Facing the challenges of research-informed knowledge mobilization: ‘Practising what we preach’?

Powell, A., Davies, H. and Nutley, S. (2017) Facing the challenges of research-informed knowledge mobilization: ‘Practising what we preach’? Public Administration. 96(1): 36-52.https://doi.org/10.1111/padm.12365

Full text available: https://research-repository.st-andrews.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10023/18595/Public_Admin_submitted_final_version.pdf?sequence=1


The political imperative to make public services more evidence based has contributed to the growth in the past two decades of both research and practice in the field of knowledge mobilization: the range of approaches to encourage the creation, sharing and use of research-informed knowledge alongside other forms of knowledge. Paradoxically the growth of the field has made the challenge of encouraging research use much more complex and uncertain, and the roles of knowledge mobilizers much more diverse and demanding. This in-depth interview study of knowledge mobilization in 51 agencies concerned with knowledge for public services breaks new ground in exploring a paradox at the heart of knowledge mobilization practice: the challenges that research agencies face in practising in research-informed ways themselves.

This article might be a little old (2017) but it is from the amazing work of the Research Unit for Research Utilization at University of St. Andrews, formerly led by Sandra Nutley who was so important to any of us in our early days coming into the world(s) of knowledge mobilization. Sandra has since retired but the RURU website remains a repository of research on knowledge mobilization and research use.

The authors are addressing the ironic state that knowledge mobilizers do not effectively mobilize knowledge about knowledge mobilization. The dearth of empirical research in knowledge mobilization (ie there is lots of anecdotes and practice-based evidence but not empirical evidence) is one driver of this irony. “We wanted to examine this interesting paradox in more depth; our research aim was to assess whether and how the knowledge mobilization approaches used by research agencies are informed by the growing knowledge mobilization research literature.”

This internationally recognized group has adopted the term knowledge mobilization as an “umbrella term we use in this paper for the range of active approaches to encourage the creation, sharing and use of research-informed knowledge alongside other forms of knowledge”. Small happy dance.

The literature shows some key principle emerging across knowledge mobilization settings:

  • a growing shift since 2000…towards more relational approaches to knowledge sharing
  • many types of knowledge are not universal but instead are inextricably bound to their context
  • research exists alongside and competes with other ways of knowing (e.g. the tacit knowledge of health professionals or the knowledge and experience of patients and carers)
  • the principle of evaluation is well established in the knowledge mobilization theoretical literature but here most research organizations fail to evaluate and share results of evaluation

There was a diversity of achievements in the first three of these but with respect to the fourth: “Finally, we could discern that the fourth key principle from the literature, that of evaluating

knowledge mobilization activities and sharing that knowledge with potential users, was well understood and accepted by interviewees but was the most challenging of the four to put into practice.” This is exacerbated by the lack of engagement between knowledge mobilization practitioners and researchers. “The research agencies seeking to practise knowledge mobilization were largely doing so in a parallel stream to the conceptual development of the field that was being carried out in academic institutions. Although some research agencies in the study (e.g. the UK CLAHRCs) were embedded in academic institutions that were conducting knowledge mobilization research, even in these agencies a divide between theory development and practice has been observed.”

The authors conclude with, “In sum, the (somewhat ironic) research-practice gaps exposed and dissected in this study are not of course unique to the knowledge mobilization field but they do remain a significant challenge.

As an example of history repeating itself, I previously observed much of this back in 2012 with a blog post called “knowledge hypocrites”.

Questions for brokers:

  1. Are you a knowledge hypocrite (likely yes, you are)? What are you doing about it?
  2. How are you embedding evaluation in your knowledge mobilization practice?
  3. Have you read any of Sandra Nutley’s earlier works? Do it…now.

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.