Thursday, 17 May 2012

Reflections on the K* summit: beyond K-Star-wars?

By Catherine Fisher

It was only a matter of time before someone made the KStarWars joke at the K* Conference that took place at the end of April in Canada. I’m only sorry it wasn’t me!

However, the K* Conference was notable not for its battles, but for the sense of commonality that emerged among the participants and for the momentum for future action it generated. 

The K* summit aimed to connect practitioners working across the knowledge-policy-practice interfaces to advance K* theory and practice. Its aim was to span the different sectors and contexts and different terms under which this kind of work is undertaken, for example Knowledge Mobilisation (KMb), Knowledge Sharing (KS), Knowledge Transfer and Translation (KTT).  Hence K*:  an umbrella term that attempts to bypass terminology discussions. 

This blog post provides links to some of the great reporting from the event, acknowledges some of the critiques that the event raised and points to the next steps for K*.    
The opening presentation highlighted how K* is about supporting processes of exchange and engagement between knowledge-policy-practice interfaces not the achievement of particular outcomes. It was great to hear this point made by John Lavis, who has something of a guru status in K* in health. Other important points were about learning about context and what that means, not just saying its important!
Another great metaphor courtesy of Charles Dhewa. The importance of multiple knowledges, knowledge hierarchies and the role of K* actors in helping to facilitate interactions between those knowledges was a recurring theme. E.g. see video by Laurens Klerxx talking about multiple knowledges and innovation brokers. 
As David Phipps explains in this video, participants from Canada, Ghana and Argentina were able to find considerable commonalities in their work with communities. This transnational comparison may be familiar to those of us who work in international development but it was a first for many of the Canadian participants who are doing really interesting work, for example, in government ministries or communities. I think this points to a strength of the K* movement in connecting people that might not otherwise talk.
The conference illustrated the range and scope of K* work. For example, Jacquie Brown, National Implementation Research Network who works helping communities to implement science, has learnt how this piece fits within the broader scope of K*.  For me, this seeing how different kinds of K* roles are played and how they intersect is important.  

In this video, I share some of my reflections at the time: brokering in the Canadian context including an  examples of brokering at the point of research commissioning:  power dynamics in brokering; and the way that informing role of knowledge brokering is getting a “bum rap” compared to more relational knowledge brokering work. I also get distracted by bangs, crashes and the emergence of breakfast!  

Critiques and the importance of engaging with them

The conference has generated some robust critiques. For example, Enrique Mendizabal sparked a discussion on his blog, On Think Tanks with a range of critiques including whether knowledge brokers are required, how knowledge is shared, and a critique of elitist professionalisation of this field. Scroll to the bottom of his blog post to read the responses, including mine. Meanwhile, Jap Pels argued that the nature of the debate at K* was pretty basic knowledge-sharing stuff.

I think both of these critiques raise interesting points but I think they constitute arguments For K*, not against it. K* recognises that the knowledge work is changing and proliferating, that there is considerable experience and understanding that is not shared across the different spaces in which the role is played. It aims to bring together bodies of expertise (for example that which Jaap Pels points to) to raise the game of all practitioners. It will hopefully provide spaces for debates and engagement with the kinds of critiques that Enrique raises.   

So what next for K*?

The conference generated a range of areas for further collaborative action, and plans for taking the K* initiative goes from here. 

Areas for further collaborative action included:
  • Understanding impact: a group agreed to share the tools data collection tools they are already using, I’ll be participating in this group, building on work of Knowledge Brokers Forum
  • K* in developing countries: a predominantly African group explored the particular dimensions of K* work in their contexts generating a number of action points
A group of participants gathered on Saturday to work out what next for K* as a whole. Consolidation of the K* Green Paper is considered an important next step – co-organiser  Louise Shaxson will be leading this work. There are ideas of developing a more formalised network, which will be led by UNU-INWEH in the first instance.   

UNU, who have led this process so far, remain committed and aim to get the support of the UNU governance. The World Bank has already provided financial support. Support from such international bodies is important as it will embed the international nature of this initiative, it is not without its risks!    

So to borrow again from StarWars, the force is, for now, with K*.  The scale and ambition of the initiative together with some indications of funding and high profile support suggest it has a future. However it faces both practical and fundamental challenges.

Practical challenges include maintaining ownership and momentum on behalf of the largely volunteer force taking it forward for now, identifying its niche and building connections around such a fragmented field of practice.

More fundamental challenges lie in ensuring that it really can generate value that will improve knowledge-policy-practice interfaces, rather than providing a talking shop for elitist actors.   

Catherine Fisher is a member of the K* Conference International Advisory Committee.