Multi-stakeholder discussion group

An approach that allows for expressing tacit knowledge, values and practices within a group of actors and stakeholders accompanying a (research) project.

What is a «multi-stakeholder discussion group»?

The multi-stakeholder discussion group brings together representatives of science, civil society, the private and the public sector to work on the development and implementation of a (research) project. The taken approach enables them to share their tacit knowledge and bridge different thought styles. It involves a specialized moderator using informal settings and story-telling.

Why should it be applied?

Spaces where researchers and actors from civil society, the private and the public sector meet and exchange experiences on an equal footing are crucial for successfully co-producing knowledge – even before the project starts. Expressing and sharing tacit knowledge usually doesn’t happen by itself. A facilitated multi-stakeholder discussion group, running in parallel to an on-going research project provides such spaces.

When should it be applied?

The multi-stakeholder discussion group should be applied when implicit, unspoken and unexpressed knowledge, values and practices might be key for co-producing knowledge.

Multi-stakeholder discussion group
Multi-stakeholder discussion group (Bild: P. Fry)
Multi-stakeholder discussion group
Multi-stakeholder discussion group (Bild: P. Fry)

How does it work?

1) The project leader identifies the societal groups relevant for the project. He or she may conduct a stakeholder analysis (e.g. Bryson 2006) and make use of the networks of project collaborators. He or she selects about 10 representatives. It is advisable to choose knowledgeable and communicative persons from the most relevant institutions, associations and networks related to the societal problem addressed in the project. Also, it is helpful if some of them are intermediaries between science and practice or between different disciplines so that they can help bridge the gaps. Key persons with a large network will be helpful.

2) Choose an appropriate title for the project with positive connotations, as a bridging concept that speaks to all actor groups.

3) Select a skilful moderator to facilitate social interactions between participants.

He or she should encourage:

  • exchange on an equal footing
  • appreciation of various thought styles
  • mutual learning

He or she should be credible and authentic.

4) The project leader invites the potential members to join the multi-stakeholder discussion group. The expectations towards the group and its members are made explicit.

5) Before the project starts, the project leader organises a first workshop in collaboration with the moderator. The first meeting serves to get to know each other, experience the different views, thought styles and tacit knowledge from the various participants. Also, the project aims and the roles of the participants are clarified.

In order to express and share tacit knowledge, the meeting may be started with a round of personal introductions. Members are asked to describe their experience and explain their views on the topic by means of a story, picture or object. Informal activities such as walks, excursions and demonstrations in the field allow the participants to express and show their tacit knowledge on the topic. Travelling, coffee breaks, lunch and apéros enable social interaction - a core element for building bridges between the thought collectives.

Questions that should be discussed are:

  • Goals: What are the aims of the project and why did the project leader build the group?
  • Priorities and contributions: What are the views of the participants from science and practice with respect to the project topic and which expertise can they contribute (including, but not limited to tacit knowledge)? Depending on the outcomes, rephrase the research questions and project plan.
  • Meeting schedule: How often and at what stages of the project does it make sense for the group to meet?
  • Meeting places: Where and how does the group meet? In order to allow tacit knowledge to emerge, the working context of the stakeholders should be used as meeting places. To promote mutual understanding and exchange on equal footing, every stakeholder could host a meeting (e.g. according to project phases).
  • Responsibilities: What are the rights and duties of the group members? Is the task of the group to exchange knowledge and/or to make decisions?
  • Rules for knowledge co-production: What rules of confidentiality and decision-making do apply?

6) The group then meets regularly according to the decided plan.

7) Organise a final meeting, e.g. a vernissage preferably connected to a stakeholder event to show the project’s achievements as well as the multi-stakeholder discussion group’s contribution to it.

How are thought styles bridged?

The repeated personal exchange on equal footing, in particular social interactions within the multi-stakeholder discussion group, bridges thought styles. This is supported by both a skillful moderator acting as an intermediary and an openly designed exchange process which regards all stakeholders as experts.

What’s the output/outcome?

A better understanding of the different interests, expectations and positions as well as an appreciation of the different skills as well as experiential and other knowledge. Participants gain trust and respect for different perspectives. They may develop ownership for the project’s concern.

Who participates in what role?

The participants represent a specific group of stakeholders from science and practice. The project leader initiates the process and participates as a stakeholder (of academia). The moderator acts as facilitator of the process and not as an expert on the research topic.

What do I need to prepare?

The project leader chooses a suited meeting place for the first meeting. It should be related to the topic and meaningful to all stakeholders. He or she organises supporting elements like e.g. an excursion. Prepare visualisation of the inputs and outputs.

When not to use the method?

If the research project and how it will be conducted is already fixed, i.e. if there is no flexibility for more substantial adaptation. If the funding conditions do not allow changing the research project and don’t give time for exchange.


td-net toolbox – Multi-stakeholder discussion group

Learn more

Fry P 2018. Social learning videos: A Method for successful collaboration between science and practice. In: Padmanabhan M (ed). Transdisciplinarity: How research is changing to meet the challenges of sustainability. Routledge Studies in Environment, Culture and Society. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Schneider F, Fry P, Ledermann T, Rist S 2009. Social learning processes in Swiss soil protection – The ‘From Farmer - To Farmer’ project. Human Ecology, V37, N4, pp 475-489.

Fry P 2001. Bodenfruchtbarkeit – Bauernsicht und Forscherblick. Kommunikation und Beratung, Bd. 41. Weikersheim: Margraf Verlag.

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