Collaborating for Social Impact

To solve global challenges, the input of everyone and every sector is needed. However, collaborations for knowledge exchange between researchers and non-academic organizations are still relatively limited and, even when they take place, are not always successful. What is wrong and what can be done? We asked this question to early career researchers, employees of NGOs, think tanks, social enterprises, social investors, local authorities, and university administrators who were engaging in or supporting knowledge exchange to achieve social and environmental impact. Their answers provided two interesting insights.

Firstly, knowledge exchange is not for all. While some researchers and employees of various organizations recognized the value of collaborating and wanted to do so for various reasons – from credibility, to practice improvement to personal satisfaction – others simply did not see any advantage from engaging in this activity. These people and organizations should not be forced into collaborating, because often this leads to negative experiences which might prevent more fruitful collaborations from happening. Secondly, issues hampering knowledge exchange emerge in two phases: the pre-collaboration phase and the collaboration management phase.

In the pre-collaboration phase the lack of networks reaching out “to the other side”, the lack of time, and the difficulty of knowing what knowledge is available and who might be producing it make it difficult to find potential partners. Even when potential partners are found, differences in communication styles, lack of funds for collaborating and prejudices, sometimes combined with fears of losing credibility (academics) or stakeholders’ support (practitioners), make it difficult to actually start a collaboration.

In the collaboration management phase, concerns about data management and a lack of understanding of each other’s pressures and constraints are likely to emerge. While researchers need to use and disclose all available data but prefer to keep it “secret” until they can publish findings in a journal, many practitioners want to share data as soon as possible but sometimes need to conceal information to avoid harm to beneficiaries or issues with funders. Moreover, researchers felt that practitioners could not relate to their publication pressures and to their profession-related standards, which make it difficult to deliver quick solutions. Practitioners, from their side, believed that researchers failed to understand their time constraints, the complexity and politicization of their environments, and the needs of the ultimate beneficiaries of their knowledge.

These issues were sometimes worsened by turnover in both high education institutions and their non-academic partners and by researchers not having developed yet the communication skills necessary to interact with practitioners. Additionally, the lack of incentives for researchers to collaborate – since they are promoted solely based on their academic publications – risks to make them disappear for a long time without communicating findings, updates or processes to their partner.

So how can the situation be improved? Based on the issues highlighted, solutions should intervene at two different points in time: the pre-collaboration phase and the collaboration management phase and they should address both collaboration-specific issues and institutional obstacles. At the institutional level, both universities and non-academic organizations should provide incentives and funds for their employees to spend time on knowledge exchange. Additionally, universities should help researchers in marketing their research to different audiences and signal opportunities and resources available for knowledge exchange.

To address collaboration-specific issues, a knowledge broker based inside a university or constituted by a neutral third-party organization could help to deal with obstacles in both critical phases. In the pre-collaboration phase, support with research translation and the creation of a knowledge map showing the knowledge/skills available in a given field could facilitate first encounters. Additionally the knowledge broker could offer targeted introductions and organize opportunities for serendipitous connections. Meanwhile, in the collaboration management phase, a knowledge broker could help parties draft an agreement detailing expected contributions and guarantees. An alternative opportunity to a knowledge broker would be for universities to offer training material and services to enhance researchers’ communication and social skills and all stakeholders’ understanding of the other party and of potential issues that might arise down the line. In turn, this would improve parties’ ability to deal with each other and, most importantly, their awareness of the many risks but also benefits that knowledge exchange brings.

*The blog is based on the findings of an action research project approved by Saïd Business School ethics committee and kindly funded by the Social Sciences Division of Oxford University, and conducted by Dr. Tanja Collavo with the support of Dr. Diogo Verissimo, Laure Curgniere and Richard Young

Article Details

Tanja Collavo,
Research Analyst – Business Boost Project, University of Oxford

Date Published:

July 24th, 2019


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