Five Principles for the Practice of Knowledge Exchange in Environmental Management

Reed, M. S., Stringer, L. C., Fazey, I., Evely, A. C. & Kruijsen, J. H. J. (2014) Five principles for the practice of knowledge exchange in environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management, 146, 337-345.


This paper outlines five principles for effective practice of knowledge exchange, which when applied, have the potential to significantly enhance the impact of environmental management research, policy and practice. The paper is based on an empirical analysis of interviews with 32 researchers and stakeholders across 13 environmental management research projects, each of which included elements of knowledge co-creation and sharing in their design. The projects focused on a range of upland and catchment management issues across the UK, and included Research Council, Government and NGO funded projects. Preliminary findings were discussed with knowledge exchange professionals and academic experts to ensure the emerging principles were as broadly applicable as possible across multiple disciplines. The principles suggest that: knowledge exchange needs to be designed into research; the needs of likely research users and other stakeholders should be systematically represented in the research where possible; and long-term relationships must be built on trust and two-way dialogue between researchers and stakeholders in order to ensure effective co-generation of new knowledge. We found that the delivery of tangible benefits early on in the research process helps to ensure continued motivation and engagement of likely research users. Knowledge exchange is a flexible process that must be monitored, reflected on and continuously refined, and where possible, steps should be taken to ensure a legacy of ongoing knowledge exchange beyond initial research funding. The principles have been used to inform the design of knowledge exchange and stakeholder engagement guidelines for two international research programmes. They are able to assist researchers, decision-makers and other stakeholders working in contrasting environmental management settings to work together to co-produce new knowledge, and more effectively share and apply existing knowledge to manage environmental change.

I first saw this article as a blog post on the Sustainable Learning blog (September 9, 2014) although I didn’t see it until June 3, 2015 where I commented on the blog post.

The lead author is Prof. Reed (@profmarkreed), Director of theKnowledge Exchange Research Centre of Excellence, Birmingham School of the Built Environment, Birmingham City University. The mandate of the KE Research Centre is to carry out “world-leading cross-disciplinary research, training, professional development and advice on knowledge exchange”. Cool thing #1: there’s a centre on KE research at Birmingham City University! Who knew? As you will see below there is much commonality between knowledge exchange in the environment and knowledge translation in health and knowledge mobilization in education. While the results of the research reported in this paper mirror results on KE/KT/KMb in other disciplines, its implementation in environmental practice and policy provides a different context in which to understand these actions. It is the similarities that are interesting.

The authors interviewed 32 researchers and other stakeholders in 13 environmental research projects working on catchment management in the UK. Importantly the respondents were not all academic researchers or research staff so the perspectives of decision makers are considered in these results.

Approximately 50 themes were identified and sorted into broader themes as part of this analysis, to reach the smallest possible number of distinct themes, which formed the basis for each of the (five) principles”.

The 49 themes and the five principles are presented in a wheel diagram which is a new way of presenting these themes (Cool Thing #2). While many of the themes will be familiar to knowledge mobilization folks there are some that I have never seen before in the literature. These need to be pointed out because they are so obvious and fundamental but we don’t stop to consider them:

  • Don’t rush
  • Enjoy
  • Keep it simple

Cool Thing #3: I love these three themes and delighted that they emerged from these interviews. Most importantly – keep it simple. I wrote a blog a few years ago that knowledge mobilization is not rocket science. What we are trying toachieve is complex because we are working within human systems. But what we actually do really isn’t that complicated. It’s like dating. Going on a date (what you do) isn’t complicated. Finding a long term partner (if that’s what you want to achieve from your dating) is complex. Keep it simple and don’t rush your knowledge exchange activities so you can enjoy them!

The five principles:

Principle 1 – Design: Know what you want to achieve with your knowledge exchange and design knowledge exchange into environmental management research from the outset

  • This includes allocating budget and skilled staff for KE activities

Principle 2 – Represent: Systematically represent research user knowledge needs and priorities in environmental management research

  • Engaging stakeholders early and often is important

Principle 3 – Engage: Build long-term, trusting relationships based on two-way dialogue between researchers and stakeholders and co-generate new knowledge about environmental management together

  • Again, a focus on stakeholder engagement but also includes “work with knowledge brokers

Principle 4 – Impact: Focus on delivering tangible results as soon as possible that will be valued by as many of your stakeholders as possible

  • See below for further discussion

Principle 5 – Reflect and Sustain: Monitor and reflect on your knowledge exchange work, so you can learn and refine your practice, and consider how to sustain a legacy of knowledge exchange beyond project funding

  • Identify what knowledge exchange needs to continue after research funding has ceased and consider how to sustain this in the longer-term
  • This one is important as it relates to my comments on impact belo

And if you didn’t get it the first few times: KE has an important component of stakeholder engagement (see an earlier journal club post).

In the Sustainable Learning blog post I commented,

I am reading that your impact occurs at the point of providing useful, tailored research information to decision maker partners. This gets you to the starting point of impact, but as the REF defines impact “For the purposes of the REF, impact is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. Providing useful information to decision makers is a dissemination event. In order for that to proceed to REF-able impact the decision maker needs to take that information in house (uptake), implement it into new products, policies or services which then have an impact beyond the academy.

I don’t believe the authors have gone far enough to consider impacts (Principle 4) beyond the academy even though Principle 5 encourages us to sustain KE activities beyond the research project.

My final comment is on knowledge brokers which appear multiple times in the paper but the authors also suggest, “This implies that researchers need to take on new roles if they are to facilitate KE and channel their research into policy and practice…Viewing KE as an inherently social process challenges researchers to go beyond simply producing and communicating new knowledge and to begin acting as “knowledge brokers”. In my experience knowledge brokers are a separate class of professionals that work with researchers and decision makers. I question if it is reasonable to expect a researcher to become a knowledge broker while still existing within traditional academic incentive and reward structures. I prefer to let researchers continue to be researchers and rely on support from the “skilled staff for KE activities” that the authors recommend in Principle 1.

Questions for brokers:

  1. Knowledge mobilization is interdisciplinary (or as I like to say “content agnostic”). Many of the principles here also apply across research ® policy/practice in health, education, environment, international development, agricultural extension etc. Are there any disciplines that might challenge the content agnostic nature of knowledge mobilization (i.e. for which disciplines might knowledge mobilization not work)?
  2. How do we support impact beyond the dissemination of tailored research evidence to decision maker partners and collaborate with them to maximize the uptake, implementation and eventual impact of research? Is there a role for the academy in moving beyond dissemination or is dissemination our end point?
  3. How are you keeping it simple?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) is producing this journal club series as a way to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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