Mobilising Knowledge in Community-University Partnerships: What Does a Community of Practice Approach Contribute?

Hart, A., Davies, C., Aumann, K., Wenger, E., Aranda, K., Heaver, B. & David, W. (2013): Mobilising knowledge in community-university partnerships: What does a community of practice approach contribute? Contemporary Social Science, 8(3), 278-291. DOI:10.1080/21582041.2013.767470 (not open access)


Over the past decade different approaches to mobilising knowledge in Community-University Partnership (CUP) contexts have emerged in the UK. Despite this detailed accounts of the intricate texture of these approaches, enabling others to replicate or learn from them, are lacking. This paper adds to the literature which begins to address this gap. The case considered here concentrates on one particular approach to knowledge mobilisation (KM) developed in the UK context. It provides an account of the authors’ involvement in applying the concept, and practical lessons from a community of practice (CoP) approach, to developing knowledge exchange (KE) between academics, parents and practitioners. The authors’ approach to KM explicitly attempts to combat power differentials between academics and community partners, and problematises knowledge power hierarchies. The paper explores the CoP concept and critically investigates key elements of relevance to developing KE in the CUP context. Specific themes addressed are those of power, participation and working across boundaries by CoP members with very different subject positions and knowledge capitals. The paper concludes that CoPs can be a useful mechanism for KM, but have many limitations depending on the specific context in which KM is being undertaken.

First off, you should know about the Community University Partnership Program (Cupp) of the University of Brighton (UK). Angie Hart is the academic lead and Dave Wolff runs the show. They have been operating Cupp for over 10 years. Now centrally funded and part of the unviertsity’s academic planning, Cupp started out as an independently funded university based service that made connections between local community organizations and the university. Cupp supports spaces of community-university collaboration where the university resources partner with local expertise to address local opportunities. You can read more about them in their book, Community University Partnerships in Practice.

In 2006 Angie and Dave published how Cupp was based on a communities of practice (CoP) model [Hart & Wolff, Planning, Practice & Research, 21(1): 121-138]. In this paper the authors explore four CoPs from Cupp’s practice and examine if the CoP model can be an instrument to manage the issues of power and authority in Community University Partnerships (CUP) as they seek to co-create knowledge useful to both community and university partners. Power is an important dynamic in CUPs. The authors state “power and authority are often seen to reside more in academics than community partners.

Community of Practice is an important concept for knowledge mobilization. CoP might underpin some of the CUP we support as illustrated by this paper. CoP might also help knowledge brokers develop and support their own practices. For example, ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) is a community of practice of university based knowledge brokers. It is therefore important for knowledge brokers to be aware of the communities of practice as one tool in the brokers’ tool kit. Co-author Etienne Wenger is recognized internationally for his early work on CoP. He has described CoPs as “groups of people informally bounded together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise“. He describes the core features of CoP as: mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise. A CoP is a group of individuals voluntarily coming

together around a shared interest to develop shared language and skills for a shared purpose. Since there is shared purpose there is also the potential for CoP to support collaborations and co-creation of knowledge and as a “mechanism for potential knowledge production beyond ones that simply assume translation of propositional knowledge to practitioner and lay communities.”

Participants in a CoP “initially join communities and learn at the periphery; the things they are involved in and the tasks they do have more or less immediate connection to the community. After gaining competence they become more involved in the main community processes and move from what is described as ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ into ‘full participation’“. Participants learn by participating. With greater participation comes greater learning and hence greater access to the community. Participation and membership are not static. CoPs are dynamic mutually supporting learning of participants and helping participants to greater levels of access. CoPs are “living” entities. They may exist for a short period or more than 2 years as one of the CoPs in this article.

The authors discuss boundaries and boundary spanning in CoP. “Individuals within CoPs can spend much time acting, working and thinking at the boundaries between their own knowledge and identities, and those of others….’boundary spanners’ – individuals who span different ‘worlds’. This role creates connections between people from different organisations, cultures, sectors or localities, brokering and translating varying perspectives, and facilitating the application of ways of seeing and doing across different domains.” Boundaries and boundary spanning are important concepts for knowledge mobilization as our practice is at the margins of traditional university scholarship and also at the margins of community social services.

Another important concept for knowledge mobilization is Modes of knowledge. This paper provides a brief overview of different modes of knowledge.

Mode 1 considered ‘traditional’, pure, disciplinary, homogenous, expert-led, hierarchical, peer-reviewed and almost exclusively university-based – given primacy over other knowledge. This is problematic if one accepts that there is more than one way to ‘know’ and produce knowledge through practice.

Mode 2 considered applied, problem-centred, transdisciplinary, heterogeneous, hybrid, demand-driven, entrepreneurial, network-embedded and often increasingly handled outside higher education institutions.

Mode 3 knowledge is dispositional and transdisciplinary

Mode 4 denotes knowledge that is political and change-oriented

Mode 5 is a construct developed by Angie and her colleagues who “suggest a mode that meets the specific construction, production and purpose of community-university working. Combining characteristics from the other four categories they suggest Mode 5 – considered peer-reviewed, applied, heterogeneous, problem-centred, transdisciplinary and change-orientated, with a critical dimension of being ‘co-produced by the university and community’.”

The authors acknowledge the role of facilitators but don’t go into much detail. Facilitation is critical to our role as knowledge brokers and is one of three key elements of successful implementation science according to the PARIHS framework. The other two are evidence and the context. For more on PARIHS see journal club posts here and here.

The authors speak about participation and trust. The first CoP they describe was slow to develop and participation was modest. They introduced training sessions for the 2nd and 3rd CoP supported by Cupp. “This seemed to aid participation; members joined in discussion more quickly and produced similar levels of outputs, despite the duration of these CoPs being half the time of the first.” This training created greater equality between community and university participants, helped to reduce power differentials and helped to build trust. Trust has often been cited as a key determinant for successful community-university collaborations. The need for training was also recognized by the authors as the key outcome from this study

Questions for brokers:

  1. In Angie’s 2006 paper she speaks of Cupp’s research help desk, a service further elaborated on in her book, Community University Partnerships in Practice. What is the role of these institutional structures like a knowledge mobilization unit that support knowledge mobilization? As formal structures do they get in the way of CoP forming organically or do they assist in formation of CoP by providing the conditions (resources, spaces, training) for CoP to develop?
  2. What mode of knowledge does your knowledge mobilization practice encourage or support? If you’re university based how are you encouraging your faculty to move beyond Mode 1 knowledge?
  3. Are knowledge brokers and knowledge mobilization units boundary spanners or do we create spaces to encourage boundary spanning by faculty, students and partners? Are we the boundary spanners or do we create boundary spanners when we support collaborations that co-produce community-university knowledge?
  4. In your knowledge mobilization practice do you train your partners to work in partnership? Do you coach potential collaborators about how to work together? How do you know this training is working to create trust and a shared understanding of the enterprise?

Oh yeah….this is the first time I have seen Angie adopt the language of knowledge mobilization. Welcome to the KMb kool aid Angie…have a drink!

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. Connect to a local university to get this article. Read this article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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