Section 3: Topic 2

How does impact happen?

There is one universal precursor to impact: learning. Published research is typically in the form of data and information (useful data), but for someone to benefit or use research from your institution, this data and information need to be transformed into knowledge in someone’s head. This happens through learning: someone somewhere needs to learn about your institution’s research. Therefore, if you want research to have an impact, you need to find new ways of making this research both accessible and understandable to the people who can benefit from or use your work most (for example, by working with The Conversation). 


Press offices have many crucial skills that can enable target audiences to learn more effectively about research. But good communication starts with empathy – you need to truly understand your audience if you want to develop communications that really resonate with them. To do this, you need to enable researchers to to patiently nurture relationships with those who are interested in and can use their research, learning with them about the needs and interests of these groups. This takes humility and empathy, because you need to listen and learn if you want to understand who these people are, and what motivates them. 


Empathy is at the heart of media engagement that generates impact, but more specifically, there are five factors that can explain whether or not a pathway to impact is likely to work:

  1. Context and purpose: the impact generation process always starts in a given context, for example, the culture, educational status and interests of a particular public, or the emergence of a new challenge such as a new disease or opportunity such as a new technology. Within this context, researchers and various social groups may wish to achieve specific benefits (your purpose or impact goal), for example, learning about the work of a nationally significant artist, or finding a cure for a disease. As contexts or purposes change over time, you need to adapt your pathway to impact, considering how you may deal differently with each of the factors below. For any given context and purpose, each of the steps required to generate impact will vary significantly.

  2. Who initiates and leads on the pathway to impact: researchers, publics and/or stakeholders may initiate and lead the impact generation process. Who initiates and leads the process matters: there is evidence that impacts vary systematically based on the group that has ownership of the pathway to impact. For example, your pathway to impact may be self-organised from the bottom-up, initiated and led by those seeking the benefits. Alternatively, impact may be initiated through more top-down approaches, where plans to achieve benefits are initiated and led by researchers or other external agencies, such as the government. 

  3. Representation: your engagement with stakeholders and publics is likely to vary from full to partial representation of different groups and their interests. Partial representation may be deliberate (for example, as part of a phased approach to engaging increasingly influential or hard-to-reach groups), or due to a lack of time or resources. There is evidence that pathways to impact are significantly affected by who is engaged in the pathway, and inadvertently overlooking important groups can undermine your attempts to achieve impact.

  4. Design: the way you engage with publics and stakeholders may be designed as communicative (one-way flows of knowledge from researchers to stakeholders and/or publics), consultative (one-way from stakeholders to researchers), deliberative (two-way knowledge flows) or co-productive (joint production of knowledge). Your choice of approach should be adapted to who you are engaging with (point 3 above), who initiated and is leading the process (point 2), and your context and impact goals (point 1). 

  5. Power: finally, depending on the design of the process and its facilitation, power dynamics between researchers, publics and stakeholders may be more or less effectively managed, strongly influencing the ultimate achievement of benefits or unintended consequences. 

Ultimately, the likelihood of your pathway to impact working depends on each of these five factors. Get these right, and you are highly likely to achieve your impact goals. Get them wrong, and you are far more likely to fail, potentially leading to unintended negative consequences. 

Case Study 3

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