Knowledge for Theory and Practice

Van De Ven, A. & Johnson, P. (2006). Knowledge for theory and practice. Academy of Management Review, 31(4), 802-821.


We examine three related ways in which the gap between theory and practice has been framed. One approach views it as a knowledge transfer problem, a second argues that theory and practice represent distinct kinds of knowledge, and a third incorporates a strategy of arbitrage – leading to the view that the gap is a knowledge production problem. We propose a method of engaged scholarship for addressing the knowledge production problem, arguing that engaged scholarship not only enhances the relevance of research for practice but also contributes significantly to advancing research knowledge in a given domain.

I was reading something else recently that referenced this paper as a landmark paper in the conceptualization of co-production where researchers and decision makers work together to produce knowledge that is both academically rigorous and that also has practical application. This paper isn’t the first to discuss concepts of co-production as its own reference list shows but it was referred to as a landmark paper so I thought I should read it. Six years after this paper was written the power of co-production has become generally accepted as the most effective way to ensure that research influences decision making. But this paper is interesting for a few reasons.

First, it is from the management literature, a body of knowledge I don’t dig into frequently; second, it introduces the concept of arbitrage as a basis for the success of co-production; third, it describes this work as engaged scholarship and derives inspiration from the truly landmark thinking of Ernest Boyer in 1990; and fourth, it is one time where knowledge transfer is taken to mean the actual transfer of knowledge from one sphere (research) into another (management practice) and translation as being translation one form of knowledge into another and not knowledge transfer/translation the way some use them as synonyms for knowledge mobilization and all the other K-terms.

The authors tell how the “gap” between research and practice can be “bridged” by two techniques:

  1. Knowledge transfer is based on the different contexts of research and practice. As such, “managers develop a deep understanding of the problems and tasks that arise in particular situations and of means-ends activities that make up their solutions. Knowledge of management practice is typically customized, connected to experience, and directed to the structure and dynamics of particular situations. In contrast, scholarship is committed to building generalizations and theories that often take the form of formal logical principles or rules involving causal relationships. Scientific knowledge involves the quest for generality in the form of ‘covering’ laws and principles that describe the fundamental nature of things. The more context free, the more general and stronger the theory.Both forms of knowledge are valid; each represents the world in a different context and for a different purpose.” In this model all you have to do is bridge the gap by ensuring knowledge from the research sphere gets to the management sphere so it can inform practice.
  2. Knowledge translation is practiced when one assumes that scholarly (researcher) and management (practitioner) knowledge are different and distinct forms of knowing.

The authors then proceed to describe engaged scholarship as a means of addressing the theory that the problem is not one of translation or of transfer but one of knowledge production. The authors propose practicing engaged scholarship where researchers and practitioners co-create knowledge that is both useful to the manager but has enough academic rigour to also satisfy academic needs. Interestingly they use the concept of “arbitrage” to explain the underlying theory of engaged scholarship. Arbitrage (commonly known in financial circles as the exploitation of price differentials) is “a strategy of exploiting differences in the kinds of knowledge that scholars and practitioners can contribute on a problem of interest.” There is strength in combining the different ways of knowing. There is also an explicit intent to exploit knowledge for other purposes.

They also make the observation that conflict is an inherent tension in engaged scholarship. The authors “argue that managing conflict constructively is not only important but lies at the heart of engaged scholarship.”

And finally the authors talk about the work of Aristotle. “To Aristotle, the art of persuasion comprises three elements: (1) logos-the message, especially its internal consistency (i.e., the clarity of the argument, the logic of its reasons, and the effectiveness of its supporting evidence); (2) pathos-the power to stir the emotions, beliefs, values, knowledge, and imagination of the audience so as to elicit not only sympathy but empathy; and (3) ethos-the credibility, legitimacy, and authority that a speaker both brings into and develops over the course of the argument or message. Logos, pathos, and ethos together shape the persuasiveness of any communication.”

I draw your attention to an earlier journal club posting on the PARiHS framework. The PARiHS Framework has received A LOT of attention. It identifies evidence, context and facilitation as the key drivers of implementation science. I would argue that Aristotle beat Stetler, Kiston et al by a few thousand years

evidence = logos

facilitation = ethos

context = pathos

What’s old is new again!

Key points for brokers’ discussion:

  1. Are we really “bridging the gap” – a common KMb metaphor – through engaged scholarship and co-production? Knowledge transfer and translation seek to bridge a gap. Even knowledge exchange can be done over a bridge without bringing the “two communities” together.  Co-production by necessity creates a shared space which researchers and decision makers co-inhabit and collaborate.  Rather than “bridging the gap” I like the new tag line of the Canadian KTE Community of Practice, “closing the loop”.  For more on the Two Communities theory [Caplan N (1979) The two communities theory and knowledge utilization. American behavioral Scientist. Vol 22, no. 3, pp 459-70) and more recent contextualization’s of this theory see Sandra Nutley’s book Using Evidence, pages 98-100.
  2. This is management literature. Knowledge brokering literature can be found in health, education, international development, agriculture, criminal justice and environment literature – probably others as well. How often do you branch out of your own literature to inform your practice? How often does an education researcher (for example) think that only teachers, Boards of Education and policy makers are receptors of their research? Remember that when it comes to connecting our research to our own practice we are all Knowledge Hypocrites
  3. Engaged scholarship – participatory action research – community based research: are they all the same? Where does the power and politics of language give over to the practicality of just getting it done
  4. Conflict is inevitable in your researcher/practitioner collaborations. What tools or techniques can you use to manage conflict or the risk of conflict in your collaborations?

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. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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