K* (and * stands for what exactly?)

27 April 2012

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 or more 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.

Comments from the old site

      • I’ve been following the conference online and share a few of your questions/concerns but at the same time there are a couple of reasons why the K* discussions are important:

        1. There are lots of people working in areas related to K* often in their own networks using different technologies and approaches to do similar things, and often not talking to or learning from each other – so it’s valuable in itself to bring people together who work in the knowledge sharing/brokering/translation to sit down together and compare perspectives and learn from one another.
        2. In a related point – you are right about some groups not needing intermediaries, but it’s also clear that other groups do need them, and brokering/translating (or whatever you call it) is needed to connect different groups that don’t speak a common language, are not in touch with each other but would need to be brought together in some way in order to collaborate for improved decision making. At the same time it’s also clear that there isn’t any silver bullet on how to do this effectively and so it’s useful again to bring people together to learn from each other on this.

        Perhaps my main concern in this process is that much of the focus has been about connecting “academic” knowledge and evidence to policy, and perhaps not enough has been placed on bringing the “tacit” knowledge of beneficiaries and practitioners to the policy table, but the conference discussions have been quite encouraging so far on this point.

        • Thanks Ian

          Point 1. I agree that is is useful to ‘bring them together’. Is it necessary to ‘bring’ them together?
          Point 2. In these cases the ‘intermediary’ role needs to be played by organisations/people who belong to both groups (or at least one). I am not comfortable with the idea that the intermediary is someone who exist separate from both (who is neither a researcher nor a policymaker). The role of intermediating is played by organisations most of the time. The K* people who are mostly interested in the K* event are people who have specific jobs (KM, Comms, media, web, library, etc.) which, when used by the organisation, can lead to intermediation. But they, for the most part even if their roles are indispensable, do not do the intermediation. I am not sure I am being clear. But I will keep trying.

          It will be interesting to see what comes out this. But, maybe we agree on this, I am sceptical of any big gatherings of people who are too ‘into’ something.

          • Thanks for your reply.
            On 1. well you could probably say this about most conferences :-)
            On 2. I think you are right that KM people are usually not the intermediaries themselves although I also know plenty of exceptions (due to their personalities rather than their formal roles). That said for me, I think that is/should be their job to figure out how the organization, and the individuals within it can best play the brokering role and set up the methodologies systems and tools to support it. And honestly speaking I think we still have a lot to learn about how to best support our institutions to do effective brokering – whether another conference will advance our knowledge and practice in this area remains to be seen.
            And yes, I certainly agree with you on your last statement :-)

      • Alex Bielak

        Thanks for the questions you raise. Sine we are still in the full flood Of the conference I can’t take the time to respond to the many points you make. There is certainly a lot to both build on and agree and disagree with!

        What I can say is that we have had participants from over 40 countries actively engage in the discussions via webcast and the energy in the conference.

        Kind regards

        Alex Bielak
        Senior Fellow and Knowledge Broker
        UNU-INWEH http://www.inweh.unu.edu
        KStar conference chair

        • Thanks for the comment. I do look forward to find out what happens. I do think that these ‘functions’ are important -I would not be publishing a blog on think tanks if I didn’t. My scepticism is with the focus on them rather than on the organisations that already exist and play these roles and on the potential unnecessary professionalisation of these functions.

          • Alex Bielak

            Given your strong views in this arena I’m surprised that your name did not come up before while we were building this process and event. Particularly since we snowballed out from top thinkers and practitioners in the field to capture a wide variety of other leaders in the field.

            We’d certainly welcome your input into the Green Paper once it goes online.

      • Andrew Clappison

        Reblogged this on GDNet Blog and commented:
        Enrique Mendizabal on his ‘On Think Thanks’ blog today provided some interestiing thoughts on the K* concept. It would be interestng to see whether participants at the conference (still going on in Canada) have any thoughts on his reflections.

      • Anthony McL. Collins

        I really like your comment “the proponents of K* have created more jargon”. In fact KM is indeed a jargon-ridden field. For a not at all new but still true and provocative view of KM, this very serious and detailed paper of 2002 by an eminent University of Sheffield professor is a must to read: “The nonsense of ´knowledge management´” : http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html

        The religious proponents of KM will be very upset, but the simple truth is that the “K” letter is really a fundamental misnomer. Knowledge is something elusive within the minds of people, while INFORMATION is what we actually manage. But it´s not nearly so engaging as a term to pontificate on and amplify as K* variants. Actually, when I first read this paper, I nearly collapsed laughing, as the frank description of what passes for KM in the world of consultants is hysterically funny, but also revealing of a sadly pseudo-scientific activity.

