Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Consuming knowledge or constructing it?

By Emilie Wilson

Three things have recently come about in both my personal and professional life that have reconfirmed to me the value of picking up and dusting down old publications, re-reading them and seeing how their wisdom can be applied today.

I’ll begin with Duncan Green (Head of Research at Oxfam GB), whose blog I follow with enthusiasm and interest. Last week, Green decided to revisit some of his earlier and largely unread posts from 2008. Three years on, they still seem pertinent today (e.g. reflecting on the role of NGOs post-economic and financial meltdown of 2008).

Boys from Eton, an elite private school, and local boys (1936)
Secondly, I am halfway through British author George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier”. Published in 1936, it’s an astounding and graphic account of deeply engrained poverty in Britain at that time. Cue lots of reflecting for me on how rapidly Britain has changed in the last 80 years, why, and what can we take from this when looking at poverty around the world today.

Lastly, in my Communications role for the Impact and Learning team at IDS, I am breathing life back into publications from the Strategic Learning Initiative (SLI), our predecessors. And I’ve stumbled upon this gem by my former colleague Becky Wolfe, entitled Changing conceptions of intermediaries: challenging the modernist view of knowledge, communication and social change.

Originally published in 2006, Wolfe's paper “challenges modernist assumptions that knowledge is objective and communication is a linear process of transferring knowledge”. Instead, the author considers knowledge as being “socially constructed and linked to people’s values, beliefs, cultural practice and experience. Whose reality and what knowledge is regarded as legitimate are determined by epistemological, methodological and power hierarchies which combine and sideline alternative perspectives.”

Are we perpetuating "knowledge hierarchies"? 

"Knowledge”, as a consumable item derived from research which is then repackaged and presented to people we think can make change happen, is an attractive concept. We can then (attempt to) attribute (our) influence and change (that we've helped to bring about) to that item – be it an event, a publication or media story.

It’s no coincidence that information and knowledge intermediaries have proliferated across the world with the advent of quick, cheap and easy to use information and communication technologies (ICTs). This definitely plays into the hands of rapid exchange of “knowledge” as a consumable item – this time in the form of e-friendly data and information.

In fact, the multiplicity of online platforms through which we can ‘push out’ development research in a variety of formats, including social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, have the potential to fill our time and distract us from the task at hand: does this flurry of knowledge sharing activities do anything to bring about poverty reduction, increased wellbeing and improved social justice?

The danger with this enhanced ability to share and exchange information is that we perpetuate what Wolfe describes as “knowledge hierarchies”. Communicators and intermediaries can help to reinforce existing power relations by redistributing dominant ‘knowledge’, perspectives and values which benefit from substantial resources (e.g. glossy publications, international conferences, dynamic websites with RSS feeds, beautifully designed email newsletters, etc.).

Web hits v socially constructed knowledge

Having said this, we’ve seen over the last three years - from Kenya’s election violence to rioting in the streets of London - how social media and citizen activism can turn power imbalances on their head. For communicators and intermediaries, social media and new technologies offer an opportunity to nurture and curate knowledge, as a social construction.

By prising ourselves away from conceiving of knowledge as an output to be produced, disseminated and counted, to knowledge as being socially constructed, we open the field to open ownership, a wider range of  perspectives and a diversity of approaches.

In her paper, Wolfe identifies new functions for intermediaries beyond disseminating information, which takes this analysis knowledge into account:

•    A platform for multiple perspectives

•    Advocacy role

•    Facilitating interaction and stimulating dialogue

•    Assisting in process of mutual learning

Some of these functions are being reprised by IDS Knowledge Services, with whom the Impact and Learning team works closely, through projects like the development an open API to enable anyone with the technical ability to make the most of their data; Eldis Communities, a social networking site designed for development practitioners and researchers and the BRIDGE Cutting Edge Programmes which support gender advocacy, bringing together a range of researchers and activists and putting together comprehensive information packs around specific themes.

The challenge will be to measure the impact of these efforts – can they help bring about social change and reduce poverty?  

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Building an understanding of Knowledge Brokers and Intermediaries

By Catherine Fisher

My role within the Impact and Learning Team at IDS is capacity development co-ordinator.  I understand capacity broadly, not just as skills of individuals but as a set of capabilities that mean individuals and organisations can set their objectives and work within their contexts to achieve them

Among the knowledge intermediaries and brokers who have been the focus of my attention, I have felt that some of the factors constraining the development of capabilities have been a lack of identity and connection with peers, lack of understanding of the nature of the role and its contribution, and no consolidated body of knowledge that these actors can draw on to inform their work.

