The case of the accidental knowledge broker
Dr. Vicky Ward
In 2007 I embarked on a project which was designed to build a better understanding of the knowledge mobilisation process. Although there are lots of models and frameworks which depict knowledge mobilisation (linear models, cyclical models, complex system models) few of these have emerged from or been tested in real-world settings. The difference with our project was that this was precisely what we aimed to do.
In trying to investigate how knowledge mobilisation unfolds in the real world, in real time, we needed to set some boundaries around what we were investigating. We also knew that we would potentially need to facilitate the process in some way. The solution we hatched was ‘knowledge brokering’. A knowledge broker, we reasoned, would give us something specific to watch, would help us to gain access to settings where knowledge mobilisation was happening and would act as a catalyst for that process – speeding it up to fit in with the timescale of our project. The plan was to employ a knowledge broker who would be able to work with teams in a local mental health organisation and from whom we would be able to collect data about the knowledge mobilisation process (we never intended to assess the ‘effectiveness’ of knowledge brokering). Little did I know that this knowledge broker was to be me…
As the project researcher, my role included identifying and recruiting teams who wanted to use evidence in planning or evaluating mental health services. Because we wanted a good deal of buy-in from these teams I did this by ‘touting our wares’ around the organisation, looking for people who wanted to join in. I began by attending some high-level meetings to talk about the project and then began to meet with teams who were interested in helping with the research. Quite soon we began to realise that the idea of employing a separate knowledge broker to work with these teams was both unfeasible and unnecessary. After all, I had already built good links with these teams, positive relationships were developing and the teams had begun to believe that I was willing (and able) to work with them to help them achieve their goals, rather than single-mindedly pursuing some academic research agenda. So it was settled – I would carry on doing what I had started and become the knowledge broker working with these three teams.
Personally, I found this idea extremely challenging. I had read that knowledge brokers needed to be ‘experts’ both in the academic literature/knowledge which they were bringing to bear on a particular problem and in the real-world setting for that problem. In my case, this meant that I should be an expert in mental health research and mental health practice. The problem was, I was neither, since my training and early career had all been conducted in the area of music education! However, I soon found that not being an expert seemed to facilitate rather than hinder the knowledge mobilisation process. For instance, by being ‘constructively clueless’ I could help the teams clarify and articulate the problem they wanted to address, discuss their previous knowledge, experience and assumptions and consider the types of knowledge they needed and trusted and how this was likely to be used. The potential downside was that sometimes my input was not recognised as being legitimate, but this seemed to be more of a problem with senior managers than with the teams I was directly working with.
Having learned my lesson about being an ‘expert’, I proceeded to learn some other lessons about knowledge brokering and knowledge mobilisation. First, I found that knowledge mobilisation was hampered when knowledge brokering was seen as a ‘knowledge management’ role which was only performed by me. I saw that when team member’s emphasis was purely on getting me to find, package and disseminate ‘evidence’ on their behalf their problem-solving became fragmented, alternative viewpoints were not understood and evidence was used to support a pre-determined course of action. Second, I found that knowledge mobilisation was facilitated when knowledge brokering was owned and participated in by the team members and when it was shaped by their day to day activities and tasks. I saw that when this happened, it enabled different views of the problem to emerge and the team uncovered varying types of knowledge (both ‘academic’ and experiential) which could be used in different ways.
Following on from this project, I am now focusing on applying the lessons I have learned to other
settings. For instance, learning that knowledge brokers do not need to be experts has given me the confidence use my knowledge brokering skills in a range of different settings. Learning that knowledge mobilisation and knowledge brokering are complex, shared processes has also helped me to relinquish ownership and embrace more of a facilitation role. But perhaps most importantly, learning how the knowledge mobilisation process unfolds has given me a template for ensuring that my future research projects have the capacity to make an impact on the real world. Check out our website to see if it can do the same for you!
Ward, Vicky, "Knowledge Broker Stories: The case of the accidental knowledge broker." Weblog Entry. Knowledge Mobilization Works Blog. Posted November 17, 2010. Accessed (enter date). http://www.knowledgemobilization.net/archives/222
Ward, V. Knowledge Broker Stories: The case of the accidental knowledge broker. Retreived (enter date) from http://www.knowledgemobilization.net [http://www.knowledgemobilization.net/archives/222]
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