Lone cowboys need a posse (and knowledge brokers need to work in teams!)

Lesley Wye

You know the story. A lone cowboy (unfortunately never a cowgirl) rides away into the sunset having saved the day. The same expectations are often placed on knowledge brokers who bring together different communities to share knowledge and catalyse change. The lone knowledge broker is supposed to be a hero. But speaking from decades of experience, you just can’t do it alone. A single person does not have all the necessary networks, knowledge, understanding, skills or credibility. To be effective, knowledge brokers need teams.

In a unique experiment from 2013–2016, we set up the Bristol Knowledge Mobilisation team. This was made up of four local healthcare policymakers (called ‘commissioners’) and three primary care academics; all of whom had part-time contracts with both the university and in healthcare commissioning. Our aim was for both communities to draw on each other’s knowledge to create ‘research-informed commissioning’ and ‘commissioning-informed research’ (i.e. research of genuine relevance).

Imperative to success was embedding knowledge brokers in both organisations simultaneously. We found that the organisation where the broker was placed reaped the most benefit, so to satisfy both communities this two-way, co-location strategy worked well.

We created lots of buddy relationships whereby an academic and commissioner broker worked on projects together, drawing on their networks and knowledge. In this way, we ‘translated’ jargon, priorities, norms and interests and helped each other to circumnavigate obstacles to smooth progress. We were our own greatest allies, combining the best as both insiders and outsiders. What’s more, by buddying up we modelled the change we wanted to see. In other words, we practised what we preached.

A lot of elements had to coalesce. These included two stable, solvent organisations with senior managers that wanted to work together (and wanted the team to be successful). Secure funding and networks of allies were essential. The team was supported by flexible, focused leadership. Every knowledge broker had excellent networks and finely tuned interpersonal skills. And everyone had contracts of at least two years.

Although team-brokering provided a safe space to be vulnerable, share learning and build confidence, we still encountered rocky patches. Challenges included too many taskmasters (many of whom had unrealistic expectations!) and work overload.

Nonetheless, the pay offs were great, as captured by an independent evaluation team.  Many new collaborations were spawned between commissioners and academics, some of which still survive several years later. Commissioners increased their understanding and appreciation of research and service evaluation. Over half a dozen new research projects were generated from commissioner ideas, several of which were funded. Overall, we fostered more ‘commissioning-informed research’ than ‘research-informed commissioning’.

Being a knowledge broker is really difficult. We found that the collective support and comradery of an embedded, two-way, multi-professional team made brokering easier. We were able to model collaboration and created a critical mass to make change happen. A posse made all the difference.

For more on the processes and impacts of the Bristol Knowledge Mobilisation team, read our Evidence & Policy article, ‘Collective knowledge brokering: the model and impact of an embedded team’.

Lesley Wye is a Consultant in Knowledge Mobilisation, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Bristol Medical School and a former NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellow.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Wye, L. Cramer, H. Beckett, K. Farr, M. le May, A. Carey, J. Robinson, R. Anthwal, R. Rooney, J. and Baxter, H. (2020). Collective knowledge brokering: the model and impact of an embedded team. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426419X15468577044957.

Image credit: Pixaby.com

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

A comparative ethnographic study of collective knowledge brokering across the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic knowledge boundaries in applied health research

Evaluation outcomes of a knowledge translation platform: a structure for support and exchange in prevention

Knowledge brokers or relationship brokers? The role of an embedded knowledge mobilisation team

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