        For a thoughtful comment on the Wilson paper
        “Knowledge Management in the Real World” is also worth reading: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/knowledge_manag.php

        As an aside, I am aware of a large global organization that initiated a KM program some years ago, then finally evolved the name into a KS ( =K Sharing) program, so that blogging, twittering and diverse other Web 2 social activities could be racked up as major global “KS” achievements within the program that barely achieved any KM. The fact that school children everywhere routinely do these … no further comment needed !

        • Thank you or this great comment Anthony. I have reposted it in the main body of the blog.

      • There’s a lot in there to discuss and to take issue with, here I focus on a few things shared a little late becuase I was at the K* conference last week – too busy talking to be writing : )

        Firstly I want to take issue with your assumption that K* is about moving information from one person to another in a kind of 1950s agricultural extension model. It isn’t. Its more than that, you might not agree with the broader spectrum of roles it encompasses but building this kind of straw man to burn it down is well, cheap. .

        As was illustrated at the K* conference, K* work spans a broad range of functions. This is encapsulated in the range of frameworks that try to outline the scope and functions of this admittedly nebulous range of work, They include aggregating and repacking information (at which you target your criticisms) but they also include matchmaking , linking, convening, re-engineering.
        One interesting function I learned more about at the K* conference is demand articulation whereby K* work with stakeholders who have expressed an interest in engaging more with research/academia in their work, to help articulate their interest so they can either locate research already undertaken, work directly with researchers, or even commission new research work so brokering between stakeholders and researchers.

        You argue that these roles are already played by a range of actors, and you name some in your blog (thinktanks, political parties, the civil service and the traditional media). This is true Yet there is something different about K* roles – its around the commitment to information and nd knowledge flows, often with an explicit commitment to the value knowledge generated through research processes but often with an awareness that this is no the only form of knowledge. So K* are interested in good decisions, good proesses, good learning and sharing – and they generally not committed to a specific decision in the way that a more advocacy or political organisation might be. They cannot be neutral but they generally try to play a less invested role in the process than other players.

        So here are a couple of ways in which K* actors add value to the kind of activities you describe.

        Info flows are still an important part of the picture i
        Your blog appears to suggest that the best and perhaps the only way that knowledge can be generated and people can learn is through direct interaction. The emphasis in your blog on face to face exchange as the only way in which ideas can be shared is pushing it too far, you don’t believe that, otherwise you wouldn’t write your blog.
        While dialogue and personal exchange is undoubtedly a key driver for learning and change and many of the stories at the K* conference were about ways in which K* practioners have enabled and supported such exchange, even Friere didn’t see this as diametrically opposed to engaging with info from outside that context. Info brokers can help to aggregate information and ideas, make them easier to find, help them to travel over time and space to be made sense of in other locations. Libraries have historically done this, new technologies and ideas have created many hybrid and innovative ways in which this important role is played – should we shut them all down??

        Close relationships are exclusive and can reinforce knowledge hierarchies
        There is consensus that close relationships between researchers other stakeholders, particular policy audiences is a basis for greater research uptake and influence. This is great if you are part of the inner-circle, not so great if you are went to the wrong school/university, live outside the capital city, are the wrong age/class/gender/ethnicity. The exclusivity inherent in close personal relationships is problematic as it can serve to exclude certain voices and perspectives, particularly of the less powerful. Many K* actors are working to create inclusive processes and spaces – whether virtual or face to face. This seems to me an important role that is being played in different ways and is worth talking about.

        Just 2 ways in which K* actors add value. So why bother talking about them ? You answer this in your blog.

        You say: “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.” While K* is not a profession, and does not aspire to be it lacks a common languagefor practioners to talk to each other wherever they are. The K* initiative aims to enable this. It is not trying to relabel people’s work or regulate it, rather acknowledge what is already there and strengthen the practical and analytical basis on which it is practiced. “Professionalisation” is a short-hand, perhaps a dangerous one as it leads to accusations of elitism, but for me anything that builds greater understanding of this hybrid role and basis for better action is a good thing. So K* is not as you suggest an elitist attempt to control knowledge. Instead it is a recognition that the changing world is producing changing roles and the people playing them would be strengthened if they could engage with each other and learn about that role.

