Eye on 2022

Maximising, Evaluating and Evidencing Impact

By 09/09/2022

This blog is part of a new R2A series, Eye on 2022. Would you like to showcase your communications work, or recommend another comms team? Step right up…

A best practice impact approach – our journey and advice for others

I’m Jen Lockett, Senior Impact Manager at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). I joined PML in 2011 and started working on research impact in 2014. PML always had a positive impact on the environment and society, but we hadn’t always made a concerted effort to maximise, evaluate or evidence that impact. As the impact agenda grew in the UK, it was recognised that we needed to dedicate resources to developing our expertise and experience and providing support to our researchers. I was very fortunate to be given the time and space to grow into this role and at the same time, an impact committee of senior managers was formed to oversee and guide this work. The main driver initially was developing case studies for the 2020 Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) centre evaluation. PML had not been included in the 2014 evaluation but were expecting to be part of the subsequent review.

In 2018, I was joined by Dawn Ashby, a highly experienced and skilled communications officer to form the impact team. We worked together to develop case studies for submission in January 2020. This proved to be a significant success for PML as we received the highest impact scores of all centres involved and were the only centre to receive only the top 4* and 3* grades. Furthermore, the reviewers specifically commented on the construction of the case studies, commending the “well explained pathways from activity to impact and convincing evidence of the impacts”.

Learning from experience

Developing impact case studies retrospectively, in some cases long after the research and impact has been delivered, is not the most efficient or productive approach. Evidence is lost as time passes, as are opportunities to enhance the impact. We were aware that, working with a small group of staff, we were limiting our own impact.

So, in 2019 we conducted a staff survey to review levels of understanding and confidence and it became clear that training in key impact skills would benefit many groups and individuals. We decided to develop a PML impact plan so that we could take a more strategic approach to impact. Our objectives for the plan included increasing capacity and capability across the organisation; providing dedicated support, approaches and advice; and making better use of our stakeholder relationships.

Recognising that we did not know everything, we reached out to impact specialists and consultants for advice and support including Professor Mark Reed who recommended Saskia Gent of Insights for Impact. Saskia was engaged. She reviewed the PML literature, visited PML in March 2020 and reviewed our impact case studies before the submission. Then Covid-19 hit the UK and we were all confined during the first British lockdown. Saskia presented a framework for the Impact Plan, based on a Theory of Change, and continued to coach us through the development and refinement of the pan over the following months.

As Far As Here

In June 2020 we presented a draft to the Impact Committee. It wasn’t immediately accepted: the committee felt that the plan was good, but the emphasis was wrong. Other Impact Plans had been useful as guides, but were not entirely relevant to our organisational set-up. We took the feedback and adapted the plan to put the research staff and the project lifecycles we generally operate in at the centre of the impact process. This made it much stronger. We created a graphical representation to show the researchers as a ‘central cog’ around which the structures, resources and approaches of a project cycle revolve. The image became a powerful aid to understanding impact: to this day Jenny is known in Dawn’s house as “cog lady”, after the many discussions and iterations it took to get this right!

We worked hard on the communication of the plan to staff, creating a two-page summary and a vlog. We collected feedback through an online survey and hosted focus groups to generate discussion and get inputs from as many colleagues as we could. In general, the response was incredibly positive and reaffirming that we had produced something useful that they could work with.

In February 2021, the PML Research Impact Plan was signed off by the Chief Executive. Implementation began immediately, with in-house training courses on key impact skills made available to all staff and students. The core team had already undergone ‘training the trainers’ courses to allow them to hit the ground running once the plan was approved.

18 months later, we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved and delivered. The Impact Plan has been independently assessed to be one of the best in the world (Reed et al 2022, www.fasttrackimpact.com/impactstrategies) and we have delivered a wide range of activities across the organisation which have received incredible feedback both internally and externally. We have:

  • enabled more than 70 participants to attend inhouse training over three different courses;
  • delivered training to external organisations including UN Decade of the Oceans and the UK Energy Research Council scientists;
  • contributed impact plans and goals to 19 project proposals;
  • organised and led the first PML Impact Forum Event, which was attended by more than half of the faculty science staff and key external stakeholders;
  • established a Research Impact Advisory Panel for external review and critique of our approach.

What next? We are keen to build on our training offer; to extend the number of impact-led proposals that are submitted; and continue to meaningfully engage stakeholders in the co-design of impact goals and plans. We love to develop new ideas and approaches and are particularly interested in testing and refining our challenge analysis tools to a point we can share them beyond PML. Alongside that, we’re very keen to help other organisations develop their own strategies and approaches as well as delivery mechanisms.

Our top tips for anyone who might be thinking of developing an organisational impact strategy, or already working on one, would be the following:

  • Establish what resources you have available for both the development of the plan and its delivery – this will affect the approaches you include.
  • Listen to as many people as you can and try to understand their aspirations for the plan a well as any limitations.
  • Consider how the impact plan / strategy will be embedded within the organisation, how will it align with other strategies and frameworks
  • Make it as easy as possible for your research staff to engage in the consultation process and the delivery. It is important to demonstrate that impact approaches can be helpful to them and not a burden.

If you’d like to find out more you can view a summary of the PML Impact Plan at www.pml.ac.uk/science/impact  and email us at impact@pml.ac.uk (this email address will reach both Jen and Dawn).

You can also listen to a podcast we took part in with Mark Reed and Saskia Gent and view a training session we delivered with them in June 2022.

Podcast: https://www.fasttrackimpact.com/podcast/episode/58dd5002/episode-17-how-to-write-an-impact-strategy

Training session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pG8G08WOOmY

Logo for Eye on 2022 series

This blog is part of a new R2A series, Eye on 2022. Would you like to showcase your communications work, or recommend another comms team? Step right up…