April 27, 2012


K* (and * stands for what exactly?)

Knowledge management sounds as if we are controlling knowledge. Knowledge facilitator sounds as if we are not getting involved. Knowledge translator sounds as if we are just using google translate. Knowledge transfer? Intermediary? Etc. All that and more is the subject of the K* event being organised in Canada this week.

I’ve heard about this for some time already but am still not sure what it is supposed to be about, although every one seems to be in on it. (Even Appleton Estate rum.)

Dr. Alex Bielak is the main proponent of this idea/event and has shared some ideas on the GDNetblog. In a post titled What is KStar Initiative and why do we need it? he says:

er… he doesn’t really define it. Instead:

What was important to us was “getting on with it”, and not letting the terminology – important as it might be – get in the way

Ultimately I don’t think we should be spending a lot of time debating what we call specific elements

I am unfair. He has a video in which he tries to describe what K* is. K* is an attempt to stop the expansion of meaningless but interrelated terms to describe similar activities/roles. Instead of having lots of different groups, let’s have one, in other words. I agree with this. Jargon can be addictive. But it feels a bit contradictory that to get rid of jargon the proponents of K* have created more jargon.

I do not disagree with any of these two statements but it feels, however, that dedicating a whole conference to the concept of K* is kind of ironic -to say the least. It also feels a bit odd that one of the conference’s objectives is to help practitioners demonstrate their impact. So is it not clear that they are important yet?

But back to the concept. Alex Bielak does offer some guidance in the form of a framework (diagram) that points at what he means by K*. There is more in the Green Paper but I warn you that it is full of jargon (and, granted, lots of interesting literature). Let us see:

  • Push and pull: The framework assumes that policy pulls and research pushes. Sure, this happens sometimes but it seems to forget that the policymaking machine is full of researchers, policy analysts, data crunchers, etc. They push knowledge as much (if not more) that researchers in academia, civil society or the private sector can.
  • K* also assumes that there is a separation between producers, intermediaries, and users. As mentioned in the point above this is not always the case. In fact this is rarely the case. Professionalising K* therefore seems rather odd. It would be like professionalising research instead of professionalising economics, law, physics, geography, etc.
  • Does Policy Pull refer to policymakers asking for evidence to make decisions or for policymakers asking for evidence to support decisions already made? If the latter then maybe it should be Policy Push instead.
  • The emphasis on policy pull (see the video) is telling of the people involved in this sector. They tend to see the world in a very organised way. They come from the civil service in developed countries, or from the health sector where the idea of evidence use is already well ingrained into its DNA, and, most important, are not (or tend not to be) content experts nor influential.
  • Throughout the literature on K* and the video one can get the very clear sense that there is an assumption that knowledge moves in the direction of policy. This linear view of the world is contradictory will that K* is supposed to be advocating for. But this is the problem with attempting to model complexity -inevitably we have to simplify it.
  • I do not quite get the difference between translation, adaptation, transfer, and exchange and brokering and mobilisation. The K* community may not be too keen on definitions but these words mean different things and they need to be explained. E.g. A broker is: a person who functions as an intermediary between two ormore parties in negotiating agreements, bargains, or the like; while a translator is: a person who translated -and to translate is to turn from one language to another, to change form or condition, to explain in terms that can be understood, to move from one place to another, etc.
  • Somehow media communications (the media being a key source of information for policymakers) is left out of the K* box -and far away from policy. But the media does all these things that the * includes (it translates, it adapts knowledge, it transfers it from one space to another, it exchanges it in private and in public, it brokers access to information on behalf of the public, it mobilises knowledge, etc.). If ever there are K* professionals these are journalists.
  • Big-C and little-c communications: Again another distinction that sounds nice but is difficult to support. When an organisation communicates a brand or communicates to the general public it does more than just pushing a logo. Advertising is not about the logo but what the logo represents. Successful corporate communications are able to pass on layers upon layers of content and context information with a logo, an image, a sound, etc. Influence, particularly the influence of research, is closely linked to the perception of credibility of the organisations or individuals trying to do the influencing. Corporate communications (Big-C) are therefore critical and impossible to separate form little-c communications.

There is another worry I have. This focus on K* distracts us from the fact that this is already happening all around us. There are several institutions (and specific organisations) that fulfil all these * functions on a daily basis and by design. What we should be doing is focusing on them and strengthening their capacities rather than trying to relabel them or individuals within them.

Think tanks (if they do their job properly) act between academic and policy (and between others too). The media acts between the public and the public interest. The civil service acts between politicians and the public (including NGOs, researchers, etc.). Political parties aggregate evidence, values, interests, and other forces; then they act between politics, policy, and other actors. Etc. These institutions, whether we like them or not, are impossible to replace -unless we do away with our political systems (and in that case new institutions would be necessary).

My opinion is that if donors want to make a real difference they ought to fund these institutions and not attempt to create new ones. Fund the media (and journalism schools); political parties (and political science and public policy faculties while you are at it); fund civil service reform (and the necessary professional cadres: economists, sociologists, managers, etc.); fund professional associations and chambers of commerce (the unsung heroes of intermediaries: this is where research, policy, and practice comes together).

Above all, focus on people. When a competent medical doctor from Malawi meets a competent medical doctor from Canada and they talk about what each other knows there is not need for intermediaries. A competent engineer from Germany will have no problem sharing his or her knowledge with a competent engineer from Zambia. And a competent economist from the United States will not have any problems reading a paper by a competent Vietnamese economist. And the same is true within a country: a good economics professor will have no trouble talking to a good economics journalist, and he or she will find it easy to have a conversation with an economist in the treasury

This is what professions do: they use a common language to ensure that their members can talk to each other regardless of where they are. When the right people talk to each other they need no toolkits and not K* practitioners.

Don’t fund websites that republish what others have worked hard to produce (this is probably illegal -unless they were of course not getting paid to do it), don’t wast money on short term workshops to train people on how to use quick-fix tools or make them aware of new frameworks; don’t get too exited by new fads and all encompassing ideas (when have they ever worked?).

I won’t be able to follow the K* conference but will have a look at what it has been published after its done. I hope to learn more about:

  • What * is and is not (so far it seems like it could be everything  -is anyone not an intermediary between at least two other people?)
  • Why is this really that important that it merits a global conference
  • What roles do political parties, the media (and particularly journalists), the civil service, the private sector, think tanks, academia, etc play in all this?

Any contributions are welcome.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal