Talk to my (knowledge) broker!
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: