Navigating knowledge exchange and research impact as an early career researcher

12 January, 2023

Llinos Brown

Reading time: 7 minutes

Llinos Brown reports from an ECR net-zero conference session on understanding knowledge exchange.

Knowledge exchange and impact (KE&I) are terms we all come across regularly, and for an early career researcher (ECR), they can be complex topics and often lead to a host of questions such as: ‘what do they mean?’, ‘how can we measure any of this?’ and ‘where does this fit into my project tasks?’

In addition to being unfamiliar terms, they also need to compete with the other demands we are faced with, such as writing papers, producing project-specific outputs, applying for funding, teaching… the list goes on. I recently attended a session on KE&I at the first net-zero ECR conference (30 November to 1 December) organised by C-DICE, CO2RE, CREDS, ERA, EnergyRev, IDRIC, TFI Network+, UKCCSRC and UKERC. This blog reflects on what I learned and the implications for ECRs.

Knowledge exchange can be viewed as a ‘spectrum’; at one end, the simple, unidirectional act of passing on information, such as through an email, presentation or noticeboard; at the other, co-produced explicit and tacit knowledge emerging from relationships between engaged stakeholders (Fazey et al., 2012). The Knowledge Exchange team at CREDS explored this in relation to Energy Demand (Downing et al., 2021) and describe it as a journey that includes evidence, stakeholder engagement, knowledge exchange and impact.

Evidence > Stakeholder engagement > Knowledge exchange > Impact


In the journey shown, evidence includes traditional academic/ project outputs such as data, models, journal articles and conference papers, but this serves a limited audience. We can translate these outputs into more accessible language and formats to engage with other stakeholders such as policymakers, industry and members of the public. It’s helpful to think of the following questions when thinking of undertaking this translation process:

  • Who is the reader?
  • What does this mean for the reader?
  • Is there a key message that might interest a particular group or user?
  • What format does this message need to be in, such as a briefing note, blog, presentation, or conversation piece?

Stakeholder engagement (the start of knowledge exchange)

Stakeholder engagement can be viewed as an iterative, spiral process, or knowledge loop, whereby relationships are built. This might follow some initial engagement from a stakeholder, such as contact via email, an informal conversation, comments after a presentation, interaction on social media, or a chat over a coffee break. As researchers, it is our job to then ENGAGE with this person and tailor our communications to their particular area of expertise or interest, thinking about the questions above in the ‘evidence’ section and providing this person with knowledge in language appropriate to them. In turn, stakeholders can share their knowledge with us, influencing our research.

Knowledge exchange

Such engagement is the start of the knowledge exchange process and the beginning of building ongoing relationships (which, as we found out during the session from the Panel, have been vital in creating career opportunities for several of the panellists). Knowledge exchange is characterised by multiple stakeholder impact/engagement knowledge loops. Each interaction shares more knowledge and develops the relationship with the stakeholder. We might gain a further understanding of their knowledge requirements and adjust our research to address these. We will learn how best to interact with them, learning the best format to share information with them and how best to share the evidence of our research. Over time this will lead to trusted relationships and more tailored research that has the opportunity to make a difference in the ‘real’ world.


As researchers, we know it is important to ‘have impact’ and that we need to measure it, but this can seem challenging. In the end, measuring impact is just another way of saying that we need to collect the evidence of impact, and so is just another kind of research. There are some very practical ways we can do this, such as:

  • Look at minutes and notes for mentions of our work
  • Gain feedback from attendees at events
  • Check delegate lists to see who heard your message (and to help you think about follow-up)
  • Record website and social media statistics where possible
  • Obtain quotes from third parties (don’t be shy to ask someone to follow up verbal feedback with an email so you can record the impact)

The knowledge exchange tool and knowledge exchange in practice

In addition to the journey described above, and based on an extensive literature review, some members of the CREDS Core team and colleagues have created a helpful knowledge exchange tool (Downing et al., 2021).

Figure 2: Circular diagram showing the three phases of KE – the starting situation, planning phase and during activity.
Image text

Knowledge exchange phases:

  • The starting situation – KE needs to take account of the context; Culture is an important aspect of KE.
  • The planning phase – Engaging stakeholders, building relationships & shared ownership is key; Barriers to KE can stifle progress; KE is a spectrum & can occur at a variety of depths.
  • During the activity – Early reflection, monitoring, evaluation & learning should be planned from the start; Different actors have different motivations for their involvement; KE benefits from neutral facilitation by intermediaries; Tools are necessary but not sufficient for KE; Different types of knowledge need to be integrated; Power is not neutral.

This tool is structured into three organising ‘phases’, each of which also fits into the wider evidence, stakeholder interaction, knowledge exchange, and impact journey described above:

  • The starting situation
  • The planning phase
  • During the activity

The 11 knowledge exchange factors arranged within each phase could happen in any order and are iterative. Together they describe the various elements needed in a good KE process.

But what does all this mean in practice? During the session, we heard from five speakers, all originally with academic backgrounds, some of whom had now moved on to policy, industry and the voluntary sector (the ultimate kind of knowledge exchange, one might say). They shared with us their career journeys and described how knowledge exchange and impact had played a part in those journeys.

Some of the key takeaways I got from the panel were:

  • Be aware of the language you use when communicating with stakeholders. Do not presume they know what you mean, as they might have different terminologies to those used in academia. Not using the correct language/terminology or not explaining your terms can create a barrier to stakeholder engagement.
  • Provide examples to stakeholders and tailor your research to them. Consider why this stakeholder might be interested in your work and how your work might help them, and then communicate this to them.
  • Prepare. Practice and be concise, whether it’s a presentation, a stakeholder pitch, or an elevator pitch. First impressions count!
  • If you want something from a stakeholder, be clear, and tell them.
  • And, most importantly, FOLLOW UP ON CONTACTS, close that initial knowledge loop, and start the knowledge exchange process!

Reflecting on the session, I’m personally going to focus on three key actions:

  1. Follow up with contacts after initial meetings, keep in contact with them and develop the knowledge exchange process;
  2. Use LinkedIn more strategically; it’s a great way to connect with stakeholders after a meeting, and another platform for research outputs;
  3. Ensure project outputs, such as presentations to stakeholders, are accessible for all audiences and hosted on our project website to enable measurement of impact and greater project exposure.

Banner photo credit: Maia Habegger on Unsplash