Making more use of research knowledge

Huw Davies, Sandra Nutley and Alison Powell take a look at the effectiveness of knowledge mobilisation in the fields of health care, social care and education.

Illustration showing idea of knowledge mobilisationKnowledge is sticky, and needs help to move across boundaries. It comes in many forms and often resists easy capture and sharing. This has become very clear over the past few decades as we have struggled to understand why research often fails to have the impact it might.

Yet there is a rich tradition of social science to draw on and we have seen an explosion of creative theorising and modelling in response to these challenges. ‘Knowing’ and ‘doing’ are meat and drink to the social sciences, central to the study of human activity and organisation, and also central to the concerns of knowledge mobilisation. This tells us in turn that the creation, flow and promulgation of knowledge are enmeshed in often complex institutional and organisational arrangements.

And indeed, across the globe, all kinds of institutional actors have now become concerned about the under-use of research. They are seeking to develop innovative knowledge mobilisation strategies that respond more appropriately to the challenges posed by sticky knowledge.

In parallel, many models, theories and frameworks have emerged to describe the knowledge mobilisation challenge. These have been collated, marshalled and synthesised to bring fresh understanding and, crucially, insights for productive action. But it is by no means clear that these theoretical developments are informing practice on the ground. What we seem to have are many parallel developments in knowledge mobilisation that are only loosely interconnected, and there is plenty of scope for capitalising on both their theoretical richness and their diversity of practice.

To explore these issues, we are currently working on a project that seeks to pull these two strands of theory and practice together, and to look more closely at their interconnections. A key aim is to look at the thinking that has underpinned developments in the mobilisation of research-based knowledge in health care, social care and education over the past decade.

We are considering what knowledge mobilisation strategies have been developed and applied; what models, theories and frameworks underpin these practical initiatives, either explicitly or implicitly. What have we learned through doing all of this? And how can all of these observations and insights be applied to enable better knowledge creation and flow?  Early indications are that people in key agencies tasked with mobilising research knowledge are aware of the need to move beyond simple, linear models of knowledge transfer, but they are struggling to make a reality of this on the ground.

The funder of this research is the UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), so the primary arena of application for any insights gained is in health care. We are therefore looking at knowledge mobilisation practices in health and health care around the world. However, we also know that creative practices are developing in other analogous fields, such as social care and education, so the project is also reviewing UK activities in these sectors.

Data collection involves a mix of review work, in-depth interviews, survey work and interactive workshops aimed at linking the theory and practice of knowledge mobilisation in its contemporary guise.

Our hope is that this systematic analysis of work on the ground, reviewed in the light of contemporary theorising, will provide new insights for both theory and practice. As some wag once said, ‘in theory, there’s not much difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is’. We plan to open up this space to see what we can learn for knowledge mobilisation in the future.

Huw Davies and Sandra Nutley are professors, and Alison Powell is a research fellow, in the School of Management, University of St Andrews.

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