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

Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
AuthorHuw T.O. Davies,Alison Powell,Sandra M. Nutley
Facing the challenges of research-informed
knowledge mobilization: Practising what we
Alison Powell | Huw T.O. Davies | Sandra M. Nutley
School of Management, University of St
Andrews, St Andrews, UK
Alison Powell, School of Management,
University of St Andrews, Gateway, North
Haugh, St Andrews KY16 9RJ, UK.
Email: aep2@st-andrews.ac.uk
Funding information
National Institute for Health Research [Health
Services and Delivery Research programme],
Grant/Award number: 11/2004/10
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 knowl-
edge 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
Twenty-first-century public services need to mobilize knowledge and to do so quickly. As the complex technological,
demographic and economic challenges they face multiply and become more acute, so too does the need to bring a
range of types of knowledge to bear in addressing these challenges: combining political, cultural and contextual
awareness with theoretical knowledge, empirical knowledge from research and the experiential knowledge of practi-
tioners, service users, policy-makers and citizens. The political imperative in the past two decades to base the organ-
ization and delivery of public services more firmly on evidence(Nutley et al. 2007) together with the more recent
and growing requirement for researchers across all disciplines to demonstrate impactfrom their research (Fazey
et al. 2014; Pardoe 2014) have drawn greater research and policy attention towards the processes by which
research can inform practice in public service sectors including education, criminal justice and health and social care.
A range of initiatives, agencies and roles have emerged that are intended to increase the use of research in policy
and practice (Cooksey 2006; Marshall et al. 2014; Heaton et al. 2016) and to address the wicked problemsfaced in
public services through new organizational forms like networks that have been suggested as better suited to collab-
oration and knowledge sharing (Ferlie et al. 2011).
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12365
36 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/padm Public Administration. 2018;96:3652.
One sector in which the need to encourage greater coherence between knowledge and practice is particularly
acute is health and social care; and yet despite this urgency, progress towards this goal has been slow (Wood
et al. 1998; Graham et al. 2007; Salter and Kothari 2016). Although there is much that is not yet known about how
best to deliver safe and effective healthcare in complex systems, there is much that is known but is not yet being
consistently or appropriately applied. Health and social care labour under the persistent use of unwarranted and
outmoded therapeutic and organizational approaches, wasting human and financial resources in suboptimal, ineffi-
cient systems.
The growing science of knowledge usein organizations helps to explain this picture, showing how knowledge
flows (or gets stuck), why these challenges arise and what may help to address them (e.g., Best and Holmes 2010;
Contandriopoulos et al. 2010; Greenhalgh and Wieringa 2011; Ferlie et al. 2012; Pardoe 2014). Knowledge creation
and use emerge as relational and political processes (Nicolini et al. 2008; Ferlie et al. 2012; Oborn et al. 2013; LSE
GV314 Group 2014). Knowledge is stickyat organizational boundaries (Nicolini et al. 2008; Ferlie et al. 2009;
Currie and White 2012; Powell and Davies 2012; Oborn et al. 2013) and more formal research knowledge com-
petes with informal knowledge (Ferlie et al. 2009; Gabbay and le May 2011). In turn, behaviour and decision-making
by individuals and groups are not wholly rational processes but are subject to a range of contextual, personal and
interpersonal influences (Bate et al. 2012). It follows that effective initiatives aimed at increasing the use of research
and other forms of knowledge in healthcare practice will also be relational and contextually sensitive (Davies
et al. 2008; Rycroft-Malone 2014; Jackson and Greenhalgh 2015).
In this study, we were interested in the extent to which the new theories and ways of thinking about knowl-
edge use were feeding into the knowledge mobilization practices of one group of key players in the research and
practice landscape: key research producers, major research funders and significant research intermediaries such as
policy organizations and think tanks. Examples of such agencies in the UK NHS include the Collaborations for Lead-
ership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRCs) which bring together health service and research organiza-
tions, while cross-sector organizations in the UK include the Economic and Social Research Council and the Alliance
for Useful Evidence. Outside the UK, examples include the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in the US, the
Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Sax Institute in Australia. These agencies potentially have a range of
key roles in supporting knowledge mobilization (Holmes et al. 2012). Our assumption was that it was likely that
these agencies would be drawing on the new ways of thinking about knowledge use in developing their own knowl-
edge mobilization practices for three main reasons. First, these new ways of thinking are not that new: the litera-
ture on knowledge use has grown considerably over a period of around two decades (Ferlie et al. 2012). Second,
these agencies all have an explicit (or heavily implicit) role in encouraging research use in policy and practice set-
tings; it is therefore reasonable to expect that one of the forms of research that they would be seeking to mobilize
would be the research on research use itself. Third, many of these agencies (e.g., the CLAHRCs and the Economic
and Social Research Council) are themselves active contributors to the research literature on knowledge
We focused on this group of players in the knowledge mobilization field because they are potentially highly
influential and yet to date there has been relatively little empirical work focusing on organizations at this level.
Exceptions include an interview study conducted in 200304 of 33 health research funding agencies from seven
countries (Tetroe et al. 2008) which concluded that much knowledge mobilization activity was ad hoc and arose out
of a range of diverse factors including the face validity of particular interventions, local expertise and resources and
stakeholder interests. Later work (Smits and Denis 2014) found that health research funding agencies struggled to
sustain linkage and exchangeapproaches and were not able to consider the more effective systems approaches.
Both studies showed considerable variation between agencies. A recent study of 44 research brokering organiza-
tions in Canada (Cooper 2014) similarly found considerable diversity and a marked emphasis on a traditional
approach based on research products. In addition, external evaluations of the UK CLAHRCs programme (Kislov and
Boaden 2015) highlight significant difficulties in collaborative working around research use. What the (relatively
sparse) empirical research has shown therefore is that research agencies working in the knowledge mobilization field

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