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How to write a research impact strategy

Whether you are leading a department, school, institute, faculty or university, having an impact strategy is important if you are serious about impact. But these documents often feel formulaic and lifeless, leaving you with a sense that impact is a form of capital that needs to be managed like your financial capital or human resources.

 

So, what makes a good impact strategy? Can an impact strategy actually drive transformational change? And what sorts of things should you include in an impact strategy?

Summary of the paper

 

We reviewed over 70 impact strategies from Higher Education Institutions, programmes and units in the UK, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong China, Denmark, New Zealand and from independent research institutes. What we found was fascinating. It turns out that there are two types of strategy, and if you are writing an impact strategy, your first task is to decide which of these you want to create:

 

  • “Achieving impact” strategies had a strong emphasis on partnerships and engagement, but were more likely to target specific beneficiaries with structured implementation plans, enable the organisation to operate as a boundary organisation to co-produce research and impact, support and facilitate best practice at the scale of individual research projects or teams, and recognise impact with less reliance on extrinsic incentives.

  • “Enabling impact” strategies tended to be developed by universities and research institutes to build impact capacity and culture across an institution, faculty or centre. They also had a strong focus on partnerships and engagement, often including a focus on industry or local communities, and they invested in dedicated impact teams and academic impact roles supported by extrinsic incentives including promotion criteria.

 

We draw on examples from the strategies to discuss different approaches to engagement and partnerships, co-production and boundary organisations, resourcing for impact, impact training, monitoring and evaluation, and impact culture. In doing so, we provide a fine-grained understanding of the components of impact strategies, providing research managers with a wealth of options for consideration as they develop and enhance their own impact strategies. Our analysis provides insights into a new and rapidly evolving field of professional practice across the international higher education and research sectors, showing the very different approaches that are being taken by research organisations to build capacity and plan for impact in response to research funders and assessments.

 

This snapshot of impact strategies around the world may also provide insights into the ways in which research organisations are re-orienting and in some cases re-purposing themselves to deliver impact as part of their core mission. The two types of strategy described in our paper are not mutually exclusive, and some strategies contained elements of both enabling and achieving impact. Each type of strategy has unique strengths, and by defining these clearly, we hope that our analysis will be used to increasingly combine best practice from each approach. In this way, future impact strategies may be able to provide clear structures, roles and accountability for impact across large organisations whilst facilitating more co-productive approaches to research and impact within and between projects. It may be possible to establish more specific and measurable impact goals and targets, whilst creating credible implementation plans that consider assumptions and risks, both to the delivery of impact and unintended consequences. They may be able to harness the intrinsic motivation of some researchers around mission-focussed engagement whilst incentivising and rewarding engagement more widely, and paying attention to the potential negative outcomes sometimes associated with extrinsic incentives for impact.

 

Impact strategies have the potential to articulate goals and implement activities to enable research to develop credible and relevant solutions to problems, increase effectiveness or efficiency of existing systems and processes and develop tangible new approaches to societal and planetary health and wellbeing. However, they also have the potential to communicate aspirations without meaningful follow-through, or play into existing instrumental narratives of impact as a way of generating new income streams or climbing league tables. Whether an enabling or an achieving impact strategy, the power of these documents is in the specificity of the activities and accountability mechanisms that will enable aspirations for impact to be translated into the kinds of cultures that drive real, transformational change to meet 21st Century challenges.   

Good practice examples

 

Although there were many excellent examples of impact strategies in our sample, we have identified the following four exemplar strategies to illustrate good practice in “achieving impact” and “enabling impact” strategies.

 

Achieving impact examples of good practice:

 

Enabling impact examples of good practice:

 

See the full database of impact strategies analysed in the paper:

 

Impact Strategies Database