Facilitating narratives for knowledge co-production: A knowledge broker’s role

By Faye Miller and Jess Melbourne-Thomas

1. Faye Miller (biography)
2. Jess Melbourne-Thomas (biography)

How can knowledge brokers facilitate transdisciplinary knowledge co-production and mobilisation? How can a narrative approach contribute to the knowledge co-creation process?

A knowledge broker often sits between different stakeholders (researchers, end-users, policymakers) to facilitate knowledge co-creation and knowledge mobilisation. Their main role is to make evidence accessible, understandable and useful for knowledge users. As knowledge mobilisation is usually experienced by participants as a personal and social activity, a key starting point for facilitating knowledge co-production with different stakeholders is to develop a narrative approach.

The narrative approach focuses on how people co-construct their professional and personal identities, and being constantly aware of their own story, why they are knowledge brokering and for whom. The narrative approach also encourages curiosity about the stories around concepts, products, services and life experience from people they might interact with as part of the knowledge brokering process.

Benefits of a narrative approach relevant to the knowledge brokering roles include:

  • Bridging and blending research evidence (that usually stays siloed) together with practice, policy, end-user based knowledge;
  • Nurturing and maintaining dynamic and adaptive partnerships;
  • Making conflict between diverse groups a positive force by using it to generate shared understanding;
  • Enabling shared concepts and/or objects for policy and practice to be seen from different perspectives;
  • Building trust and respect; and,
  • Engaging stakeholders through hearts and minds by connecting with their personal values.

In essence, the knowledge broker’s role in facilitating narratives has two purposes:

  1. identity development – the importance of knowing their narrative in strengthening partnerships, and,
  2. how to facilitate narratives in transdisciplinary groups using the techniques of small stories and collective making.

Identity development for knowledge brokers

Knowing their narrative is key to success as a knowledge broker – to define their powerful story, reflecting on their journey and future pathways, showing where they have come from, how the story reflects their core values and how their values shape their professional identity and purpose. Core values are often developed in formative years and evolve with experience.

The broad spectrum and unpredictable nature of knowledge brokering as a career offers an opportunity for self-definition, aligned to the goals or needs of a knowledge brokering role, project and stakeholders. Some benefits of knowing their narrative include:

  • increasing self-awareness for building confidence, courage, self-efficacy, self-actualisation and career satisfaction;
  • acting as a guide for finding and attracting career opportunities that align with their values and purpose;
  • defining their physical presence or online identity; and,
  • making it easier for stakeholders to engage, relate and connect into their or another’s work role.

Knowledge brokers can consolidate their own personal narratives with a career development consultant or with other knowledge brokers working in a particular area. The purpose of career development using a narrative approach is to facilitate creating awareness of meanings and patterns through life storytelling.

The figure below shows an example of a personal narrative in a career map format. Career maps can be drawn in many different ways. The example below places the current or future knowledge broker at the centre of their narrative. They are self-defined by the formation of core values which shape their answers to reflective questions around their purpose, problems, skills, competencies and actions, to be revisited throughout their career trajectory.

Drawing a career map can enable knowledge brokers to trace and communicate when their personal values formed in early life, education and various work experiences in research, practice and/or policy settings. For example, some values (yellow) may have been formed in early life and may become important again at a later career stage. Other values (blue and pink) are consolidated and evolved during particular work roles, developed from unique combinations of experience towards knowledge brokering and intermediary roles.

Personal career pathway narrative map (Source: Faye Miller and Jess Melbourne-Thomas)

Knowing their own narrative is also an essential step for a knowledge broker towards developing a transdisciplinary mindset, which in turn promotes self-efficacy, self-reliance, and proactivity in forming partnerships and exercising adaptive leadership.

Facilitating narratives in transdisciplinary groups

Knowledge brokers can use the narrative approach to enable co-creating and sharing stories at suitable times in the knowledge co-production process. It can be useful to think of narratives as the diverse meanings and dialogues that are shared among stakeholders. For example, if resilience thinking and stewardship are implemented as boundary objects for engagement with policy makers and the public, facilitating storytelling around these bridging concepts can help improve the uptake, transfer and innovation of research findings.

Techniques such as small stories and collective making may be implemented for stimulating knowledge co-production. Small stories are micro-narratives often focusing on moments in time that capture for example, incidents, case studies, actions, memories, cultural meanings or local contexts. Small stories, viewed as complementary to big stories such as life biographies and end-user journeys, can briefly represent and stimulate dialogues on the larger, long-term issues being tackled by a transdisciplinary group.

For example, a knowledge broker may facilitate a group session by sharing their own compelling story about why their area of interest needs knowledge brokering. They would invite participants to share small stories on how they have personally experienced bridging concepts such as stewardship or resilience in their context. The knowledge broker actively listens to combine small stories from research, policy and practice, noting points of difference, commonalities, conflicts or gaps in knowledge, and making these insights accessible.

This could be followed up with a hands-on collective making activity informed by insights gained from blended storytelling, to co-design outputs that act as boundary objects, such as service or product prototypes. Collective making produces things that embody joint knowledge, while being mindful of the context of their application, thus are more likely to be actionable.

Concluding remarks

Using the narrative approach to develop self-knowledge and identity, and to powerfully communicate where one stands, is crucial for knowledge brokering. It is equally important to be able to balance this through deep listening with empathy and shared understanding with those one is negotiating with – policy and practice collaborators, authorities, research end-users, and also with people who provide instrumental and emotional support outside of knowledge brokering.

Shared understanding in practice goes beyond finding a shared narrative, to helping people understand and navigate conflicting differences in worldviews. It also respects that many cultural stories require appropriate authority to tell or share. Through listening to diverse narratives, creative intelligence can be generated from unusual interactions.

