I often hear great ideas and case studies about engaging with people who might be interested in or want to use our research. Those ideas have ranged from the obvious (I can’t believe I didn’t think of doing that already), to innovative, unusual ideas (that I’d love more people to hear about). Recently, I decided it was time to look at these ideas more systematically. I wanted to find out what researchers around the world were doing, so that the research community as a whole could start to learn from what works.
So my colleagues and I interviewed researchers around the world, and the stakeholders and members of the public that they worked with to produce (or in some cases co-produce) research outcomes and impact. We published our first results in 2014 and our next results are going to be published next month.
This blog captures some of practical tips that people shared with us, grouped under the five principles that Fast Track Impact training is based on. The suggestions below are adapted from quotes, based on a qualitative analysis of what researchers and stakeholders told us worked most effectively for them. To quote one of them, "enjoy!".
Understand what everyone wants. Spend time understanding what different stakeholders and project members want from the research. This can help in managing expectations and identifying potential issues/problems early on. It is important that all involved know the objectives of the project and what their role is likely to be as well as the project outputs and any recognition they may gain from their involvement. Time spent at the beginning introducing each other and sharing personal motivations and goals is helpful.
Understand the context of the project. Understand local characteristics, traditions, norms and past experiences, and use this as a starting point for planning the project. Some projects have found it useful to carry out ethnographic research prior to starting their research ensure their plans match the needs and preferences of local communities.
Take your time. Knowledge exchange is time consuming if done properly. If not done properly bridges can be burnt that will influence not only the effectiveness of the present project but projects to come. Plan for the time it will take to do knowledge exchange properly, including skilled staff time.
Design your knowledge exchange activities carefully. It is vital to plan the knowledge exchange process well. Spend time researching the context, the stakeholders, and possible approaches. Look into alternative approaches, so you have a Plan B. Design for flexibility, get feedback and adapt your plans, and always try and adapt your plans to suit changing circumstances. It is best to plan to use a range of methods and approaches in the design of your knowledge exchange activities.
The early bird catches the worm. Knowledge exchange activities should be initiated early in the project. Ideally planning and research into the context and stakeholders should begin prior to project commencement.
Get buy in. Ownership and ongoing commitment to your research can be quickly established by getting ‘buy in’ from the key stakeholders. This can be formal (e.g. in the form of monetary investment or contracted time to the project) or informal (e.g. regular engagement via social media).
Independence. Ensure that the management of the research is seen as independent and neutral, so you can build trust with stakeholders. This can be achieved through a neutral organization leading the process or an independent facilitator running sessions with stakeholders.
Mix up your methods. Plan to use a variety of methods for engaging with stakeholders and the public. Different people will enjoy and be best suited to different methods. Always start with those methods that will be the most comfortable for people, and as trust builds, more innovative methods can be used.
The process is as important as the outcome. How a knowledge exchange process is implemented often is as important as the final impact. Ensure proper attention is paid to creating an effective knowledge exchange process while keeping impact goals in sight.
Resource your impact. Generating impact takes significant time and resources. There are methods available for low budgets that are reliant on the team’s personal time and energy. However, if budgets are too low, corners may be cut and outcomes may be compromised. Budget for a well designed process, which includes social events, staff time, professional facilitation, refreshments and (in some cases) financial compensation to cover time and expenses incurred by those participating in your research.
Use knowledge brokers. Take time to identify individuals that play a significant role in your stakeholder community and may be able to act as a champion for your work. Such individuals will be well known by many diverse groups, and able to understand their different perspectives. If you can build a strong relationship with someone like this, they can help you build trust with new groups by proxy.
Visualise your research. Aim to present information visually rather than in words where possible. Tools that use maps, illustrations, cartoons, drawings, photos and models are particularly successful.
Involve the right people. Spend time researching which stakeholders are best to involve in your research. Make sure power dynamics between individuals are considered and attention is paid to selecting individuals who have the power to make a difference. Involve all parties as early as possible, preferably in the planning process. Time spent in one-one discussions to win over those who doubt the value of the process before you start is well worthwhile. If there are people or groups, who cannot be convinced at the outset, keep them informed and give them the option of joining in later. Where possible, work individually with people who are particularly disruptive, to avoid disrupting group events.
Not just the usual suspects. Those of different ages, gender, backgrounds and cultures bring different knowledge, concerns and perspectives to the table. By representing the full diversity of interest in a well-designed process a project can have a far greater long-term reach and sustainability.
Understand and create networks. Understand the social networks that the people you want to work with are part of. Spend time creating connections both vertically and horizontally within and between organisations relevant to your research, to ensure you have access to people with decision-making power and a resilient network of people engaged in your work.
Personal initiative. Many impacts from research are based on one individual’s initiative, perseverance and hard work. To achieve impact, you need at least one individual who is willing to push the process through and maintain momentum.
Away days. Put time aside at the start of the project for the research team and key stakeholders to get to know one another’s expertise, background and languages. Include time for socializing.
Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm for your research and the process of engaging in your work is often infectious. Enthusiasm can help maintain momentum and achieve long-term involvement of participants, even when outcomes are delayed or mistakes are made.
