Four simple questions for navigating the knowledge mobilisation swamp

By Vicky Ward

Vicky Ward (biography)

How can knowledge mobilisers – people who move knowledge into action – make sense of diverse definitions, navigate through the fragmented literature and better describe their work? It all starts with a few simple questions…

Over the past 15-20 years, research and practical activity focusing on how knowledge can be better shared and used has grown at what sometimes seems like an alarming rate. For many, the diverse range of literature, terminology, models and tools can seem overwhelming and bewildering. In 2010, for example, McKibbon and colleagues identified 100 different terms used to describe the activities and processes involved in linking knowledge and practice (McKibbon et al., 2010). And in 2014 Huw Davies and colleagues found 71 substantial reviews of research literature on this topic across health, social care and education (Davies et al., 2015).

When I first entered the knowledge mobilisation landscape back in 2007, I had to distinguish between different approaches and models, and identify the ones that best fitted my working theories about knowledge and practice. I sometimes struggled to describe and explain the focus of my work to other ‘tribes’ of knowledge mobilisers who used different terminology and had different ideas about knowledge, practice and how to link them together.

As I reflected on my experiences and what other knowledge mobilisers were telling me about grappling with the same issues, I began to realise that there was a missing piece of the jigsaw – a simple and practical model to increase clarity and understanding across the field and reduce the risk of misunderstandings and misalignment between knowledge mobilisers and those they are working with.

From the literature I reviewed 47 models of the processes involved in sharing knowledge between settings and groups of people, and from these extracted 16 categories grouped under four questions. These aim to help those who are interested in sharing and mobilizing knowledge to reflect on, communicate and evaluate their aims and objectives, and select models and approaches which could support those aims.

1) Why is knowledge being mobilised?

This question focuses on the overarching purpose or intended outcome of knowledge mobilisation activities. The models reviewed covered 5 distinct purposes:

  1. to develop local solutions to practice-based problems
  2. to develop new policies, programmes and/or recommendations
  3. to adopt/implement clearly defined practices and policies
  4. to change practices and behaviours
  5. to produce useful research/scientific knowledge.

2) Whose knowledge is being mobilised?

This question invites knowledge mobilisers to consider the source of the knowledge which is being mobilised (or the ‘knowledge donor’). The models covered 5 groups of knowledge donors:

  1. professional knowledge producers who produce empirical and/or theoretical knowledge and evidence
  2. frontline practitioners and service providers responsible for delivering services to members of the public
  3. members of the public acting as, or on behalf of, their communities and people in receipt of services
  4. decision makers responsible for commissioning services and/or designing local/regional/national policies and strategies
  5. product and programme developers responsible for designing, producing and/or implementing tangible products, services and programmes.

It’s also worth noting that a number of well-known models and authors encourage knowledge mobilisers to focus on the audience or recipient of knowledge. This assumes that knowledge is a product and that knowledge mobilisation is a linear process. In contrast, many of the models that I reviewed take a co-productive view of knowledge mobilisation involving the continual re-shaping of knowledge between parties.

3) What type of knowledge is being mobilised?

This question allows knowledge mobilisers to reflect on the alternative theoretical and philosophical notions of knowledge and to better articulate their own assumptions about knowledge. The models covered three types of knowledge:

  1. scientific/factual knowledge (eg. research findings, quality and performance data, population data and statistics, evaluation data)
  2. technical knowledge (eg. practical skills, experiences and expertise)
  3. practical wisdom (eg. professional judgments, values, beliefs).

4) How is knowledge being mobilised?

The final question prompts knowledge mobilisers to consider the types of approaches or techniques which they are, or could consider, using. The models covered three broad approaches to knowledge mobilisation:

  1. making connections between knowledge stakeholders and actors by establishing and brokering relationships
  2. disseminating and synthesising knowledge via online databases, communication strategies and evidence synthesis services
  3. facilitating interactive learning and co-production via participatory research projects and action learning sets.

An important point about many of the categories I identified is that they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible, for instance, to mobilise multiple types of knowledge from multiple sources, and some of the models I reviewed reflected this. As such, the framework does not represent an overarching ‘typology’ of knowledge mobilisation but is instead intended as a practical tool for those interested or involved in sharing and mobilising knowledge.

As such, I envisage the framework being used for 5 purposes:

  1. personal reflection and learning
  2. articulating team/project goals and objectives
  3. networking and communicating with others
  4. evaluating knowledge mobilisation projects
  5. identifying relevant literature, tools and approaches (for more on this see the paper cited below (Ward 2016) which lists and categorises all 47 frameworks)

The framework’s greatest benefit, however, is likely to come in enabling knowledge mobilisers to develop clearer and more thoughtful descriptions of themselves and their work to increase clarity and understanding across the field of knowledge mobilisation.

What do you think? Where do you think the gaps are in the knowledge mobilisation landscape? What makes your knowledge mobilisation work most difficult? Are there other questions that you ask yourself when starting a new knowledge mobilisation project?

To find out more:

Ward, V. (2016). Why, whose, what and how? A framework for knowledge mobilisers. Evidence and Policy. DOI (open access): 10.1332/174426416X14634763278725

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:


McKibbon, K. A., Lokker, C., Wilczynski, N. L., Ciliska, D., Dobbins, M., Davis, D. A., Haynes, R. B. and Straus, S. E. (2010). A cross-sectional study of the number and frequency of terms used to refer to knowledge translation in a body of health literature in 2006: A Tower of Babel? Implementation Science, 5: 16

Davies, H. T. O., Powell, A. E. and Nutley, S. (2015). Mobilising knowledge to improve UK health care: learning from other countries and other sectors – a multimethod mapping study, Health Services and Delivery Research, 3, 27

Biography: Vicky Ward is an Associate Professor in Knowledge Mobilisation at the University of Leeds, UK. She focuses on how healthcare staff and academics can be supported to learn from and share their knowledge with one another. Her recent work has focused on developing a service user feedback framework for improving integrated care, how health and wellbeing managers from different organisations share and create knowledge, how collaborative relationships between academics and NHS managers develop and how knowledge is exchanged within service delivery teams. In 2014 she was awarded an NIHR (National Institute for Health Research) Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellowship to focus on how knowledge is mobilised across health and social care boundaries in community settings. She is part of the organising group for a new online learning network – the Knowledge Into Practice Learning Network (for more details and how to join visit [Moderator’s note in January 2022 – although the website still exists, this network no longer seems to be active.] Before branching out into health research, she had a career as a clarinet teacher and ran her own teaching practice. Find out how (and why) she made the move into health research on her blog.

5 thoughts on “Four simple questions for navigating the knowledge mobilisation swamp”

  1. Pingback: HabariTek
    • Thanks for the question Gabriele. I would say that knowledge mobilisation is more of a catch-all term that focuses on the processes through which knowledge is (co)created, shared, exchanged, used etc. etc. Knowledge mobilisers are those with a role to play anywhere in that process. Knowledge brokering is often used when thinking about ‘two communities’ approaches and builds on the idea that there is a gap or barrier between knowledge producers and users that needs to be bridged. But it can also be used in other ways. Overall I’m not too keen on trying to get bogged down in terminological differences and meanings but would rather focus on helping people describe what it is that they are trying to do – hence the questions!

  2. 4.4: Critically assessing whether the mobilization efforts to date are producing exemplary results, e.g., useful Effects, when and while needed, and doing no harm.


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