Systems Thinking, Knowledge and Action: Towards Better Models and Methods

Best, A., Holmes, B. (2010). Systems thinking, knowledge and action: Towards better models and methods. Evidence & Policy, 6(2), 145-159.


The way we think about how research, policy and practice inform and interact with each other shapes our efforts to improve health and social outcomes. In this paper we describe linear, relationship and systems models with regard to how they approach bridging evidence and policy/practice, or turning knowledge into action. We contribute to the knowledge to action (KTA) systems thinking discussion by highlighting four interconnected aspects of this model we believe merit exploration: evidence and knowledge, leadership, networks and communications. We conclude with the challenge of developing measurement methods for systems research to better understand the KTA process.

Thanks to the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh who brought this article to my attention in their blog posted on March 14, 2011.

This article is about systems thinking for knowledge mobilization. Sandra Nutley (Research Unit for Research Utilization, U. Edinburgh) wrote about systems thinking for research utilization in her 2007 book, Using Evidence. Much scholarship of research use has focused on relationships between individuals; however, those individuals sit within organizations. Creating a culture of research use within organizations (both research and policy/practice organizations) can help support the collective and embedded nature of the links between research and decision making. Although this might be true, Nutley and colleagues recognize that “the evidence that we have about developing effective organizational – and system – level research use strategies, while emerging, is still fairly thin on the ground (page 307). In 2011, Nutley and her colleague Sarah Morton state that “systems models of research use are [still] the future” [in Morton, Sarah and Sandra Nutley. 2011. “What happens next? Getting Research into Policy and Practice” in Jamieson, L. Simpson, R. and Lewis, R.(eds) Researching Families and Relationships, Palgrave MacMillan, UK.]. While Nutley and her colleagues have been speaking about systems based research use, Best and Holmes considered the elements important to a system of knowledge to action.

The authors state there are three conceptual approaches to knowledge to action (KTA): linear models, relationship models and systems models. They describe the characteristics of each approach. For example, “a system model may be the model of choice when: 1) all of the key stakeholders to be represented in the process can be active collaborators in the modeling and solution seeking process; 2) these partnering organisations are willing to invest the considerable time and resources required to develop the model; and 3) KTA is positioned as a key business strategy by lead organisations, providing the opportunity to integrate the model with organisational change strategy.” In other situations a linear or relationship model might be appropriate model for a KTA strategy. But, if you are operating in a collaborative, co-production method then you are likely in a systems level model.

The authors discuss four issues that they feel have not garnered sufficient attention in the discourse on systems-level KTA.

1. Nature of the evidence and knowledge: tacit vs explicit knowledge (although personally I feel there is tons on this)

2. Leadership: very important (but again lots exists on leadership and readiness for change in the literature). The authors point to three leadership outcomes: direction; alignment into a collective; and commitment.

3. Organizational networks and collaborations: including the well-trodden ground of qualities of successful collaborations:

  • Clear common aims
  • Trust
  • Collaborative leadership
  • Sensitivity to power issues
  • Membership structures
  • Action learning

4. Communications – especially systems theories of communications.  Here is where I agree that more attention could be paid to how communications occur in systems as opposed to between individuals.

Key points for brokers’ discussion:

  1. Have you aligned your processes with your context? Not everything occurs in a system or even in a relationship.  Sometimes (ok, rarely) a linear model of instrumental research use is correct especially when the research is unequivocal, the stakeholders are known and the outcomes can be anticipated and evaluated.
  2. If you are working in a co-production method (and many of us are since co-produced knowledge has the greatest chance of making an impact on decisions of those decision makers with whom researchers are collaborating) then consider how to maximize the effectiveness of your system. Consider the nature of the evidence; the leadership within your system; the characteristics of your networks and communications among your network members. How do you need each of these to line up to maximize the effectiveness of your knowledge mobilization system.
  3. At some point all knowledge brokering practices (not an individual instance of knowledge mobilization) must end up in a system of knowledge mobilization. Even if all you practice is knowledge mobilization in a relational (knowledge exchange) paradigm, at some point you will build up enough knowledge exchange examples that you will be working a system of knowledge exchange. Systems thinking not only applies to knowledge mobilization working in a system of co-producing actors but it also applies to a system of knowledge mobilization developed to serve the unique needs of a cohort of stakeholders such as researchers, students and research partners.  I don’t know when you tip from being a portfolio of unconnected knowledge exchange relationships to operating in a system of knowledge mobilization but it will happen so long as you are open to learning from one experience and applying it to another.
  4. Get a copy of Using Evidence and read it.  It is from 2007 but it is foundational providing an exhaustive review of the literature. I’ll make it easy for you. Click here and order from Amazon.

And for those really into systems thinking for knowledge mobilization and still want more, check out Cherney, A. and Head, B. (2011). Supporting the knowledge-to-action process: a systems-thinking approach, Evidence & Policy, 7(4), 471-488.

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 this article isn’t available in an open access format. If you’re a community member seek a colleague at your local university to obtain this article for you. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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