In the previous post in this series I argued that central to a strategy for making an impact with research should be the establishment of third-party partnerships.
But how can researchers establish such partnerships?
The foundation stone
The key lies in making one large-scale transition.
In the discourse surrounding the relationships between researchers and third parties, the term ‘knowledge transfer’ (KT) has much currency. For example, in the UK Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) are long established.
But the notion of KT is going out of fashion, for the good reason that it’s deficient.
KT implies a one-way, ‘push’, relationship: the researcher discovers/creates/produces knowledge and then transmits it to the partner. The partner’s role is conceived as passive — to act as the recipient of wisdom.
Yet it has become evident that when these schemes work well, there is typically a two-way relationship. The partner asks the researcher challenging questions and makes criticisms and suggestions: the researchers learns to tighten up the research, see it in a new light, and find new applications or directions.
Which is why enlightened institutions, and policy-makers, now talk not of KT but of KE: knowledge exchange.
What does knowledge exchange look like in practice?
Collaborations governed by an ethic of mutual exchange of knowledge are typified by their non-linear shape.
That is, interaction between the research team and the partnering organisation(s) does not occur only towards the end of the project, once the research project is nearing completion.
Instead, interaction — as part of a long-term relationship — begins before the grant proposal is written. Knowledge exchange helps researchers to make better informed decisions about what kinds of research projects to envisage and what to bid for.
And interaction continues during the bid-writing, covered by the necessary non-disclosure agreements.
During the project, there is regular updating and consultation, whether face-to-face or online. One way to formalise this is to establish an advisory board for the research project.
The advantage of working this way is that the potential for making an impact is built into the project from the beginning, rather than being a case of wishful thinking.
Coda: the question of disposition
But there’s a difficulty here. For KE to work, the researcher does require a degree of humility — a willingness to accept the possibility of learning and a need to rethink — combined with skill in listening.
Now, it’s pretty rare these days to find researchers who, when they hear the above kind of argument, simply reject it and deny that any such two-way exchange could occur. But it’s less rare to discover researchers that haven’t though in that kind of way before. The perception, ‘We’re the experts’ (with an implication of a zero sum, in which acknowledging the value of someone else’s intelligence would somehow diminish one’s own) isn’t uncommon.
More common, however, is a more insidious stance: that is, going through the motions of agreeing with the conceptions of KE, whilst privately retaining the beliefs that characterise KT.
The problem with this is not simply the ethical one of insincerity: it’s also that in practice everything unravels. In which case, forget the impact.
But those researchers who do get it, and possess not only the skills but also the disposition to participate genuinely in KE, are well placed to build the kinds of partnerships that facilitate the making of an impact.