Career advice: how to be an impact manager in REF 2021

‘REF season’ is under way and staff who support the development of impact case studies need to consider their tactics. Chris Hewson offers guidance based on his own experience

August 21, 2018
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With the publication of the research excellence framework 2021 draft guidance and criteria on 23 July, “REF season” has officially opened. This is the culmination of a two-year “pre-season”, in which the outcomes of the Stern review were incorporated, digested, diluted and occasionally kicked into the long grass. Further tweaks will materialise, subsequent to the 15 October consultation deadline.

As an impact manager, I’m interested in how support structures to bolster the development of impact case studies have emerged and become ingrained since the 2014 REF. The untested assumption is that the sector has made great strides. When we pressed the button for the last REF, we promised ourselves that we’d be better prepared next time. Are we?

A fruitful response is to consider how in this “second coming” of REF impact, supported by many who lived to tell the tale post-REF 2014, new post holders might be both equipped to hit the ground running, and be offered reasonable career progression. I address the first point with observations gleaned from my own experience, working at four different institutions subsequent to the REF 2014 submission.

My remarks are underpinned by three truisms. First, impact roles are works-in-progress, commonly built around ad hoc interpretations of what is required for REF delivery. Second, impact delivery will be woven into an organisational culture that inevitably does not enjoy universal buy-in. Third, everyone has an opinion on research impact. Sometimes these views are erroneous, but usually they are sincere and defensible. Phrases such as “dissemination alone is not impact” and “explain what needs are being addressed” will never be far from your lips.

First, if transitioning from an academic role nestled in a department or research unit, you’ll find yourself suddenly thrust into a world of asymmetrical multilevel sign-offs and Byzantine committee structures. This may be a culture shock, not least as you’re now working for an institution with stated goals, however ambiguously presented. As a boundary spanner, mediating between academics and “the institution” –  embedded in a set of delivery mechanisms and reporting lines – you will gain a more comprehensive view than most.

Within this nexus, it is vital to remember that three-quarters of the job is getting people to do things, in a particular order, while making sure that activities, deadlines and goals are clearly communicated and that all parties are aware of their responsibilities leading up to the pressing of the “REF button”. Soft skills are more important than “right answers”. If you can help people get what they want and/or need out of this externally imposed and internally administered process, maybe incidentally, everything becomes more straightforward. The extent to which you decouple your role from “managing compliance” is vital.

Second, professional services colleagues may be as confounded by your role as academics. This could manifest itself in any number of ways. You are managing a portfolio of REF impact case studies that, via some form of internal sorting, should represent the finest examples of research-based impact at your institution.

You may be surprised that other functional units, for example press and communications, public engagement, knowledge exchange and business engagement, are not four-square behind these “choices”. These impediments should be treated as structural, rather than personal, with solutions formulated on an (impact) case-by-case basis.

Third, the academic timetable is sovereign, yet faculty, departmental, central and external deadlines are often developed in blissful separation. Unbalanced teaching cycles leave staff unable to engage with you at certain times of the year, and academics may often be off-campus. Managing an impact portfolio requires meticulous planning from the outset. If you enjoy doing 17 things at once (with a further 17 on the boil), this is the role for you.

Fourth, you will deal with a lot of “noise”. So you’ll need to have a plan agreed with your line manager and key individuals in the departments that you work with. Accept external and internal audits with goodwill, even if they appear to cut across your fastidious preparations. One of the irritations of being a boundary worker in an entrenched bureaucracy is that sudden changes of direction by principal decision-makers can leach both your time and resolve. With impact not viewed as core business, panic will invariably set in more than once during a REF cycle. Stand firm.

Impact roles offer adventure, uncertainty and normally a surfeit of goodwill from academics whose activities you are supporting. It is now incumbent on the sector to think holistically, respecting the need to properly embed impact support, rather than merely drafting in casual labour to service an externally mandated set of requirements.

Such thinking will be obligatory, in a context where both research funders and partners outside academia require greater openness and agility from universities, yet process improvements are proving largely insufficient to meet these rising expectations.

Chris Hewson is the incoming faculty research impact manager (social sciences) at the University of York.

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Print headline: REF 2021: how to excel at being an impact manager

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