Friday 27 May 2016

Simplifying Impact: a Review of Mark Reed's 'Research Impact Handbook'

When Prof Mark Reed came and did an impact workshop at the University recently, the transformative effect he had on the audience was wonderful to behold. I could almost see eyes lighting up and weights being lifted as he spoke. To many, ‘impact’ is an intimidating mountain they have been asked to climb, and a considerable number don’t feel that they have the necessary tools or map to do so. Reed was like an experienced guide at basecamp, handing out the crampons, the rope and the carabiners, sketching out the best route to the top, and then stepping back with arms thrown wide, inviting them to take the first steps. 

This books offers up the same approachable, practical level of support. Reed starts by recognising that it’s not the academics’ fault that they don’t immediately ‘get’ impact. ‘We have been trained how to do research, not how to generate impact,’ he begins. ‘This means many of us feel unprepared and out of our depth when we think about working with people who might be interested in our research. It is hard to know where to start.’

‘Rather than feel daunted by the challenge, I want to share with you how straightforward (and fun) it can be to embed impact in your research. The principles and steps I will show in in this book will be just as effective if you’re researching medical microbiology or medieval monasteries; whether you are a PhD student or a professor.’

And the book does just that. Written in a simple, informal and anecdotal style, he uses examples from his own experience to illustrate that an ability to generate impact is not something you are born with, but something that you can develop over time, if you have the right attitude and outlook. ‘You don’t have to be a natural communicator or extrovert. You don’t even need to be that confident. Your research can make an impact even if you’re chronically shy, if you have the heart for it, a plan and a few relevant skills.’

At the heart of this practical handbook are five principles:

  1. Design: know the impact you want to have, and design impact into your project from the outset. It’s important, at the start, to understand what everyone wants and expects from the project, including the researchers, stakeholders and others that might be interested or affected. Take your time to properly understand this, approach it in different ways, and make sure that your have the necessary funding to do it effectively. And, most importantly, make sure there’s flexibility built in to your plan. As all researchers know, things don’t always go as you expect, and collaborate with others in drafting it.
  2. Represent: think about who will lose out as well as who will gain from the findings of your research, and make sure the broad spectrum of people is represented. Do your homework in identifying the individuals and groups who are either influential, or who might potentially feel disempowered and marginalised.
  3. Engage: this is the most important of the five principles, and is at the heart of good impact. You must be empathetic, and understand that ‘knowledge exchange’ is a two way, long term relationship. Professional facilitation can be invaluable in helping to build this.
  4. Early impact: Whilst many researchers recognise that it take years to get results, those outside of academia do not. You need to get tangible results as soon as possible to retain interest. That’s not to say you have to give away your initial findings, or publish before you’ve the essential fact checking, but you can explain the ‘state of the art’ through exhibitions or comment pieces, or use a literature review as a briefing note. Social media is a good way of engaging with stakeholders to maintain their interest before ‘the main event.’
  5. Reflect and sustain: keep track of what works, get regular feedback, reflect, and learn from others.

Reed recognises that these can seem somewhat idealistic and abstract, despite the concrete examples he provides. So in the second part of the book he provides practical steps to make the impact happen:

  1. Envision your impact: so, thinking practically, what impact do you think your research might generate? This is sometimes difficult, especially if your work is in a more theoretical discipline. To help with the process, he suggests questions that you should ask yourself, such as what elements of your research might be interesting or useful to someone else? What in the wider world (policy, economy) links to your research? And where can we give most value?
  2. Plan your impact. This clearly links to the first of the principles (‘design’). To help with the planning, there is a template at the back of the book that breaks down the process into more digestible chunks: what are your objectives?  Which stakeholders do you foresee? What are the key messages you want to get across to those stakeholders? How will the message be delivered? And so forth. It may help to undertake a stakeholder analysis, and be open and honest (with yourself and others) about what can realistically be achieved, and what resources you need.
  3. Cut back on anything hindering your impact. Academics have little enough time with teaching, administration and the research itself, so they need to ruthlessly limit the inessentials. Reed is refreshingly upfront about this, suggesting wonderful strategies such as only going to every other meeting.
  4. Get specific about impact and who can help you. Remember that template from Step 2? This will be invaluable in identifying who can help with what part of your impact. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who might seem too powerful, too busy, or too high profile: in his experience they are often flattered, and more than willing to mentor you.
  5. Achieve your first step towards impact and measure success. Even with the process broken down into steps, it can seem insurmountable. So cut down to the tiniest steps, and set yourself achievable targets. Focus on small steps you can take every day. 

