Understanding the everyday practice of impact assessment: Coping with transdisciplinarity in cross-sector inter-organisational relationships

Jarrod Ormiston

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisExternal


Persistent social problems such as homelessness, indigenous disadvantage, and poverty are recognised to be complex, messy, interconnected issues requiring multifaceted solutions. In response to these problems, there has been increasing cross-sector action involving business, investors, government agencies, NGOs, and social enterprises to uncover and implement novel solutions. This action has been matched by the growing prioritisation and sophistication of attempts to understand, measure, and report the impact of these activities. Social impact investment is proposed as an interesting context in which to explore the intersection of cross-sector action and impact assessment, given its focus on realising measurable social impact along with the presence of cross-sector inter-organisational relationships. Theory has not sufficiently addressed the complex nature of impact assessment, nor how it is enacted in everyday organisational activities or across organisational boundaries. Additionally, whilst there is a sound understanding of inter-organisational relationships within sectors, there has been limited theoretical development on cross-sector inter-organisational relationships. This thesis explores how the everyday practice of impact assessment shapes, and is shaped by, cross-sector inter-organisational relationships focused on creating social impact. It examines the challenges inherent in assessing impact and the potential and actual tensions posed by these inter-organisational relationships. Impact assessment is characterised as a social practice enacted across inter-organisational relationships. Foundations to underpin this research are drawn from practice theory and existential phenomenology. The thesis adopts the philosophical perspective of the life-world to ensure impact assessment practice can be better understood in the context of cross-sector inter-organisational relationships. The life-world perspective takes everyday experience as the starting point for theorising. This informs the choice of Heideggerian interpretive phenomenology as the research methodology. Interpretive phenomenology focuses on the meaningful way in which things are experienced in the everyday activities of organisations and individuals. A multiple case study design studies the emerging social impact investment ecosystems in Australia and the United Kingdom. More than 90 qualitative interviews with practitioners across the two ecosystems shed light on impact assessment practice and cross-sector inter-organisational relationships. There are three main findings: (i) disconnects between the everyday sayings and doings of impact assessment manifest as an empty rhetoric; (ii) multilingual brokers are the key actors in facilitating cross-sector inter-organisational relationships and the translation of impact assessment practice across organisational boundaries; and (iii) impact assessment should be understood as a transdisciplinary practice emerging and evolving from multiple practice worlds such as strategy, accounting, and organisational learning. This research offers multiple contributions for practitioners and academia through advancing understandings of impact assessment and cross-sector inter-organisational relationships. For practitioners, this research emphasises the multiple potential benefits and applications of impact assessment, and highlights the central role for multilingual practitioners in facilitating cross-sector inter-organisational relationships. For academia, understanding how new practice worlds evolve from established practice offers a more dynamic perspective on practice theory.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Sydney
Award date16 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

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