A key element of sustaining and embedding the outputs and outcomes of any project is to effectively engage stakeholders throughout your project’s lifecycle. There are three key aspects to stakeholder engagement.
- Identify – who has a stake in your project and who will be affected by it (change participants)
- Assess – your stakeholders’ attitudes towards the project, the power they have over it and their requirements of you
- Attitude: supportive or concerned/resistant
- Power: interest and influence
- Requirements: specific needs and/or support
- Engage – designing strategies to keep your stakeholders on board
In education you ignore this at your peril. Effective stakeholder engagement is critical to the success of any change project. Actually engaging stakeholders is different to merely having a communications plan.
A useful concept in thinking about this is the notion of a ‘ladder of engagement’ (Arnstein, 1969) – the rungs of the ladder move from non-participation and tokenistic participation through to partnership and, ultimately, full citizen power. In an educational setting it is perhaps more appropriate to think of levels of engagement in terms of stakeholders’ (as opposed to citizens’) potential influence over the project – the higher up the ladder the more potential a stakeholder has to influence that project.
#1 Identifying stakeholders
The first step in identifying your project’s stakeholders is to simply draw up a list. Approaches vary in terms of focusing on specific individuals or stakeholder groups; start with whichever feels more comfortable to you. It may be helpful however to think through:
- Which of your organisational strategies the proposed change affects and who has managerial responsibility and oversight/authority
- The organisational processes/systems being affected and who has control over them
- Who is involved in the process being affected and whose habitual behaviour will have to change
- Who relies on, or makes use of the outputs of, the process/system but is not engaged in inputting to it
- Those indirectly affected by the system, if at all
Once you have a comprehensive list it can be extremely useful to get your project sponsor/senior manager to sign it off. This helps to ensure that you do not get a stakeholder emerging unexpectedly in the middle of your project, which may derail it. Whatever you do, don’t forget students! (See ‘students as change agents’ below.)
#2 Stakeholder assessment
A better understanding of who your stakeholders are really helps when it comes to defining your engagement strategies. It also helps you to prioritise stakeholder groups/individuals which can save you a lot of time once your project or change initiative really gets going.
Perhaps the easiest place to start, especially if you’re familiar with the context in which you’re working, is an assessment of the influence and interest people have over/in your project. This can be achieved using a simple matrix, shown below.
If a stakeholder is very interested in your project and has a lot of influence over it then they should be considered a key player and it will be better to engage them face to face. If a stakeholder has no interest in or influence over your project then a written notification might suffice.
If you haven’t already, then at this point it’s probably worth going out and talking to your stakeholders; the GOAT (go out and talk) approach was used by Liverpool John Moores University in the Jisc transformations project ‘Doing Digital’. Not only will this help you to update your interest/influence matrix, you’ll start to get a feel for their attitude towards the project, and any requirements they might have.
Assessing stakeholders’ attitudes
Manchester Metropolitan University developed a Stakeholder Analysis Template back in 2009 (p. 5) which provides a really useful way of recording and representing the attitudes of key stakeholders. Not only does it summarise their attitude, eg blocker or advocate, it highlights their current feelings towards the project and describes what the ideal situation would be along a continuum: against it happening; let it happen; help it happen; and make it happen.
Engaging with stakeholders
Assessing identified stakeholders helps you to:
- Develop an understanding of the barriers to change
- Identify the levers to change i.e. benefits
- Understand how best to communicate key messages
All of this information will help you to determine how best to engage with different stakeholders from across your project. The table below summarises a number of approaches used across Jisc programmes and projects, the effort required and level of influence afforded to a stakeholder through that approach. It’s by no means comprehensive but it does provide a useful way of thinking about the types of approach you adopt.
|Blogging – perhaps best described as a web-based diary, generally used to provide a more open account of your activities.||Medium||Low|
|Co-design – involves stakeholders from the outset of a project, from the initial generation of ideas through to their development and delivery.||High||High|
|Email bulletin – an easy way to send updates to a large group of people, typically one-way||Low||Low|
|Email list – open/private space where online discussions can take place.||Low||Medium|
|Focus groups – an organised event that allows you to gain a better understanding of individuals feelings/opinions about something.||High||Medium|
|Networks (establish champions) – a group of connected people through which messages can be passed. Champions are typically influential within that network and can be used to amplify key messages or ideas.||Medium||Low|
|Participatory approaches – an organised event which brings a group of people together to seek their opinions, extract their knowledge and to solve problems in a collaborative and creative environment.||High||High|
|Posters – a passive way of sharing information about a specific topic. Typically presented on notice boards within a public space.||Medium||Low|
|Presentation – a short talk, often supported by visual aids, to explain a new idea/area of work or convey key messages.||Medium||Low|
|Service design – an approach where the end-users are the main focus and the users’ experience is viewed holistically||High||High|
|Social media – varies, but typically involves a range of interactions between individuals within an online community.||Low||Low|
|Surgery – a dedicated time slot where individuals can find out more about a particular area of work on a one-to-one basis.||Medium||Low|
|World Cafe – a simple but powerful technique for tapping into collective intelligence, based around conversation in a convivial setting where ‘every voice counts’.||High||Medium|
We’ve noticed that the more influence you afford stakeholders over the project, the more likely it is to succeed. Especially where a project lacks senior management support – it results in a ‘groundswell’ so to speak. You need to strike a balance however, as the effort required for that level of engagement is very high. Intersperse the more participatory approaches with regular updates, providing your project with a communicative rhythm.
Students as change agents
Received wisdom has it that it is notoriously difficult to involve students in projects because of their commitments and relatively short-term engagement with the institution. Recent experience from Jisc projects however suggests otherwise. There is now a considerable body of evidence to show that effective engagement with learners in terms of a genuine partnership can bring enormous benefits to projects.
- Birmingham City University’s Student Academic Partnership scheme
- University of Exeter’s work on Students as Change Agents
- Bath Spa/Winchester Universities’ work with Student Fellows to improve assessment and feedback practice on the FASTECH project
"… the novice-expert dynamic has been overturned. Two years into the project, we have observed and reflected on the fact that it is not us who are privileging the Student Fellows by awarding them with these important roles, but rather we who are privileged because of the insights we have gained from being allowed into their worlds. Student Fellows have given us an honest insight into what goes on behind the scenes when technology is brought into the mix and how re-shaping feedback influences their confidence, self-belief, well-being, subject knowledge and collaborative skills."
Bath Spa University and University of Winchester
Our top five tips
- Be resilient, don’t give up! Change doesn’t occur overnight and this holds true of your stakeholders’ attitudes
- Build upon previous success stories. Concentrate on the low-hanging fruit – successfully delivering small change helps to build confidence in your ability to deliver transformational change
- Have your elevator pitch with you and ready at all times, you never know who you might meet on your way to the 5th floor
- Appeal to different learning styles eg visual, audio and kinaesthetic. If you fail to engage an individual or group, try again, use a different mode of delivery
- Use your personal networks to reach key individuals that you might not easily have access to
Whether you’re planning a major change project that involves a multitude of stakeholders, or a reasonably small project with a few stakeholders it is important that you give consideration to how best to engage with the people involved – whatever the extent of their involvement is likely to be.
A persona is an approach to identifying possible behaviours and characteristics of a group of stakeholders. The approach involves the creation of a fictional individual to represent a group of stakeholders in order to provide a common reference point to aid communication and the development of a, hopefully positive, relationship/dialogue with them.
Whilst the persona is fictional it is important that it is realistic (ie based on research into, or experience of, real stakeholders). Working on the personas can help us to take on board the characteristics of, and language used, by those people who may potentially have an interest in, or be impacted by, a particular situation, initiative, project or development.
The technique can help us to see things from another person’s perspective; to put ourselves ‘in their shoes’ for a while.
‘Personas’ can be a very visual and engaging way to rehearse potentially effective dialogue with others. It can help to think around the issues that are likely to be important to particular stakeholders in a given situation and to consider the questions that they may require answers to.
Creating the personas can help to explore the potential fears, anxieties, interests, agendas, strengths and goals of stakeholders and can be used in a way that can help prepare for real-life interaction.
Whilst the activity is hopefully engaging and enjoyable it also has a serious purpose when applied in a real-life situation as it can support any wider project planning and management activity. It can be a valuable addition to the initial stages of a change project for instance, allowing the project team to rehearse some of the key conversations and activities before the project proper goes live.
Things to consider
Personalise the persona – give them a name and a face – to help you to visualise them as being of flesh and blood rather than as someone in the abstract.
This technique may not work for everyone; in fact here at Jisc infoNet we’ve used it in a situation where some (but not all) colleagues did not engage at all with it and could not see the value of it. On reflection we felt that the failure at that time was as a result of not investing enough time in putting the technique in context: in not ‘warming up’ the people involved by:
- convincing them of its relevance to the situation in hand
- engaging them in talking about stakeholders more widely
- demonstrating how the activity could support the achievement of the collective goals that we were working towards.
As with all participatory approaches you need to be flexible about choosing and applying techniques to try within your own project or organisation; appropriateness and relevance to the given situation and the people involved are vital.
Whilst ‘personas’ is a technique that we can certainly commend to you it is absolutely not a replacement for wider engagement with stakeholders and you should be wary of attaching too much weight to any assumptions made during the exercise about the individuals involved, and their values and interests. It can, however, be a useful point at which to start exploring the wider implications of a particular initiative.
- How it doesn’t have to be Goodbye Mr Chips! – using personas at the AUA Conference (blog post from Jisc infoNet)
- Edina, Jisc-designated centre for digital expertise and online service delivery has used personas as part of its Vision for 2020
- Our guide on usability and user experience by Stuart Church gives an overview of the Digimap project and the use of personas
- The Digimap team carried out 20 interviews with users and distilled these into five distinct personas based on the types of user behaviour that they encountered
- Flickr album of examples of personas created during workshop and other activity