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Knowledge Mobilization and Knowledge Translation

Originally posted on Half an Hour, May 21, 2008.

Posted to the SCoPE conference, May 21, 2008.

One of the things I wanted to see Tom Carey explore in his talk today is the concept, suggested in this title, of knowledge mobilization.

From iisd, "Knowledge mobilization addresses how external knowledge (outside of the organization) is sought out and combined with internal knowledge to create new knowledge that meets the needs of target users/clients."

They continue, "Knowledge mobilization emphasizes purpose (meeting the needs of clients) and looks to how one brings in the knowledge of others. It recognizes that organizing one's own intellectual capital does not necessarily lead to innovation or change; implicit in the concept is the need for working relationships with others."

Knowledge mobilization is closely related to a concept that is gaining currency in the medical education community, knowldge translation. Here you have a similar idea of how knowledge isn't simply 'managed' but is rather put into action some way.

IDRC, for example, defines knowledge translation as "the exchange, synthesis and ethically-sound application of research findings within a complex set of interactions among researchers and knowledge users."

They continue, "In other words, knowledge translation can be seen as an acceleration of the knowledge cycle; an acceleration of the natural transformation of knowledge into use."

In both cases, it is clear that there is an interaction expected, that knowledge is not simply applied or transferred. From the IDRC paper again:

"There is a clear distinction between KT and knowledge transfer when the latter refers to a linear process through which research is first conceptualised and conducted, and the results are then handed over to the end-users. The unidirectional nature of knowledge transfer has often proved to be an ineffective way to ensure adoption and implementation of research results (Landry, Lamari and Amara, 2001)."

Also, "There is now a general trend towards increased interactions between researchers and users, and knowledge transfer strategies increasingly incorporate active processes and interactive engagement and exchange (Lavis et al., 2003)."

Both the concept of knowledge mobilization and knowledge translation recognize a relation between that pratice and knowledge brokering where "knowledge brokering refers to the active process rather than to the general concept/idea."

There's a lot to be said for this approach, obviously. It is a far cry from the days when people thought that knowledge could be simply 'captured' and stored in 'knowledge bases' that people would search in to find what they needed to know (much like the unloved and unread corporate 'knowledge' on the shared drives).

And it is a genuine improvement on the idea that knowledge can be simply 'transferred' from the originator to the person to whom it supposedly has some application. I think that in learning we have pretty much abandoned the 'transfer' model (haven't we?) and we would probably want to adopt another approach with respect to research and its application as well.

But it's not clear that knowledge mobilization and knowledge translation are (for lack of a better word) benign. If knowledge is incorporated into practice, then there is, in a sense, a mechanism whereby the person generating the knowledge obtains a significant degree of input into the practice.

We see this at work with knowledge translation. Consider how the Canadian Institutes of Health Research talk about knowledge translation: "Knowledge Translation, Commercialization and Industry Collaboration are all aimed at engaging stakeholder communities in the funding and translation of research for effective and innovative changes in health policy, practice or products."

On the other hand, knowledge translation initiatives can be useful and productive. The Atlantic Health Promotion Research Centre, for example, provides "a searchable database for KT-related resources (including information and resources about stroke and how organizational and health systems resources affect an organization's ability to absorb and apply research evidence)."

Because knowledge translation initiatives can have such a significant impact on practice, the management of such initiatives is crucil. That's why lobbying organizations such as the Cochrane Collaboration are interested in promoting knowledge translation efforts. By defining what counts as knowledge, and by embedding knowledge translation in the workplace, they have a direct link to practice, bypassing and circumventing policy-makers and social scrutiny.

This, one suspects, is how the commercialization of our health and education systems is to be achieved.

On the other hand, if approached from a more open perspective, knowledge translation also has the potential to reform the decision-making process in a positive manner. Current research is aimed mostly at decision-makers and practitioners. Knowledge translation, by contrast, considers the sector as a whole.

As Davis, et.al. (2003) write, "kowledge translation... allows attention to be given to all possible participants in healthcare practices, including patients, consumers, and policy makers." It focuses not on the needs and interests of the practitioners, but on the well-being of the wider community.

