The Impact Chain – How to Craft an Effective Impact Narrative

Having developed an ill-founded fear as an undergraduate of being escorted from the building by security for using affect/effect incorrectly, the word ‘impact’ has long been a great friend of mine. Now of course it’s Impact, often capitalized, that instead strikes horror and elicits long sighs from others. Yet, explaining and evidencing impact(s), the changes that have occurred as an (un)intended consequence of research, is perhaps as misunderstood.

This article by Katy McEwan originally appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as “The Impact Chain – How to craft an effective impact case study narrative” and is reposted under the Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0).

With help from colleagues, I have produced an Impact Chain approach that follows REF guidance examples of impacts and indicators, setting out: area of impact- type of impact- indicators of reach and significance. We have found the Chain a useful tool to aid clarity of how best to establish Impact in an Impact Case Study (ICS) and share it here on the basis others may too. It addresses one of the more slippery aspects of establishing impact in the written boundaries of the ICS– ensuring that the narrative sets out how the change was invoked, yet also includes a clear description of the (un)intended consequences. It is the evidence of the latter which is most often unclear (or unrealized) and as a team at Northumbria University, we set about how best to put a spotlight on this missing evidence of change.

The Impact Chain is a formulaic approach to producing a narrative over an ICS that allows for the impact to be clearly observed by the reader and ensures the crucial details which describe it are given the space and focus they require. It establishes context, which is then followed by details of the development, and then finally sets out the evidence of change/benefit (which should stand out). While this is of course a strategic approach to best display evidence for scoring, it is equally an opportunity to tell a powerful story of the immense benefits that research brings to society. Researchers are passionate about what they do, the ICS is an opportunity to embrace that and share it, and it is this positive recognition of the value of research and researchers that is fundamental to our Impact team’s principle and approach.

Crucially, the pathway to impact, or impact activity, established in the narrative remains relevant to both the ICS reader and the writer. For the reader, it is a useful element of the story which develops the sequence of events, creating engagement through understanding. It develops the account from the underpinning research section to complete the who/what/why of the story. Yet, it is also useful for the ICS writer, assisting in the how/where/when so they can trace appropriate evidence.

What we aim to achieve with the Impact Chain is to establish the distinction between impact activities, which attempt to establish evidence/impact, and actual impact. It is the latter which needs to be clear, detailed and distinct, and is the key element for inclusion. Proof of the impact, which includes lucid communication of the reach and significance of the change/benefit, is the most critical element of the ICS and evidence must be robust, clearly linked, and traceable.

The Impact Chain is:
Impact – Outcome – Evidence

What is the area in which the research made a difference – (un)intended consequences?

Was it: economic/commerce; environment; creativity/culture/society; health/wellbeing/animal rights; practitioners/professional services; production/technological; public policy/law/services; social welfare; awareness/learning/participation/understanding.

What was the nature of the change and how was it distributed/communicated?

Development/Creation of:
Assessment; business; collaboration; coproduction; contributing; control; debate; drug; engagement; exhibition; expert submission or membership; expression; hazard or risk management approach; improvement; inclusion; influence; inspiration; investment; law; licence; method; policy; product or service addition or withdrawal; productivity practice; preservation; resolution; supporting; stimuli; test; technology; treatment or therapy; understanding; values; workforce planning; yields.

What is the demonstrable evidence of the change? How can we prove it has occurred?

Audience/participation feedback; behavioral change; benefit/financial performance; clinical outcomes; evaluations; engagement; efficiencies; experience; improved sustainability figures; improved equality, security, welfare or inclusion; investments; jobs protection or increase; sales; satisfaction; service delivery difference; service user take-up or attendance.

Code; citations in campaign literature; CPD/ training standards; educational materials; legislation; guidelines; media debates; Hansard; parliamentary evidence; policy; public citation; reports/briefings; research collaboration with major institution; standards change; testimonials.

The evidence must clearly and directly address the reach of the impact (the extent to which the research has reached beneficiaries) and the significance (the nature/degree of the change made by the research). Furthermore, the materials selected for inclusion in the corroborating sources should confirm these claims.

Some examples of outline Impact Chains are below, which we would develop out from:

Those who undertake research are driven by an urge to understand something. Impact is a fundamental element of this drive. To demonstrate impact, we ask: what was learnt? – who heard the findings and how? – what consequently changed and who benefited from that change? Evidence takes tracking down but its valuable, not simply as it meets REF requirements, but as it reinforces the value of what researchers do both inside and outside of, HE. In subtle, strategic or seismic ways, impact happens- capitalised ‘Impact’ celebrates the importance of research and the many benefits it produces.

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Katy McEwan

Katy McEwan is an impact officer in research and innovation services at Northumbria University. As part of a focused team, she offers specialist advice to support impact case study development. She holds a PhD in sociology and is passionate about championing the value of research and researchers. She tweets @KatyJMc

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