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What exactly is the benefit of a knowledge exchange network?

Have you ever wondered what makes ARCC operate so effectively as a knowledge exchange network? Its funder, EPSRC, has. So it tasked the coordination team at UKCIP with finding out.

Our consultancy was commissioned to help them do this, and the Lessons learnt have just been published (pdf, 3.6 MB).

The report reveals just why the members of UKCIP’s ARCC coordination team have been so successful in helping network members to exchange knowledge. It’s because of the set of strategies and tactics that they have developed and deployed. These are described in detail in the report.

The coordinators exercise a specific set of soft, interpersonal skills when doing so. They observe network members closely, listen to them attentively, and try to empathise with them to understand what they need.

And they do need to pay close attention.

The network has 750 members – ranging from funders, policy makers and project managers, through early career researchers to professional institutions, trade associations, and design practitioners. Each of these has different wants and needs. But the coordination team only has a relatively small resource base from which to support them all.

So the team has learnt to be highly responsive.

The ARCC coordination team at UKCIP constantly have to maintain a careful balance between the various types of engagement they provide to allow network members to choose what to access and when – depending on their current level of interest and capacity to absorb what is on offer.

When it is done well, the crucial work of a coordination team is often invisible. But it requires an appropriate and continued investment if it is to provide strong and energised support to its members over time.

It isn’t often that research councils undertake detailed assessments of the programmes they fund. Our consultancy has been lucky to have been involved in two of these. The first was in 1997 for the Planning Directorate of what is now DCLG. They wanted to know what policy-relevant results the Sustainable Cities Programme had generated.

With hindsight, it is easy to see that this programme would have benefited from the expert co-ordination ARCC has delivered for the EPSRC-funded built environment and infrastructure research.

Research funding in specific areas with dedicated knowledge exchange coordination will create more significant impact – rather than just being left to be the sum of their parts.

And it is precisely these efforts to synthesize the impact of multiple funded projects has been such a key focus of ARCC throughout.

Translating the results from multiple research projects into digestible formats for non-academic audiences, the report reveals, is not a trivial task. It calls for a high level of expertise that, in turn, requires dedicated investment of time and resources.

As the report shows, members of the ARCC network clearly judge that this is money well spent.

And network members’ diverse needs also change and evolve during the life of network. In fact, you can help the network to succeed. You can enhance your involvement by being clear, not only about what you are looking for, but what you have to offer, what you see as being of value, and how you judge this.

Ideally, being a member of a research network is a two-way street with knowledge being exchanged not just across discipline boundaries but continuously back and forth between academics and practitioners too.

As someone who has been involved with research council funding and programme review for many years now, my own judgment is that the report also makes clear why such knowledge exchange mechanisms need to be a central and permanent feature of research council funding.

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