask this question that the stories of what went wrong begin to unfold. In one interview with a female Professor about the impact of my training, she told me how my advice had enabled her to achieve things she had previously thought impossible. However, when I asked her if anything had gone wrong, she told me a horrific story of online abuse she had suffered as a direct consequence of following my advice to use social media as one of her pathways to impact. Painful as it was to hear what had happened, I had the opportunity to apologise and do what I could to make amends, and I was able to change my own practice to take a much more cautious approach in future training sessions.
This is the point of monitoring and evaluating your impact: you learn how to do things better. Yes, it might also enable you to write your impact up for your funders or as a case study. But if you research your impact sensitively, even these case studies can offer lessons for others who follow in your footsteps. Learning from your experience is an essential part of the research impact cycle. It is this bigger thinking that we are trying to get to when we try and think strategically about our impact as an institution. And it is to impact strategy that I want to turn now.
Idea 4: Do you need an impact strategy?
As a researcher working in a research project, having a plan is essential if you want to make sure you actually achieve impacts during the course of your research. The day-to-day tasks of your project will take over if you don’t set aside time and resources, and check on your progress, adapting your plans as needs and contexts change in collaboration with your stakeholders. I’ve mentioned my Fast Track Impact Planning Template elsewhere in this website, but use any approach you want – just make a plan.
At an institutional level, having an impact strategy is important if you are serious about impact, but many of these documents are formulaic and lifeless, leaving you with a sense that impact is a form of capital that has to be managed like your financial capital or human resources. Working with my colleagues Saskia Gent and Regina Hansda, I put out a call for impact strategies and combined with our own searches, catalogued over 50 of these from different types of research projects, networks, Centres, Departments, Universities, research institutes and funders around the world. This is what we learned.
Broadly speaking, we found two very different types of impact strategy: goal oriented strategies that sought to achieve specific impacts; and capacity oriented strategies that aimed to build impact culture and capacity. There were also a number of things that the majority of strategies, of both types, had in common, for example:
Monitoring and evaluation; and
Your first task is to decide which of the following two types of strategy is best suited to your context and purpose, or whether you want to combine the best bits of both approaches.
1. Goal oriented strategies
Goal oriented strategies tended to be associated with organisational units focussed around specific challenges or themes, for example, projects, interdisciplinary challenge themes, Centres and mission-focussed research institutions (such as Scotland’s Rural College or the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres) and funders (for example, the British Heart Foundation or directed programmes funded by a government’s research councils).
The key feature characterising this type of impact strategy was the specific impact goals driving the strategy. These goals were aligned with real-world challenges and tailored to meet the need of specific beneficiary groups. Many of the strategies my colleagues and I reviewed aligned impact goals in their strategy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, often using heat maps and radar diagrams to visualise the overlap.
Linked to this, these strategies tended to identify beneficiary groups explicitly, sometimes linking goals to beneficiaries using diagrams, and sometimes provided evidence of the needs and challenges these groups faced, that the research aimed to address.
Goal oriented strategies often included a Theory of Change (and sometimes referred to a logic model), showing how strategic goals and research might lead to impacts through the generation of research outputs and impact generation activities. Although this type of strategy rarely referred to an “implementation plan”, implementation activities were often integrated into the strategy. These impact generation activities were sometimes tailored to the needs and context of beneficiaries, sometimes explicitly considering the need to adapt to the needs of vulnerable or hard to reach groups. This type of strategy was the most likely to identify risks and assumptions on the pathway to impact, sometimes offering ways of mitigating these risks.
Finally, these strategies tended to articulate the relationship between research and impact in more depth, and have a number of strategic goals and activities designed to better align research with impact, for example by stimulating interdisciplinary collaboration, co-production or systems thinking.
2. Capacity oriented strategies
Capacity oriented strategies tended to be developed by Universities and research institutes to build capacity and culture across the institution. They were often integrated as a small part of a wider research or University strategy which would include values and a mission or set of goals that included impact. The more of these I read, the more similar they all started to sound to each other, and the more meaningless. If all the Universities I train have such similar values and goals, why do I hear such different, and often opposing things from their staff. I have to confess that I have never read the University strategy of any of the institutions I’ve worked for, and I suspect that very few of the people I have trained have read them either. Very few strategies we read referenced an implementation plan, and it was hard to escape the conclusion that these documents served some higher administrative purpose, rather than actually being used to change how people work on the ground.
The most significant feature characterising these strategies was their focus on institutional structures, mechanisms and resourcing for impact. Some of the ideas we came across in our analysis included:
Create a database of researchers and projects working to deliver impacts, identifying the stakeholders/publics and impact goals they are targeting, and then systematically create connections between researchers with similar goals and overlapping stakeholders to enable collaboration and economies of scale.
Propose an impact sabbatical, or ensure impact is recognised in the assessment criteria for standard sabbatical applications, making staff aware that it is an option to apply for a sabbatical to focus on impact generation.
The most common approach is to use workload models, but this can go badly wrong. The key challenge is how to allocate time to impact when one person may have to take a few hours a week for many years (as I did) to achieve the same impact another person might achieve with a few well-placed conversations if the time is right and there is a window of opportunity. One person could spend weeks of their time doing schools work and achieve significant impacts with very limited reach, while another might achieve global impact with a single speech. Others spend years working on impacts that get blocked when a new Government takes power, and have nothing to show for their work. There are three solutions to this, that I have seen working successfully:
Assign workload for impact based on the number of hours spent engaging in impact during the previous year, regardless of the outcomes of that engagement.
Assign workload for defined impact generation or evaluation tasks, for example to do a secondment, visit different countries to engage with policy-makers, launch a spin-out or research and write up an impact case study.
Assign workload to impact-related roles, for example as Director of Impact for a School or Centre, or as an “impact champion” or similar.
Many of the professional services staff working with these strategies had suggestions about how they could add value to the grant application process, for example:
Get actively involved in the internal grant review process so you get to see proposals while changes can still be made to progress impact.
Work with your grants and contracts team to get notified of all new (major) grants, review their proposal to pull out impact components and meet PI prior to project commences to make an impact plan.
Explore how to better support impact potential from smaller projects, most realistically by linking up with other related smaller (or larger) projects to provide support to these consortia of projects
Follow up systematically with award holders to see how their pathways to impact are progressing, to ensure impacts are being recorded, barriers overcome etc.
In addition to meeting PIs, facilitate meetings with stakeholders and in-country international partners to discuss impact and identify wider team training needs, giving them access to your own institutional online resources where possible and inviting them as external participants to internal online training courses.
Create your own integrated Theory of Change and stakeholder map for all funded projects, grouped into themes, so you can see potential connections between projects and the impacts and stakeholders they are working with. Do this via two rounds of interviews with PIs, first to identify impacts, pathways and stakeholders, then to explore potential linkages and build collaborations