Making your research accessible

Research communications and uptake: drawing inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point

By 20 April 2011

Rarely do research communications travel a familiar pathway and reach end users in a linear way to influence policy and practice. We often hear that researchers and research institutions frequently fail in communicating their research effectively, that policy makers and practitioners are not listening, and intermediaries are failing in their efforts to bring leading protagonists together.

Linear models and system models of research uptake

A recent   workshop on  research communication and uptake highlighted how linear models of research uptake can prove successful. However, this is often only in those instances where strong institutional structures exist, along with sufficient resources to direct research to the appropriate end-users. The reality for most people working in the field of knowledge management is far more complex.

The process of research uptake involves many different actors, involved at different stages in research planning, communication, uptake and use. There is often no clear pathway, institution, or entry point that can be singularly identified as playing the leading role in this process. This kind of model has been defined as a systems model (as opposed linear), and characterised by complex power relations, and multiple sites at which knowledge is produced and re-produced.

Information silos versus communities of practice

In order to think more strategically about research uptake there is a need to move away from anecdotal thinking. For instance, let’s take the view that sees the research community sat in a silo, and unable or even unwilling to communicate effectively with end-users. This view is put forward a great deal, often without been questioned. It’s time to unpack this kind of thinking, and build new narratives that bring more nuanced thinking around some of these presuppositions.

Researchers and research institutions occupy a particular community of practice. It has its own ‘rules’, incentives and way of speaking that is different from that of policy makers and intermediaries. In the same way, policy makers and intermediaries develop practices, and relationships that are shaped by context and situation.  As Gladwell puts it, “Human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context.”

Ideas and findings presented through research can be of great quality, but if in communicating that research different contexts are not bridged, research fails to travel between different communities. From the inside the research community, knowledge can appear to be shared in a ‘dynamic way through peer review journals, conference papers and seminars. However, from the outside it often appears that researchers occupy a very different ‘closed’ world. The truth is that in part they do, but only in the same way as other communities do!

Gladwell believes that “If you want to bring a fundamental change in people’s belief and behaviour… you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs can be practiced and expressed and nurtured.” Bringing different communities together is a very different challenge, and there must be a willingness by all parties to cross boundaries, build bridges, and develop new relationships.

Silos to highways

We need to stop talking about information ‘silos’ and start to build information ‘highways’ that allow communities to maximise their efforts by ensuring the context and situation of end-users is always taken into account. Intermediaries should perhaps focus more on context and situation than trying to change the way communities operate, and start to think about how communities can be better linked to one another, without asking them to fundamentally change their practices.

Other Resources:

The following paper looks at the impact and influence of development research from a number of perspectives. The section that addresses the question ‘What are the ingredients for impact/influence or the factors that support (or not) the impact/influence of development research?’ is the most relevant to the above article. In this section Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Gardener’s Changing Minds, and Heath and Heath’s Made to Stick are reviewed in detail.


Making Science of Influencing: Assessing the Impact of Development Research, IDS working paper 335, Andy Sumner, Nick Ishmael-Perkins and Johanna Lindstrom, September 2009