By Sarah Morton

Sarah Morton, University of Edinburgh works at the interface between social research, policy and practice in a range of leadership roles. She is Co-Director at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships www.crfr.ac.uk where she leads a Knowledge Exchange team .She is a Director of What Works Scotland (www.whatworksscotland.ac.uk) leading on the evidence to action stream that aims to increase ways that local authorities can use evidence to develop public services. She is also the Director (Knowledge Exchange and Research Impact) for the Usher Institute of population health and informatics (http://www.ed.ac.uk/usher). She has worked as an Impact Analyst within the University, for the ESRC (http://www.esrc.ac.uk/) and with wider projects. Sarah’s research has investigated the process assessing the impact of research on policy and practice. (http://crfrblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/how-does-research-impact-happen.html). She is an Associate Editor of the journal Evidence and Policy (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/ep). Here Sarah reflects from her experience and knowledge of the literature to bring out five tips for getting knowledge into action.

I think we are at a good time in the knowledge mobilisation field. We have built a body of research that explains a lot about what helps and hinders knowledge getting used to aid decision making in policy and practice. (see Oliver 2014). We are developing rewards and incentives to help academics get research out of the academy (e.g http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/innovation/policies/), and we are at least playing lip service to the idea that policy and practice should be informed by the latest evidence (KNAER is a good example). 

Despite this, there are still many pitfalls along the way, and it is often easier to identify where things went wrong rather than success stories. The five tips I have identified below will not surprise many readers of this blog, and yet they are often the pitfalls that I see in practice. I’d really welcome any comments from readers about whether these are issues that you see in your practice, if I have missed something major, or if you disagree completely!

Five tips for getting knowledge into action:

Plan ahead

Any good project or process involves careful planning, but how often is evidence-use included in the plan? If researchers want their research to have impact, a well-planned user engagement and KMB strategies have been shown to be effective (http://www.esrc.ac.uk/files/research/evaluation-and-impact/taking-stock-a-summary-of-esrc-s-work-to-evaluate-the-impact-of-research-on-policy-and-practice/). On the policy or practice side, valuing evidence, showing leadership and embedding evidence into organisational practices are all key.

So what would a planned evidence use process look like? For those from policy or practice it might consider how evidence will frame any project or development (http://www.crfr.ac.uk/assets/CRFR_ESS_IS_Evidence_base_briefing.pdf) , how it will be considered and built on, what will be done when people don’t agree on what the evidence says, and how evidence will be accessed, analysed and interpreted. For research teams and partners it would consider who will be engaged and involved, what methods are best for engaging stakeholders and how the research might contribute to change. This needs to move beyond simple ideas of making research accessible, into more complex and process focussed projects. (I have written about this much more extensively here http://rev.oxfordjournals.org/content/24/4/405.abstract)

Get the right people round the table

In our evidence to action projects About Families (http://www.crfr.ac.uk/projects/current-projects/about-families/) and the Evidence Request Bank (http://www.crfr.ac.uk/projects/current-projects/evidencebank) we learnt a lot about who is involved in evidence-use processes. Like others taking a systems-thinking approach (e.g. Best and Holmes 2010) we believe that it is essential to include a range of key actors in any knowledge mobilisation process. This would include considering the skills mix of any team in accessing, interpreting and animating evidence of different types. Any systems change also needs to include the perspectives of all key players within the system. Depending on the size of the change project these views might be represented in person, or through consultation of various kinds.

Have the conversation

Often the starting point for evidence use projects is the evidence itself, but there are a variety of discussions and framings that are essential for evidence to action. What is evidence needed for? What kinds of evidence might be useful? How will they be interpreted? How will evidence inform change processes? Who needs to be involved? Research doesn’t speak for itself so relationships are key to evidence to action. Effective facilitation of knowledge mobilisation needs an ongoing sense of open dialogue, regular revisiting of planned aims, interrogation of context, and keeping the conversation going about the usefulness and relevance of evidence. We worked with Research Impact (http://researchimpact.ca/) and NCCPE (https://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/) to develop a manifesto for partnership research that can help frame some of this conversation http://www.crfr.ac.uk/manifesto-for-partnership-research/.

Focus on the process

Using evidence is not a one-off event, but an ongoing process. If people feel they have ‘done’ knowledge mobilisation then they are missing a trick. Using and reusing evidence, checking as programmes develop, and building up more evidence as events unfold are all essential parts of successful knowledge mobilisation. An ongoing focus on the processes can open up new opportunities, ensure ground is not lost, help address conflict and tension, and assess changing contexts and their implications for KMb. Overall a focus on processes helps to ensure knowledge mobilisation continues to be as effective and relevant as it can be.

Learn, evaluate, review

I said in the opening of this blog that we are in a good place in terms of understanding barriers and facilitators to knowledge mobilisation (although a recent review is opening up this conversation http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/using-evidence-what-works) . We are in a less clear place about what strategies and methods are most effective in which circumstances (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK299400/) . As a community of knowledge mobilisers we need to develop evaluation methods, reflect more deeply and write up what we find out. My own approach to this has been published here http://rev.oxfordjournals.org/content/24/4/405.abstract . Every project needs a learning, review and evaluation process, even if on a simple team scale. As the field matures this will be essential in honing the craft, creating training programmes and developing the most effective strategies.

So those are my five tips for getting knowledge into action. How do they resonate with your own experience? What might you add? What resources do you use? I look forward to continuing the conversation.


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Best, A. and B. Holmes (2010). "Systems thinking, knowledge and action: towards better models and methods." Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice 6: 145-159.