By Thomas Barker | STC Fellow
Researchers are finding ways to broaden the audience for their research findings. Knowledge mobilization through social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Research Gate, and other platforms, provides some ways to do that. In this column, I explore knowledge mobilization itself, some of the platforms available to communication and technical communication researchers that can help researchers connect, and an example of knowledge mobilization in practice.
What Is Knowledge Mobilization?
First, let’s define some terms. Knowledge mobilization and knowledge transfer are often used interchangeably. They don’t mean the same thing. Both are ways of communicating research results, but knowledge mobilization is the broader term. It encompasses a variety of activities that contextualize research data.
Knowledge transfer, on the other hand, is often used to refer to the channeling of results, data, and implications into this or that targeted arena. Little happens to the content of transferred knowledge; mobilized knowledge is shaped and tailored to an audience’s information needs.
Research Impact Canada maintains a long list of terms associated with research and research communication, but its definition of knowledge mobilization is a great starting point. According to Research Impact Canada, knowledge mobilization is an umbrella term that covers a lot of activities and outcomes:
Knowledge mobilization means brokering relationships between researchers and non-academic research partners so that research and evidence can inform decisions and understanding about public policy, professional practice and other applications. Knowledge mobilization services include methods of knowledge transfer, knowledge translation and exchange, and extend them to include the co-production of knowledge. Knowledge mobilization turns research into action.
Let’s briefly unpack some of the ideas in this definition. The elements of “relationships” and “co-production” mean that knowledge mobilization enables sharing rather than a downstream trickle. Policy and practice stakeholders provide key directions and validations of knowledge, something researchers desperately need. Mobilization “extends” knowledge into action. In this way, the definition touches on what is productive in research, something that was not always top of mind among academics.
The Then and The Now
First, understand the way research was before the advent of social media and knowledge mobilization. For many of us, the usual audience for our research was other researchers: academics with an interest in our academic conversions, research questions, classroom applications, funding opportunities, and, yes, results. Those who might actually benefit from our findings—industry leaders, government policy makers, health authorities, and the vast numbers of doctors, lawyers, managers, and workers—got to stand by and watch. Journals, like our beloved Technical Communication, tossed tidbits of information to practitioners by incorporating things like “takeaways” at the beginning of articles. Practitioners I have spoken to have never been satisfied with these handouts—a term used for brief summaries of research given out at conferences.
What has changed? For one thing, research itself has moved toward greater relevance all around. And with that greater relevance comes expanded involvement with, and obligations to, research subjects. Critical studies we undertake are “open” from the start: Research questions, methods, data analysis, and conclusions are all negotiable with the actual people being studied. Terms for this kind of research include “participatory action research,” “community-based research,” “collaborative research,” and “stakeholder engagement.” At their core, these research trends all lean in the same direction: toward knowledge mobilization from the grassroots up.
Participate, a network of research organizations focused on grassroots poverty and marginalization issues, defines participatory research as follows:
Participatory research comprises a range of methodological approaches and techniques, all with the objective of handing power from the researcher to research participants, who are often community members or community-based organisations. In participatory research, participants have control over the research agenda, the process, and actions. Most importantly, people themselves are the ones who analyse and reflect on the information generated, in order to obtain the findings and conclusions of the research process.
Participatory methods and aims go hand in hand with social media engagement. Movements love Twitter and Facebook as platforms providing access to social organizations. These platforms bring people together and provide a channel for citizens to interact with researchers. Knowledge mobilization is not like a lump of data with wheels. It means the cocreation of knowledge. Let’s look at an example.
A Sample Project: The Healthy Workplaces Wellness Links Blog
In my province of Alberta, upward of 20,000 workers are in the nonprofit, community services sector and almost 500 nonprofit agencies. This includes child welfare, foster care, women’s shelters, disability services, and home visitation for the elderly. Most of these agencies rely on government contracts and other grants or endowments in a disaggregated system that is extremely dependent on government systems of commercialization, privatization, and outsourcing. That is the funding and the service model. At the center of it are a handful of advocacy, training, and professional support associations. I work with and through these associations top down, but I’m using knowledge mobilization to start to build community from the bottom up.
Backed by a grant from Research Impact Canada, I am pushing a knowledge mobilization project—the Healthy Workplaces for Helping Professions project—that is a little different from the usual. This project was conceived in 2015 as a research project into the factors affecting workplace engagement and psychosocial (mental) health and stress in nonprofit community service employees. The formal survey and reporting phase of the project is over. We created a report, a wellness framework, training materials, and a data set, all available online. We institutionalized the concepts in a Workplace Wellness series (three courses) in our university’s continuing education program, and we funded a Wellness Award that acts as a scholarship (called a bursary in Canada). This is where such a project (out of funding) would normally close down.
However, the project is alive today, mainly because of knowledge mobilization, a concept that allows me to employ social media as a grassroots channel to frontline workers. The concept is straightforward: I create a blog post (content) using data that otherwise would go onto the dust heap. What was our dust heap? When we mobilized our knowledge back in 2017, we collected and filed away comments from our workshops that answered the question, “What strategies do you use at your agency to stay sane?” Since last December, a social media team and I have been mobilizing the list of about 150 tips, all straight from frontline workers. The effort, known as the Wellness Links Blog, takes these tips one at a time and shapes them, using our research results as a frame. Taking a tip as a prompt, I research corporate and training agency websites and some academic sources to add value. Voila: A blog article is created.
How does social media come in? Start a WordPress blog and Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, and you’re in business. The blog essentially contains the content, and the social media channels handle the downstream promotion of the ideas, adding commentary through quote retweets and Facebook and Instagram comments and posts. After we created about 25 social posts, we shifted to a social listening posture, focusing on posts and tweets by professional associations and individual agencies. The key here is to find opportunities for content provision and then provide it, so the next round of blog articles can be even more targeted, and we can begin to build a broad, knowledge-mobilization community.
The Value in Knowledge Mobilization
This broadening and adding value is where I think the real promise of knowledge mobilization lies. Researchers have long bemoaned the waste of unused data. An industry report, as described by Jeff Barrett (@barrettall) claims that roughly 73% of data “goes unused” for analytics. And this is in the context of big data. (Don’t get me started on the oil spill of data from the Internet of Things.) Barrett cites a source claiming that “almost 85% of these industries let this data sourced from trillions of data points go unused.” Data mining is one approach to these points, but knowledge mobilization by actual researchers can do a much better job after they first overcome institutional barriers.
It is not that researchers failed to recognize a trend toward knowledge mobilization. One study in 2008 claimed an “explosion of interest” in connecting research and evidence with policy and practice. But 10 years later, another study in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education sadly reported that “researchers spend less than 10% of their time on non-academic outreach.” Luckily, in Canada, several voices continue to emphasize the importance of connecting research to stakeholders, seeing the benefits of knowledge sharing, and, in the case of research with Indigenous partners, giving over control of questions, analytics, and data to the people from whom the data were collected. Unfortunately, studies show that supports for knowledge mobilization either do not exist, or, where they do, they are little used by researchers.
As we have seen, the concept of knowledge mobilization is complicated and interesting. It is not just transfer. Social media and the bottom-up approach of everyday media, like Twitter and Instagram, provide pathways and tools to do what knowledge mobilization is supposed to do: Deliver a quality, value-added context for—and access to—the world of academic knowledge. To do this, as shown in the Healthy Workplaces example, requires both a strategy for disseminating and a strategy for listening. Social media approaches hold promise for exploiting everything from leftover data sets to vast sets of unused data points, ready for mining. For industry and social service stakeholders, the promise is yet more evidence in the search for evidence-based policy and practice. For academia, the promise is free and transparent research environments, representing partnerships in knowledge creation.
This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barrett, Jeff. 2018. “Up to 73 Percent of Company Data Goes Unused for Analytics. Here’s How to Put It to Work,” Inc., 12 April 2018. https://www.inc.com/jeff-barrett/misusing-data-could-be-costing-your-business-heres-how.html.
Cooper, Amanda, Joelle Rodway, and Robyn Read. 2018. “Knowledge Mobilization Practices of Educational Researchers across Canada. Canadian Journal of Higher Education/Revue canadienne d’enseignement supérieur 48 (1): 1–21.
Healthy Workplaces for Helping Professions Project. n.d. Accessed 20 January 2021. http://hwhp.ca.
Participate. n.d. Accessed 20 January 2021. https://participatesdgs.org/.
Research Impact Canada. n.d. “Knowledge Mobilization.” Accessed 20 January 2021. http://researchimpact.ca/knowledge-mobilization/#mobilization.