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‘It’s academic’ and other myths about research and evaluation

We do a lot of research and evaluation at Kaleidoscope and we love it. But it’s an area of work that has a reputation for being dry, detached and best left to lofty institutions. Theo Cox looks at five common misconceptions and why we think they need to go.

1. It’s all about impartial observation 

When you picture a research or evaluation project, what do you see? If you picture someone quietly observing and writing earnestly on a clipboard, then you’re probably not alone.

Research has long been considered the domain of outsiders looking in. At Kaleidoscope we think that approach is unnecessary, and sometimes unhelpful, in achieving desired outcomes. Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do, including our research and evaluation work. We’ve found collaborating is the most effective way of gaining insights and enabling our clients to make the best use of findings. Collaborative working also fosters real clarity around client needs, meaning we can offer advice and modify plans as needs evolve.

More than anything, though, a collaborative research process is simply far more pleasant for all involved. Commissioning a piece of research or an evaluation need not be a bitter tonic, painful but necessary. Through shared working to a common goal it can be both productive and enjoyable, the value of which can’t be underplayed.

…if a project doesn’t produce an impenetrable 1000 page report full of technical jargon, then it must have been planned on the back of a fag packet.

2. There is a trade-off between practicality and rigour

There’s a false dichotomy in the world of research between work that is practical and work that is rigorous. There is a feeling that if a project doesn’t produce an impenetrable 1000 page report full of technical jargon, then it must have been planned on the back of a fag packet.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Done properly, research can be both highly rigorous and useful in practically guiding action. At Kaleidoscope we don’t sacrifice the use of proper social scientific methodology, or detailed and comprehensive outputs, we simply structure their use around what our clients will find most helpful. By starting with the question of need, we can produce research that matches the rigour of an academic commission with far more practical utility.

3. Sharing findings is unavoidably dull

More often than not a research output is a dense, technical report that will be read by a handful of people, then filed in a draw marked ‘findings’ never to be looked at again. But why? Why does research have to be dull, and why does it have to only produce outputs that make watching paint dry seem appealing?

At Kaleidoscope we know a thing or two about engaging people. We firmly believe that you can use the same tools for constructing exciting events, digital or otherwise, to bring research findings to life.

From blogs to videos to participatory discussions, we combine a host of formats and approaches to ensure research findings have the greatest possible reach and impact on target audiences. Any information can become exciting if presented in the right way, and we’re confident that we’ve just about mastered what that right way is.

4. Research takes too long

The real world is fast-paced and the microscopic examination implied by research seems pointless.

We believe that good research is practical and, if it is delivered in the correct way, an organisation can tangibly benefit from increasing their understanding. This might mean evaluating the performance of a particular programme or process to increase its impact or efficiency.

Almost every organisation does things or has assumptions that are treated as black boxes. The organisation does stuff, things happen, and there’s no time for further thought into the whys, hows or better alternatives that might exist. This is where commissioning research comes in, not simply to understand things for the sake of it, but to see where things can be modified and improved to deliver the greatest  effect.

5. High quality research or evaluation projects are done by universities and think tanks

We’ll hold our hands up on this one and admit that this one is at least partly true. In some contexts, and for some projects, more traditional academic institutions remain the sensible choice.

The difference is not so much one of quality but of focus and approach. Many of us at Kaleidoscope have worked in academia and think tanks. We hold ourselves to the same standards now, we’d just rather direct our energy at things with more practical grounding.

If your focus is on helping your programme or organisation operate better, and if our previous points on collaboration and engaging dissemination sound appealing, then you’ve got some other options open to you.  Commissioning a consultancy like ours to work with you needn’t require a drop in academic standards, it just requires a clear idea of what you want to achieve in the first place.

Theo Cox11 June 2020


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