The 3 stages of successful stakeholder engagement

For successful translation, and research in general, we must acknowledge the importance of collaboration, building networks, and engaging non-academic stakeholders. Research looking at stakeholder engagement has found that authentic communication and reciprocal relationships are of high importance. But all too often, what we want to do and what gets done in reality is very different.

Engagement is a hot topic on the Australian research agenda and more broadly as well. I talk to a lot of research groups and research user groups that say they will engage stakeholders, and they determine the relevant stakeholders, however in the midst of projects, and the process of doing the research, the engagement part of the equation gets neglected. In light of this, I want to outline what engagement should look like and create an understanding of the processes and time involved.

Ultimately there are three stages of engagement:

Initial engagement

Initial engagement is when you are in the process of developing your project. You need to consider who the relevant stakeholders might be and then you need to go and engage them. This part of the process is not only important but takes the most time and effort, in some cases up to six months. Failure to build solid, trusting relationships that provide value to all parties will ultimately derail the success of your project.

What does this look like? Plenty of phone conversations, face to face meetings and lots of coffee drinking, it is about taking the time to build the relationship, develop trust and understand the wants, needs and desires of your stakeholder. If you spend the time to build the relationship, you will learn the real needs of the stakeholder.

During the project

Stakeholders not only need to be heard and respected. It is also vital that you keep your stakeholders in the loop and nurture the relationship. Discuss expectations with your stakeholders, what do they want from the collaboration, how and how often should you be communicating. Share your expectations and wants as well. Approach this with an open mind, be willing to compromise and come to an agreement. Make suggestions about the management of the collaboration, it doesn’t always have to be regular meetings, you may decide to use an online collaborative platform, training days, or some other more dynamic or relevant form of collaboration management.

Delivery of the findings

By now you will have a solid trusting and ongoing dialogue with your stakeholders, provided of course that you have laid the foundation in the previous two steps. There will always be those times where the groundwork was laid with a particular person or team, and then the team was restructured or staff left the organisation, think broadly to overcome this during your initial relationship building. Hopefully, if the relationship is strong enough the person you are linked to will introduce you to others in their absence and ensure the project’s success. Remember that the project is valuable to the entire organisation, not just the person that you are dealing with – so sell it!

Your engagement with stakeholders at this formative stage of the process is vital, the interest you created, the relevant work undertaken in partnership with your stakeholders, and the success of your translation comes down to the buy-in that you have with the ultimate beneficiary or end user of your research. Consider carefully how the information is best served to them, in what format, structure or forums should it be delivered. This stage of the process will lead to the passing of the baton where the organisation will move with the solution that you have provided. They must feel confident in the solution, and they must feel confident in coming to you for clarification as they go through the implementation process. Additionally, if you are to consider the impact of your work you need the connection to the stakeholders. Ultimately, research impact is measured at the level of the user, and you will need to go back to them sometime after the fact to see how that is going. Poorly managing the relationship after delivery will derail the entire process and may harm any possible collaboration with that stakeholder in the future.

Do you have any processes that work or stories of when things have gone wrong? Would love to hear about them in the comments so we can all keep learning.