The third part of the book (and the second half of the whole) is dedicated to practical tools and techniques, including how to undertake a stakeholder analysis, design and facilitate an event, use social media, engage with policy makers, write a policy brief, gather evidence and write up afterwards. It’s interesting that the social media element of this takes 40 pages (a good 15% of the overall book), and could form a book in its own right: some invaluable and sensible insights into how to be an online academic. I might summarise these in a separate post.

Tempting though it might be, Reed warns against skipping straight to these tools. ‘If we do this, there is a real danger that we miss the whole point of impact, which is to create social and economic benefits that make the world a better place.’

Whilst valid, that quote highlights the sometimes overly evangelical tone that the book sometimes adopts. At one point he states that ‘we need to take down the walls, one piece of jargon at a time, if we want to communicate our research effectively...we need to cradle the flame and carry it to the people rather than just hope that people will be drawn to the light.’ There are shades of a Southern Baptist minister to this, and you can imagine a Hammond organ and choir breaking into song at certain points.

But that’s to do the book a disservice: Reed takes a complex, intimidating subject and presents it with refreshing simplicity, coherence and vision. And, whilst some of the pictures have the whiff of a generic self help book (why does a picture of a forest illustrate the need for flexible impact design?), all can be forgiven because his overall message is sound, and his tone honest and self deprecating: ‘I am living proof that you don’t need to be any more intelligent, lucky or good looking than anyone else.’

He finishes with a (relevant) picture of two workmen putting up a sign at the top of a building. One is leaning over the edge to fix the sign in place, and the other is holding his legs whilst he does so. ‘For me, this explains the heart of this book,’ Reed says. ‘Impact is based on long-term, trusting, equal relationships, and two way communication between researchers and those interested in our work...If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information in this handbook, all you have to do is connect with the people who are interested in your research and the rest will come naturally.’

 For many who are intimidated by the challenge of impact, knowing that it is essentially about forming relationships will be a huge relief. And, having understood that, having such a practical book to hand, with templates and simple achievable steps, should make everyone as adept - and evangelical - as Reed himself.


  1. Thanks for such a great review. You very effectively sum up what I wanted to achieve with this book - to make impact simple and un-intimidating for any researcher, no matter how experienced, confident or otherwise you might feel. Its also great to see that the book gives people a real feel of what it is like to be at one of my trainings. I wasn't sure if that would come across.

    And you're right - I am unashamedly evangelical about impact. I genuinely believe that whatever your motives for being a researcher, it is possible to become motivated by impact. If you became a research because you were curious about the world around you, engaging with people outside the academy often forces you to join up ideas and ask questions in ways you would never have dreamt possible before. If you want to be better known for your expertise, engaging in impact can significantly increase your public profile, and as a result, your visibility within the academy. And if you just want to do more and better research, engaging with the impact agenda can give you access to new resources and opportunities that can enable you fund new research and write higher impact papers that connect your core research to wider audiences.

    I really wanted to make the book something beautiful that people would really value, at the same time as making it as affordable as possible, so I could get it into as many people's hands as I could. Finding enough relevant images to make that happen was a bit of a struggle though, as you noticed! I have a photographer who has the most esoteric and abstract shot list you can imagine to get the stock photography replaced with more relevant images for the second edition. She's relishing the challenge, and I can't wait to see what she comes up with!

  2. One thing I've found in working with academics is that they sometimes need some help figuring out WHO might benefit from their research (or be interested in it) as a first step. Once you can imagine a potential audience, you can learn more about what specific bits they are interested in. This sounds like a great book for then taking that forward.

    Also, in a workshop I ran many years ago, I used a deck of images to get people talking. One person selected an image of a house engulfed in flame, but what she made of that was really interesting: She wanted this impact work to be like setting a fire. Where you do a few small targetted things and then something bigger comes of it. It sounds like this is exactly what this book is suggesting -- figure out how to get the fire started.

  3. Thank you both for such interesting and thoughtful comments. You both have (clearly) very positive engagement with impact and, having seen the benefits, can see the worth in taking those first steps. For many who are overwhelmed by the challenge the benefits might not seem so clear. This is where Mark's book helps: it both explains the benefits and makes the steps more achievable. As such, it's invaluable.

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