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What makes a healthy impact culture?

If you want to change your impact culture, you need to know if it is broken and how to fix it. To do this, you need to be able to work out where the problems lie and where things are going well, so you can build on what works and start fixing the worst issues. A definition is a useful place to start, so I will define impact culture simply as:

Communities of people with complementary purpose who have the capacity to use their research to benefit society.

Based on my definition, there are four components I will unpack in this book. A healthy impact culture:

  1. Emerges from clear individual and shared purpose;

  2. Generates impacts that are based on rigorous, ethical and action-oriented research;

  3. Forms and is lived out by groups of people as they interact with both academic and non-academic communities; and

  4. Builds internal capacity and leadership that facilitate the research, community and purpose that underpins impact.

I have visualised this as a Venn diagram where impact culture emerges at the intersection between research, community and purpose because any one of these elements alone will not provide even a rough approximation of a group’s impact culture. There are three points at which the circles overlap in this diagram:

  • First, your purpose shapes the choices you make about which research questions to ask, how you conduct your research and to what end, whether that is to further understand the problem or research potential solutions. Equally, the rigour, ethics and (typically) unpredictable outcomes of your research will have a significant bearing on the purposes you can achieve;

  • Second, the purpose of your research can significantly shape relationships with peers and stakeholders, either underpinning or undermining trust and connection, for example depending on whether the purpose is theoretical or applied, problem or solution oriented, or competitive or collaborative. Equally, interactions with peers and stakeholders can significantly shape your purpose, as you are influenced, inspired or challenged through these collisions; and

  • Third, engaging with peers and stakeholders can significantly enhance the quality and relevance of your research and enable you to deliver more meaningful impacts. Equally, collaborating with diverse peers and co-producing impact with stakeholders can deliver original insights that also meet felt needs and priorities.


Finally, each of the three components of a healthy impact culture are facilitated by sufficient internal capacity, which I have placed as a fourth circle encompassing the three core components of an impact culture. Capacity, including skills, resources, leadership, strategic and learning capacity, can give researchers the academic freedom to find their purpose and pursue their most important priorities.


In a nutshell, the emergent impact culture I am describing requires two things, which map onto the two parts of this book. Crucially, responsibility for each lies with both us as individuals and the institutions that employ us. We cannot externalise all the things we hate about our culture and wait for our university to do something about it. We can take our own action and start facilitating change ourselves, now. But there are a number of important things our institutions need to take responsibility for as well:

  1. We must each do the inner work of tackling the barriers that prevent us being more authentic and pursuing our purpose. In turn, our universities need to create the space, academic freedom and capacity to enable us to pursue this purpose and the priorities linked to it; and

  2. Universities need to reinvent themselves as boundary organisations that connect researchers across disciplines (not just within their own institution), and systematically connect researchers, publics and stakeholders around key challenges. In turn, we need to open our minds to the opportunities that this creates, finding ways of engaging with these opportunities that connect with our own identity and values as researchers.


Emerging from this, I hope we will begin to see new ways of seeing ourselves, new ways of working and new roles for researchers in tackling real-world issues. These emergent properties arise at the intersection of our purpose, research and community at three quite different scales.


First, there is the individual scale, where new ways of seeing ourselves and our contribution to the world emerge as we own our own intrinsic motives, identities and values, and express them through our research and the role we play in our communities.


Second, when these individuals come together in groups, emergent properties arise at the group level, which go beyond the sum of the individual contributions to the group. When groups of increasingly authentic colleagues connect around shared purpose, it becomes possible to explore new ways of working and to achieve research and impact goals together that would not have been possible otherwise. Rather than homogenising action around a single university mission statement or set of values, different groups can legitimately pull in different directions. A university that prizes academic freedom cannot build its operations on the model of a business or army squadron where everyone has to conform to a single mission or set of corporate values. We must not only allow but encourage diversity, enabling multiple subcultures to develop and flourish in parallel, at different speeds and with very different outcomes.


Third, when a university empowers individuals and groups to build their own subcultures, adapted to their unique circumstances, there are emergent properties at the scale of the university itself, which can no longer be pigeonholed as one thing or another, that is for “them” or “us”. It spins out companies and builds the local economy, and it critiques the capitalist model and exposes and tears down structures that exploit the vulnerable. One research group might engage in activism to defeat the objectives of organisations that other researchers are trying to help. Rather than seeing this as self-defeating however, it is possible to see this as innately healthy if we see impact as both perceived and/or demonstrable benefits – the idea that impact is in the eye of the beholder. It is not for us, but for those we seek to help, to judge if what we have done is “impact”.

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