culture change

Creating an open, curiosity-driven knowledge culture

updated on 08 Dec 2023
7 minutes

In this blog, NCCPE Co-director, Paul Manners, reflects on his experience chairing a panel convened to support the Knowledge Exchange Concordat.

A collage of drawings and doodles in black and green illustrating knowledge exchange including a group of people holding up a giant 'KE'
Illustration by Sam Holland, University of Plymouth

It’s hard not to have noticed how the research community has descended into existential angst over research culture, linked to the proposed framework for REF 2028: the challenges of judging how good research culture is are argued by many to outweigh the benefits of increasing its relative weighting. 

And so it was a welcome relief to chair a panel convened to support the Knowledge Exchange Concordat. This was an altogether more upbeat and positive affair, sharing lessons learned about building support for excellent knowledge exchange and engagement in universities. The NCCPE has been working hard for 15 years to identify how to build supportive cultures for public engagement – and it was a treat to compare notes with people working in other Knowledge Exchange domains.

The panel included PVCs and KE leads and we were joined by Sam Holland, a ‘live scribe’ who has just graduated from University of Plymouth. You can see a sample of Sam’s summary of the discussion above. 

Watch a recording of the webinar

What is KE culture and why does it matter?

The panel and participants in the webinar started by reflecting on what Knowledge Exchange culture is and why it matters. They agreed that KE has an image problem – being seen by many as a rather transactional ‘add on’ activity:

The real politic is hard. And it's hard because currently, knowledge exchange is not equally recognised in reward and recognition structures or promotion structures, in the same way that research is. Research is seen as the gold standard, and everything else is secondary to it. (Anne Boddington, Middlesex University)

But delegates shared in chat a much more positive vision of KE, emphasising creatively, collegiality and curiosity:

KE Culture for me is an open curious and enabling environment that simply supports a way of working that is collaborative

It matters because academia too often risks being purposeless and self-indulgent, and a strong KE Culture challenges this and asks the 'so what?' question

KE is all about people

KE is centred on relationships and so the people, all university staff and externals, are crucial in building and maintaining these relationships. (Delegate)

A thread running throughout the session was the people-centredness of KE – something we have long argued for at the NCCPE. People described it as a ‘mindset’ that values learning with and from other people, inside and outside of the university – irrespective of what type of KE you are involved in:

It's really all about a culture of sharing and being open to the world and porous. Being prepared to have your preconceptions challenged and to learn from that. You have to be open. You are being influenced by the world, you want to understand the world, you want to shape it, but equally, you want to understand how the world uses your research and uses your educational output. And together, develop new things, break down barriers, solve problems. (Martin Davies, Kingston University)

The panel also reflected how ‘closed’ universities still are: Rory Duncan commented that ‘Universities, by and large, I think are the only sector where people join 18 and never leave’.

We need to start to build in porosity, which says: you can go out into the world and be in industry for a while, then you can come back in. You can invite people in, and we can allow people to go out and come back in. And it can't be beyond the wit of institutions to do that. (Anne Boddington)

What else can we do to improve KE culture?

There was recognition that a KE and engagement mindset isn’t something that is particularly well supported within most universities – something the NCCPE understands well: 

I've always considered myself throughout my career to be an engaged academic. But KE is not something where there is a kind of a standard route and path that is easily followed. (Tim Vorley, Oxford Brookes)

So what can be done? The NCCPE has argued for many years that KE culture needs work, and that we need to tackle this collectively, raising the status and recognition afforded to people committed to engaged practice. Our EDGE tool is a really practical way of focusing attention on what really helps to create an engagement culture, like reward and recognition and training.  As well as investing in ‘formal’ provision like this, the panel also celebrated more emergent’ ways of supporting culture change, a key mechanism being through informal networks (like the NCCPE’s PEP Network):

I’m always very keen on the role of innovation networks to bring people together, and to create the space where random things can happen. You can't necessarily design culture, but you can put in place things where self-directed design happens. That's the role of innovation networks. Innovation happens through people talking, building rapport, and sharing ideas. It's a social phenomenon. It's a social thing. (Martin Davies)

Measuring KE culture

Inevitably, discussion turned to the REF and the proposal to increase the weighting of People, Culture and Environment in REF2028. The prevailing mood was supportive of the changes. Of course, it will be challenging to implement, but the greater focus on people and culture is necessary to galvanise the changes needed – if we don’t allow the tail to wag the dog:

The last thing I'd say is that we should use the things we have to answer to like the REF, TEF and KEF differently. Don't treat them as audits and set up parallel universes to do it, use the very devices that we’re asked to answer creatively, institutionally. And I think this would take out an awful lot of bureaucracy and an awful lot of pain, for all communities actually, academic and professional. (Anne Boddington)


What does the future hold?

Illustrations about Knowledge Exchange saying 'don't isolate KE' 'Impact Intensive' and 'It's slow to make academic change'

In reflecting on what might happen next, the panel were resolutely optimistic – but realistic too about how changes to university culture will never happen quickly, illustrated by Sam’s KE snail. What came over again and again was the need to stop thinking in silos. One delegate reflected: 

This is truly a whole system approach and begins with engaging between differing strategies and removing silos 

Anne Boddington provided a vivid call to action for many people in the virtual room: she shifted the conversation from the means (KE culture) to the ends: working in more engaged ways to build ‘impact intensive’ universities:

We get ‘research intensives’. I think we need to see more ‘impact intensives’. And I certainly work in one, where actually, if you read the narrative of the strategy, it's an impact led institution. It doesn't say that but that's what it is. 

Joined up, people-centred and curiosity-driven engagement strategy

So what does this all mean for KE champions and experts, and for public engagement professionals? The session closed with a plea for people to raise their sights beyond the REF and the KEF and other external instruments, and to start from first principles. 

What I'm taking away from today is the importance of the language that we use to discuss KE: the need to see research, teaching and learning and knowledge exchange as part of the same thing within a relational context so that everyone (academics, professional services, non-academic groups) understands the benefit and impact of KE activity and no-one feels that they cannot undertake KE activities. (Delegate)

We need universities that are open, curious, engaged and people centred. That’s what KE culture invites us to be – and who wouldn’t want to work in institutions who are committed to these principles?

As a dean of a business school, we're very much trying to develop a KE culture, but not as something that is distinct from research culture, or teaching culture. It's about having excellence in engagement become embedded with teaching and research and research and teaching become embedded with engagement. And I think from that perspective, thinking about engagement as strategy is a really interesting question and challenge. (Tim Vorley)

Focusing on ‘excellence in engagement’ is what gets NCCPE staff out of bed in the morning – and forging links with others who are similarly committed is hugely energising. 

We're looking forwards to hosting Engage Live 2024 in May where we will be celebrating excellent culture, practice and leadership in public, civic and community engagement. Do come and join us to carry on the conversation, and we'd love for you to send in your contribution ideas.