numbers, numbers, numbers

In a world consumed with quantitative evaluation, don’t forget the power of words and stories to demonstrate impact.

In his book, The Power of Social Innovation, Stephen Goldsmith (@powerofsocinnov) has many good messages for social entrepreneurs and social innovators, but one message that sticks is that it is important to ensure that “excellent doesn’t become the enemy of the good”.  By this he advocates that evaluation should not constrain innovation.  Evaluation is important but systems of social innovation need to look beyond simple numbers to see quality.

York’s KMb Unit has lots of numbers (counting since 2006) to demonstrate its activity, but these fall short of demonstrating impact.

211:     # faculty involved in York’s KMb activities.  This represents about 14% of York’s total full time, tenure/tenure track faculty complement

149:     # graduate students involved in York’s KMb activities.  This represents students involved as interns and in research projects with faculty and community partners

139:     # information sessions for faculty and students.

162:     # information sessions for community/government agencies.

195:     # agencies involved in KMb partnerships.  This represents agencies participating in projects, KM in the AM and other KMb Unit events.

369K   ($) Funding community agencies raised in collaboration with York’s KMb Unit activities.

771K   ($) Research contract funding from partners for collaborative York U research projects via the KMb Unit.

15M     ($) External grant funding raised by research teams that engaged York’s KMb Unit to assist with KMb plans.

3.2M    number of web hits.  Web hits is a measure of traffic but not of engagement; however, it tripled after starting on twitter.

124:     number of ResearchSnapshots posted at

1642:   number of tweets.  For the week starting November 15 @researchimpact received 15 retweets or twitter mentions from

657:     twitter followers.

162:     delicious bookmarks ( using

239:     tags (

199:     blog posts on Mobilize This! ( with

167:     comments from readers who read an average of

3,658: views every month from May-Sept 2010.

These numbers may or may not be impressive but they only tell part of the story… and not the most compelling part.

We recently held a meeting of researchers, graduate students and front line service providers from the York Region Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to get feedback on a CIHR funded project exploring the use of social media to mediate knowledge mobilization.

Words tell the story that numbers cannot:

“social media offers the opportunity to step away form my day to day and into the larger picture” (CAS employee)

“this project gave me the ability to connect to other practitioners and to researchers” (CAS employee)

“any tool we have to get information out in useable ways that fits with our staff is good” (CAS manager)

“this experience informed my choices about future research directions” (York U graduate student)

“it was validating to receive feedback from a researcher” (CAS employee)

“it is important to know that my research has a benefit” (York U graduate student)

“social media facilitates knowledge exchange with community partners” (York U researcher)

The York U and York Region CAS participants have deepened their collaboration by receiving funding from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

These stories and their continued collaboration illustrate the benefits of social media and knowledge mobilization for researchers, students and front line practitioners.  Numbers can’t do that.

Cage Match: Tapscott vs. Weinberg (I’ll take them both, and the margarita…)

Grown Up Digital and The New Community Rules

I just finished two books that have received a lot of press of late – Dan Tapscott’s “Grown Up Digital” and “The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web” by Tamar Weinberg.  “Grown Up Digital” is an exploration of the Net Generation (31 years old and younger) who grew up in the digital age while “The New Community Rules” explores the social media tools those NetGeners use and how they can be applied to marketing your business.

Tamar WeinbergLet me say off the top that I enjoyed both books but for different reasons.  “New Community” gives detailed descriptions of social media tools including blogging, microblogging, social networking sites, social bookmarking, social news, new media (videos and photography) and informational social media such as wikis – and check the end of each chapter for the chapter summaries and a snapshot of key messages.  Each chapter explores a different aspect of social media with leading product offerings and case studies of how businesses have used each tool for marketing purposes.  “Grown Up” explores how NetGeners different from previous generations in education, work, consumerism, family, democracy and civic engagement.  Of note are the eight NetGen norms: freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, entertainment, speed and innovation.

TapscottIf you want to learn how to maximize your use of (and maybe return on investment in) social media you should read “New Community” but if you want to learn how to work or live with someone under 31 (and a lot of people over 31 as well) then you should read “Grown Up”.  Face it, you should read them both.

