The “Dark Side” of Knowledge Brokering

Kislov, R., Wilson, P. & Boaden, R. (2016). The “dark side” of knowledge brokering. Journal of Health Services Research & Policy, 22(2), 107–112.


Deploying knowledge brokers to bridge the ‘gap’ between researchers and practitioners continues to be seen as an unquestionable enabler of evidence-based practice and is often endorsed uncritically. We explore the ‘dark side’ of knowledge brokering, reflecting on its inherent challenges which we categorize as: (1) tensions between different aspects of brokering; (2) tensions between different types and sources of knowledge; and (3) tensions resulting from the ‘in-between’ position of brokers. As a result of these tensions, individual brokers may struggle to maintain their fragile and ambiguous intermediary position, and some of the knowledge may be lost in the ‘in-between world’, whereby research evidence is transferred to research users without being mobilized in their day-to-day practice. To be effective, brokering requires an amalgamation of several types of knowledge and a multidimensional skill set that needs to be sustained over time. If we want to maximize the impact of research on policy and practice, we should move from deploying individual ‘brokers’ to embracing the collective process of ‘brokering’ supported at the organizational and policy levels.

Not a research article but an article based in the literature and the authors’ experiences as knowledge mobilization practitioners. This makes it potentially more interesting since it is based on lived experience not detached observation.

The authors critically assess the usual position of the “knowledge broker as an unquestionable enabler of evidence-based medicine, enhancing the flow of knowledge between researchers and practitioners” by examining the “growing evidence about the unintended consequences of deploying knowledge brokers in health care which are often overlooked”. This critical lens is an important juxtaposition to the many articles that report positive outcomes of knowledge brokering.

This journal club has in the past presented articles that take a critical look at brokering including the challenging career paths of knowledge brokers. In addition, Dobbins et al published on the lack of evidence for effective knowledge brokering in a randomized controlled trial. The authors of the current article point out a number of challenges brought about by the intermediary nature of knowledge brokers. These include:

• The tendency of knowledge brokers to focus on information management techniques as opposed to linkage/exchange and capacity building since the latter are more time intensive and the former are more easily standardized and evaluated in practice

• The focus on explicitly codified knowledge vs. tacit knowledge

• The temptation to slip from facilitating knowledge uptake to doing knowledge uptake on behalf of end users especially if the broker is a subject matter expert

• The ambiguity and instability of the “in between-ness” of knowledge brokers

• Lack of role clarity, guidance and career path

The authors propose a shift from individual knowledge brokers to knowledge brokering teams. “We call for a major shift from this perspective towards embracing knowledge brokering as an inherently collective process unfolding at the team level and actively supported by the broader organization. If we want to maximize the impact of research on policy and practice, we should move from deploying ‘brokers’ to embracing ‘brokering’.”

The authors describe what needs to happen to accomplish this:

“The first step in this direction is to foster brokering teams composed of people with different professional backgrounds and having complementary skills. These skills should combine those needed for successful information management, linkage and exchange, and capacity building with broader clinical, managerial and contextual knowledge. This may be achieved by the involvement of academics, clinicians, managers, information scientists and service users.”

“Second, organizations deploying knowledge brokers should recognize brokering as part of their ‘core’ business, providing a range of learning, development and promotion opportunities to staff occupying the ‘in-between’ roles. Supporting the knowledge brokers’ communities of practice and creating regional or national forums for staff occupying intermediary roles can help alleviate their sense of isolation and enable peer-to-peer learning.”

Questions for brokers:

1. Are you a lone broker in your organization/project? Do you experience this dark side?

2. The authors call for communities of practice and regional/national forums. Have you signed up (for free) for the KTE CoP (mainly Canadian) or the Knowledge Brokers Forum (international) or the Knowledge into Practice Learning Network (international)? Do you attend the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum?

3. The authors state, “organizations deploying knowledge brokers should recognize brokering as part of their ‘core’ business.” Is knowledge mobilization a priority in your organization’s strategic plan?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence and research 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.

2 Responses to “The “Dark Side” of Knowledge Brokering”

written by Janet Harris On 1 June 2017 Reply

I broker across health, local government and university sectors so the only approach that would work is the team approach described by Kislov et al. It’s good to see this article because we need to acknowledge that in the context surrounding the lone broker there are actually many people who naturally broker, even though they wouldn’t describe themselves in this role.

Knowledge mobilisation isn’t a priority in the sectors I work with – but co-production has been foregrounded and via this route people are becoming aware of how we share (and don’t share) knowledge and the implications of this.

written by David Phipps On 8 July 2017 Reply

Thanks for your comment Janet. Before this journal club entry there were a couple of articles about the role of institutions as knowledge broker organizations. As institutions see the need for knowledge brokering to achieve strategic goals this will hopefully create additional investments and reduce the rate of lone brokers. One thing I have heard from some Canadian universities is that there are many places on campus where knowledge brokering occurs (often not named or recognized) but that these units/individuals don’t actually see a need/opportunity to collaborate. One thing we have never succeeded in at our university is getting a sustainable P2P network of knowledge brokers. Everyone thinks it is a good idea but no one shows up to events.

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