Critical Considerations for doing Stakeholder Engagement for Research

by Anneliese Poetz, KT Manager, NeuroDevNet

When I began my PhD studies in 2003 it was before terms like “Integrated Knowledge Translation” (IKT) and “Co-Produced Research” were common. In my graduate program people would joke about how their predecessors had placed a $10 bill in their dissertations only to return to the library years later to discover it was still there – nobody had read it. Wow, all that time, money and effort wasted on something that would never be used – I didn’t find it funny at all. I really wanted my research to be used, so after I crafted my research questions I went and talked to the people who I imagined would use my research: CEOs, government regulatory agencies, industry. I also attended their conferences and listened for what were the issues that were important to them. As a result of this new understanding about my end-user’s needs, I changed 80% of my research questions because I realized I was asking the wrong ones. The result was my research was found interesting and useful by those end-users that I had consulted. I completed my research in 2010, and emailed the first of 3 papers I published to the President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (Dr. Michael Binder). I received this email response on January 22, 2011 “Very interesting study. I have the taken the liberty of circulating to staff at CNSC. Thanks for sharing”. The results of my research which recommended ongoing stakeholder engagement, resulted in Bruce Power’s creation of several social media channels such as twitter and a community blog in 2011, and a facebook page in 2014 (I checked with an employee at Bruce Power who confirmed that these avenues for stakeholder engagement represented uptake of my research results).

It is important to involve a diverse range of stakeholders in any consultation or stakeholder engagement activity

It is important to involve a diverse range of stakeholders in any consultation or stakeholder engagement activity

Now, over a decade later, this kind of involvement of end-users including policy- and decision-makers has become a requirement of funding agencies such as CIHR. This is an important overall paradigm shift: from research that is done in isolation with no consultation or thought about who will actually use the research and whether what you are doing will be relevant to them, to a more responsive approach that is intended to meet the needs of decision-makers including practitioners. In the field of Knowledge Translation we call this “stakeholder engagement” (a stakeholder is anyone who will be directly or indirectly affected by decisions made based on your research findings).

There are several researchers who are doing stakeholder engagement. For the past several years NeuroDevNet’s Neuroethics Core has been conducting workshops and other in-person events to engage their diverse stakeholders (such as health care providers, researchers, patient advocacy groups) in their research, so that they can be responsive to their needs.  NeuroDevNet’s FASD project has engaged stakeholders in the development of their “Strongest Families” research project. Customization of the course material was achieved through phone interviews with clinicians (specializing in FASD) and families and the program is based on the needs they articulated.
And that is the key to stakeholder engagement – being responsive to the needs of your stakeholders including end-users. Stakeholder engagement can include regular in-person meetings, dialogue through social media, or other forms of communication such as teleconferences or online meetings.

If you are not prepared to be responsive to stakeholder input, then don’t engage your stakeholders. Be honest with yourself – are you prepared to change your research questions, methodological

If you don't plan to listen and respond (by adapting your research questions and/or methodology) according to what your stakeholders are telling you, don't ask for their input

If you don’t plan to listen and respond (by adapting your research questions and/or methodology) according to what your stakeholders are telling you, don’t ask for their input

approach, etc. based on input from your stakeholders? If you are not prepared to be flexible and responsive throughout the research process, then don’t ask for input. You will do more harm than good – it will cause irreparable damage to the relationship. People will feel used, and it will create distrust, conflict (which includes avoidance and refusal to use your research in decision-making), and ultimately the usefulness of your research findings will not be maximized.

Be responsive to the system in which your research occurs
The field of KT is now recognizing the importance of the entire system. If stakeholder engagement is considered “Integrated Knowledge Translation”, and IKT occurs within a system, then you as a researcher also need to be responsive to changes to the various levels of the ‘system’ in which you are doing your research. Changes to the system include: new research discoveries, new diseases, new technologies, news in another part of the world, new legislation and regulations…you get the idea.

Keys to effective stakeholder engagement summarized:
1) Make people feel valued by sincerely listening to their input, keeping them informed about the progress of the research, and closing the loop at the end of the project.

2) Use different forms of stakeholder engagement – in-person meetings are best but you can use social media to expand your networks beyond what is possible in-person, as well as to keep in touch with people in between meetings.

3) Involve diverse stakeholders especially end-users in your research design, and be prepared to be responsive to their input even if the research is already in-progress.

The main message is: successful knowledge translation occurs as a result of trust (in the source of the information being used to base policy and practice decisions on) which is a result of good relationships and ongoing relationship building. This requires several levels of flexibility and openness as a researcher. If you sincerely want your research to be useful, good stakeholder engagement is the way.

The KT Core is building networks via social media (LinkedIn, facebook, twitter) and will be leading a cross-jurisdictional cross-Network in-person stakeholder consultation in year 6. If you are a NeuroDevNet researcher, trainee or partner and need help with in-person or online stakeholder engagement for your individual project(s), contact the KT Core for tools and advice.

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