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13 December 2017
Institutional Strategic Communications and Project Knowledge Transfer Print
Friday, 13 November 2015 11:39

As the importance of getting research into use becomes a crucial indicator of universities’ relevance and contribution to society and universities respond by strengthening research communication capacity, the capacity of executive directorates to lead on Strategic Communications (SC) to build the university’s brand and capacity to ‘translate’ academic research for use by lay audiences  - variously called Research Uptake Communication (RUC), Research Communication (RC), Knowledge Translation (KT) - can create tensions.

Very few universities would consider operating without a public relations and communications division, to manage the institution’s communications strategy, and fewer still do not have a research management division to support the institutional research endeavour. Increasingly production of research that has an impact is being treated as an indicator of university excellence and relevance, so these divisions can play critical roles in building, maintaining and communicating a university’s reputation and branding.

The simultaneous expansion and differentiation of strategic and operational research communication roles makes sense – communication and engagement is central to both and  it does require some common skills,  and collaboration about the purpose of activities. However there are differences, especially with regards to the overall goals of the activities. Barwick et al, in their 2014 article “Knowledge Translation and Strategic Communications: unpacking differences and similarities for scholarly and research communication” argue that collapsing the two sets of activities can result in less effective engagement with stakeholders as well as tension between operational (project and programme) research communicators and strategic (institutional) corporate communicators.

According to Barwick et al SC is a corporate function that aims to enhance the strategic positioning and competitiveness of an organisation. It aims to influence or inform relevant target audiences in support of organisational goals. The SC function includes public relations and advertising as well as communication. KT on the other hand has as its overall goal the application of knowledge to improve the world around us. It has largely been driven by research organisations hoping to increase the societal impact of their work. Communication is a key part of knowledge translation but KT goes beyond this to include the synthesis and application of knowledge, which requires more active engagement with stakeholders and includes knowledge brokering – linking researchers with decision makers, facilitating interactions and promoting evidence informed decision-making.

Overlapping functions

The authors identified four types of communications professionals who work across the Research Communications and Strategic communications functions. The “Research Based Knowledge Translation Practitioner” (RKT) sits at one end. They usually work as researchers but also play a role in knowledge translation. They are subject matter experts in a particular field. At the other end are the “Strategic and Institutional Communications Practitioners” (ISC’s) who usually work from a centralised office and are responsible for the overall institutional media and public relations, and are not subject specialists.

The table below shows some of the overlaps and differences and includes two additional types of practitioners whose skills and responsibilities overlap with those of the RKTP’s and ISC’s:

  • Institutional Knowledge Translation Practitioners (IKT’s) – who are employed by an organisation but support researchers in their KT activities
  • Research Based Communications Professionals (RBC’s) – with research communication responsibilities but who also contribute to stakeholder relations, media engagement etc.

 

Theme

Research Based KT (RKT)

Institutional KT

(IKT)

Research Based Communications (RBC)

Institutional and Strategic Communications (ISC)

Practices  Communication skills

Y

Y

Y

Y

Knowledge  translation skills

Y

Y

Y

N

Communication activities

Y

Y

Y

Y

Promotion of the institution

N

N

Y

Y

Training and Accreditation

N

N

Y

Y

Brokering research relationships

Y

Y

Y

N

Understanding research methodology

Y

N

N

N

Institutional Brand support

N

N

Y

Y

Goal to inform policy and practice

Y

Y

Y

N

Adapted from :  Barwick et al (2014) Knowledge Translation and Strategic Communications: unpacking Differences and Similarities for Scholarly and Research Communications Scholarly and Research Communication vol 5 issue 3.

 

Convergence and Divergence

Communications practices are common to both KT and SC practitioners, and most practitioners have elements of knowledge translation in their skill sets, but there are stark differences in other areas. For example the RKTs have a deep understanding of research methodology, whereas IKTs are involved in brokering research/user relationships. On the other hand a key part of the work of ISCs is institutional brand support, whereas this does not fall within the ambit of IKTs.

In KT the communication messages are about research and are about getting research funded, recognised and used whereas in SC communications the messages have more to do with the institutional profile and reputation, using research as an indicator of relevance and excellence.

Shared skills but distinct and sometimes conflicting goals

The overall goal of KT communication is to find ways of bridging the divide between researchers and their stakeholders, and an interactive space for sharing and discussion is important.  KT practitioners use a range of strategies, from “push” to “pull” to “engage” and “exchange” to achieve recognition and impact and in doing so work in an uncertain environment where messages about the research are crafted and re-crafted based on engagement. SC communicators rely primarily on “push” and “engage” strategies and have longer term institutional goals to realise. They need to have full control over the message and the less formal approach taken by KT practitioners in dealing with external stakeholders can create tensions.

Although there are some shared skills and competencies used by the difference specialist area KT practitioners, and SC practitioners, they have distinct and different goals. Understanding these differences and enrolling the most appropriate functional specialists for the context, the audience/user, and the goal can strengthen collaboration and co-operation.


Alison Bullen is the DRUSSA.net Content Manager

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