ResearchImpact has been blogging for over 1 year and on twitter since May 2009.  We have launched some knowledge mobilization videos and have more in production but I found the advice from Tamar Weinberg particularly useful, especially the chapter on blogging which has some great tips for new and experienced bloggers.  But working with ResearchImpact and the rest of the Office of Research Services at York University ( I work with a lovely and diverse group of staff from 20 to 62 years old.  The description of the Net Generation in “Grown Up” helps me manage the different work and life experiences that all staff bring to their jobs.

However, the comparisons need not stop at these books.  Both Tamar Weinberg (@tamar) and Don Tapscott (@dtapscott) are on Twitter and have 8672 and 8167 followers respectively (as of August 16, 2009) although Tamar has posted 3100 tweets to Don’s 858.  Both also have social media sites connected to their work.  Tamar can be found at and Don Tapscott’s site for his book is  Both of these sites dig into their subject matter in different ways allowing the consumer to contribute and in Tapscott’s words become the Margaritaprosumer.

If I were to be stranded on a desert island which book would I want?  If I had access to the internet I would want the “how to” information provided in “New Community Rules” but if I were trapped on a desert island with internet access and people under 31 I would want “Grown Up Digital”….of course if I were trapped on a desert island with internet access I’d just swim up to the pool bar of the resort and order another margarita because why else would I be on a desert island in the first place?

Getting to Maybe

On June 4, 2008 I wrote about Using Evidence by Nutley, Walter and Davies. This book has been my principal KM reference but I have a new, equally favourite, book to recommend to you: Getting to Maybe by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman (of York’s Schulich School of Business, ) and Michael Quinn Patton. Using Evidence is about the science of research utilization (=knowledge mobilization) for policy and practice (=social innovation). Getting to Maybe is about the actors (=social innovators) who operate within a system of social innovation. Using case studies of successful social innovators, Getting to Maybe illustrates how social innovators can maximize the chances of creating an impact and it provides numerous recommendations for social innovators, their organizations (usually NGOs), their funders (usually Foundations) and their receptors (usually policy makers). Getting to Maybe doesn’t guarantee success or present a formula which, if followed, will generate results. Getting to Maybe focuses on key learnings that are important for all social innovators and their stakeholders.

Finally Getting to Maybe about creating the right conditions where maybe, change might happen.

Getting to MaybeThis book contains valuable lessons and will inform much of the work of knowledge brokers. Order your copy here.

Some KM relevant messages from Getting to Maybe:

• Social innovation is a complex (as opposed to complicated) problem. Complexity science can guide approaches to social innovation.
• Relationships, amongst other attributes, are key for social innovation
• Individuals operate in systems and successful social innovators examine their own role in those systems
• Premature evaluation can stifle social innovation by seeking end points; developmental evaluation focuses on learnings not end points
• All systems must go through cycles of exploitation → conservation → release (=“creative destruction”) → reorganization in order to remain innovative and avoid the “rigidity gap”. This is why “success is not a fixed address”.
• Social innovation is catalyzed through connection, confrontation and collaboration.
• It is important to stand still, to reflect and analyze. Reflection is action. This is a particularly important message for me, personally, as I tend to race more than I reflect.
• Social Innovation is like improvising jazz: every player listens, understands and everyone leads from their own place of understanding.

Inspiring Words from Bangladesh Inspire Reflection

I am reading Getting to Maybe by Westley, Zimmerman & Patton (more on this book later) in which they reference the work of social innovator Muhammad Yunus, Head of the Economics Department at Chittagong University in Bangladesh. In 1974 Bangladesh was experiencing a famine but “the university grounds were an oasis”. Yanus wrote, “if a university is a repository of knowledge then some of this knowledge should spill over to the neighbouring communities. A university should not be an island where academics reach out at higher and higher levels of knowledge without sharing any of their findings”.

Theorizing that credit is a human right, he pioneered micro-credit giving small loans to groups of crafts people, many of the women. This process took a number of years of reflection and analysis following engaging many of the stakeholders involved before he took action. What do we learn from this social innovator? He is passionate but he questions. He acts in the face of uncertainty. His success was built on relationships. His success took time. Lessons for social innovation enabled by knowledge mobilization.

I am writing this on vacation in Barbados and I am struck by how all the guests at this lovely resort (see picture below) are white and all the staff are black and I realize this is not unique to the Caribbean. Next time you attend a conference observe how many of the university participants are of European descent and how many people serving you dinner are not and then use that as your opportunity to start your own reflection.

Tell us about your moments of reflection by clicking on the “comment” link above.