Halpin recently worked with a university who wanted to engage with stakeholders in relation to their research in a more strategic, targeted way. This is perhaps not a brief that universities set for themselves often enough. We loved working with the team, helping them make links to stakeholders who they might have otherwise overlooked, or not had a natural contact with. We also supported the preparation of materials and events they could use to take the work forward.
It left us feeling that there is a lot more that universities can do to engage a much wider audience with their research. After all, there are lots of policy drivers, as well as realpolitik context, to motivate universities to up their external engagement game, especially in relation to research.
Then there is the individual motivation. Research can be a lonely pursuit, but to you, the researcher, your project is fascinating – why wouldn’t you want to sing its virtues and curiosities from the rooftops?
Why should you boost stakeholder engagement?
These days the REF-driven ‘impact’ agenda, as well as growing attention for the extent of ‘public engagement’ in research, make the policy context pretty clear. But a good stakeholder engagement plan for your research project can help you do so much more. Stakeholders can help you find your next project funders, or they might become your next research project partners. Their feedback on your project might provoke the next iteration of research questions that you simply hadn’t had sightline on.
When should you start?
Right at the beginning! Stakeholder engagement is at its best when it’s thought of at the earliest opportunity and runs alongside your research plan. This way there are opportunities to engage stakeholders in the design of the research, and possibly use stakeholders as part of your data collection. For example, case studies from stakeholders are always a useful addition to the data you draw on, providing illumination or contrast or perhaps more stimulating quotes when it comes to write-up.
Who should you target?
There are plenty of stakeholders that you can consider targeting. A lot of research projects have a steering group of some description supporting the research throughout. If you have this – definitely the first place to start – ask the people who sit in this group about who they can suggest as stakeholders to contact and give them a role to initiate the conversation. This is a really easy way to get a conversation about your research amplified quickly.
Your research might have policy implications – so talk to the policy makers – the staff who work on policy teams in central and local government are usually keen to have contacts at the coalface. Professional and regulatory bodies often commission their own research and will certainly be interested in yours as it might relate to the development of the discipline or profession – hard for them to find you but you know who they are. You might even pay them an annual membership for your own affiliation, so feel free to pick up the phone and ask a few questions.
Pique their interest and make it irresistible
If you’re not a natural chatterbox (ahem, external affairs specialist) it can feel difficult to ‘cold call’ stakeholders and pitch your research. One of the easiest ways is to find a hook in relation to their own current interests – look at the news section on their website or recent events that they have hosted. Alternatively, consider if there are stories in national media that are of interest to them and that could relate to your research – tangential thinking is good here. When you’re thinking about a concise pitch of your research, start with why your research is important to them, not just a ‘what it’s about’ description. Really succinct briefing materials – the old academic conference poster format is an excellent form – will help you get your foot in the door. The depth and detail can come later.
Know what you want them to do
And once you’ve got their attention – what is your ask of them? It might be a speaking gig at their next conference/seminar/meeting. It might be a slot on the regular blog they publish for their audience. It might be a contribution to their practitioner forum where you get to debate the new thinking that your research uncovers in relation to standard practice. It could be a seat on their policy panel where they can take advantage of your brains and you can take advantage of how they position their wallet and decision-making powers. Whatever. You need to start with an open mind, a willingness to start a conversation and the determination and charm to get them to listen.
I promise that very few people will walk away completely free from your intervention, and your research will have stretched that little bit further.
Selena Bolingbroke is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the experts in higher education management consultancy.