The measurement tail should not be wagging the impact dog

Helen Sowey, smilingHelen Sowey was Senior Research Support Officer at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UNSW, from August 2017 to October 2018. Prior to this, she spent 20 years working as a practitioner in the health, justice, and social services sectors. Contact helen.sowey@gmail.com.

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Australasian Research Management Society Conference, Hobart, 20 September 2018.


A pop art representation of a puppy dog, mostly in different shades of blue

‘Blue Dog’ by Romero Britto. Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell.

Australia’s Engagement and Impact Assessment encourages universities to ensure that their research is of benefit to the world beyond academia.

Or does it?

Having spent more than a year in a dedicated “engagement and impact” research support role, I am concerned to see that institutions tend to be narrowly focused on the task of showing evidence of engagement and impact, rather than thinking about what kind of impact their work might have and what kinds of engagement would allow that to happen.

This is problematic, because knowing what kind of impact is intended is a logically prior step to collecting evidence of it! If you don’t know what you are aiming for, you can hardly hope to achieve it, much less document it.

The focus on showing evidence is also problematic because it shifts attention away from creating impact, which is something grand, visionary and inspiring, towards creating only the kind of impact that is measurable – a smaller, more individualistic, and potentially less relevant endeavour. Read more of this post

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The impact producer

Photo by Ronald Yang | unsplash.com

Photo by Ronald Yang | unsplash.com

The #ImpactAgenda is upon us. Every government funding agency I know is looking for impact outside the academic sphere. So, I’ve been thinking about impact a lot lately.

One of the best ways to learn how to do things better is to look at how they’re done in an allied industry. The best example of this that I know of is the idea of bench-marking hospital admissions against hotel check-ins. At a basic level, both activities are similar: you are allocating a room to a person who wants to stay at your establishment. Yet the experience can be totally different. Hotel check-in is usually quick, friendly, and relatively painless. Hospital admissions, on the other hand, can sometimes be quite bureaucratic, protracted, and impersonal. The two experiences, while similar, are underpinned by completely different attitudes to the work. So, hospitals have learnt a lot about admissions from hotels.

By examining an idea in a different environment, we can sometimes learn not just how other people do things, but gain new ideas about how to improve our own activities.

For those researchers who are grappling with the impact agenda currently being rolled out in Australia, the UK, and other countries, it’s worth thinking about how documentary film-makers increase the impact of their films.

Making a documentary film can be a long and exhausting process. Finding funding, assembling a team, executing a plan when you never have quite enough resources, coping with team dynamics, keeping everything together long enough to get the job done, and maintaining a singular vision while doing it – all of this sounds a bit like a research program to me. Read more of this post