Deep and sustained engagement with stakeholders is increasingly recognised as one of the most important foundations of achieving strong research impact.
Post REF2021, each panel which assesses University submissions releases a summary of their findings. Yesterday I read the report for Panel C – covering social sciences – which repeatedly stressed the value of “sustained relationships” and “engaging with key stakeholders from an early stage” to achieve powerful research impact.
In addition, recent research from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex identified early identification of stakeholders as conducive to achieving the impacts planned for, with caveats around the selection process of the Research Excellence Framework which was the source of impact narratives.
But how do you decide which stakeholders to engage with? When working to support researchers with impact planning, I encourage a mix of both divergent and convergent thinking.
Divergent thinking encourages wide ranging review of options, drawing up a long list of potential stakeholders, while convergent thinking will focus down and allow you to prioritise.
Techniques to enable convergent thinking and prioritise stakeholders include some favoured in business, notably the 2×2 stakeholder matrix. This plots Power against Interest to indicate the level of engagement you should aim for with stakeholders in each quadrant, like this:
This focus on interest and power essentially removes small “p” politics, which can be a dominant factor in influencing stakeholder relations in research. New iterations of this approach have engaged with this lack by introducing the idea of alignment and considering how to move stakeholders from one quadrant to the next in the ODI alignment interest and influence matrix. Subsequently, FastTrack Impact considers more fundamentally the role of the less powerful, so brings in an appreciation of who is impacted – not just those who have influence – in its 3is model.
Recently, in my own work supporting researchers to think about and to prioritise stakeholder engagement, I’ve been looking at ways to provide a scale of importance for stakeholders which can be tabulated, enabling stakeholder ranking by importance.
This approach is strongly influenced by the categories in the excellent 12insights Stakeholder engagement primer, in particular, the third element, Selecting stakeholders. This shows how stakeholders can be mapped against four criteria using a Venn Diagram. The model develops categories based on some of those used in business and others that emerge in research, as noted in the authors’ citations.
Their definitions of legitimacy, specifically, were very influential on my own thinking, and I have developed five categories informed by these examples. I have altered them somewhat to suit the group of researchers I have been working with, and instead of using a Venn diagram, I use a table that can be sorted by rank.
By allocating a score to each stakeholder, for the different attributes, you can quickly and easily develop a sense of priorities, as you can see in this worked example.
If you would like to obtain a usable version of this spreadsheet, or to talk about how Insights for Impact can help you with stakeholder engagement work, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
After more than a decade working with universities in the UK, Europe, and in the developing world, Saskia Gent launched Insights for Impact to offer consultancy services to institutions, researchers, departments, and research projects, enabling them to access impact expertise, add flexible resource, and address specific issues innovatively.