How to get engaged (with your stakeholders)

What better day than 14th February to think about getting engaged? Last week I came across the kind of document I love to see: a short, snappy, practical summary of some tools for analysing stakeholders from IDS. The authors explain four key tools; some are pretty familiar to marketing folk e.g. Alignment Interest Matrix (AIM), while others are less commonly seen outside of development, such as Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis.

It got me thinking about some of the ways people working in fields such as marketing, organisational change, etc. look at stakeholders and whether these might be of relevance to people wanting to engage research stakeholders.

One tool that I think is under-used is Peter Block’s matrix which positions stakeholders in term of level of Trust and Agreement with you. It takes the AIM tool a step further to factor in relationships between people and I’ve found it really helpful when I’m in situations where how much people like me is my only source of power. I often use it when I’m teaching project management (given that project managers often have to cajole people to contribute when they have no hierarchical mandate). I imagine it could be useful for think tanks who are trying to influence stakeholders with whom they have some level of existing relationships (negative or positive).

The Block matrix is explained nicely by the TeamSTAR Project with some advice on how to work with each group e.g. with Opponents (where there’s trust but disagreement) are people you can have a constructive discussion with because you already have an established relationship and may end up reviewing your viewpoint or reframing it. Sticking with Peter Block and the power of personal connections (this post is fast becoming a Valentine’s card to his work…) his “six conversations” methodology for civic engagement is really worth a read.

Finally, a shameless plug for something I wrote for IDS. The Organisational Decision Making Unit (or the buying centre) is a nifty piece of marketing thinking that people working in research uptake might consider to identify who your stakeholders might be influenced by. I’ve tried to find a development-friendly summary online but am stumped (please tell me if you find one) so meanwhile check out p.17 of Who Are We Aiming To Reach?


Research “consumers”, know your rights!

I’m not claiming to be the first person to spot some problems with applying models of supply and demand, and consumption and production to research. But I wonder if I’m the most obsessed?

I’ll admit, part of it is personal. I’m a Chartered Marketer working in development and I’ve observed (and experienced) some quite aggressive reactions to suggestions of applying marketing theories or business thinking to encouraging development research to be used more. The unethical marketing behaviour of certain large companies is no doubt partly to blame for this. But I’m a bit bemused to see how avidly the language of manufacturing and selling has been adopted by people working in research communication, without any interrogation.

I love a good metaphor as much as the next woman, especially if it helps me make sense of something intangible. But in this case, it doesn’t work. Using the notions of “research consumers” and “research producers”, of a research supply chain complete with intermediaries, and of stimulating research demand, creates many more problems than it solves. Here’s just a few:

1) the words already mean something and these meanings are different to the way they’re often used in the context of research. For example, a consumer is an individual who gives to the seller something the seller values, in exchange for a product or service for their own personal use, or as a gift to someone else. And it stops there. Strictly speaking, this means if I’m a research consumer, I’m someone who commissions someone to do (produce) some research for me. It doesn’t mean I read anything they write. “Organisational customer of research” would be a closer approximation to what I think is the intent behind the phrase “research consumer” but I don’t think that’s going to catch on.

2) the notion of research producers and research consumers suggests two different types of people – often consumers are seen as policymakers, and producers as researchers. But really these are behaviours which the same person can display or roles they can take up and drop as needed. Based on the way the term is used in research communication, aren’t researchers, research consumers? (I just made myself dizzy thinking about academics subscribed to the Journal of Consumer Research; are they consumer research consumer research producers?!).

3) the language of demand, supply, intermediaries, push, pull and products (linear) is often used within writing about complexity, systems, non-linear thinking and all things wiggly and swirly. The two sets of ideas are at loggerheads.

I sense some more posts in the pipeline – on intermediaries, for example. But for now, I’d like to propose (with only half my tongue in cheek) that research consumers be given the same legal protection that consumers in the UK enjoy. This means that anyone “selling” research has to follow the same rules as other producers and sellers, such as:

  • not using a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention (CAP Codes).
  • not providing material information “in a manner which is unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely” i.e. writing in Plain English (Unfair Trading Regulations, 2008).
  • only providing research that is of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose (Sale of Goods Act, 1979).
  • making consumers aware of how much it will cost them to “purchase” the research over the internet (e.g. downloading).
  • not promoting research by email to people who haven’t said they want to hear about it.

Research consumers, stand up for your rights!