K*, K what?
This week there is an interesting conference taking place in Hamilton, Canada known as the K* Conference
Why K*? because while there is a growing recognition of the role of information and knowledge intermediaries in linking knowledge, evidence and decision-making, as with any other are of academic study, people refer to it by a range of different names which belie often differing views about how to approach this. A few 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., etc.
The K* conference attempts to bring all these different ideas/approaches and their practitioners together in one place to get them to talk to each other, learn from each other and identify common ground. A good idea if I ever heard one! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go but am trying to follow bits of it via web conference. But I nevertheless wanted to share a few of my own thoughts about the challenges in this area from the perspective of a non-academic worker in this area – just to be a little provocative:
Firstly, I’m struck by our ability as knowledge workers to finely gradate our work into so many different sub domains and disciplines and approaches, and for those to not necessarily be talking to or collaborating with each other! Arguably this is an issue with academic thinking in general in that it often encourages a high degree of specialization whereas innovation and knowledge sharing often are more impactful when they are interdisciplinary in nature.
Secondly, a lot of the work of the various knowledge intermediaries focuses around the idea that people are doing great research, if only they could get it into the hands of policy makers, and if only policy makers would take more notice of it in order to make “evidence-based” decisions. There are a number of problems with this, particularly that i) much research is not necessarily designed to meet the needs of decision makers – in particular decision makers are looking for advice for action now rather than for learning towards an improved understanding of reality later ii) there is a poor understanding of how policy is made and the role of research based evidence in it iii) research is not the only form of knowledge that policy makers do or indeed should take into account – they also rightly consider issues such as issues such as politics, direct experience and advice from programme implementers and from those affected which while not “scientific” are no less real iv) researchers are from Mars and policy makers are from Venus i.e they don’t understand each others language and world views.
A recent blog from the World Bank “Knowledge Management is not mere dissemination” took on this issue, pointing to the need to move beyond knowledge generation and sharing being seen as a technically oriented paradigm around producing technical excellence and sharing it widely with a hope it will be consumed and acted upon, and moving to a more communication mind-frame whereby the packaging and means of transmission of the knowledge is equally important in order for those who can apply the knowledge to take notice and see how and why they should put it to use.
But for me even this doesn’t go far enough. We need to get away from thinking of the policy maker as an audience for knowledge, and rather see them as actors in their own right. In this sense knowledge intermediation is about building relationships between policy makers and researchers, and also those who implement policies and those affected by them. This is important to be able to bring in the different perspectives on an issue so that researchers can also understand what kind of knowledge is useful to policy makers and how the policy making process works, and also to bring together the different types of knowledge that come both from scientific research, and from experience of implementing and being affected by policy decisions (or to put a human face on scientific information).
This is also important to build trust between researchers and policy makers. While intangible, trust and mutual understanding is an important factor in whether a particular voice is listened to (especially since policy makers don’t have the time or means to verify the technical merits of the research they encounter). Building and nurturing these relationships over time (i.e. not only focusing on the content of the exchange) is a key yet under-emphasized role of the knowledge intermediary.
It will be interesting to see how far these issues come up in this week’s discussions!