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Outcomes & Impacts: Why Successful Collaboration Considers Both

In collaborative relationships between universities and industry, how do we measure success? Is the process as important as the pay off? Can we really determine how effective a program is by what its stakeholders report? While every program or process will have an outcome, will there always be an impact? Do we need measurable indicators of success?

We’re throwing a lot of big questions at you! But in the interests of maintaining an attitude of critical inquiry and approaching our work with curiosity, such questions are essential. Seeking to continuously improve the work we do and meet challenges that arise in the process require us to investigate the outcome and impact of each business endeavor

So what exactly is the difference between outcome and impact?

The Difference Between Outcomes and Impacts

In the world of experiential learning, collaboration, and open innovation, we talk a lot about outcomes. There are outcomes for business owners, higher education students, and university professors as each enter collaborative programs with individual interests, goals, and ideas about what they hope to achieve from the experience. When determining the success of a collaboration, we have to consider what the outcomes are for each person––and enterprise––involved.

But let’s briefly dissect this overused and rather abstract word for a moment.  

An outcome is an effect. It essentially answers the question, what change resulted, if any, as an effect of a particular action? 

In the case of open innovation, we can ask:

Did businesses gain some key insights or solve a problem? 

Did students have an opportunity to apply key learning concepts? 

Were university instructors able to deliver a more integrated learning experience? 

Outcome refers, somewhat generically, to the broader picture, covering a range of results from good to bad and everything in between. What happened after a particular process, be it action learning or open innovation, wrapped up? Overall, how did things turn out for every stakeholder? 

The problem with relying on an outcome assessment to determine the success of a collaboration is that outcomes are a bit fuzzy. They’re rely largely on qualitative factors of measurement, such as self-reported experiences.

Any inquisitive person will want to delve a little deeper in search of clearer evidence-based results. For example:

While many students may have effectively applied key learning concepts, do they feel more confident in approaching real-world business? How does that impact their job prospects or level of competency?

Likewise, businesses may have solved a long-term problem, but how does that impact their profits?

When we begin to assess outcome, we naturally start inquiring about impact with more pointed questions because we want hard-core evidence that substantiates our efforts. And why shouldn’t we?

Impacts have far greater resonance than outcomes when it comes to determining how well our efforts paid off in the long-term. And that applies to both business performance and personal growth.

Impacts are the long-term effects of your outcomes. They’re unpredictable and uncertain, and although they’re what we hope for, we don’t always achieve them. 

For example, open innovation may provide a start-up tech company with a solution to a problem, but whether that solution impacts their business may not be immediately––if ever––obvious.

How does the knowledge they constructed through collaboration with a higher education student contribute to their business growth and performance? Did it result in more efficient processes? New software or a working prototype? Can such innovations be quantified to show the actual degree of impact? Will that solution result in that business doubling its monthly profits?

The problem with assessing impacts is that they can take longer to determine. Outcomes tend to show up more quickly than impacts, and in some cases, there are no real, measurable impacts as the result of a collaborative process. 

Outcomes are numerous, varied, and for the most part, self-reported. Impacts represent more tangible results. And if you’re beginning to wonder which is the better one to focus on, the reality is that we need to consider both without being married to either one.

How do we do that?

Change The Way You Begin 

As we enter into any collaborative venture, each person must have a clear idea of what they want to achieve, while also maintaining a willingness to accept any outlier outcomes. 

While there is great benefit to allowing events to unfold naturally into organic outcomes, we want to know that our efforts are going to have a desired impact. After all, we tackle problems to find solutions, not just for the joyful frustration of confronting challenges. 

But what good is the final result if we don’t know what led us there? How will we ever manage to repeat it? The outcome is like a story. The impact is the effect that story had on the reader.

As you approach your next collaboration, peer through the lenses of outcome and impact and ask yourself what you want to achieve. Take every item one step further and reduce it down to finer points. 

Then consider presenting these desires, expectations, or goals at the start of your session. Invite other stakeholders to do the same, effectively establishing a foundation for making a collective impact. See if you can align some of those desired outcomes and impacts, as diverse as they may be, either by their core quality or concrete details. 

This creates a community in which each stakeholder has both a personal and shared interest in the results. By approaching collaboration with a sense of how our individual efforts affect those collective goals, we can take a more targeted approach to clarifying how we’ll experience outcomes and measure impacts.

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About the Author

Colleen Thornton is a copywriter with expertise in research and higher education. She holds a Masters degree from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, where she participated in several collaborative large-scale research projects in education. Her Master thesis, which investigated educators’ perspectives on inclusive education environments, was nominated for a prestigious award and later published in a Taylor & Francis academic journal. Colleen is a former lecturer, supervisor, and mentor for undergraduate students, and she’s inspired by Telanto’s innovative approach to uniting students with real-world business.

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