How can practitioners use research and knowledge work to maximize their impact? Oftentimes it seems as though taking time for reflection, research, and deep thinking is at odds with the entrepreneurial spirit, but a recent conversation with Alexandra Ioan reminds us that knowledge work—when done thoughtfully—is a tool social entrepreneurs can use to grow their impact.
We spoke with Alexandra Ioan, head of Ashoka’s Learning and Action Center (LAC), about her top tips for practitioners considering increasing their knowledge capacity.
1. Know why you need research and knowledge
Alexandra’s first tip for practitioners is to reflect on why it is you think you need to increase or develop your knowledge capacity. Not every organization needs to or should have a designated knowledge unit, but, she says, every organization should be doing some learning and knowledge work.
In Ashoka’s case, the organization has collected 40-years’ worth of one-of-a-kind data on the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. There was a need for these data to be consistently and thoroughly analyzed in order to draw out the learnings, best practices, and also shortcomings of the social entrepreneurship field during this time.
The LAC aims for this knowledge work to contribute to increased impact for practitioners throughout the world and to inform decision-making processes in the public sector, in business, and in civil society. The purpose is also to make Ashoka’s expertise more available to the world and to connect this knowledge more clearly to global issues that the Ashoka Fellows are tackling.
Alexandra’s advice: Think about what you are trying to achieve with knowledge work and what you are mapping your knowledge efforts to. It could be that increasing knowledge capacity will help answer fundamental questions about the impact of your projects. Think about how research and knowledge work can serve your organization, as well as your engagement with the broader field.
2. Quality of data and analysis is essential
When engaging in knowledge work, consider the quality of your data from an unbiased perspective. If the data is bad quality, the output will be equally bad quality in the best case, and outright harmful in the worst case. Attempting to draw conclusions or inform decisions using data of questionable quality is a recipe for disaster.
Alexandra’s advice: There is a difference between classical academic research and practitioner research. Applied research does not need to entail the same analytical effort as in academia, but you do need to do robust, high-quality analysis with the data you have. Be transparent and honest about what you can claim based on the analysis you conducted.
And the bottom line, if you cannot deliver on quality outputs from your data, it is best to stop and reassess what you are doing.
3. Build your roster
Doing knowledge work in practitioner organizations does not just require researchers but a team of professionals in different fields that can support the research process and embed it in larger organizational efforts. The purpose of practitioner-oriented knowledge work is to make it as widely available as possible so that it can trigger conversations and developments in the field. A multi-skilled team is necessary to deliver on that.
Alexandra’s advice: A good team for knowledge work should likely include: researchers, communicators, fundraisers, designers, IT experts, etc. For example, researchers gather and analyze data, but they may need help framing their analysis in a way that others with less research-background will be able to understand. This is especially important for influencing decision-makers. Obviously, projects are difficult to execute when funds are slim. Having dedicated fundraisers makes it easier for researchers to focus on the content without worrying about how to monetize the research.
4. Financing models matter
Independent research is something that was very important to Alexandra when growing the Learning and Action Center. In growing the unit, Ashoka was fortunate enough to be able to leverage unrestricted funding for the first two-years. While this may not be possible for many organizations, they can develop other funding models for their knowledge work that can also ensure some degree of independence.
Having research directly tied to funder expectations runs the risk of creating a conflict of interest between unbiased research and internal and external expectations. Finding partners, funders, and internal cost transfers that help ensure some degree of autonomy for knowledge work is important.
Alexandra’s advice: Financial freedom from partnership constraints gives you space and safety to build your knowledge capacity without worrying about delivering something for a partner. It is very easy to be distracted by all the expectations from within or outside your organization, but try to find a space where you manage these expectations without compromising the rigorousness of analysis and the integrity of your results, statements, or outputs.
5. Social Entrepreneurship and research can coexist
Alexandra notes that conversations about research and practice often relate to the fact that entrepreneurs move too fast for research and research moves too slow for entrepreneurs. It is true that entrepreneurs move fast and innovate. It is also true that research takes significant time, peace of mind, and “quietness.” Still, Alexandra thinks there is a middle ground between the two.
Alexandra’s advice: find your sweet spot between research rigor and practical utility. For Alexandra and the Learning and Action Center, the sweet spot is applying the deep-thinking of research to constantly evolving initiatives and solutions emerging from the bottom-up in the social sector, to identify learnings, best practices, and calls to action practitioners can leverage.
In practice for the LAC, this means publishing a study or report roughly every six months. This is responsive enough to keep up with current trends, but slow enough to allow for proper analysis, reflection, and crystallization of messages and research results.
Research in the social sector allows us to reflect on the strategies we are currently using and on which ones are impactful or not. This has the power to inform future action with the intent to accelerate social change and respond to social needs. Every organization holds significant amounts of knowledge that can be made explicit and available to others through systematic analysis.
This piece was produced by the Ashoka Learning and Action Center. We hope the tips were useful in thinking about conducting your own knowledge work and learning capacity in your organization and field. Visit lac.ashoka.org and check out our work. Share this article with fellow practitioners and let us know your strategies for doing knowledge work in the comments.
Alexandra Ioan is a young professional and researcher focusing on the development of effective civil society organizations and governance processes. She leads the Learning and Action Center at Ashoka Europe and is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School in Berlin. Alexandra focuses on translating research findings into concrete policy and organizational action with the purpose of effectively addressing social issues. She holds a PhD in Governance from the Hertie School and has conducted research at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Stanford University among other institutions.
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandra-ioan/ Twitter: @alexandraioan