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What makes models useful? Thinking about and implementing K*

Written by Louise Shaxson


I work in international development, at a think tank.  This means I work in the world of knowledge: communicating it, managing it, brokering it, translating it, mobilising it… However, it seems to me that I did the same when I worked in a UK-focused consultancy organisation.  Or did I?  The range of terms used in the knowledge field has expanded considerably over the past decade – so much so that our understanding of what knowledge workers do seems to have become muddier rather than clearer.  K* (KStar) is a term that was coined by Alex Bielak, and explored at the K* conference in April 2012, as a useful shorthand for the plethora of acronyms for knowledge brokering (KB), knowledge translation (KT), knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE), knowledge mobilisation (KMb) etc.  The K* concept paper just released addresses this array of terms, showing that they are all systemically linked to each other and trying to unify the field to some extent.  But how did we get there and what is K*?

That was then…

In the early 2000s I spent several years as a consultant to Defra, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, helping them get to grips with this new thing called evidence-based policymaking.  I had a very free-ranging role: reading all the academic literature to find clues about how to practice an evidence-based approach (there were very few), working with policymakers to determine what they meant by robust evidence for policy (we had to develop that ourselves), answering questions like ‘so what does an evidence base for policy look like?’ (long story: see our IDS working paper) and helping design and implement large organisational change processes to make it all happen (also a long story: see the working paper above, but also Defra’s Evidence Investment Strategy). 

Having done a fair bit of work in my previous DFID job on assessing the quality of qualitative and quantitative data, getting to grips with the politics of evidence in policy-making in Defra was a very steep learning curve.  While the politics that surrounded the meaning of evidence were tricky to navigate (is research better evidence than information that comes from citizen consultation?), the inter- and intra-organisational politics about whose evidence counted for what were also pretty fierce. Even then, there was a lot of discussion about what we meant by evidence-based policy-making: current arguments about the term (such as in Andres du Toit’s recent article) are an extension of what was going on in Defra in 2003/4 and our struggles to translate the original, narrow intent of the ‘what works’ agenda to the vastly more complex world of environmental policy-making. 

I was in a constant state of tension, operating at the interface between academia and policy.  Policy-makers were always amused when I asked them to go back to first principles to think about what their evidence base should contain and how they should manage it (‘You’re so academic!’).  They just wanted quick answers so they could get on and do it.  But the academics gently ribbed me for wanting to get to the answers too fast and not thinking through the wider concepts that needed to underpin our actions so that we could be sure that they were as robust as possible (‘You’re such a consultant!’)  I did finally decide this middle space was a good place to be and that the tension was a creative one, but it wasn’t always easy. 

…and this is now…

I find myself in the same position now, in relation to the concept paper we have just produced on K*.  The April 2012 conference in Hamilton showed that it doesn’t seem to matter which sector or geography you work in, what size of organisation you work for, or whether your role is a formal or informal one: there is a large amount of common ground between those working to improve the links between practice, policy and research.  What you do as a knowledge broker is related to what someone else does as a knowledge translator or mobiliser.  They’re not the same, but they have the same roots.  This is summarised in the K* nested ovals diagram (which went through several iterations at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in 2010 and in Jones et al 2012 before being elegantly condensed by Catherine Fisher on the Knowledge Brokers’ Forum).  It’s the beginning of a conceptual underpinning for the field and clearly illustrates that all the different functions are systemically related. 

But concepts alone aren’t good enough – the framework needs to be practical if it is to be useful.  The management consultant in me took the framework and turned it into the beginnings of a strategy, with the help of participants at a DFID/AusAID workshop in 2010.  It seems to have worked: since the draft concept paper was submitted for comment, various people have adopted the language of K* or begun to use the paper in their organisations to develop K* strategies. The World Bank’s knowledge team will also be drawing on it for their forthcoming second Knowledge Report and the United Nations University is pulling together a working group on the topic. 

…so all comments and suggestions are welcome

It’s still very much a work in progress.  My hope is that the K* concepts and framework are conceptually robust enough to stand up to the politics of evidence as those organisations begin to use it to make the sorts of changes we were trying to implement in Defra.  But there’s a lot more to learn about how the concepts and framework are applied in different organisations, and how to recognise and work with the politics of evidence.  Any comments and suggestions for improvements are welcome… on a postcard, please!