Sustainability and Institutionalization of Knowledge Brokers

This Knowledge Mobilization Journal Club features two related articles, both published in the same volume of Evidence & Policy. This is not an open access journal, so I can’t post the original articles but these are important articles as they address the human resource side of knowledge mobilization- how do we create satisfying careers for knowledge brokers who are at the heart of our knowledge mobilization functions.
Lightowler, C. & Knight, C. (2013). Sustaining knowledge exchange and research impact in the social sciences and humanities: Investing in knowledge broker roles in UK universities. Evidence & Policy, 9(3), 317-334.
Over the last decade, higher education policy in the United Kingdom (UK) has increasingly focused on the impact of academic research. This has resulted in the emergence of specialist knowledge brokers within UK universities in the social sciences and humanities. Our empirical research identified a tension between the research impact agenda and the value placed on knowledge brokerage. Based on interviews with knowledge brokers at the University of Edinburgh, we argue that funding models, short-term contracts, and posts combining knowledge brokerage with other functions result in a transient population and a squeeze on knowledge brokerage, which may limit its effectiveness in achieving research impact.
Chew, S., Armstrong, N. & Martin, G. (2013). Institutionalising knowledge brokering as a sustainable knowledge translation solution in healthcare: How can it work in practice? Evidence & Policy, 9(3), 335-351.
In healthcare, translating evidence into changed practice remains challenging. Novel interventions are being used to address these challenges, including the use of ‘knowledge brokers’. But how sustainable these roles might be, and the consequences for the individual of enacting such roles, are unknown. We explore these questions by drawing on qualitative data from case studies of full-time roles in research-practice collaboration. We suggest that structural issues around professional boundaries, organisational norms and career pathways may make such roles difficult to sustain in the long term, but highlight interventions that might improve their feasibility.
These two papers present the results of research on knowledge brokers in the UK in two different settings: College of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Edinburgh (Lightowler & Knight); and in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRCs)(Chew, Armstrong & Martin). The U. Edinburgh brokers (n=16) were based in research projects that were funded by external granting agencies like ESRC. The CLAHRC brokers (n=7) were working in organizations with an explicit mandate to connect NHS organizations to researchers at local universities. The CLAHRCs are funded for 5 year periods. This is important background to the research. All of the subjects of the study are in limited term positions.
The 2 papers come from 2 different angles. Lightowler & Knight are digging into the experience of university based knowledge brokers to illustrate a disconnect between recent policy emphasis on the extra academic impacts of research (the « research impact agenda » see REF 2014 and page 47 from Scottish Gov’t 2007) and the seeming lack of value placed on knowledge brokering by the University of Edinburgh. Chew, Armstrong & Martin are examining the effect of role ambiguity and role conflict on the work experiences of knowledge brokers in CLAHRCs. Despite the different approaches and intents the 2 papers share common findings

  • Large variety of tasks performed by knowledge brokers (« hybrid roles » and « role ambiguity »): knowledge brokers perform a wide variety of tasks from administrative to sophisticated communications to training and outreach
  • Lack of career progression: all these positions are limited term contracts with no career path although they do develop transferrable skills
  • Lack of training opportunities: apart from a lack of formal training for knowledge brokering, these positions often sit outside of traditional employment structures making it challenging (i.e. who pays for them?) to take standard skills development courses like project management.
  • Isolation: because these positions often sit outside of traditional employment structures there is little ability to form peer relationships, although U Edinburgh does have an existing network of knowledge exchange staff.
  • Challenge rating and banding positions: both papers report the difficulties brokers found in having their positions banded by human resources. There is a lack of comparator positions and the positions tend to sit outside of traditional structures making internal comparisons difficult.

What the two articles illustrated was a pervasive dissatisfaction of knowledge brokers with their employment and their roles; although, Chew, Armstrong & Martin did end with some thoughts on how the roles settled over time.
One thought on the role ambiguity and related large variety of tasks performed by knowledge brokers: get over it. Knowledge mobilization is a complex activity often with multiple masters that requires flexibility and entrepreneurship (=ability to explore unchartered territory). This is a key characteristic of successful knowledge brokers. It is not just that knowledge mobilization is a new field (it really isn’t but as a defined role knowledge brokering is) but that it is a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral, technology enabled, relationship based role requiring skills such as communications, events planning, evaluation and sometimes financial management. These roles also require characteristics such as diplomacy, creativity and courage.
If we look to technology transfer offices (which have a 30 year history in the US and are deeply embedded in university research infrastructure as full time, continuing and sometimes unionized positions) we see roles that require research assessment and evaluation, contract negotiation, events planning, education and outreach, clear language writing, contracts drafting, audit and monitoring. This is a large variety of tasks within these roles despite having 30 years of experience to settle the job descriptions.
Our jobs sit at the margins of traditional academic employment. This is why they are challenging. And at times stressful. And that is why we hire the right people to match these roles.
What these two articles really demonstrate but do not dig into is the lack of leadership and management of knowledge brokers in these two settings. The brokers at U. Edinburgh are (I am guessing) hired by the researchers who hold the grant funds and (I am guessing) have little experience in knowledge mobilization and knowledge brokering. Effective leadership and management would address a number of the issues identified by the knowledge brokers. Effective leadership and management would:

  • work with HR to clarify roles and ensure that compensation is aligned with roles
  • provide opportunities for training
  • support mentorship and peer networks
  • ensure that evaluation and assessment were aligned with clarity of roles and supported by training and mentoring
  • hire the right people for the right roles

Questions for brokers

  1. All of the subjects are in term limited positions. How would these results be different if they were continuing/ongoing positions? If brokers were members of the university staff union would this make a difference to the research outcomes?
  2. Lightowler and Knight identify a disconnect between commitment from the University and the research impact agenda. However, the knowledge brokers are not employed by the university as part of the institutional research infrastructure. They are employed by the Principal Investigators on the ESRC funded projects and thus cannot be considered a part of the university’s formal commitment to the research impact agenda. This is in contrast to the University’s commitment to industry liaison and technology commercialization. How might the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, U. Edinburgh support the research impact agenda? How might this address leadership and management of knowledge brokers?
  3. Change the role or change the person in the role: how would you resolve the challenges of role ambiguity and role conflict?
  4. As mentioned above, « What the two articles illustrated was a pervasive dissatisfaction of knowledge brokers with their employment and their roles ». For those readers who manage knowledge brokers, what are you doing to provide leadership and managemet needed to creates satisfying work experiences for them?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (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. Read the article. If you’re a community member seek a colleague at your local university to obtain this article for you. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.