Impact is complex and can take years or even decades to manifest. Managing the wide range of different factors involved in any impactful project, and then demonstrating the numerous types of impact over varying timeframes, frequently poses a significant challenge to institutions and individuals.
There are various methods that can be used to respond to the growing demands of impact; one involves the implementation of an Impact Management System (IMS), which can help to centralize the disparate threads of impact activity and catalyze the development of a supportive culture across an entire institution.
However, in this rapidly evolving area, there are many factors to be taken into account when considering the adoption of such a solution.
Our top ten tips should help to give you a frame of reference for this particular route:
1. How easy is the system to use?
One of the biggest inhibitors to the successful adoption of an Impact Management System is the ease of its use.
Your busy academics and researchers are already occupied full-time with their research projects, teaching and other activities, so introducing a new system that requires them to spend more time logging activities, managing and assigning evidence, and configuring reports can be arduous and act as a deterrent.
An Impact Management System should make it easy to integrate a focus on impact into your team’s day-to-day activities, actively reducing the time it takes to carry out impactful activities and acting as a central point for managing research projects and their impact. It should streamline tasks such as evidence collection (see point 7), planning and reporting.
Furthermore, you will likely already be using a number of systems to manage various aspects of research – from CRIS or RIMS through to institutional repositories and even proprietary systems. Having to implement another platform in addition to your existing infrastructure can be both convoluted and unwieldy, especially if there is no way to automatically feed data between your research and impact platforms.
Often, if these systems are mutually incompatible, your teams will end up having to manually duplicate data, ushering in an unwelcome additional administrative burden while introducing the possibility of human error. During hectic periods such as national assessment deadlines, this can create stress, overwork and further increase the likelihood of inconsistencies between important data.
It is however likely that your established research platforms are not easily modified or replaced. When looking for your impact system, then, look for one that is built to open standards and is capable of integration with research systems, either through standard APIs or via custom connector development.
Is the Impact Management System able to interface with your wider technological ecosystem, without creating additional manual labor or duplication of data? Can it seamlessly include relevant research information, such as outputs, within impact projects and case studies?
Does the system provide an easily-accessible central repository for all impact activities, and can it be continually updated without the need to replicate data? Can it actively support academics in aligning their activities with impact, without creating additional time burdens?
2. Does it make repurposing information for different audiences easy?
Even outside of grant applications and national assessments, impact is playing an increasingly critical role in establishing institutional reputation and attracting potential funding or collaboration from far-reaching sources.
In parallel, we are seeing increasing numbers of institutions aligning their research strategies to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It is vital to show the various different types of impact you are achieving, but also to be able to relate these to a variety of frameworks and standards that are understood globally. And beyond this, the ability to broadcast the quality of your work far and wide is hugely beneficial, as there are opportunities across the globe to enter into vital partnerships that match common skills, resources or objectives to achieve positive results.
Impact Management Systems that support different standards, or have structures and processes in place to match your impact to initiatives such as national assessments, organizational reporting or even evolving Rankings requirements, can support you in terms of boosting reputation and attracting collaboration or funding.
You should look for a system that not only includes a range of frameworks as default or on request, but also one that has the capability to maximize the reach of your impact information for different audiences; whether that is for annual reports, case studies or rankings such as THE Impact Rankings for example.
Does the system provide support for a wide variety of impacts, but also accommodate different frameworks? Is it easy to publish non-sensitive information into the public domain and make this available to be identified and engaged with by relevant parties?
3. Can the platform support emerging frameworks?
Requirements for demonstrating research impact tend to ebb and flow, based on factors such as changing institutional priorities and the proximity of national assessments or other grant applications.
However overall the trajectory of impact is upwards – in the UK for example, the weighting of impact in the REF (Research Excellence Framework) increased from 20% in 2014 to 25% in 2021 – with the Unit of Assessment research environment statement requiring demonstration of how the institution has enabled impact during the submission window, further affecting the overall score. Meanwhile in Hong Kong the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) 2020 introduced impact as a component for the first time, weighing in at 15% of the total score and creating an entirely new requirement for those submitting responses.
The ability to scale to meet varying levels of demand is critical. It is not uncommon for institutions to reallocate human resources or even hire additional staff before major submissions such as national assessments. This should also be a consideration when it comes to selecting an Impact Management System, which should be able to provide an appropriate level of resourcing, at a cost-effective price point, to support your impact needs as and when they evolve.
Furthermore, the emergence and convergence of various standards will continue; you need to ensure that you choose a flexible system that will both scale and adapt.
Does the system have the flexibility to scale when needed to meet additional (or reduced) workloads? Can it easily be rolled out to other areas of the institution, and can it accommodate international demand? Will it be easy to manage fluctuating staff numbers and peripatetic researchers?
4. Does the system support the development of an impact culture?
Transitioning to a way of operating that prioritizes impact across day-to-day activities and strategic objectives is often one of the greatest challenges faced by institutions and can be an irritatingly slow process.
We have already mentioned challenges around your colleagues’ availability. You may be working with colleagues who would prefer to focus on blue skies over applied research. Perhaps institutional funding may not permit for the hiring or fulfillment of key impact roles in the build-up to a national assessment.
Furthermore, we have also mentioned the upwards trajectory of impact adoption, as well as the rapidly-increasing prevalence of sustainability mandates. In a post-COVID world, organizations will need to evolve, keeping up with the pace of these developments while also demonstrating leadership.
Some of this will always be out of your control, and not every functional impact culture will look the same.
However, you can help ease the transition by choosing a system that makes the introduction of impact easy and natural, rather than forcing your teams to fundamentally overhaul their ways of working. Furthermore, a platform that is designed to scale to future demand is essential, and while we do not know exactly what future regulatory environments or public demands will be, the flexibility to support an evolving impact culture will be a critical differentiator.
Senior management plays an important role in the development of strategy and communication of initiatives such as impact culture adoption, and can benefit from a system that makes impact submissions faster and more efficient.
Consider a platform that makes impact management low-touch – is it quick to gather evidence? Can I easily align projects to relevant impact indicators? Can I keep all my impact work in one location and not introduce multiple new interfaces to busy colleagues? Does the platform represent a continuation rather than a refresh of the team’s ongoing research? Is there a robust set of training materials and opportunities available, helping you to continually educate you and your teams on impact-related issues?
5. Can the platform identify and track high-quality impact data?
Research projects that deliver social, environmental, economic, cultural or other impact tend to comprise a wide range of moving and fixed parts. These can include the underpinning research and outputs, an extensive variety of stakeholders and beneficiaries, evidence, monitoring of change over time, numerous activities and more.
Planning for the complexity of impact can also be a lengthy and gruelling process. There are many structures and templates available to help, whether in mapping out the stakeholders of your project, deciding the activities and charting the pathways to impact, or providing mechanisms and structures for measuring the impact.
Furthermore, being able to definitively show impact through the continual generation of high-quality data, supported by evidence gathered on-the-go (see point 7) is essential when showing your credentials.
One solution is to look for an Impact Management System that centralizes all project management in a single environment. Through a responsive platform, your teams will be able to dynamically update plans and activities as they naturally evolve, while tracking impact and storing all relevant evidence on-the-go.
The platform should also be designed with impact in mind – is it supported by a robust underlying taxonomy of impact indicators?
Does the platform cover end-to-end impact management, from planning through capture to measurement and reporting? Can I centralize all my planning and project management in one location? Does this system reduce my dependence on several different templates and structures in different formats? Can I login once to view all relevant information on my impact project?
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