Issues emerging from these problems are intermediary and brokering initiatives that replicate each other, lack of learning about both positive and negative experiences and programmes designed without reference to the range of evidence about context and their potential contribution that could help shape them

While I was on maternity leave last year two big steps were made towards addressing some of those concerns. Firstly the Knowledge Brokers Forum was founded as a community of interest by the IKMediary Network, a much smaller community of practice I was involved in establishing in 2006.  Secondly, this forum hosted a fascinating discussion about knowledge brokering and intermediary concepts. 

I was lucky enough to be asked to summarise the debate and would like to share some of the key findings in this, the second of the Impact and Learning blogs.  

A global discussion on knowledge brokering and intermediary concepts

The discussion on 'knowledge brokering and intermediary concepts' sought to explore the different terms that are used in relation to these actors and understand more about their roles and functions.

In its examination of terms, this discussion pointed to a nested set of roles which expand in scope and the extent to which they are directly engaged in change processes.

Each of these can be associated with a set of functions:

•    Information intermediaries or infomediaries: concerned with enabling access to information from multiple sources and engaged in informing, aggregating, compiling and signalling information

•    Knowledge intermediaries or knowledge translators: concerned with helping people make sense of and apply information and engaged in disseminating, translating and communicating knowledge and ideas

•    Knowledge brokers: concerned with improving knowledge use in decision making and engaged in bridging, matching, connecting, convening, linking, boundary spanning, networking and facilitating people

•    Innovation brokers: concerned with changing contexts to enable innovation and engaged in negotiating, building, collaborating and managing relationships and processes

This diagram attempts to capture these functions and the way they engage with changes processes:  

Knowledge brokers and intermediaries: roles and concepts (Knowledge Brokers Forum;

What was interesting about this discussion is that it drew on experiences of brokering from multiple sectors (not just the development sector), in particular the rich experience and work undertaken in the agriculture sector in both developed and developing country contexts and the huge body of work on knowledge brokering in the Canadian Health System.

Cross-sectoral discussion revealed interesting differences in the way that knowledge brokering and intermediary work is understood and undertaken that provide a basis for new ideas and approaches. The discussion identified characteristics of Knowledge Brokers many of which, such as their hybrid nature and the relative invisibility of their role, make them hard to pin down and describe which contributes to the relative lack of understanding about them.

Reposted from the original, which includes issues identified that merit further discussion and/or action; and which can be found at:

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Welcome to the Impact and Learning blog!

By Simon Batchelor

As Team Leader for the Impact and learning Team, I would like to welcome any readers to this first entry!   

We have been running a private blog among ourselves for a while, and we decided that a public one might be useful.  Useful to collect all those interesting thoughts that happen in conversations and then never get followed through (mainly due to time!) and developed into a publishable documents. So this Blog will be a lot of (probably slightly) random thoughts about our work.  

What is our work?  You can find a summary on the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) website

Basically we are focused on the arena of getting Research (Evidence) used in Policy Making.  We are more than aware of the difficulties of policy making, how it’s a messy process, how you have to look at Windows of Opportunity, and all the nuances of the political economy.  We are increasingly aware of the role of Knowledge Intermediaries – and how they have a slightly different role than Research Communications.   

We work here at IDS with both Research Programme Consortia which have Research Communication built into the programme plan and are very focused on Research Uptake, and with IDS Knowledge Services

IDS Knowledge Services run several projects which look at providing access to research on development and stimulating demand for it, so as to inform “evidence-based decision making”. Many of projects are supported by DFID (thank you, DFID!) through the Mobilising Knowledge for Development (MK4D) programme, with which we work very closely. MK4D involves some very cool work, such as the Library’s (BLDS) information literacy courses aimed at researches and decision makers – I recommend their recent conference document

Of course at this stage, the first blog entry, I don’t know whether to make a personal observation or some official overview.  I think the webpages probably tell you enough about our general work, so let me make one observation about some upcoming results and data...   

We have been conducting research in 6 countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Nepal, Ghana, Bangladesh) among policy makers about their use of Information and Communication Technologies.  It’s not been an easy process – policymakers by definition are important people who have very limited free time.  They have been very gracious and we have almost 100 face to face interviews from each country – interviews that cover their use of technology, their access and use of various information sources, and their intended use of some of the new technology pathways.  We don’t have the data yet – and you might have noticed this is just a teaser to get you to revisit our webpages and blog for the results in the coming months.  However I am really looking forward to the analysis.  Do policy makers search the internet themselves or do they ask an assistant to do it?  Are they now using Smart phones for more than voice and text?  Have you ever wondered what proportion are actually on Facebook?

Below is a snap-shot of some of the data that is coming through from this study - it's only preliminary findings at the moment, so please don't cite this!

Sorry this figure is a preliminary output of an incomplete study - not for citation

I suspect the analysis will show its very contextual with connectivity and age being the main variables – but what’s important to me is that we will actually have some solid data rather than making (an informed) guess from personal experience.

So I hope you will return to find out how that programme of work develops, and to glance at other thoughts from the team.  Welcome.