Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Exploring the black box together: evaluating the impact of knowledge brokers

Cartoon by Sidney Harris (2007)
By Catherine Fisher

I love this cartoon! 

It seems to capture the idea of the "black box" that lies between the activities knowledge brokers and intermediaries undertake and the outcomes and impacts they seek to achieve. That’s not to say that they don’t achieve outcomes in the real world, rather that the pathways by which their work brings about change are difficult to unpack and evaluate.

The Knowledge Broker’s Forum (KBF) has started exploring this "black box" of how to evaluate the impact of knowledge brokers and intermediaries in an e-discussion running from 31 October until 9 November. I am (lightly) facilitating this discussion, along with Yaso Kunaratnam from IDS Knowledge Services.

If you would like to participate, you can sign up on the forum's website, it's open to anyone with an interest in this area.

Challenges in evaluating impact

We know there are a lot of challenges to evaluating impact of knowledge brokering. Some challenges stem from the processes (psychological, social and political) in which knowledge and information bring about change, the contested nature of the relationship between research and better development results, and the challenges of identifying contribution to any changes in real world contexts. This is particularly challenging for actors that seek to convene, facilitate and connect rather than persuade or influence.

As well as these quite high level challenges, there are the very practical issues around lack of time and resources to dedicate to effectively understanding impact. These challenges are explored in a background paper (PDF) I prepared as food for thought for those taking part in the e-discussion.

Being an e-discussion amongst 400+ knowledge brokers from all over the world, I am not sure yet where discussions will go, but I am hoping that it will shed some light on the following areas:

Breadth and depth of impact and outcomes  

How far do people go to identify ultimate outcomes of knowledge brokering work? I feel we can certainly go beyond immediate impact (e.g. personal learning) to push towards what that resulted in, however I wonder if it is meaningful to start looking at human development and wellbeing indicators. It will be interesting to see how far others are going.

Understanding behaviour change

If knowledge brokering is about behaviour changes that ensure greater engagement with research evidence, how are people defining those behaviour changes and are how are they measuring them? Are we too easily impressed with stories of information use when these could in fact hide some very poor decision-making behaviours?

Opportunities for standardisation of approaches and data collection

If people have come up with ways of doing this, is there any appetite for standardising approaches to enable greater comparison of data between different knowledge brokering initiatives? This would help us build a greater understanding of the contribution of knowledge brokers beyond the scope of any one broker’s evaluation.

I’ll also be interested to explore and challenge some of my assumptions – in particular that building some kind of theory or map of change is an important starting point for defining and then seeking to evaluate impact. This has been discussed previously on this blog and is a hot topic at the moment.

Our discussion will face challenges – not least the huge variety of types of knowledge brokering and contexts in which it is undertaken may mean there is not enough common interest. But I am sure that there is a lot of experience in the group that can be brought to bear on these questions and, in 10 days time, we will have a better idea of what is known, who is keen to explore this further and and hopefully how we could move forward to develop our understanding in this area.