The Maximizing the Impacts of your Research handbook produced by the LSE Public Policy Group defined a research impact as “[...] a recorded or otherwise auditable occasion of influence” – a definition that places influence at the conceptual heart of impact. That their definition specifies the auditable requirement reinforces the importance of indicators and metrics as essential for informing the monitoring and evaluation process. But how deep is our understanding of influence itself? Do we really have the processes in place to detect influence at all?
In a communications context, influence can be understood as success in getting your narratives heard and having them shape perceptions. The art of achieving influence leaves nothing to chance and it needs to be planned for and orchestrated from the very start. Such an impact strategy needs to be planned in context so that it matches the overall project environment and can account for the perceptions of a range of audiences.
If approached from this perspective, the process of evaluating a project can continually feedback to one’s impact and influence objectives, allowing them to be adjusted and fine-tuned so that no opportunities for effective communication are missed or situations mishandled. As a tool, an impact strategy based on a thorough understanding of influence also allows us to comprehend and account for unintended consequences that may arise along the way.
As practitioners we need to increase our awareness of how influence is achieved and how this dimension of impact is often hardest to measure and plan for. Are our indicators and metrics up to the job of evaluating the impact and influence of a project? Is there something missing from your logframe?
Whilst indicators are a tried and tested means of measuring achievement and project performance, they may not account for influence and its function as one of the key pathways to impact. As impact becomes a key feature of the research landscape there has never been a better time to address the complex model of causality that underpins our moments of influence.
Could the future of M&E lie in real-time or near real-time impact analysis and the ability to rapidly identify effects that hold the greatest potential to achieve desired outcomes? As regards “real-time impact analysis” who knows how technology will inevitably make evaluation a more applied and integrated process across the whole lifespan of a project (i.e. from start to finish).
Powerful qualitative and mixed-methods analysis software already exists that allows researchers in the social sciences and other disciplines to uncover connections and gain subtle insights across the “human terrain” of a project. With advances in micro-computing and portable devices, who knows what future technologies and applications may yet be available to project staff and M&E specialists for charting project development and measuring effectiveness. This may seem a long way off but recognising the importance of planning for influence as part of wider impact agenda-setting across a project is perhaps the first step.