Capacity development for knowledge mobilization: a scoping review of the concepts and practices

Golhasany, H., and Harvey, B. (2023) Capacity development for knowledge mobilization: a scoping review of the concepts and practices. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 10, 235.


There is a growing emphasis worldwide on the use of knowledge mobilization (KMb) to improve policies and practices with the latest research evidence. This emphasis calls upon knowledge producers (e.g., university researchers) to produce more relevant evidence, and knowledge users (e.g., practitioners) to access and apply evidence. However, doing KMb can be challenging for these groups without effective support and training. Therefore, individuals and organizations are undertaking capacity development interventions to facilitate the KMb process with more effective support structures, skills, and incentives. Despite its recognized importance, theoretical evidence and practical guidance on capacity development for KMb are scattered across disciplines and practices. To address this, we conducted a scoping review study to review the current practices and concepts and identify significant gaps. One-thousand six-hundred thirty records were gathered, and 105 peer-reviewed and gray literature documents from 2010 to 2020 were reviewed. Two reviewers worked independently in screening the records, and one researcher analyzed the retained documents. The analysis reveals that capacity development for KMb is a multidimensional and multiscalar concept and practice with a diverse range of initiators, initiatives, and beneficiaries. This study also reports on three thematic areas of significance emerging from the literature, namely: (a) individuals’ and organizations’ challenges in doing and supporting KMb, (b) the capacities and supports deemed needed for effective KMb, and (c) the strategies being used for delivering capacity development. Furthermore, this study identifies evidence gaps related to the process aspects of capacity development for KMb (i.e., planning), capacity development initiatives being undertaken in developing country contexts, and results from more formal evaluations of KMb capacity-building effectiveness.

Let me surface my connection to this paper. I am on the PhD committee for the lead author. Just surfacing that, just FYI.

This is a scoping review on the topic of capacity building for knowledge mobilization. There are many references in this article. Check them out because there will be some you haven’t seen before even from significant authors in the field. I thought I knew all the works for Powell, Davies and Nutley but this one was new to me.

Powell A, Davies HTO, Nutley SM (2018) Facing the challenges of research informed knowledge mobilization: ‘Practising what we preach’? Public Adm. 96(1):36–52.

I will focus my reflections on some of the main gaps identified by the authors and then use their own words for the two key takeaways. As a scoping review should, this article identifies what we know from the literature and what we also don’t know despite all the literature.

  1. Organizations as both catalysts and sites for capacity development.
  • a. There is lots of literature on capacity building for individuals but less so for capacity building for institutions. “46% of documents included in this review targeted individual-level capacity development, while 26% of documents were related to the organizational level. Particularly significant is the finding that only 6% of documents in our review focused on knowledge-producer organizations.” I find this analysis a little limited since we build institutional capacity by building capacity of the individuals who work in/for the institution. This might be splitting hairs but training a researcher doesn’t build institutional capacity since the researcher is often working in their own lab/project/studio. But if we build capacity for professional staff working at the institution then we are building institutional capacity. Discuss.
  • b. The authors suggest this might be a lack of resources. Probably that’s a contributing factor. But I suggest it also because knowledge mobilization practitioners don’t know the knowledge mobilization literature. Thanks again to a 2017 nugget from Powell, Davies and Nutley who looked at the degree knowledge mobilization practice was based on knowledge mobilization evidence. One of their conclusions is, “there is the ironic situation that the field of knowledge mobilisation practice seems somewhat detached from its own knowledge base, with knowledge mobilisation activities often being developed and carried out without reference to the existing theory or to practical experience”. I wrote years ago that we were all knowledge hypocrites. Quod erat demonstrandum.

2. Relational dimensions are critical but understudied.

  • a. Another of my old missives is that dissemination is necessary but not sufficient. The evidence demonstrates that engaged methods of collaboration and co-production are more effective.

3. Diversifying the evidence base on capacity building for KMb.

  • a. The literature is dominated by English language research located in industrialized nation contexts. The authors ask the question if such capacity building programs will translate into lower and middle income country contexts.

4. Documenting capacity development processes in KMb.

  • a. The literature is dominated by outcome evaluations. The authors encourage process evaluations as well.

The authors end by concluding that this study has “demonstrated that most capacity development for KMb initiatives focus on individuals and providing educational opportunities. However, as the role of organizational supports and capacities is emphasized in literature to overcome the challenges of doing KMb, we believe further research on capacity development for KMb on organizational levels is warranted. Equally important, our study argues that the process aspect of capacity development for KMb is much less researched and discussed than the outcomes side.”

Questions for brokers:

  1. If you deliver training for knowledge mobilization, where is the evidence on which you base your training? And if you have taken training for knowledge mobilization did those delivering the training mention the evidence they used?
  2. Are you a knowledge hypocrite (hint: we all are)?
  3. See above: individual or institutional. Are they really that different? Discuss.

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to facilitate discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other parties interested in knowledge mobilization.