Mapping the most effective impact strategies

The REF2021 submission in March this year concluded several years of introspection into university research by the 137 Universities participating in the process. Over the same period, 126 (and counting) signatories to the knowledge exchange concordat are expected to conduct a self-assessment exercise and develop action plans guided by eight principles of good practice in knowledge exchange. This also comes at a time when many universities are reviewing their civic mission to align with regional economic initiatives, such as the UK Government’s levelling up agenda.

What’s more, pressure on research productivity from assessment, precarious contracts, increased competition for research funding, workload increases post-pandemic, and other workplace issues have all led to a rise in interest in ‘research culture’ or – as the Royal Society defines it – ‘the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities’. The UK Government released its ‘R&D People and Culture Strategy’ in summer 2021 which focuses more on reviews and consultations than actions, but even this asks questions about assessment, recruitment, visibility, and equity.

Taken together, it’s undeniable that this is one of the most fractured and busy phases of research policy development in the past 15 years. It’s therefore not surprising that research directors, heads of school or faculty, and impact managers all want to talk about how best they might develop supportive and effective impact strategies.

Organisations regularly develop and publish institutional research impact strategies to organise activities and initiatives, but as a tool, impact strategies are poorly understood. To help determine what works best in which environment, I’ve have been part of a pioneering project to collect and analyse a diverse array of almost eighty impact strategies from around the world to identify relevant lessons for managers looking to design future strategies.

Mark Reed, myself, Fran Seballos, Jayne Glass, Regina Hansda, and Mads Fischer-Møller identified 77 impact strategy documents from six jurisdictions. Some of these were stand-alone impact strategies, while others form part of wider strategy documents. We identified and developed six themes using qualitative textual review. We also used this approach to create a typology and inform our analysis.

The themes that emerged across all strategies were: (i) engagement and partnerships, (ii) co-production and boundary organisations, (iii) resourcing for impact, (iv) impact training, (v) monitoring and evaluation, and (vi) impact culture. Our analysis identified a fair degree of consensus about the activities and approaches required to develop research impact, although there were notable distinctions between strategy documents from the Universities and more specialised institutions or sub-units.

Specifically, two broad types of impact strategy emerged from the thematic analysis – those that focused primarily on either enabling impact or achieving impact. ‘Enabling’ strategies tended to originate in universities and research institutes, designed to build impact capacity and culture across the institution. They were often integrated as part of a wider research or university strategy which would include values and a mission or set of goals that included impact. Very few of these strategies included an implementation plan.

Meanwhile, ‘Achieving’ strategies tended to be the hallmark of smaller units or institutes with a more specific focus. They were more likely to target specific stakeholder groups and organisations linked to the organisation’s strategic impact goals. They were also more likely to include implementation plans, often using Theory of Change or logic models to visualise and plan for impact.

As our research project was by its very nature a backwards-looking analysis, the impact strategies we assessed may well already be under review or revision. As new documents are produced, we believe that the findings of this project will prove to be useful to those crafting them. Areas of consideration for the next generation of strategies will likely include implementation assessment and evaluation. There is an opportunity for organisations to move beyond the standard enabling approaches towards putting in place mission, purpose, and leadership that can achieve more effective impact outcomes.

A paper reporting on this project is currently being reviewed by the journal Research For All, but a preprint version, a database of all the available strategies, and an Excel spreadsheet with all the data we analysed is available at www.fasttrackimpact.com/impactstrategies. We trust you find it helpful.

For impact strategy development or advice do email me or contact me via the i4i contact form

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