Friday, 5 April 2019

What fairy tales and pinball machines can tell us about using research

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager / Fuse Knowledge Exchange Broker, Teesside University

Once upon a time... the UK Knowledge Mobilisation Forum 2019 took place in Newcastle at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. The Forum brings together practitioners, researchers, students, administrators and public representatives who are engaged in the art and science of sharing knowledge and ensuring that it can be used. This year I was part of the organising group and we deliberately chose Seven Stories as location for the Forum with its focus on stories, which are an important mechanism for exchanging knowledge.

5 points awarded to Dan Wolstenholme of House Gryffindor 
The Centre, spread out over seven floors, provided plenty of exercise to get to the different rooms for interactive poster sessions, knowledge fayres, fishbowls and workshops. The Harry Potter themed conference room also allowed me (not pictured right) to dress up as a Ravenclaw student while serving coffee. But the real highlight of the conference for me were the stories being shared by the key note speakers, Ishbel Smith from Heart in Mouth, who reflected on her practical experiences, and Andree le May and John Gabbay from the University of Southampton, who provided an in-depth research perspective. I will relate two of their stories: the first involves a house made of sweets, the second is about a pinball machine.

The power of stories is often underestimated in research but has gained some traction in academia, particularly for evaluating new interventions and because they make great impact case studies. At the same time, it has proven notoriously difficult to capture any impact in a story: we don’t really know what happens to research findings once they leave academia and trying to trace impact is like Hansel and Gretel clinging onto tiny bread crumbs in a large wood.

This brings me to the first story. Ishbel Smith used the story of Hansel and Gretel to highlight that the siblings missed the blindingly obvious (a house made of sweets is too good to be true and likely to be a trap), because they were too focused on the breadcrumbs and did not see the wider picture or context in which they were walking (a deep dark wood inhabited by a hungry witch). As knowledge mobilisers it is vital to understand where we are in a given situation to be able to unlock the relevant knowledge in that context.

Ishbel reiterated that contextual knowledge is just as important as content. Understanding the context in which research evidence is used and, perhaps more importantly, what happens to that evidence in a practice or policymaking context, is vital for mobilising it. To clarify this, Andree Le May and John Gabbay, told a story about how research evidence is transformed by using the analogy of a pinball machine.

In this second story, research evidence gets batted around across various groups of people within organisations as they interact with it. In each interaction, the evidence is slightly changed: people put their own spin on it and adjust it slightly for their own needs. The evidence literally receives a battering but in this process the evidence is made fit for a particular context and socially reconstructed. Like the pinball getting batted around inside the machine, with every contact the evidence changes shape. Perhaps not noticeably at first but you end up with something quite different and unrecognisable from the research evidence that you put into the dissemination process at the start. This means that, if you don’t understand as a researcher that your research findings will be transformed when it is being used by practitioners and policy makers, then you will never be able to find and follow it for your impact case studies.

Andree and John persuasively pointed out that the craft of knowledge mobilisation is not only using the right skills to get evidence into practice, but also to be able to be part of the story of how evidence is used. This requires not only technical skills (which are mostly studied by implementation science) but also the use of soft skills, such as the striking the right tone and style, being able to get your message across and contextualise knowledge; for example, do we know what the right problem and the right solution is for the context in which we are trying to mobilise knowledge?

Perhaps the most important skills we can develop for mobilising knowledge is how to enable learning: what did work and didn’t work in this context? How can we help others to apply research evidence into their own context? Stories provide a powerful tool for this: not to highlight what we have achieved as research institutions in the next REF submission, but to create a space to reflect on our experiences of using research evidence in different practice and policy context. To make these stories impactful, they have to be told by the people who used the research evidence. And we as researchers have to be willing to listen and be able to reflect on them with the evidence users.

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