On the allure and impact of co-production…


By Dr Dave Vanderhoven, University of Sheffield

Much has been written on the themes of impact and co-production. In Knowledge that matters: realising the potential of co-production, a research programme funded by N8 and the Economic and Social Research Council, we supported five pilot projects to ‘do’ co-production and we reflect on the experience.

Co-production has an allure that is hard to resist, promising more impactful research, more interesting publications, stronger connections with communities, companies, benefactors and/or greater insight into the world of others. From our research, most of the pilots found they could reach beyond the people or systems that ‘traditional’ research would have. All were formed from on-going activities and importantly, all of the pilots had clear claims of impact. Clearly, co-production brings benefits and ensuring it can happen and is funded properly is important.

But co-production is not all calm waters and peaceful collaboration; most initial proposals were revealed to be inadequate to the task, once enquiry began. Some groups re-discovered the importance and nuances of leadership; in mixed groups without known lines of authority or accountability, the skills to develop group leadership (as opposed to the tendency for an individual to take control) are crucial. Many, who had been brought together in a meaningful way because of the co-production process, found new details of their environments and each other’s practices. The importance of ‘method’, previously central to the role of the academic in research, was overshadowed by the need to facilitate group learning processes. Not everyone was prepared for what they found or for the new roles implied by their discoveries; most people are unsettled by co-production.

Co-production, above all else, involves working with others and often in new ways, which brings new levels of detail and insight that can lead to enhanced public benefit and academically excellent work. However, as one of the pilots argued, our understanding of impact needs to shift to take account of its forms that are inherent to co-production. In less polite terms, co-production implies unexpected change, at all levels and in all the otherwise hidden corners of our practices and organisations – raising the potential for impact that traditional research approaches are assumed to have.

Finance, admin, ethics processes, methods, research skills, organisational cultures and structures and above all, academic knowledge, so often assumed by academics to be the highest form of knowing, were called into question as a result of adopting a co-production approach in the pilot projects.

Co-production leads to change. One change that is necessary is to shift from knowledge production, as traditionally led by academics, to a culture of enquiry, reflection and learning, not only on the substantive materials thrown up, but on the research activities we undertake as distinct and valuable aspects of the research itself. These new insights can inform us about the context we are seeking to influence. The change implied by co-production could help us to improve our organisations, our roles and the impact of our activities.