Six lessons about change that affect research impact

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What do researchers need to know about change to help our research have greater impact? What kind of impact is it realistic to expect? Will understanding change improve the ways we assess research impact?

The six lessons described here illustrate some of the complexities inherent in understanding and trying to influence change.

#1. Research findings enter a dynamic environment, where everything is changing all the time

As researchers we often operate as if the world is static, just waiting for our findings in order to decide where to head next. Instead, for research to have impact, researchers must negotiate a constantly changing environment. In addition, everything is connected, meaning that it is rare for only one aspect of the environment to be affected; rather there are multiple knock-on effects.

Research findings therefore enter a swirling cauldron of change and it requires work to ensure they have impact. Further, in that swirling cauldron (the environment), change is not uniform. The rates of change in different parts of the environment are variable, as are the degree and direction of change. Some parts of the environment are moving rapidly, some slowly. Some parts of the environment are transforming dramatically, other parts are developing incrementally. Some parts are heading in the same direction, others are cancelling each other out. Change also varies in scale. It can affect one or more of individuals, communities, geographical regions and beyond.

To achieve and assess research impact, we need to accept and work with the inevitability and complexity of change.

#2. Stopping change from happening requires work

A corollary to the inevitability of change is that stopping change from happening requires effort. It is not the case that doing nothing will allow things to stay the same. If our research findings point to the need for conservation, perhaps of a species, an environment or an historical artefact, this will require action to be taken. Similarly research that points to the need for continuity in social affairs, political systems or individual behaviour requires intervention to combat the forces of change.

#3. Once something exists it can be hard to get rid of

For society to function effectively, many government and other agencies are built to be reliable, consistent and predictable. Indeed, as sociologists have shown, considerable effort goes into maintaining social continuity. As a consequence there can be considerable resistance to change. The resistance can be direct opposition or inertia that results from accumulated organisational structures, power bases and ways of doing things.

#4. Change does not necessarily lead to improvement

A consequence of the dynamic, highly interactive change environment is that much change is self-generating. This can be negative and maladaptive. On-going genetic mutation is an example. Most mutations do not bring benefit and many of those mutations are perpetuated, with only the most maladaptive dying out. On a social level, ‘progress’ (which can be seen as analogous to biological evolution) needs constant monitoring to look for self-generating negative aspects.

#5. Success is in the eye of the beholder

In human affairs, change is not value neutral and whether it is seen to be good or bad depends on the perceptions of those making the assessment.

#6. Any attempt to influence change can have unpredictable outcomes

The inevitability of change, the interconnectedness of what is changed and the various aspects of change dynamics discussed above mean that attempts to influence change usually have outcomes that are unpredictable.

Unintended consequences, unexpected events and serendipity are key dimensions of unpredictability. In addition, anyone trying to influence change cannot control the larger circumstances or context in which they are operating.

Conclusion

Laying out the complexities of the dynamic change environment highlights the challenges of achieving and assessing research impact. Researchers seeking to influence change are buffeted by a range of forces—some supportive, some hostile, some neutral—and even in the best circumstances unpredictable outcomes may occur. There is no sure way to negotiate a path through those forces and there are no guarantees of success. No consequences at all or adverse unintended consequences are always real possibilities.

Those assessing research impact must be sensitive to the realities of the cauldron of change—for example, that hard work and skill are not always rewarded, that luck may play a large hand, and that good intentions may be punished with bad outcomes.

What do you think? Does this resonate with your experience?

Further reading

These lessons are drawn from the insights on change of 18 disciplinary and practice experts, which are described in:
Bammer, G. (ed.) (2015). Change! Combining analytic approaches with street wisdom. ANU Press: Canberra, Australia. Online open-access at:
http://press.anu.edu.au?p=319221

See especially chapter 20:
Bammer, G. (2015). Improving research impact by better understanding change: A case study of multidisciplinary synthesis. In, G. Bammer (ed.) Change! Combining analytic approaches with street wisdom. ANU Press: Canberra, Australia: 289- 323. Online at:
http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p319221/pdf/ch20.pdf (PDF 348KB)

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.

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