Innovation Brokers

This journal club entry is about the work of Laurens Klerkx (Wageningen University, The Netherlands) on innovation brokers and is drawn primarily from the Technological Forecasting & Social Change paper below but I also include the 2012 reference since it is not only more recent but is open access. You can get more information on innovation brokers at Laurens’ website.

Klerkx, L. & Gildemacher, P. (2012). The role of innovation brokers in agricultural innovation systems. doi:10.1787/9789264167445-19-en

Klerkx, L. & Leeuwis, C. (2009). Establishment and embedding of innovation brokers at different innovation system levels: Insights from the Dutch agricultural sector. Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 76(6), 849-860. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2008.10.001


In the systems perspective on innovation, co-operation between several different types of actors is seen as key to successful innovation. Due to the existence of several gaps that hinder such effective co-operation, the scientific and policy literature persistently points at the need for intermediary organizations to fulfill bridging and brokerage roles. This paper aims to provide an overview of the insights from the literature on such ‘innovation brokers’, and to contribute to the literature by distilling lines of enquiry and providing insights on one of the lines identified. Taking as an empirical basis experiences with different types of innovation brokers that have emerged in the Dutch agricultural sector, it identifies a number of tensions with regard to the establishment and embedding of such organizations. The paper indicates that, despite being perceived to have a catalyzing effect on innovation, innovation brokers have difficulty in becoming embedded as their clients and/or financiers find it difficult to grasp the nature and value of their activities.

The authors state early on in their paper, “production and exchange of (technical) knowledge are not the only prerequisites for innovation; several additional factors play a key role, such as policy, legislation, infrastructure, funding, and market developments”. We quickly realize that producing and sharing of knowledge is not sufficient to inform “innovation”. There are numerous other actors involved in moving from knowledge creation and knowledge sharing to implementation into innovation. This concept stretches the traditional role of knowledge brokers and places it in a more holistic innovation framework.

With a paper from 2009 the term “innovation broker” isn’t new. It is used among scholars who study systems of innovation but it is new to our more narrowly interpreted practice of knowledge brokering and since we work in a broader innovation system it is useful to be mindful of the potential to expand our role or at least connect our role to that broader innovation system.

The authors cite a number of definitions for innovation brokers including one definition for innovation intermediary, “An organization or body that acts as an agent or broker in any aspect of the innovation process between two or more parties. Such intermediary activities include: helping to provide information about potential collaborators; brokering a transaction between two or more parties; acting as a mediator, or go-between, bodies or organizations that are already collaborating; and helping find advice, funding and support for the innovation outcomes of such collaborations.” This definition speaks to the importance of connecting people and supporting relationships and collaborations, something very familiar to many knowledge brokers who act more as brokers of relationships than knowledge brokers.

Innovation brokers usually arise as a perceived “suboptimal degree of connectivity between relevant actors” – this is exactly the gap that university based knowledge brokers fill working with our local and regional communities. Three broad roles of innovation brokers are described:

  1. demand articulation: helping to refine knowledge demand need and knowledge supply opportunities
  2. network formulation: facilitation of linkages between relevant actors
  3. innovation process management: facilitating learning and cooperation in the innovation process and broader network of innovation actors

Most of us certainly perform #1 and #2 with many of us also performing #3 when we hold KM in the AM, Synergy Sessions, Research Forums etc.

Key points for brokers’ discussion:

  1. All literature on knowledge intermediary work is potentially relevant to knowledge brokers.  You don’t need to be Dutch or in the agriculture sector to benefit from this work. Read literature from agriculture, education, nursing, mental health, climate change, international development, water….it all has potential to inform your knowledge brokering.
  2. Knowledge brokers have a variety of roles but we are typically concerned at connecting research and researchers to practitioners/policy makers. Innovation brokers work more broadly throughout the innovation system and are interested in moving knowledge from creation to implementation as a new innovation. In this case they embrace practice from traditional knowledge brokering roles to downstream roles more akin to implementation science. There’s a ton of literature on implementation science. There’s a journal titled Implementation Science (it’s open access, great resource for anyone interested in the implementation of research into practice, mainly in health). I have previously done a journal club on implementation science and one on the PARiHS Framework. Do innovation brokers cover the totality of knowledge intermediary work from knowledge creation to implementation or is it just a different term for the same thing?
  3. The 2009 article states that “innovation brokers cannot be neutral or impartial because they always exercise a certain degree of steering (cf. even when they do not provide substantive knowledge themselves but act as a facilitator enabling interaction between actors). Some authors argue that their intervention is inherently non-neutral because the idea and strength of (inter-firm) networking are generally related to informal activities and personal relationships, but intervention is connected with a degree of formalization of structures and goals”. As a knowledge broker are you able to be neutral in your practice? Should you strive for neutrality or make your biases known if indeed they do exist?
  4. Some of the literature quoted separates content from process proposing “the development of two ‘network infrastructures’: one that focuses on ‘content’ (i.e. linking relevant sources of information innovation processes into a structured whole, making it easier for actors to trace already existing information) and one that focuses on the process part (i.e. the support of multi-actor learning processes). Public innovation brokers could focus on the former, private innovation brokers on the latter”. How can content and process be so easily disaggregated? Should it be disaggregated?

RIR is producing this journal club series as a way to make the 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. Unfortunately the 2009 article isn’t available in an open access format. If you’re a community member please seek a colleague at your local university to obtain this article for you. Read the article. Also read the open access 2012 article that discusses these concepts. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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