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Research Impact

Learn more about the different types of research impact.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

This article discusses research impact which is a key theme in the research process.

This is encapsulated in something referred to as the ‘so what?’ question. This means that at each stage of the research process and particularly at the end, somebody might say to you ‘that is very interesting, but so what?’

What should your readers or sponsors take away from your study? What difference do you think your project will make to your organisation? And, what does this mean for our wider theoretical understanding of the topic?

It is important to note that to properly answer the ‘so what’ question requires you to have completed the research and have analysed the findings from your data. Nonetheless, you cannot disregard the question before that time because it should be driving your approach at all stages. For example, you need to have a notion of where you think your research will make an impact when you are identifying your problem and also when you are working out how to gather your data. As a result, given that the ‘so what’ question is so important, let’s look at some of the different types of impact your research might make – this may also help you further identify the problem you want to look at.

Strategic Impact

Your research may look at a problem that can lead to a shift in strategic thinking within your organisation. This might mean that senior leaders use your findings to look at new products or markets or seek to make substantial alterations to the objectives of the organisation. It is important to be realistic and it is rare for research to achieve strategic impact directly, but don’t simply discount the potential for your work to resonate at this level.

Operational Change or Process Development

A second form of impact might be in terms of how the organisation or your department functions or operates. This might emerge from research that looks at how a key management process is working and how it can be more efficient or effective. The impact here is often not to implement the change but to establish the need for the change to take place or to identify the factors that should be considered if the change is taken forward.

Project Evaluation

A related form of impact can emerge from a research problem that seeks to examine the outcomes of a specific project or new initiative. For example, here your research might focus on how far a new piece of software has led to identified outcomes, or perhaps your organisation has just been through a large management development programme and you want to evaluate how far managers are using the new ideas from this. Whatever the specific area, the impact here is to make recommendations as to how these types of projects might proceed in the future.

Employee Engagement

Another impact you could develop to answer the ‘so what’ question is to look at how far employees are engaged with their work. This can be quite a broad impact (and as we saw in Step 1.7, it is sometimes advisable to avoid researching an abstract concept) but identifying methods by which employee experiences can be improved can lead to changes in a number of areas. Of course, you may work for an organisation that runs an annual staff satisfaction survey and so you may not want to simply re-create this, but you can use surveys of this nature to see if you can identify a specific topic you might impact.

Theoretical and Conceptual Impact

Regardless of which of the previous impact areas you focus on, a fundamental part of producing a dissertation is to show that it does more than simply solve an organisational problem – as important as that is.

In addition, you will have to demonstrate how you are drawing on theories and concepts that have wider implications and which in some way you can add to or develop. For a great deal of academic research, this is the only impact because its goal is the better theories which better explain natural and social phenomenon.

Your research may not be able to deliver a new theory or re-imagine a way of understanding a feature of organisational practice, but you should still be focused on how your findings relate to what we already know about your topic. Your research will give you the justification to position your research within a wider body of work and also comment on that work from a position of expertise. This is an impact you cannot discount.

Finally, these different types of impact are not mutually exclusive, your topic might link to more than one (and as we have just explained, you will have to have some form of theoretical or conceptual impact) or there might be further impacts that make sense to your current role. The key point is that you start to consider where the impact will be at this early stage because you can’t say what the impact will be until you have completed the research.

Your task

Building on the different tasks within this activity and the research problems you have identified, try to consider the type of impact you might have through exploring these in your research.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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