Exploring collaborative research impact

Research and innovation

Hannah Preston is the Business School’s Research Communications Officer. She is the editor of the School’s Research and Innovation blog and podcast.

LUBS Building

Earlier this month, a panel of Leeds University Business School senior researchers spoke at the annual Business School research conference on the topic of bridging the gap – exploring collaborative research impact. 

Chaired by Professor Krsto Pandza, Director of Research Impact, the panel was made up of Professor Mark Stuart, Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation; Professor Annie Wei, Deputy Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation; David Loseby, Professor of Research Impact, and Dr Matthew Davis, Director of Culture and Values. Within the session, the panel made the following observations. 

The challenges and opportunities of working with policymakers 

Working with both local council and government policymakers can be incredibly fulfilling - once you have completed the research project and produced a final report, your research will be implemented and have an impact. 

One of the challenges, however, can be the volume of meetings and the requirement to give regular progress reports. There are multiple stakeholders who all require updates which can feel overwhelming and frustrating when researchers are used to working with greater autonomy.  

The project-specific knowledge of each stakeholder can vary a lot as well, so knowing where to pitch your updates can be hard. Some are experts and some have little knowledge of the research – it can be difficult to answer questions without having to go back to the basics each time and explain the context. 

Policymakers and academics work to different timescales. In the world of academia, it can take years to write papers or create impact studies, but policymakers don’t have the luxury of waiting for results. They have objectives that they constantly need to meet and will often need something from you immediately. 

Arguably one of the biggest challenges, however, is agreeing with your policy partners on what can and cannot be included in the final report - agreeing on how much and what information to include and what language to use. As an academic, you may feel morally obliged to include all your findings, yet the policy partner may want to steer the messaging a certain way. As an individual, you need to work out what you can tolerate within your own scope as a researcher, and decide when you need to be more firm and push back. 

The challenges and opportunities of working with businesses 

Many of the opportunities and challenges of working with policymakers are the same as working with businesses – the joy and pride of knowing your research will be implemented and make a difference, but also the struggles of having different time scales, a high number of meetings, and questions that may be raised about your academic values. 

One of the benefits of working with businesses is the ability to build strong relationships with an organisation and add value as a researcher. You have to put a lot of time in, but this investment pays off when strong relationships have been built. Although it can take time to come to fruition, there can be a number of benefits to both you as a researcher and the institution eg developing an impact case study, projects funded by the organisation, employment opportunities for students, and seeing your research make an impact. 

Businesses will often want different outputs to academics eg a toolkit or framework as opposed to a journal article, but in a successful partnership, both parties will be able to gain something valuable. 

One of the biggest worries on the corporate side is the risk of the company pulling out or changing what they’d originally promised to provide eg access to specific data. Having access to the data they are willing to share and the more candid context, however, makes the worry worthwhile. 

Building relationships with external stakeholders 

It can take a lot of effort to manage relationships with external individuals, but the insights from within the company can be very enlightening and useful.  

There is a need for humility on the side of the academic – you need to be able to listen to the business partner and understand their motivation. This can be difficult at the start of the project when you’re got something very firm in your own mind, but it’s important that you are adaptable, agile, and flexible. 

Once you have proven that you can listen and work their way, you’ll find that you have a lot of support when it comes to getting their buy-in for your idea and getting people to engage with the project. You might find that you have to work on things that don’t benefit you as an academic, but it’s part of the journey. 

It’s important to think beyond building relationships just with practitioners from the organisation – connect with industry bodies, professional bodies, industry forums etc as well. The business world is a dynamic one; people are constantly changing roles within organisations or moving companies so it’s important to expand your network and not just rely on one person. 

Although key gatekeepers and stakeholders change, those individuals don’t exist in isolation – they are part of teams and you’re working with them because they are focused on a particular topic or policy. As long as your expertise is relevant to that topic, you can still work with the organisation, even if your key contact leaves. Over time, you can become so embedded with a company that you are seen as an extended part of the team. 

Building new relationships poses a significant challenge because it takes a long time to build up trust and that shared language and way of thinking, but if you have been working with a few people and proven your worth, it is likely that others in the organisation will want to continue working with you. 

If your contact does move on to a different company, it can be frustrating, but the flip side is that you get the chance to develop a new relationship with someone else. 

Another key point to consider is that if you’re wanting to work with policymakers and business practitioners, you need to think of your “self-brand”. If you want people to find out about your work and approach you to build partnerships, then you need to work on promoting yourself and your research. Likewise, if you’re approaching businesses, they’ll want to be able to find out who you are and see what your research is about. 

Originality of information is one of the drivers for industry to engage with academics. This needs to be included in your personal brand – it’s about creating excitement so that practitioners will want to engage with you. 

How the Business School, as an institution, can build sustainable partnerships 

Relationships are built on trust, and often people can be very protective of their connections and are reluctant to share contacts. You can manage the risk of bringing other people in, however, by helping to initiate lower-risk interactions such as engagement with the School’s Masters programmes. You can engage more widely with an organisation, showing our expertise across the wider School offering.  

Relationships with organisations can manifest themselves in lots of different ways. There is a combination of factors where you can develop collaboration skills without damaging relationships. You can foster and widen connections where appropriate.  

If you have a contact in an external organisation who is looking for other areas of the School to work with, you are adding value to your relationship by being able to offer new introductions. There is a mapping exercise to be done where you can identify what you have to offer and then see where you can bring in other colleagues to add complementary skills and expertise.  

As a Business School, we want to develop long-term relationships with industry and that involves nurturing closer relationships on a strategic level. There needs to be a connection between research and corporate engagement, as well as an understanding of our offering, such as with Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. The skill is in not just relying on big silo projects that finish and the relationships with key stakeholders not continued. 

It's also important to consider how you pass on your contacts and networks as a senior member of staff, to make sure your relationship and body of work with external organisations is continued. You should encourage Early Career Researchers to be involved in your networks and start developing their own relationships. 

We have an impressive suite of training and development resources that include workshops and information on how to work with stakeholders and practitioners, which we encourage colleagues to look at. 

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.