How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Where’s Your ‘Boundary’?

If you lead or work for an applied research center or organization, telling the world that it’s a “boundary organization” or that you do “research-to-action” or “research-to-policy” today means nothing.

By which I mean: These terms no longer differentiate the value your group brings to potential partners and to the world. That’s because nearly everyone uses them. You might as well also call your work “interdisciplinary.” You’re just placing yourself in a very large bag of other undifferentiated groups claiming the same distinctions.

Too many groups make the boundary declaration and then compound the error by spending a lot of energy publicly highlighting their detailed process for being boundary. Or highlighting their research. They stress these elements because they’re worried talking about benefits will make them look too much like a consultancy in the eyes of other researchers.

But no one cares about your process or research unless you can show how it brings tangible value to them.

You need to decide who your key audience is: other researchers, or prospective partners outside the research space. If the latter, then you need to narrow your positioning way beyond your research field and topic area. For example:

  • For which specific sets of problems does your group provide big insights and solutions? What are those big insights and solutions?
  • What’s the change in the world you see that others don’t but need to act on — and act on with your help?
  • Do you have a unique POV and arguments about how to solve these problems?
  • Which client sector do you specialize in helping — corporate, NGO, policy, other?
  • Do you connect key elements of a research-to-market or research-to-policy chain that otherwise would not meet?
  • Do you specialize in a particular geography?
  • Do you have a unique partner-facing process for developing research questions that you can document?
  • Are you particularly nimble at collaboration — fast-tracking agreements, for instance?
  • Do you publish your results, unlike a consultancy?
  • What are your case studies of success?

See the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute’s website for example I’d say is well-positioned in some respects and not at all in others. Imagine you were a prospective collaborator with the Center. How would you know what to explore? Would you feel that this was a group focused on welcoming collaboration opportunities? Would you understand the process for collaboration? Do you understand the Center’s unique POV or specializations clearly?

Key takeaway: Positioning is critical for any group trying to attract funding and collaboration. But declaring your identity as a “boundary organization” is your first step in positioning, not your last. The messaging and brand story of boundary organizations should reflect where that exact boundary is — with whom they partner with and exactly how their work and approach can benefit those partners.

Potential partners should understand immediately — upon encountering any piece of content from your shop — all of this. They shouldn’t have to wade through your group’s processes, research concentrations, tools or goals to find it.