KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Talk to my (knowledge) broker!

with 8 comments


Knowledge management work in many organizations is often focused on the generation, capture and sharing of knowledge for internal purpose such as through information management systems, systematizing of experience (lessons learned and good practice) or development of internal communities of practitioners.

But for aid/development organizations, public sector and academia another similar organizations there is another important role: that of knowledge brokering.

Basically this is connecting people with the knowledge they need (whether they know it or not!) and helping them to use it effectively.

There’s a lot of academic interest in this topic and discussion including around what the term means and how it is done but basically this is a simple idea, but as you might expect one that is difficult to do.

Why should development organizations be doing this?  Knowledge (whether “scientific” or “experiential”) is a key input to development progress. Governments, communities, individuals all need to have access to knowledge in order to make sound decisions and take action to improve their situation. A lot of potentially valuable development knowledge is either not in the hands of those who should use it, or not in a form that they can easily use.

For sustainable development it’s not enough for an aid agency to use the best available knowledge to inform its own actions (a big enough challenge in itself) it also has to facilitate this happening for beneficiaries to ultimately enable them to take their own decisions and actions.

In academic circles knowledge brokering is sometimes taken to be the more narrow role of connecting policy makers to research – in particular getting policy makers to base their decisions on “evidence” coming from research. This is challenging for a number of reasons including that policy makers also need to take into account other factors beyond research data such as cultural norms, political feasibility, personal career concerns and perhaps tacit knowledge that contradicts the research. similarly the products of research are often not in a form that is easy to use for policy makers due to unfamiliar language and jargon, poor presentation (frequently a problem even with good quality research) and lack of certainty of the results (all researchers rightly caveat their data – but policy makers tend to want definitive answers). Another challenge is that despite public funding there is a mismatch between the subjects researchers study and the knowledge policy makers need – in particular policy makers need to act now and might not have time to wait for bullet proof research to back their decisions. In fact some types of knowledge that policy makers need might not easily come from traditional research at all.

In a development context, the concept of knowledge brokering also needs to be expanded to link practitioners to one another and to foster the sharing of experience, for example through south to south knowledge exchange where one country can learn from both the evidence and the practice of another – or better still both partners can learn from each other. It’s not possible for any institution  to “know” everything about a particular topic – especially the knowledge that comes from practical experience but which might not have been subject to thorough scientific research or evaluation (and might never be due to capacity, cost or other limitations). Here the role of matchmaking between groups of people who can learn from each other is key.

This role is very ambitious, and very challenging. Among the very real challenges for knowledge brokers are:

  • How do you have a good enough overview on what knowledge is out there in a particular field, especially when you look beyond formally published papers? (although international organizations such as UN agencies probably have the best chance of any of fulfilling this role given their global presence)
  • How do you validate/vet the different potential sources of knowledge that are out there? Is this even feasible? Who judges what is of sufficient quality or relevance? (or maybe this is something  that needs crowdsourcing rather than judgment by a few “experts”)
  • How do you present/package knowledge in a way that can be easily understood and used (but not oversimplified) by those who need it?
  • How do you create a demand for knowledge in the first place? We sometimes take it for granted that people are tripping over themselves to use our fantastic knowledge if only they could access it – but in reality this seems far from the case.
  • How do we overcome some of the power and economic barriers to accessing knowledge such as institutions fiercely guarding their knowledge as a source of power; or of intellectual property, copyright or other commercial knowledge hoarding for economic gain; or deliberate inhibition of information exchange to cover corruption or political repression.
  • How do you overcome technological limitations to sharing and using knowledge? I put this last on the list because it’s probably the one that is most written about, with new technologies continually promising to improve how we connect to knowledge and to one another, and with continually improving (but still woefully inadequate) access in developing countries. But for all its difficulties I think this is the least interesting and most overstated of the limitations.

Yet despite these challenges, there is a clear need for knowledge brokers to help oil the wheels of knowledge exchange, to match-make, to translate, to collate, to synthesize and to reconnect. Despite technological advances (it’s all on Google right?) or perhaps even because of them, there is a real need for expert help in finding your way through the vast amounts of data, information, knowledge, wisdom out there and figure out how best to use it. And public organizations have a particular role in facilitating this since knowledge is the ultimate “public good”.

