How can impact strategies be developed that better support Universities to address 21st Century challenges?

Reed, M., Gent, S., Seballos, F., Glass. J., Hansda, R. and Fische-Møller, M. How can impact strategies be developed that better support Universities to address 21st Century challenges? Manuscript under review in Research for All.  [downloaded December 31, 2021].


As research funders and governments around the world seek to demonstrate societal impact from investments in research, Universities are re-organising to better address 21st century challenges. Alongside this, organisations often develop and publish institutional research impact strategies to organise activities and initiatives, but as a tool, impact strategies are poorly understood. This study therefore provides the first formal analysis of impact strategies from around the world. A total of 77 strategies were analysed from Higher Education Institutions, programmes and units in the UK, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong China, Denmark, New Zealand and from independent research institutes. Two types of strategy emerged from the analysis. First, “achieving impact” strategies had a strong emphasis on partnerships and engagement but were more likely to target specific beneficiaries with structured implementation plans, enable the organisation to operate as a boundary organisation to co-produce research and impact, support and facilitate best practice at the scale of individual research projects or teams and recognise impact with less reliance on extrinsic incentives. Second, “enabling impact” strategies tended to be developed by universities and research institutes to build impact capacity and culture across an institution, faculty or centre. They also had a strong focus on partnerships and engagement, often including a focus on industry or local communities, and they invested in dedicated impact teams and academic impact roles supported by extrinsic incentives including promotion criteria. The typology offers a new way to categorise, analyse and understand research impact strategies, alongside insights that may be used by practitioners to guide the design of future strategies. More broadly, it discusses the potential for different strategic approaches to transform how researchers engage with stakeholders and societal challenges, considering the limitations of both top-down, incentive-driven approaches versus more bottom-up, co-productive approaches.

This is a pre-print of an article under review so it will likely change when the authors respond to the reviews, but the essence of the article is unlikely to change. And kudos to the authors for making their data and all the examples of institutional impact strategies available in one website. For those wanting to take a deeper diver this easy access to more information will be very useful.

This is one of those rare articles that is looking at the institutional lens of impact. Much literature on impact and knowledge mobilization looks at individual researchers, projects, partners, and impact case studies. Research on institutional impact is welcome. Some other examples in this journal club are here, here, here, and here.

This article analyzes 77 institutional impact strategies the majority of which (57) were part of broader institutional plans – note the relative dearth of dedicated institutional impact strategies. There is comparison across six countries (including Hong Kong) and a comparison between university strategies and strategies from independent research institutes. Since this is a Research Impact Canada journal club, I need to mention that there were nine Canadian universities in the sample, six of them members of Research Impact Canada.

The authors identify six themes emerging from the 77 institutional strategies:

  1. Partnerships and engagement
  2. Co-production and boundary organisations
  3. Resourcing for impact
  4. Impact training
  5. Implementation, monitoring and evaluation
  6. Impact culture

There are examples of promising practice in each of these six. The one I want to reflect on is impact culture because I agree with the authors that this is the most underdeveloped theme. Many of the strategies spoke to research culture but the impact culture had to be inferred. “Very rarely did these and other strategies like them define what they mean by culture or explain how they would achieve their cultural goals.” The authors observe that where a strategy did reference culture it was more likely an approach to impact rather than building a personal and value-based connection to impact. In consideration of impact culture, the authors reflect on how to build a culture of impact. “Aligned with research culture and values is the issue of intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of behaviours. Extrinsic drivers are those where external demands or incentives provide motivation for researchers and organisations while intrinsic builds on personal values and a fundamental self-motivated desire to meet the needs of society.” For intrinsic drivers there are few strategies that mention impact in career progression (i.e., tenure & promotion, in Canada at least).

Beyond the six themes, the analysis also concluded there were two broad, but not mutually exclusive, categories of impact strategy: enabling impact and achieving impact. In my opinion the authors could have more succinctly summarized the similarities and differences between achieving and enabling strategies. There are a lot of details including exemplars in the text but look to the abstract for a concise differentiation. This is my takeaway:

  • Enabling impact (helping others do impact) is more institution wide and focuses on building capacity and culture
  • Achieving impact (actually doing impact) is more often focused on specific audiences and (in my opinion) more likely to be found in independent research institutes or units with a specific research and impact focus

Check out table 4 as it is a helpful matrix of the six themes and the two categories.

And finally, the authors present 10 lessons for institutions who are considering developing an impact strategy.

Questions for brokers:

  1. What will it take to build a culture of impact that goes beyond approaches to impact? (Hint: see intrinsic motivations).
  2. You are about to develop an institutional impact strategy. What will you do to determine if you need a strategy for enabling impact, achieving impact or a combination of the two?
  3. Would the 10 lessons apply equally if you are developing an impact strategy for a university-based research centre, a department in a university or the whole institution?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create online discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.