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How can your research have more impact? New research provides 5 key principles and practical tips

Name an impact from research that hasn’t involved knowledge exchange. If like us, you can’t think of one, then it follows that if we want to have an impact, we have to become great at knowledge exchange. But what does effective knowledge exchange look like, and how can we get good at it? Three years ago, we set out to document the sorts of knowledge exchange being done across the UK, to find out what works. Our findings were published this week in Journal of Environmental Management, and in this blog, we’ll share with you five key principles that emerged from our work, as well as lots of handy tips for knowledge exchange, in the words of the people we interviewed.

There are three reasons people commonly give for not getting their research to the people who might be able to use it. First, people don’t think they’ve got the skills or tools they need to engage effectively with stakeholders. Second, even if they know what to do, people don’t have the confidence they need to get their ideas out there. Third, people are under the (often wrong) impression that engaging effectively with stakeholders is time consuming and not of central importance to their research. We hope that with the rising importance of ‘impact’ in assessing research excellence in the UK, this third concern is becoming less important as engagement efforts are increasingly rewarded. But what are the skills and tools you need to make an impact?

As researchers, we’re already in the business of generating new knowledge; it’s what we signed up for. But for that new knowledge to actually reach the decision-makers who might use it, they need to: 1) find out; and 2) understand the importance to them of what we’ve discovered. Traditionally, we’ve focused on how we can best make information about our research available and accessible. But even if we tailor information about our research really effectively to different audiences, they still have to actually learn from it, and appreciate its relevance to them, before it can become useful knowledge. Very often, that requires a significant level of active engagement, more than just disseminating information. To ensure this is useful knowledge, and has impact for those who need it, relationships must be built: two-way, long-term, trusting relationships between researchers and the people who need the new knowledge we are generating.

For us, it was time to look at these ideas more systematically. We wanted to find out what researchers across the UK were doing, to improve our own practice, and of course so we could share them with you. We published the findings of our research this week (open access, of course), and we’d like to share our top five principles for effective knowledge exchange with you here. And, of course, in the spirit of knowledge exchange, if you’ve got ideas you’d like to add to this, please comment on this blog and share them with us.

The figure and text below summarises the five principles for effective knowledge exchange that emerged from our research.

Principle 1: Design

Know the impacts you want to achieve and design impact into your research from the start:

  • Set impact and knowledge exchange goals from the outset

  • Make a detailed impact plan

  • Build in flexibility to your plans so they can respond to changing user needs and priorities

  • Find skilled people (and where possible financial resources) to support your impact

Principle 2: Represent

Systematically represent the needs and priorities of those who will use your research:

  • Systematically identify individuals, groups and organisations that are likely to be interested in, use or benefit from your research

  • Identify other stakeholders who could help or block you, or who might be disadvantaged by your work

  • Revisit who you’re working with as your context and stakeholder needs change

  • Embed key stakeholders in your research

  • Consider the ethical implications of engaging with different stakeholders at different stages of the research cycle

Principle 3. Engage

Build long-term, trusting relationships based on two-way dialogue between researchers and stakeholders and co-generate new knowledge about environmental management together:

  • Engage in two-way dialogue as equals with the likely users of your research

  • Build long-term relationships with the users of your research

  • Work with knowledge brokers

  • Employ a professional facilitator for workshops with research users

  • Understand what will motivate research users to get involved in your research

  • Create opportunities for informal interaction and learning between researchers and stakeholders

  • Work with stakeholders to interpret the implications of your work for policy and practice, and co-design communication products

Principle 4. Impact

Focus on delivering tangible results as soon as possible that will be valued by as many of your stakeholders as possible:

  • Identify quick wins where tangible impacts can be delivered as early as possible in the research process, to reward and keep likely users of research engaged with the research process

  • Get your timing right

Principle 5. Reflect & Sustain

Monitor and reflect on your knowledge exchange, so you can learn and refine your practice, and consider how to sustain a legacy of knowledge exchange beyond project funding:

  • Regularly reflect with your research team and key stakeholders on how effective your knowledge exchange is

  • Learn from your peers and share good practice

  • Identify what knowledge exchange needs to continue after research funding has ceased and consider how to sustain this in the longer-term

The circle above shows the themes about effective knowledge exchange that emerged from our analysis of interview transcripts. Read more about the tips we heard from researchers during this research here.

If you want to find out more about what it takes to be great at knowledge exchange, and gain confidence using these skills, check out the training we do (on this website), which is based on this research. Our goal is to build capacity for knowledge exchange across the research community, so we can put our ideas into practice and be the change we want to be.

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