        I’m not getting into an ongoing discussion on this forum as I’m on holiday right now, some of these ideas will be in a forthcoming IDS bulletin on reserach communication and others will be on the Impact and Learning Team blog. http://www.impactandlearning.org

        • Hi Catherine

          I do not think that I have simplified the movement of information to the 1950s agricultural extension model. But I see why you may think so. I do often say that complex problems do not require complex solutions but instead lots of simple solutions.

          Of course intermediaries can add value. But my concern is that intermediaries in the K* community (but not all, by the way) are detached from content and context. I act as an intermediary, sure, but only on think tanks. I know the tools of the intermediary trade but I would not attempt to be an intermediary on anything else. I do not know enough about agriculture, health, education, etc. Context is also important. These are roles played in different types of organisations and political spaces.

          But more value comes from the links I can make between peers. When ODI, GDNet, IDRC, CIES, Grupo FARO and CIPPEC (and onthinktanks) organised a meeting of directors of think tanks in Lima last year we had true peer to peer exchange. Directors talked to directors and shared concerns and ideas. We (the intermediaries) simply facilitated the meeting. And when they talked to each other they did not need translation or repackaging. And CIPPEC has been doing this for at least 5 years.

          Of course we cannot have these kind of meetings all the time, but I think you will agree that a lot more information can be shared between peers directly than if someone acts as a buffer between them. So in fact it takes less time to share directly between peers. And, come think of it, we do not need these meeting all the time. We are already bombarded with information every day. Maybe decision makers in think tanks just need a few intensive and high quality meetings where they can make good contacts in case they have to talk to someone and then just need to be left alone to get on with their work.

          So when it comes to people who might be ‘outside’ the same applies. It is possible to bring peers together. One of my professors in Peru sends his students from a top university in the capital to do research in and work with rural governments. Investing in universities in smaller cities is another. And new technologies can help a lot today.

          I will disagree in that intermediaries are neutral. Nobody is neutral. You would not happily communicate research findings that go against your own preferences. And by choosing to work at IDS (and not for a bank or a consultancy firm, for example) you have expressed your preferences. We all do.

          So, my main concern is the separation of content and context from the act of intermediation. I know this is not always the case. I know many communicators who are also economists, scientists, medical doctors or public health specialists, etc. And vice versa: economists, scientists, etc. who are fantastic communicators. But most (certainly those NOT in the Aid Industry) they do not really see themselves knowledge intermediaries (or any other term). They describe themselves as journalists, researchers, policy advisers, communication officer or directors, etc.

          But thank you for engaging in this discussion. And I invite you to contribute to onthinktanks with an argument for K*. I am keen to present more than just my own views.

      • Think Tanks, Civil Society, universities, colleges, individuals, policy shops, industry…we are all playing a role in K*. K* wasn’t meant to introduce a new organization or profession but to link those of us already practicing who can benefit from connecting to sectors and organizations not on our radar. K* tries to define a global practice of knowledge intermediary which by definition includes push, pull, exchange, co-production and
        relationship building around codified and tacit knowledge. It is a global practice that certainly isn’t new but certainly is fragmented. We can all benefit from coming together with a shared understanding of the breadth and depth of our work.

        At the K* conference I shared a panel on working with civil society/community with practitioners from Vanuatu, Argentina and Ghana. I practice in Toronto, Canada. As different as our contexts are we arrived at 9 common principles for engaging with community partners. We then went into a breakout session where we tested these with participants from Europe and Australia. The 9 were refined but remained common. That’s the impact of K* – that we can learn from each other across sectors, contexts and continents. You can read about this panel at http://researchimpact.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/aha-moments-from-k-thursday-april-26-2012/.
        I share the concerns about terminology and jargon but I also don’t worry about them. I have blogged that I welcome others to that debate because I am too busy doing it to worry about the subtleties of what we call it. I leave that debate to others.

        • Thank for this comment, David. And for sharing your posts on the K* conference. I am not trying to close the discussion, rather open it. But are these lessons:

          Build trust between partners
          Develop capacity for K* in all partners
          Use a mix of methodologies
          Use web 2.0 tools
          Involve traditional media
          Peer supports
          Knowledge is not static and is co-constructed
          Understand the political, social and economic situations of the partners
          Build a culture of K* for all participants

          things you did not know before going to the K* event? Surely you knew this already…

          But maybe I should just drop it. I get it that there is value in meeting people from different contexts. I appreciate that. And maybe you are right in that the K* idea is not about professionalising something that cannot be. But as my blog post tomorrow will argue: maybe we really ought to be trying to make ourselves redundant.

