Knowledge Brokers in a Knowledge Network: The Case of Seniors Health Research Transfer Network Knowledge Brokers

Conklin, J., Elizabeth Lusk, E., Harris, M. & Stolee, P. (2013). Knowledge brokers in a knowledge network: The case of Seniors Health Research Transfer Network knowledge brokers. Implementation Science, 8(7), 1-10.
Background: The purpose of this paper is to describe and reflect on the role of knowledge brokers (KBs) in the Seniors Health Research Transfer Network (SHRTN). The paper reviews the relevant literature on knowledge brokering, and then describes the evolving role of knowledge brokering in this knowledge network.
Methods: The description of knowledge brokering provided here is based on a developmental evaluation program and on the experiences of the authors. Data were gathered through qualitative and quantitative methods, analyzed by the evaluators, and interpreted by network members who participated in sensemaking forums. The results were fed back to the network each year in the form of formal written reports that were widely distributed to network members, as well as through presentations to the network’s members.
Results: The SHRTN evaluation and our experiences as evaluators and KBs suggest that a SHRTN KB facilitates processes of learning whereby people are connected with tacit or explicit knowledge sources that will help them to resolve work-related challenges. To make this happen, KBs engage in a set of relational, technical, and analytical activities that help communities of practice (CoPs) to develop and operate, facilitate exchanges among people with similar concerns and interests, and help groups and individuals to create, explore, and apply knowledge in their practice. We also suggest that the role is difficult to define, emergent, abstract, episodic, and not fully understood.
Conclusions: The KB role within this knowledge network has developed and matured over time. The KB adapts to the social and technical affordances of each situation, and fashions a unique and relevant process to create relationships and promote learning and change. The ability to work with teams and to develop relevant models and feasible approaches are critical KB skills. The KB is a leader who wields influence rather than power, and who is prepared to adopt whatever roles and approaches are needed to bring about a valuable result.
This article examines the roles of knowledge brokers (KB) in a network setting, the Seniors Health Research and Translation Network (SHRTN) also known as the Seniors Health Knowledge Network ( The network setting is of interest as Sandra Nutley has written that systems levels of research use are emerging as a future area of scholarship and practice for knowledge mobilization. The paper also speaks to the important role that context plays in KB activities. The paper used a developmental evaluation approach to look back on 5 years of KB experience and draws conclusions about the different roles played by KB in this research and knowledge translation network. The authors ask 2 questions about the KBs: What roles and skills characterize SHRTN KBs? And to what extent is the KB role contextual and adaptive?
Some background that is interesting is their review of the management and health services literature suggests that KBs are often associated with seven types of activity. These include activities intended to:

  1. Create relationships among groups of people with shared concerns and objectives;
  2. Promote mutual understanding among these groups;
  3. Facilitate the exchange of knowledge across the social boundaries that separate these groups;
  4. Facilitate processes of social interaction as a mechanism for bringing about knowledge exchange;
  5. Develop new capacity within these groups to work together to find, create, share, and use relevant knowledge;
  6. Help to address the issues of organizational change that often accompany attempts to exchange knowledge;
  7. Engage in analytical tasks that are associated with the above activities.

If I were to prioritize these I would say that #2 is a necessary step to enable #1 but that #5 is necessary within the context of #1 to enable #4 which finally enables #3 which is what you are trying to achieve. #6 is required to maximize the efficacy of #3 but can only work once you have #1. Then of course, we engage in #7 to measure outcomes and impacts.
The KB role is also seen as promoting mutual under-standing that gives researchers, decision makers, and care-givers a better understanding of each other’s environments and cultures, and that helps to spread the awareness and adoption of innovations. This starts to speak to the awareness of context for effective KB activities. There is a general expectation that KB and related activities are context dependent and while this is true in a recent post to the Canadian KTE Community of Practice ( and the international Knowledge Brokers Forum ( I received over 60 requests for the results of my call for literature and only 4 people providing 6 references, this paper being one of them. There appears to be an evidence gap on the generally held belief that implementation of knowledge interventions is context specific. I believe it is…but belief and anecdote do not equal evidence.
When SHRTN developed job descriptions for KBs in 2006 they included the following expectations:

