Knowledge Exchange Insights: Creative problem analysis

Highlights from the first session of the Knowledge Exchange training series , facilitated by Yvonne McLean, as part of the ESRC Collaboration Labs Programme, The University of Manchester.

Our focus in this short series is to share the latest tools and best practice for academic research consultancy and effective knowledge exchange, delivered in our ongoing Collaboration Labs training series.

Over the course of the next few months, 35 Humanities and Social Science Collaboration Labs researchers from 6 different institutions will work on 10 inspiring research consultancy projects in support of curriculum diversity, inclusive leadership, food sustainability, tech ethics and much more.

So watch this space for more professional insights from the programme to help you develop effective research consultancy skills for your own research consultancy and knowledge exchange projects.

Why Knowledge Exchange?

Knowledge Exchange brings research outside of academia for real-world impact, opening up a space for open-minded, creative and collaborative dialogue between academics and their research communities.

In partnership with business, public and civil society, researchers create practical, evidence-based solutions to solve challenges and develop new, innovative areas of work.

As such, Knowledge Exchange offers an opportunity for researchers to better understand the challenges faced by practitioners, extend their professional and academic networks and make a difference with their PhD skills and expertise in the wider community.

Introduction and Problem Analysis

Interpersonal communication is a vital skill for anyone wishing to work with partners and collaborators. It is particularly useful when trying to elicit key messages from project partners in order to intervene with precision in the work area they want to address or change.

Even before a pitch is delivered, project partners will be making decisions about their levels of trust in you and your abilities, based on how you present yourself and what you ask.

During this practical session, Yvonne McLean, Director of Inkling Training & Consultancy , explored some practical ways for researchers to analyse project challenges and formulate insightful questions for a great start to any consultancy project.

What to expect: How does research consultancy differ from research?

"Consider yourself in a way that you might not have done before you came into this role"

While a researcher’s expertise is certainly vital, the generation of knowledge is not the primary aim of consultancy. Instead, it is the way in which existing knowledge and expertise are applied to solve the challenge.

As such, consultancy requires a collaborative ’partnership’ approach with industry partners, open to consideration, challenge and change. The researcher and partner will approach the project with diverging experiences and skills, so positive and clear communication is of vital importance at every stage of the partnership.

EQ - IQ "Leave your ego at the door"

Some thinking that underpins the role of a consultant is the need for balance between critical thinking - evaluation, analysis and challenging of information - and emotional intelligence - the ability to build rapport, with empathy and understanding for positive relationships.

Too much of either can lead to perceived arrogance and inflexibility or inefficiency and lack of rigour. So an equal combination of interpersonal communication skills and critical thinking is needed for the free flow of meaning and positive, successful relationships.

Key principles to help you strike the right balance:

- Trust in a professional relationship comes from a very human basis See industry partners as individuals equal to you, with whom you wish to get along.

- Don’t guess
Don’t hesitate to challenge, ask for clarification and set boundaries in your project, but find a way to structure your questions in a helpful and efficient way.

- Leave your ego at the door
While we may go into the project with a clear idea of the work required, consultants must work with the partners to reach a solution to the problem at hand.

Divergent thinking

"Seek first to understand and then be understood"

’Divergent thinking’ is a term that describes the open-minded approach researchers should take to consultancy projects. Working ’within the space of curiosity’, researchers should first work to understand the issue at a higher, macro level.

Don’t close down discussions to get to the solution too soon, instead, hold off and explore the opportunities, resources, decision process, solutions and relationships available to you.

Problem analysis

"Set aside what you believe to be a globally accepted truth"

Consultants should not accept the challenge presented to them in a consultancy project as a ’globally accepted truth’, as our initial response to the problem at hand will always be shaped by our own personal ethical, political, and professional opinions. Instead, the role of research is to offer an evidence-base that demonstrates the issue at hand.

This matrix of questions will help you to pin down the challenge:

Problem Evidence: How can we prove this problem exists?
Results Evidence: How can we prove the solution is a success?
Problem Impact: What would happen if this problem wasn’t addressed?
Results Impact: What is the payoff if success is achieved?

Crucially, this matrix of problem analysis will ultimately enable researchers to understand the real impact of their work in this field.

Final thoughts?

We caught up with some of our Collaboration Labs Researchers to hear their insights on the session.

Maria Liashenko is a PhD Candidate in Educational Research at Lancaster University, who will be among the team of researchers working on a project that aims to create an inclusive evaluation tool for socially isolated, neurodiverse young people.

Maria, in this workshop, we learned about the need to approach a consultancy project with an open mind, a will to collaborate and develop insightful questions to understand it from all sides.

In particular, we discussed ’divergent thinking’, an open-minded approach to consultancy with a curiosity to firstly understand the broader problem at hand. How do you feel about this approach?

"Divergent thinking helps unpack some concepts from a new perspective. It is directly linked to creativity in a variety of contexts. This approach can be compared with having a bird’s eye view of the problem under analysis firstly. Doing it can be instrumental and illuminative at the initial stage of the consultancy process: applying a holistic approach, I look at the whole picture to understand the context and my objective in this context."

After this first session of our training series, do you feel more confident to begin your research consultancy journey?

"The first session was eye-opening regarding what a research consultant is supposed to do. It increased my awareness of the responsibilities in this field. The blogs about consultant/client relationships were interesting because they made me think more about what to start with and how to progress. Sometimes simple things can have a great impact on more complex processes."

Nicola Lester is a PhD candidate in the Division of Psychology & Mental Health at The University of Manchester. Nicola will be working on a consultancy project to explore the extent to which the average UK school’s library is reflective of the ethnic makeup of its pupils and help to curate more diverse school libraries.

Nicola, what did you find most helpful in the session?

"I found this session really fast-paced, which is great for engagement and I really felt like I was making the best use of my time. Rather than spending considerable amounts of time doing tedious icebreakers, we were able to spend valuable time engaging with our teams and making a start on our project.

The guidance provided by Yvonne and Rosalinda was not only really helpful but also really motivated me to get started on my consultancy journey. Being asked to think about the much higher-level picture of our project and ways of doing this, before honing down the fine details was so valuable, and I now feel more prepared to start my journey and meet with our partners next week.

Thank you to the Collaboration Labs team for a great first session, I look forward to the next one!"