Understanding K* and What It Means for Knowledge Exchange in Scotland

This week’s guest post comes from the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships. This post first appeared on the CRFR blog on August 28, 2014 and is reposted here with permission.

The CRFR KE reading group focus in August 2014 was to explore ideas of knowledge exchange through reading Expanding our understanding of K* – a concept paper emerging from the K* conference held in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, April 2012, that CRFR Co-Director Sarah Morton had attended. We wanted to explore how K* concepts relate to our roles as knowledge brokers here in Scotland.

What is K*? There are many terms used to describe the processes of getting research and evidence into policy, practice, there public or other action. These include knowledge management, knowledge mobilisation, knowledge exchange, knowledge transfer, knowledge to action and others. The idea of K* or KSTAR is that it embraces all of these terms through the use of the wildcard star or *

Understanding the K* spectrum
The K* discussion document sets out what might be involved in different roles to increase these processes. It considers knowledge brokerage from informational, through relational to system functions. At the information end tasks might include improving access to research and knowledge, whilst at the system end roles would be more embedded in change in complex systems.

While our members are involved in slightly different aspects of knowledge exchange work – from strategic planning, knowledge brokering, dissemination to supporting evidence to action, we found the discussion of what K* is to be a helpful peg on which to hang our, sometimes many, hats. The concept of K*, as described in the paper, is the collective term to describe what needs to happen to share knowledge and to enable change to happen. From our round-the-table discussion, it seems that good knowledge exchange requires involvement in the full range of activities, a sentiment supported by the authors. Trying to rank the importance of activities, or to see activities in a linear way, really misses the point. At CRFR, we are involved on a daily basis in dissemination activities: writing research briefings, posting on social media (@CRFRTweets), creating visualisations of research findings. From this we create opportunities to bring people together to share and talk about research and what the findings mean to different sectors and different organisations. Within specific projects we are then able to build partnerships to raise questions about what research topics are most needed, who can contribute to the research and how the resulting evidence can be used. Any one one of these functions can not happen on its own – we invest time at all levels.

The relationship between supply and demand for knowledge
The section exploring the relationship between the supply and demand for knowledge had the greatest resonance with our group members. They appreciated an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the many tasks they do, and sometimes the complexity of what is asked of them. We within social science research, we can be faced with gaps in the evidence – this may be because the nature of qualitative data makes it hard to generalise across wider populations, or because the specific question being asked has not been the focus of existing research or service evaluations. As the paper suggests, the boundaries between what knowledge is wanted and what knowledge we have is fuzzy. We discussed the ways in which we tailored our approaches, to either link people with similar interests but potentially different backgrounds, to support organisations to apply evidence to their own work or to find creative ways of sharing complex ideas.

The difference between knowledge exchange and communications
It seems there have been various conversations between our own colleagues, and within the global K* group, of the difference between knowledge exchange and communications. Within our setting we agreed that the roles are different, with reasonably different specialist skill sets, yet there is a large degree of overlap between the two. My own title includes both – as a way, when it was created, to recognise the increasing value of knowledge exchange within academia but also acknowledging that it was a term still relatively unknown by the wider public, where this type of function may have typically been carried out by a communications or policy professional. What did our discussion add to the debate? Perhaps just to record that within our University setting, the breadth of knowledge exchange activities, particularly the brokering, impact analysis and research synthesis seems to extend beyond typical a communications role. Similarly, our communications colleagues would have greater specialist skills in journalism, marketing and public relations.

Creating knowledge exchange roles within a University setting
Another key point made in the paper is that K* needs to focus on the function, rather than the organisation or individual person who performs them. Our members are all employed by the University of Edinburgh, yet each of us have a different job title and different remit – and we know from our membership of other networks and research by Knight and Lightowler, that the variation in knowledge exchange roles is becoming ever wider. Yet, there are overlaps in many of the tasks and activities we do. We wondered of the feasibility for an organisation such as the University to take a proactive role in creating standardised knowledge exchange roles and descriptions as a way of professionalising what we do, and capturing the breadth of activities involved within knowledge exchange. This is something we as a group will be exploring over the coming year.

Kirsten Thomlinson
Knowledge Exchange and Communications Co-ordinator

Knight, C., & Lightowler, C. (2010). ‘Reflections of “Knowledge Exchange Professionals” in the Social Sciences: Emerging Opportunities and Challenges for University-Based Knowledge Brokers.’. Evidence & Policy, 6(4), 543-556. 10.1332/174426410X535891

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