(note: this is an introductory post on this topic – I hope to get more into some of the practical aspects of knowledge brokering in future posts)

A couple of good resources for more reflections on knowledge brokering:

  1. IDS Impact and Learning Blog
  2. Knowledge Brokers Forum

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 31, 2012 at 2:42 pm

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Ian, this is a very interesting and timely reflection on an issue that is so widespread and necessary as to become essentially invisible (another similar one that comes to mind is the issue of ‘networks’).

    As the volumes of information and explicit knowledge grow in a seemingly hectic rate, the value of mechanisms that can facilitate adequate use of them also grows. These objects include technologies (CMS), conferences, coffee-machines (yes…!) and of course human beings. The last are the knowledge brokers that Ian writes about. The challenge is how to get more out of these mechanisms, whether by improving their performance, increasing their numbers or evenning out their spatial distribution.

    Focusing now on knowledge brokers. We humans are wired in such a way that makes us very powerful in transforming information. It’s probably a consequence of the billions (trillions…?) of neuronal connections in our brains. Take this example: we need to explain a historical fact to a 10 year-old in a typical school in Argentina, who is exposed to other countries in Europe because of family, is not particularly keen on history, likes football, can be coaxed with cheese crackers… oh, and has a history text tomorrow afternoon. How would you code this into a computer system to come out with a productive explanation that helps the kid understand it and even get it right in the test?

    While it might be possible (I maintain that computers can learn to write poetry), the effects would pale in comparison with what this kid’s mom can do. She’ll find a way to pull all those factors together (and a few more) in order to describe the historical fact with a vocabulary tailored to him, evoking images and experiences familiar to the kid, all while being encouraging and patient. How is that for powerful information processing?

    I’m using this admittedly tender example to illustrate that human beings are (still…) the best-engineered vehicles for knowledge-brokering. Since there is a need for development organizations to harness knowledge assets better, they would do well to invest in knowledge brokers (and the other mechanisms mentioned, including the coffee-machines). The key would be to investigate solidly all the possible elements that contribute to good knowledge brokering, using the kinds of questions that Ian poses. The results of such investigations may include that it is appropiate to have a handful of ‘dedicated’ knowledge brokers, doing mostly that kind of work. Or that most of the staff should incorporate knowledge management competencies (on mainstream mode). Possibly that knowledge brokering indicators could go into staff performance evaluations. Or how networked knowledge brokering could be instrumented.

    The point for development organizations, at least the larger amongst them, is that it is worth their while to carefully study how to prop, support and stimulate knowledge brokering. This should appear high up in the near-term knowledge management priorities of these organizations, and would pay off well in terms of achieving corporate objectives. Hopefully, this can establish proper equilibrium between technological advances and individual/institutional practices to allow us for smarter ways to tap into the enormous pools of info and knowledge. Some of which, lest we forget, is actually created by our own organizations.

    Manuel Acevedo

    February 5, 2012 at 6:37 am

  2. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 10:31 […]

  3. […] Originally posted here: Talk to my (knowledge) broker! […]

  4. […] we need both, but I think what we also need are more knowledge brokers, intermediaries who can help bridge the gap between those who know and those who can put that […]

  5. Knowledge brokering arose as a description of a service that made research accessible to “decision makers”. This is still an important function but what we see emerging is a role for knowledge brokers in developed and developing countries to be connecting expertise that exists in both researcher and user communities. Instead of brokering codified knowledge (which we still do to one degree or another) knowledge brokers are brokering relationships and then supporting them so that knowledge can be co-created through collaborations between researcher and user communities.

    This activity is by nature very people based. it is complex and messy but an essential part of the knowledge to action cycle. If all we needed to do was make research evidence accessible to wide audiences then the internet and some good writers would do the trick. However, we find that turning research into action is a human activity that requires all the tools of knowledge management and complements them with an increasingly professionalized cadre of relationship brokers.

    For more on the North-South knowledge brokering connections that are starting to coalesce, please see the UNU INWEH sponsored knowledge intermediary event at


    March 12, 2012 at 9:41 am

  6. […] of the common terms used are knowledge management (which is the area I consider myself to work), knowledge brokering, knowledge  sharing, knowledge translation, knowledge acquisition, knowledge mobilization etc.,  […]

  7. […] – connecting development partners to relevant knowledge and expertise wherever it comes from (see more in this previous post). Here the role is to help connect development partners with the knowledge they need, whether or […]

  8. […] Acting as a knowledge broker – connecting development partners to relevant knowledge and expertise from wherever it comes […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: