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 couple of years. The government perspective has been to co-create. It’s about joint working. Not just a three-month consultation, get all these responses back and then doing something completely different. I think we are in a different era here.

Establishing credibility – we know ARCC is a source of data excellence and knowledge.

Making connections – if it hadn’t been for ARCC, for instance, we probably wouldn’t have got to know the research manager at EPSRC. Now we are aware of what each other does. And, if we need to, we know where to go.

Building the evidence base – the network is a link into evidence. We’ve used the research as we’ve needed to. It’s a really good tool in terms of providing substance for what we want to sell from an adaptation policy perspective.

Value for money – the value of what ARCC does outstrips any balance in terms of what it costs.

Transferring knowledge – the monthly newsletter is really valuable. It’s a good source of information and update on what’s happening.

What a policymaker wants from the coordination team

Because of the way the coordination team works, we’ve recognised that the research community is one of the stakeholders that is certainly valuable in terms of how we, both as an adaptation team and, I guess more generally, a government department can formulate policy.

Knowledge brokering – team members are very knowledgeable and have huge circles of expertise. So, if they don’t know something, they can play a gatekeeper role and pass us on.

Collaborative working – there are some really concrete examples of collaborative working. That’s something they do very well. For example, they been liaising with us on our review of the adaptation reporting power.

Operating beyond the network – we’ve benefitted from the engagement of team members outside the network, like on the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s work on risk assessment.

Dissemination – it’s fine having lots of research that’s been done. But, if it’s on the shelf, then nobody’s going to pick it up. The team is very aware of this. And about the best routes to take to get through and disseminate.

Effective outputs – their outputs have been very valuable in terms of what we are trying to do on adaptation, not just in the built environment or local government sector but in the broader sphere.

What a design consultant values about the network

The network’s been successful because it’s served as a critical platform for climate adaptation and resilience work. Its website is really accessible, its people are very approachable, unlike some platforms or web-based resources where it’s difficult knowing who the right people to talk to are, and finding reports and case studies.

Effective network coordination – there was a clarity of intention and a personal dimension to how projects were managed and communicated that worked well partly because the people who ran the network were ‘plugged in’ to our organisations.

Collaborative multi-disciplinary working – my natural inclination is to be collaborative and multi-disciplinary and the ARCC approach has supported and reinforced the value of that approach.

Knowledge sharing – without the network, it would be a lot more difficult to share useful information and knowledge if the coordination team weren’t acting to signpost it.

Building continuing relationships – partly because of the network connection, we’ve been doing interesting further work with other academic partners, not just through EPSRC funding but Natural Environment Research Council funding as well.

What a professional institution wants from the coordination team

The single most important added value that the coordination team member has brought to us is just brain power. Everything that is in her head in terms of the people she knows and can connect with. If you are trying to curate for a conference session, it’s just nice to have that additional brain power – not just in terms of the people in the network, but it’s her own input, her thinking that’s really valuable. But a lot of that work is in the background, it’s about relationships and getting things out to our members. And it’s invisible and the team don’t get any real acknowledgement for doing that.

Bridge building – working with the coordination team allows us to cross the bridge between academia and practice and access to others within academia beyond those we engage with already through the research projects we fund ourselves and the degree courses that we accredit.

Enriching the work of the special interest groups – the benefit we have got from working with the coordination team is that it enriches the work that we are doing so that we can bring cutting edge research to our members. The team identified the work on green and blue infrastructure which was presented to our special interest groups. Likewise we did an underground infrastructure event with civil engineers.

Jointly badged events – we did a jointly badged design challenge on making offices healthier, more sustainable and climatically resilient by using green infrastructure. That was a very productive workshop with a detailed design challenge and exhibition. Everything was written up for reference via social media and news articles.

It’s very good that the network’s been created and set up these masses of relationships. And it has all these infrastructures and systems in place which are working very well. It’s all very professional, with quick turn around times for writing up. And I really appreciate how well designed things go on the website very quickly. But it is really sad that this activity may not be funded anymore when it’s clearly been doing good. If you go back to disparate people being funded to do projects and then trying to disseminate in their own way, they don’t have that added power of doing it together. And so you won’t necessarily hear about it.

What a sector-based forum values about the network

We understand the huge challenges in getting research into policy, into practice. There’s something there about language and effective communications. But it’s also about lots of different organisations out there that are inter-connected. And inter-connectedness and inter-dependency mean looking at things from a systemic point of view over 30, 50 or 100 years. That’s an important lesson that we’ve learnt we need to keep working at.

Legitimising corporate activity – when you work in a big corporation doing something slightly off-beat like climate change adaptation, to have a network to go to rather than having to set something up is quite useful.

