Is your knowledge ‘usable’?

The measurement of research impact is a hot topic in Australian academic circles.


But let’s not for a moment think it’s a new concern.


While dipping into Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive recently (a classic written some 50 years ago), I was interested, but not surprised, to read a similar concern about the utility of academic research. (NB: you’ll have to excuse the gendered prose)


The man of knowledge has always been expected to take responsibility for being understood. It is barbarian arrogance to assume that the layman can or should make the effort to understand him, and that it is enough if the man of knowledge talks to a handful of fellow experts who are his peers. Even in the university or…research laboratory, this attitude – alas, only too common today – condemns the expert to uselessness and coverts his knowledge from learning into pedantry. If a man….wants to be considered responsible for his contribution – he has to concern himself with the usability of…his knowledge. [In doing so]…he soon realizes that he has to learn enough of the needs, the directions, the limitations, and the perceptions of others to enable them to use his own work. …it will give him immunity against the arrogance of the learned – that degenerate disease which destroys knowledge and deprives it of beauty and effectiveness.


Now, that’s quite an indictment of the research community. However, it does do a good job of highlighting an important point.


While policy debate about research impact in Australia tends to be concerned with the funding outcomes of pathways-to-impact statements, we, as academics, are nonetheless obliged to take responsibility for being understood, and make our knowledge ‘of use’ to, the everyday person. Not vice versa.


So while we may not agree with the push for measuring the impact of our research, or projecting about its likely impact (when, frankly, we’re not 100% sure what the outcomes will be), it’s nevertheless useful to ask:


How am I making my knowledge useful to, and easily understood by, everyday people in the local (or global) community?


Am I taking responsibility for the ‘usability’ of my knowledge?


Don’t be put off by how overwhelming these questions may seem.


Utility needn’t be ambitious.


In my next post, we’ll consider some examples of experts who have translated their research into meaningful forms or modes for everyday people and their circumstances. Leaving the world of facts and figures behind, they’ve made their knowledge useful to us, for everything from our knowledge about the history of a city to which we’re travelling, or our diet plan if we’re unhealthily overweight, to improving our hearing (beyond hearing aids) if we’re hearing impaired, or dealing with a broken heart or feeling shame.


But for now, I urge you to spend some time thinking about the modes or formats your knowledge could take to be useful to, and understood by, the non-academic community. This isn’t about ‘getting funded’ or pathways-to-impact statements and embellishing the potential impact of your work, it’s thinking about how you could make your knowledge useful to everyday people who don’t have a clue about your ‘discipline’, and couldn’t care less either.


These conversations will teach you about ‘the needs, the directions, the limitations, and the perceptions’ of your non-academic audience sufficient to enable you to make your knowledge useful.


We’ll reconnect on this topic in my next post. But in the interim, I’d love to hear from you – what have you learned from communicating about your knowledge to a lay audience? What are some new modes of engaging with the wider community that your knowledge could take?

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