Yellow building

Lessons from coordinating a knowledge exchange network

Our funders, EPSRC, are interested in understanding what makes a knowledge exchange network such as ARCC successful, so we commissioned a report to find out. Through interviews with staff and network members, consultant Ian Cooper built a picture of the complexities of managing a network, and the supporting strategies and skills needed.

The report objectives are to:

  • identify and share good practice and experiences from a coordination and knowledge exchange network, particularly in support of interdisciplinary and stakeholder-led research programmes
  • capture learning to ensure it remains accessible and useful in the future
  • identify those aspects where greatest value can be achieved as a focus for future activities
  • consider transferable messages, learning from the built environment and infrastructure sectors.

The first part of this report catalogues what network members said they want. The second part outlines the strategies and tactics that coordination team members have developed or adopted for dealing with this complexity of requirements.

Lessons learnt shares some overall conclusions and highlights messages that may be of interest to other research-based networks and funding organisations.

There are lessons and good practice which we hope will be translated into future practice, both through Research Councils, and in other research funders, and the research community and institutions more widely, and in particular concerning the coordination of programmes to enable capacity building and impact.

Skills neededed for a successful network

Click on the image for a larger version.

Diagram of skills needed to run an successful KE network

What do network members want?

The coordination team interviewed members of the network to find out what they wanted from a knowledge exchange network. The group was chosen to illustrate the network’s widely differing stakeholder groups.

Each of the network members was asked about their experience of both the network and its coordination team. They were also asked to identify what they saw as the most important lessons from engaging with the network.

The responses illustrate the disparate array of needs, wants, expectations and aspirations that the coordination team has tried to serve. Each type of stakeholder employed a slightly different set of criteria for judging success – even where criteria are similar or overlap, there are highly nuanced differences – as a result of individual circumstances and motivations.

These differences illustrate just how sensitive coordination team members need to be when attempting to provide support and services to each type of stakeholder group – especially when dealing simultaneously with mixtures of them, either at the same event or through the same publication.

What research funders value about the network

Through our continued support of ARCC, we have realised quite a strong built environment engineering community. Now we have to broaden that across our other interests – the mathematical sciences, the digital and information sciences. So we need to broaden ARCC out beyond its historical engineering practitioner-based roots.

Translating research results – projects were required to produce outputs not just for academic consumption but useful for industry stakeholders too.

Promoting the impact agenda – ARCC’s thrust has been to deliver the impact challenge, driving changes in researchers’ and practitioners’ behaviour during the lifetime of the research.

Establishing its reputation – ARCC has achieved a higher profile than a lot of other mechanisms the research council has used.

Demonstrating competence – because of what ARCC has achieved, we were in a position to increase the scale of the resource so we could broaden the network in terms of both current activity and looking to the future.

What research funders want from the coordination team

We’re interested in how much additional space you have to give the team to plot their own way through a complex and changeable space so as to reinforce that sense of empowerment, creativity and learning from making choices.

Establishing the brand – there’s the strength of building on and out from an existing ARCC brand. So they have become part of the ecosystem, not a separate activity and raised the profile of adaptation research.

Pushing the impact agenda – the team’s made projects put more effort both individually and collectively into thinking about impact and stakeholder engagement. And then they’ve created and publicised that impact.

Community building – their integration and coordination of the research has added a lot of value to community building and there has been genuine buy-in from the ARCC community.

Succession planning – they have helped to start thinking about career development of early career researchers. And helped our thinking about priorities for our next delivery plan.

Listening – they are very good to work with. They put forward ideas but they are also good at listening, taking forward our ideas and asking for and valuing our input without giving the impression that they are dependent on it which is hard to pull off.

When it works really well, it becomes part of business as usual. It’s seamless. You can’t point to particular activities and say, that’s the critical one. It just becomes how we work.

What a senior researcher values about the network

Our ARCC experience helped us to think carefully about what our messages should be. That’s about the translation of academic outputs into impactful ones. I thought I was doing that before but not very effectively. Our project in the ARCC Programme was a real turning point for me. I saw we weren’t doing it optimally. I think we are doing it much better now.

Coordination and alignment of projects – the network made us aware of each other and so it was much easier to work together more quickly, sharing approaches, methods and data across the projects.

Sharing good practice – attending another project’s workshop, for instance, meant we could see how effective they were in engaging with their stakeholders.

Building the evidence base – industry engagement had real benefits for us. We had to write simplified statements backed up by evidence. We had to ask ourselves “How strongly can you actually believe what we’re saying in this paper”.

Policy support – we went from writing academic papers to trying to make supported recommendations based on evidence that has been included in local government plans and strategies.

Supporting the impact agenda – what do I value most? It’s got to be the support offered on responding to the Research Excellence Framework’s (REF) impact agenda.

What an early career researcher wants from the coordination team

When we went in [to the ECR event], we were seeing research from our perspective. When we came out of it, I felt like we saw it from a perspective of government, of industry, people who were looking at it and saying, ‘Shall I or shall I not give these researchers funding?’ And I think that’s a hugely useful thing to be able to do. It was quite a dramatic shift in perspective.

Knowledge exchange – we did a lot of interactive work on the course which I think really stands out. For instance, we were given previous proposals and asked to deconstruct them, and then rate them.

Knowledge curating – information available has ballooned in size. There’s a real challenge to keep up with what’s going on anywhere else. The newsletter is fantastic there.

Improved understanding – now we can discuss impacts and interaction with business and industry on a more informed level. We know that language now.

Empowering young researchers – my colleagues and I went from a group which hadn’t got funding to where we can stand on our own two feet. We’ve helped to win three grants since then. That’s an amazing transition.

What a policymaker values about the network

There’s the value of partnership working, the value of collaboration with and understanding other sectors. Therefore how most things are inter-connected. That is the really big one. I think that’s something that has been emphasised more and more over the last coup