There is similarily a source of tension in the research model inherent in knowledge translation. Despite its emphasis on holism and interactivity, it represents the domain as linear and causal, as seen by the model that "works in closing the gap between evidence and practice," usually through an 'intervention' and measurement of results.

Though on one hand this may appear to be a collaborative process, the reseracher, armed with 'evidence', in a certain sense 'knows' how the practitioner is deficient, and hence works not merely by increasing knowledge and skills, but by "promoting conducive conditions in the practice" and reinforcing the change in various ways.

Worse, the practice becomes some sort of club to be used against what might be effective - but less commercially profitable - technologies. Doherty (2005) cites an excellent example: ‘as with many interventions … the effectiveness of parachutes has not been subjected to rigorous evaluation using randomized controlled trials’.

The problem is, when you limit practice to what can be shown 'using the evidence', you limit practice is ways that are unproductive, and possibly dangerous. The 'evidence' may not exist to support a practice we know, via other means, is effective. The 'evidence' may prescribe a 'cookbook' approach, by necessity oversimplifying what are in fact complex problems.

And worst of all, Doherty notes, "The final and often most scathing criticism of EBM is that it is a means to serve cost-cutters and administrators, that it is following its own political agenda and has created its own profitable industry. Is EBM a means to serve administrators or is it an attempt to improve care?"

Knowledge Mobilization, though it has a different history, adopts the same gap-based analysis. In his paper on knowledge mobilization, Peter Keen (2006) writes "what happens when there is a fundamental gap between these provider intentions and user choices? The answer is that user choices win out. That means that it is essential to fuse the institutional supply/management side of innovation with the individual demand/mobilization side of the knowledge and information investment/payoff equation."

It's all very well to say that user choices win out - and Keen makes the convincing case with discussions of Napster (which people used) and the semantic web (which people didn't). But there is a danger in an analysis that supposes that there is some fact of the matter about user choices that can be identified through some process of research and applied, as though it were some sort of glue (or "fusion") in practice.

But it is arguable - and I would argue - that there was no 'fact of the matter' about user preferences for Napster before the launch of Napster. Numerous factors operating one way or another played into the consumers' final response (the same is true of the semantic web, which despite being a big dud so far, is one gee-whiz invention away from mainstream acceptance). We can't draw the linear cause-effect relation here, no more than we can in medicine.

To be fair, it seems clear that Keen recognizes these limitations. He draws a clear distinction between an academically oriented knowledge regime and a business-oriented knowledge regime (what Lakoff might call a frame). And Keen writes, "from the perspective of user choice, the two different regimes of truth lead to two different domains of usefulness and awareness for information-seekers... Whose semantics should provide the base for the ontology and metadata choices?" Keen suggests we need to 'fuse' these different perspectives. I suggest they are incommensurable.

Another factor is important when one speaks of knowledge mobilization, and that is: he who controls the knowledge controls the mobilization.

Paul Capon, the president of the Canadian Council on Learning, for example, speaks of knowledge mobilization as though it will inform - evcn dictate - practice. "What do I mean by knowledge mobilization? I mean that the research will be used in order to identify the issues we think we actually need to know in order to move learning forward in this country so it is action research, not academic research; not pure research."

We heard from the Canadian Council on Learning yesterday, as John Biss presented. Concurrently was announced the release of a paper from CCL on international e-learning strategies. But we also learn that the paper was two years old! Is this what is meant by 'mobilization' - the selective releasing and non-release of data in order to motivate and move a sector toward a predetermined end? It is hard to draw any other conclusion from such a mismanagement of communication of research results.

The presumption that there is a privileged group that is in some way able to identify 'gaps' in the current state and some desired future state is, in my mind, flawed. It is flawed, not simply because any assessment of the current state depends on perspective, and is not therefore theory-neutral, and it is flawed not simply because there does not, and will never, in a complex system, exist a causal mechansism to move one from the original state across the gap to the desired state, but rather, because the articulation of the desired state, so crucil to the determination of action, is not an epistemological problem, but rather, one of power and authority.

And knowledge mobilization (and knowledge translation) is, in my mind, especially when practiced in an institutional setting, a legitimation of that authority, an authority that is just as likely based on the prejudices and desires of those in control, and not any objective, theory-neutral, or evidence-based statement of the desired outcome.

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