Networking opportunities – there are people and organisations we wouldn’t have come across so easily without the ARCC network. And people are coming to us and asking if we could partner with them.

Cross-organisational collaboration – it’s been very successful because it’s brought together a lot of disparate organisations who started to think about how they all gel and fit together.

Focus on system interdependencies – the network raised issues and good ideas by looking at infrastructure and society as a system. Our forum is very interested in interdependencies between energy, transport and ICT.

Challenging government policy – through working with projects, we have been able to challenge the Treasury’s economic orthodoxy.

What a sector-based forum wants from the coordination team

Knowledge brokering – this is a continual improvement thing. We’ve gained knowledge. We know that there are still gaps. The coordination team keeps us briefed through its newsletter.

Raising awareness – we track issues through the newsletter. We see things there that sound interesting. It’s a source of information … a portal almost.

Signposting evidence – it’s useful to have a team that pulls things together and disseminates them on a regular basis. It’s about getting lesson learnt. When you have the coordination team pointing towards the evidence, that makes it a lot easier.

Dissemination – you can put a lot of effort into disseminating and communicating but you have to make sure your intended audience is listening to be successful.

If we are thinking infrastructure and a five to ten year timescale, then we now have the contact to persuade government to change legislation, if need be, to get data shared, or to set up repositories that are secure. And that’s a major point to make – that the network and its coordination have to be funded over a long period – five to ten years – to make sure they keep this cycle of continuous improvement going.

Meeting network members' needs

Here we catalogue the strategies and tactics that team members have developed or adopted to deal with the complex demands of the network stakeholder group.

The stories combine a brief summary of the most significant lesson learnt from each team member, with a summary of the combined expertise needed to achieve an effective network. The stories illustrate the soft skills employed when supporting network members – when practised well, these skills, and the team members who practice them are often largely invisible to network members.

Building trust, credibility and openness

“The importance of people and relationships is crucial. It’s a key factor in the success of the ARCC Network. What I’m talking about is building trust and credibility. It’s about highlighting our knowledge exchange expertise, but more about demonstrating the added value that working together can bring to the mix. Nothing beats face-to-face meeting, at least in the first instance. Early discussions can help explain the role of the network, understand recent research developments, and help identify opportunities to add value.”

Demonstrating value

“A coordination team needs to go beyond the stakeholders within its immediate network. First you go out there to capture intelligence and bring that back into the coordination team to use for the network. A director, for instance, has to spend a lot of time doing this through all the other activities that they are involved in, to maximise the benefits and the impacts of the network by demonstrating its value to outsiders. Your reputation stands or falls by that. Where outsiders value us, they demonstrate this by wanting us to be involved with them. There are a number of the independent research projects, outside the network, that have significant budgets of their own, that have specifically ask us to get involved with them on knowledge exchange. They want us working with them to help maximise their impact. We know we’re valued by them. They want us to continue beyond the current term of our funding. They’ve said, “The network should continue to be supported. There needs to be something on-going that encourages knowledge exchange.”

Managing relationships

“You’ve got to be able to spot what’s coming, what’s useful, and the opportunity for using it. You have to be proactive in structuring the contributions that other people make, to realising that. It is important to research teams that we are technically credible for their particular project. But I’m not sure that they understand about our capacity to manage relationships. That very much depends on their own priorities, their characters, how they see the network. Part of relationship management is being able to recognise all of those characteristics of research team members. Play to their strengths and help them through their weaknesses, finding the key things that motivate them. This means a high degree of engagement with the research teams in order to be able to understand all that.”

Communicating effectively

“It’s incumbent on everyone on the coordination team to be an effective communicator. It’s part of everybody’s job. It doesn’t mean they’re all going to stand up in meetings and talk about what the network does. But they all understand the need for effective communication and the various ways that manifests itself. So it’ll be the website and its contents. Its presentations and all the sorts of written materials we provide. It’s about having clarity of purpose. When you’re running an event or attending a meeting, what’s your purpose there? What messages do you want to share? Or what information are you looking to collect? It’s about that sort of understanding of how communication fits into the wider work.”

Sharing skills and perspectives

“A coordination team needs a mix of different skills and different perspectives. This is why our coordination team has been effective because it has team members with widely varying expertise that bring different perspectives to bear. This is a critical factor for two reasons. One, it allows the identification of the appropriate member of the team to talk to different research projects in the language that they are familiar with because they know the basic elements of it. Second, it’s important because of the experience that we each bring from those different backgrounds. This allows a breadth of understanding of the various political, cultural, and social landscapes that apply in different domains.”