          What is wrong with peer to peer exchange? Unmediated by in-betweeners?

      • Hello,

        I had not seen this discussion before as I started researching this after it occurred.

        First of all: I think that you are being misunderstood by some of the commenters but that you also misunderstand some of the criticisms of you blogpost. e.g. Catherine explicitly states “They cannot be neutral…” and your response is “I will disagree in that intermediaries are neutral. Nobody is neutral.” Where is the contradiction there?

        Secondly, even if we take away all the misunderstandings there are still some important divides in the statements made. You raise important issues around this becoming a “profession”. People associated with the “movement” will argue that this is not the attempt and emphasise that they are merely trying to bring people together that already do similar jobs so that they can learn together. However, this does not inherently eradicate the possibility that the shared identity necessary to talk of a “professionalisation” will not lead to the establishment of a profession that might disconnect people as much as it connects them. I have been at the 2011 UK conference on knowledge brokering (the predecessor to the K* conference) and there were people within the “movement” raising the same concerns.

        Thirdly, I think there is a crucial difference in some of the opinions expressed, based on differing assessment of the current situation. By ‘situation’ I mean how satisfied anyone can be with the evidence/information/knowledge/etc. being used in decision making (political and/or practical). An important aspect of the K* “movement” is that people there generally think that there is a knowledge gap. Without this perceived knowledge gap there would be no K whatever and especially none that attributes different K roles/functions to different actors. I have the feeling that you might disagree with the assessment of the current situation (or at least the scale of the problem).
        They (maybe I should say we, have not made my mind up on all the issues yet) believe that there is space (if not a need) for people and institutions that partly dedicate their time to understanding the matter/topic (in your case think tanks), partly understand the context (policy, practice) and partly invest their time in developing the skills necessary to have conversations with “knowledge holders” (academics) about the matter and conversations with “knowledge users” (politicians) about the context. These skills can be employed to serve different functions.

        I agree with you that all of these needs were already identified and most/all of them addressed by different actors within (and across) societies. I believe that K* is K* because it tries to recognise this and to be inclusive. However, going back to the current situation, people in K* think that all of these actors could improve upon their work and to do that they should talk to each other. What has, in my opinion, not been recognised to a sufficient extent yet is that this inclusiveness inherently leads to two things. 1. the scope gets to broad to be of value (you illustrate that by showing the vast amount of different actors that fall into the definition), 2. whoever claims to be inclusive increases the risk of being ignorant of what lies outside (in terms of actors as well as relevant literature, etc.). Both of these things show that the terminology question cannot be solved in the way some might think. Terminology discussions are necessary to negotiate where K* starts and where it ends, who is included and who is not, what information is relevant is not, etc. For those reasons, “K*” might not be a sustainable position.

        I would like to go back to the assessment of the current situation. In the K* understanding of reality academics and politicians, for example, are sometimes to far apart (in terms of knowledge, different skill sets, etc.) to do * without help. It would be interesting to hear your (and everyone’s) thoughts on this. I think it would also be beneficial to spend some time discussing the perceived “knowledge gap” (which others sometimes call lack in “evidence-based practice/policy”, lack in research “impact”, etc.).

        P.S. I am going to post this comment (in response to your blogpost and the discussion here) on my own blog at http://www.thoughtfordevelopment.com.

        • Hi Philipp
          Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I was having a conversation about it this morning with a colleague on Skype and was thinking that maybe my problem with K* is that I think that too much effort (and money and the time of otherwise rather smart people) is being put into something that is rather lacking in substance. All these events and reports on something that is yet to be defined (or can be everything -because, lets face it, we are all K*s between at least two other people, groups, processes). Human beings are ALL K*s. Researchers, even the most geeky, are K*s between their subjects of study, their literature, their formulae, etc. and other academics, who may be K*s between the geeky academics and science journalists, etc.
          The K* movement also assumes that there is a separation between researchers and policymakers (they also forget politicians -and think of policymaking and politics as more or less separate -strange, I know). But above all, maybe I am a bit too sceptic in this, they are mostly concerned in their own jobs.
          A much better concept is Robert Hoppe’s Boundary Workers. http://works.bepress.com/robert_hoppe1/15/I definitely recommend this.