Find out what motivates people. People are motivated to become involved in research for a number of reasons, for instance: academic interest, to learn, fear of missing out, financial gain, professional duty, personal promotion, and to support or promote causes they care about. It is important to take steps to make personal agendas explicit, perhaps through anonymous ballot at the start of the project or explicit discussion. If you are unlikely to be able to deliver what people want, make this clear from the outset. Be honest with participants about what they will gain through participation. Do not have a hidden agenda.
Build capacity for engagement. Create a shared skill base in your team for impact, and include basic training activities in the project early on to improve knowledge exchange and co-production.
Build personal relationships. Impact is all about relationships. Taking time to socialize is just as important early on in a process as time spent on knowledge exchange activities. Schedule in social time in the project and get to know participants on a one-one basis.
Build trust. A lack of trust can significantly hinder attempts to generate impact. Spend time explicitly considering levels of trust in the project and how to improve trust between team members and stakeholders.
Multiple modes of two-way communication. Whether face-to-face or via social media, use the widest possible spectrum of communication media available to you, so that everyone who is interested in your research can engage with you via their preferred mode.
Keep in people’s comfort zones. Be aware of what is comfortable for those involved and keep within their comfort zone. Have meetings in the local area and in a non-threatening, neutral environment. Choose activities (at least initially) that people are comfortable with.
Enjoy! Make sure the process is enjoyable and interesting for yourself, your research team and everyone else involved. Where possible, make sure the activities you design are really enjoyable.
Keep it simple. Do not assume certain levels of literacy or education. Keep language and approaches simple and accessible. Spend time discussing and agreeing terms to be used, and the best approach to take. A stakeholder steering group may help in ensuring the language and approach is suitable.
Work around people’s commitments. Keep people involved by respecting and working around people’s commitments. Consult with those you want to work with as soon as possible to match your process to their commitments. For example, it might work best to have morning meetings rather than evening meetings and certain times of year may not work well for the attendance of certain groups.
Manage power dynamics. Power dynamics can have a significant impact your work with stakeholders and the public. It is incredibly important to recognize that power dynamics play a role in the process and to plan for and manage this appropriately. For example, ensuring a first name basis can go some way towards balancing power but it is still important to recognize that others will be conscious of who holds a formal role in a hierarchy and will be adapting their behavior and communication as a result.
Record. In order to ensure transparent, trustworthy processes make sure that your process is properly recorded. This is also important in order to identify and learn from methods that have been particularly successful or unsuccessful. However, do be aware of methods of documentation, some participants may be uncomfortable with audio or video recording.
Keep your goals in mind. Reiterate research and impact goals throughout the process and keep to deadlines.
Respect cultural context. Make sure that your approach is suitable for the cultural context in which you are working. Consider local attitudes to gender, informal livelihoods, social groupings, speaking out in public and so on.
Respect local knowledge. All participants will have significant knowledge of their community and will be capable of analysing and assessing their personal situation, often better than trained professionals. Respect local perceptions, choices, and abilities and involve all types of knowledge when setting goals and planning for impact.
Share responsibilities. Share out responsibilities and credit in order to help build relationships, trust in the process and foster ownership for those involved.
Deliver quick wins. Ensure that if the project aims to create practical outcomes it delivers on these. Delivery of practical outcomes is a key motivator for involvement and identifying ‘quick wins’ for delivery early on can help build trust and relationships, keeping people engaged so you can deliver longer-term impacts.
Work for mutual benefit. Work hard to ensure that the project is of mutual benefit. Spend time finding out what people want from the process and try hard to deliver this. Unbalanced processes, for example those which appear to be all about academic benefit, can fail to get the best from those involved and can affect trust and commitment to the process.
Reflect and sustain:
Get participant feedback regularly. Ensure that you get feedback throughout your research on how your activities are being perceived and participants concern’s/ideas. Such feedback will help the project to adapt techniques and deal with problems as they arrive to the improve effectiveness of impact.
Make time for reflection. Build in time for all involved in impact generation activities to reflect on the process and outcomes. This is especially important when working in areas of conflict to ensure optimum learning and behavior change.
Learn from others who have achieved impact. Spend time exploring similar work and institutes within your area. Go and visit other projects that successfully delivered impact and speak to people who have carried out similar work to what you are planning. It may be useful to engage a mentor from a project you admire and ask them give feedback on your process as you go along.
Continuity of involvement. Continuity of people involved is important, especially for projects dealing with some form of controversy. By including the same group of individuals critical relationships and trust develop which facilitate impact.
Maintain momentum. Regularly monitor progress to ensure that initiatives are built on and objectives achieved or altered as required. Impact takes time and often takes unpredictable turns. If there has to be a break, start from where you left off and build this into the process. It may be useful to call a break for a period of reflection and present it as part of the process. Review sessions, feedback forms and good facilitation can ensure that momentum is maintained.
Got some tips of your own? Comment on this blog and share them with us...
Thanks to Dr Ana Atlee for conducting interviews and compiling the original list from which this blog has been adapted.