Biochemistry building, Oxford

Engaging with those elusive stakeholders

Around 20 enthusiastic early career researchers from institutions around the UK made their way to York in October 2014 to learn about stakeholder engagement. The information below is a fantastic how-to guide in stakeholder engagement:

Around a framework of presentations and exercises, they spent two days thinking about: the characteristics of stakeholders, why they are important to the research process, how they can be reached and pulling this information together in a plan.

The event was facilitated by Peter Walton, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Oxford, with presentations by Roger Street, Director of UKCIP; Anne Liddon, Communications Manager, Newcastle University; and Kate Cochrane, Resilience Planning & Continuity Officer, Newcastle City Council.

The first exercise, to represent a stakeholder in any kind of image or diagram, demonstrated the participants’ creative side. It also drew out some interesting thoughts too. Stakeholders have: multiple interests but some links are shared, disruption to a key issue has different impacts for different stakeholders, different stakeholders will demand different approaches, and watch out for the mystery stakeholder who may emerge as your research progresses!

ECR drawing of a picnic

The picnic above represents a research project, while the individual dishes are the engaged stakeholders. The wine shown is to lubricate the engagement process!

ECR drawing of a hydra

In this drawing, the stakeholder’s many needs are pictured as multiple parts of a single entity.

ECR drawing of a spider's web

Spiders moving around a project ‘web’ denote the changing needs of stakeholders, while the web strands indicate the various facets of a research programme.

The ARCC network’s PI, Roger Street, drew on his global experience of getting stakeholders involved and active in scientific research. He stressed the importance of building strong networks, acknowledging stakeholders’ priorities and valuing stakeholders’ contribution to research. He also offered a non-definitive stakeholder checklist to guide engagement planning.

A second group exercise, focused around stakeholder engagement as a process throughout a research project identified some useful top tips. These included: identifying your key and secondary stakeholders, devising appropriate, different approaches for your stakeholder groups, creating effective communication and establishing common expectations.

After a relaxing dinner, where participants made good use of their networking time, we heard from Anne Liddon on her role in working with stakeholders and researchers as part of the Rural Economy and Land Use programme (RELU)where individual projects worked closely with stakeholders. Anne and her RELU colleagues were also successful in engaging decision-makers at all levels and introducing them to the outputs of research. Best of all, Anne encouraged everyone with a call to achieve success by making sure that work was fun.

To kick off day two, the group heard from Kate Cochrane, who provided an invaluable personal reflection on being a stakeholder and working with researchers, and advice on overcoming barriers to reach stakeholders. 

Stakeholders need to be wooed by researchers, and effort and planning needs to go into ensuring their engagement. But there are plenty of benefits in return for that effort – access to data, credibility with important local decision-makers, access to community and personal networks, contribution to the impact element of REF and a better understanding of knowledge and research gaps.

The final exercise of the day was on creating a series of five-minute presentations, each presenting a stakeholder strategy for a particular project. Each group presented to our stakeholder panel (Kate Cochrane and Peter Walton). With only an hour or so’s preparation, and just five minutes to make an impact, the groups produced a fantastically creative and thoughtful set of presentations.

They acknowledged that stakeholder engagement could mean different approaches and a focus on stakeholder needs that is not traditional in academic research. But there were quick-wins too: stakeholder engagement includes activities that are already underway, but maybe need tweaking a little, and the longer-term benefits, like access to data, are worth the effort.

In conclusion, we had an excellent couple of days. The participants were enthusiastic, interesting and engaged, with plenty of ideas and experience to bring to the discussion, and our presenters were encouraging, informed and happy to share their experience.