Curating knowledge

“It has been quite miraculous the way that the coordination team has managed to bring together academics and industry professionals effectively. This was evident at an early ARCC Assembly where research teams were presenting the highlights of their projects. The way they reported them, with just the right amount of the research being presented, and not being about methodology, but with an emphasis on the findings. All those had been very carefully brought together. And it worked. At the time, there was nothing else like that being done in the industry. What the coordination team has achieved with getting researchers to consider their audience is really quite astounding.”

Learning through evaluation

“One aspect we have become increasingly interested in is how to assess and capture the impact of the network itself and how it can inform our work into the future. At first this seemed a relatively straight-forward task – evaluating the number of people at events, tracking website hits etc., but then we wanted to investigate how the achievements of the network can be disentangled from the achievements of individual research projects and stakeholders. Of course, in reality, the greatest benefit often comes from all parties working well together. But we realised we needed to pinpoint where specific network activities add the most value, and how, in order to focus on-going work.”

Lessons learnt

As both members of the network and the coordination team make clear, effective coordination of a multi-million pound managed research programme is not a trivial task to be undertaken lightly, under-resourced or without a long-term commitment. It requires a range of technical and interpersonal skills that are unlikely to be found in a single or even a small number of individuals. Coordination teams need to be constructed to deliver this diverse sets of skills – through some members of the team fulfilling more than one role or through part-time or even short fixed-term appointments.

Effective knowledge exchange and the enhanced quality of research (outputs, outcomes and impacts) are intrinsically linked. The ARCC network demonstrates one approach to facilitating this process and there is compelling (if soft) evidence that it is valued by members.

While the ARCC network is focused on increasing the impact of research investments in the built environment and infrastructure sectors, many of the approaches adopted by the coordination team are transferable and of value across a broad range of sectors. Those interested in developing or supporting similar knowledge exchange network initiatives may find the lessons learnt helpful.

Maintaining and operating a network

Stakeholders’ capacity, both as individuals and organisations, for engaging with your network varies over time, so it is important to offer varied forms of engagement for them to chose from.

Keeping in touch – for example through a monthly e-newsletter – can be as important as on-demand or face-to-face events.

You will need to accept that often successful network coordination is invisible. There is much hidden work in making engagement feel easy and smooth.

Don’t under-estimate the size and complexity of the continuous support to members required to make a network effective.

Informal links as well as formal activities are crucial to the success of a network but their impacts are difficult to evaluate and quantify.

Both formal activities and informal links, within and beyond the network boundary, need to be adequately resourced if the knowledge exchange required to run the network is to be coordinated and delivered effectively.

Continuous improvement

To be successful, a network should operate as a learning organisation – it is your responsibility as coordinators to facilitate this learning both for network members and for yourselves.

Networks need to evolve in response to changing demands from funders, researchers and stakeholders, as well as changing external circumstances. This gives you opportunities to test the knowledge on offer as well as your exchange processes: use these opportunities to learn and build on what does and doesn’t work for your network.

Flexibility is a keystone to meeting the unfolding challenge of stakeholders’ requirements. The act of engagement itself can raise expectations and aspirations and this, in turn, has positive implications for how you need to improve the support and services you are providing.

The total or unfolding scope of networking activities required to support a rolling programme of research is often difficult to predict. Prediction can be limiting, as outputs often have applications beyond that originally anticipated.

Funders need to recognise, value and accommodate flexibility and responsiveness in proposals for knowledge exchange and coordination networks, especially where these are intended to operate over the longer-term.

On-going viability

The quality and usefulness of working with stakeholders’ needs to be regularly tested and verified – this must be a formal and explicit part of the coordination teams duties, aided by developing and implementing an effective evaluation framework.

Effective coordination and knowledge exchange facilitates evidence-based decision-making and contributes to ‘national importance’, and such activities need public funding.

It is important that researchers and coordination teams both engage in significant arenas where these issues are being debated and bring their own evaluated evidence to bear on the debate.

Properly curating, archiving and managing the legacy of major funded research programmes is important: past research can suddenly become relevant to new policy/practice initiatives. Well-coordinated and curated networks provide a means of maintaining awareness of and access to outputs.

The capability developed to support the ARCC programme is clearly valued by the network members – without exception, they all call for this networking and knowledge exchange capability to be continued.

Funding agencies need to consider specific funding streams that will allow the creation and long-term maintenance of overarching knowledge exchange networks, whose lives are not limited to particular research initiatives or policy imperatives.

This is particularly important in sectors such as the built environment, where knowledge exchange is under-developed and has limited scope to ensure their future is secured.