  • network and communicate
  • promote and publicize the network
  • manage the network’s web-based tools
  • identify useful knowledge and to facilitate the movement of that knowledge into practice
  • work in partnership with leaders of SHRTN CoPs to support working groups, to educate groups on knowledge translation concepts, to help the CoP to develop goals and workplans, and to help CoP teams to implement their plans
  • foster partnerships throughout the network, coordinate ongoing communications, help CoPs to put on educational events, and support CoP members
  • bring ideas and activities of the CoPs into the network in ways that reduced duplication and encouraged collaboration
  • link stakeholders with the best available evidence and tools on knowledge exchange
  • help co-ordinate, plan, and develop network processes, policies, and reporting structures.

No mention of walking on water but that was likely implied. This demands a huge range of skills from strategic planning to communications to IT support to event planning to evaluation…Check out Table 1 in the article which aligns the roles of KB with the skills and attributes of KBs. This diversity of role and skill/attribute is likely quite realistic but it is also being implemented in a distributed network that bridges sectors and disciplines. It is never easy to “manage” academic researchers and health care practitioners all in a context of vulnerable citizens with lived experience as stakeholders. What is not explained in the article but that would be interesting to know is the role that seniors and their families and advocates are involved in SHRTN as that governance and decision maker role might also be supported by the KBs.
This is a paper that focuses on the role of KBs within the network. It does not focus on outcomes or impacts of SHRTN as enabled by the KBs. That is hopefully another paper that is in progress as it would be interesting to learn how this understanding of role and context of KBs has helped SHRTN have an impact on the lives of seniors.
Here’s a telling result from the paper. During the network’s fifth year, one SHRTN leader remarked, ‘I think the KBs are essential to our task. They are at the core of knowledge translation, because at the end of the day it is those human relationships that bring about the most dynamic change. You need people with skills to enable groups to come together.‘ This quote underlines the importance of the face to face nature of knowledge mobilization and related activities. Just this morning someone was asking me about best practices to help support their on line portal of information. I reiterated one of my many mantras, “making evidence accessible on the internet is necessary but not sufficient to inform behaviour change“. So build your databases and build your knowledge repositories but use those through facilitated and contextual (thank you PARIHS framework) knowledge brokering. Another interesting result is that identifying and making evidence available for decision making was a minor role for SHRTN KBs. Again, we are less knowledge brokers that we are relationship brokers. It is through the relationships and collaborations that we create that knowledge flows or can be co-created.
Conclusion #1 from this paper: knowledge transfer is contextual. This is an important piece of research that supports what we all say but now this paper, along with a handful of others, provides some evidence for this. The authors state “The SHRTN KB adapts to the social and technical affordances of each situation, and fashions a unique process to create relationships and promote learning and change.”  There is finally some evidence to start to fill the evidence gap about the role of context in knowledge brokering.
Questions for brokers:

  1. How are you engaging in the 7 KB activities described in the literature?
  2. If KBs adapt to each situation and fashion a unique process for each opportunity, this may be an effective process but is it efficient?
  3. If every context is different then how can we possibly share tools across contexts? If every context is different pecluding the implementation of tools across unique contexts then why does our knowledge mobilization sector put such a reliance on tools? And why do we create and post knowledge mobilization tools on the internet when we know that making evidence (in this case a tool) accessible without facilitating it in context is not effective?
  4. Networks: There are lots of knowledge brokering networks like SHRTN that are discipline specific but what about networks for knowledge mobilization research and practice? I know of CBRC, GUNI, Living Knowledge Network, RIR, DRUSSA, KTE CoP, Mid-Western KMb Network. Do you know of any others?

ResearchImpact 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.