A narrative approach to developing one’s identity, facilitating narratives in transdisciplinary groups to co-design boundary objects and negotiating a shared understanding can enable compelling engagement for stakeholders in a number of knowledge brokering tasks and scenarios – while facilitating continuous dialogues and translating research into action.

Does the narrative approach resonate with your experiences as a knowledge broker or intermediary? Can you think of any other scenarios where knowledge brokers might benefit from narrative approaches?

This blog post is based on a session facilitating narrative career development for knowledge brokers at the 2022 Connecting the Dots Knowledge Brokering Symposium supported by the Australian Academy of Science through the Theo Murphy Initiative.

Biography: Faye Miller PhD is Director and Principal Consultant at Human Constellation, a research and career development consulting service for researchers, academics and practitioners from diverse backgrounds and career stages. She is a qualified and experienced career development practitioner, and also a transdisciplinary researcher and knowledge broker in the area of social technology for mental health, wellbeing and social sustainability. She is currently based in Canberra, Australia.

Biography: Jess Melbourne-Thomas PhD is a transdisciplinary researcher and knowledge broker, and leads the Marine Socio-ecological Systems Team in the Coasts and Oceans Research Program with CSIRO Oceans & Atmosphere in Hobart, Australia. Her background is in mathematical modelling and Antarctic climate change science, and in her current role is helping to connect research to decision-making for sustainability and climate change adaptation.

9 thoughts on “Facilitating narratives for knowledge co-production: A knowledge broker’s role”

  1. I am a knowledge broker and translator at a government funded research center. I have a science education which allows me to understand the science with little guidance and government policy work experience – a tetris person?? I was employed in 2017 and since that time the role, and my own understanding of the role has changed dramatically. It’s been a strange but interesting ride with little structure or guidance from my research group – which has pros and cons. Most of it has been self-directed with me moulding the role to what I ‘THINK’ it should be which is very different to what it could optimally be. There have definitely been elements of impostor syndrome, especially at the beginning. I found that reading the literature on knowledge brokering (KB) was interesting but provided little guidance to what I should actually be doing for my particular role. The irony is that it’s in the final year of funding that I’ve gotten KB at the centre to a stage where we have enough momentum to see real impacts – people know us, respect us and ask for our input. Which points to the fact that knowledge brokering and developing the relationships which are essential to it, take time.

    What I’ve learnt so far are:
    1) it’s essential to have someone that understands the different cultures and drivers of the areas that you’re spanning (eg scientists need to understand how government works – often is restricted in what they can do (!) – and policy people need to understand scientists’ hesitancy to give fast advice without a million caveats)
    2) KB research (the science of implementation science or KB) is not the same as KB DOING. Knowing what works and doesn’t work for your own particular context comes from your own trial and error, which takes time
    3) not everyone needs to be involved in KB. Not all of your scientists are going to be interested in coming along for the KB ride. Its important to identify those who are interested and target them (and by extension focus on the research areas that they’re interested in)
    4) relationships with external stakeholder groups depend on your personal interactions (to the point of becoming friends) with people in that group. This sounds obvious but its much more than I anticipated. When that person leaves or there is high turnover you almost have to start again.
    5) Convincing your own researchers of why KB is important / they need to do something for you will be a significant part of your work. External stakeholders seem to ‘get it’ more than researchers do
    7) Physical co-location with people is underrated. While there are huge benefits to working online, there’s something to be said about casually bumping into people and finding out what they’re working on. Being across what everyone is working on and injecting this information when talking to external stakeholders as essential

    As to training to be a knowledge broker, I agree that polymaths or career spanners is key. Any opportunities for employment exchanges is beneficial (eg placing scientists in government departments, not for profits, industry). I note that the Office of the Chief Scientist now has a ‘Australian Science Policy Fellowship Program’ which is a great step in the right direction and solves the issue of excess science grads https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/australian-science-policy-fellowship-program

    • Fantastic learnings Ana – thank you so much for sharing. These are extremely helpful (and certainly resonate with many of the topics discussed as part of the symposium that generated this post). Thank you for making these available to other readers!

  2. Fascinating, thank you. My understanding is that there is a very wide range of understandings of what a knowledge broker is and what they do. Some seem to use it to refer to communications teams within universities, others to external consultants, others to nomadic practitioner-researchers with no easy home. Are there any typological definitions you are aware of anywhere? There are parallels too between knowledge brokers and a range of other terms: ‘blended professionals’ (i.e. part academic/part professional services), ‘t-shaped’ researchers (and ‘x-shaped’, ‘tree-shaped’), specialist-generalists, etc. I’ve even been looking in to literature on polymathy, not your geniuses of yesteryear, but knowledgeable ‘jack-of-all-trades’, which are contrasted with ‘poly-pragmatists’ (i.e. mercenary types/opportunist consultants), etc…

    • Great comment Daniel – thank you! We discussed the wide range of forms that knowledge brokering can take (and the kinds of skills that underpin successful knowledge brokering) at the ‘connecting the dots’ symposium that generated this blog. You might be interested to look at the graphical recordings from that symposium which are located here: https://aas.eventsair.com/knowledge-brokering/resources. The polymathy link is fascinating and wasn’t something we considered in the symposium. I will definitely check it out! Thanks again, Jess.

    • Thanks Daniel, as Jess mentioned the Connecting the Dots symposium saw a wide range of knowledge brokering roles, doing knowledge brokering activities but not necessarily holding the job title ‘Knowledge Broker’ and operating both internal and external to the groups which they aim to impact. For example, some were researchers in a particular field who translated their knowledge for implementation, and others were in between fields linking different groups together. Aurore Haas noted in one of her articles on the differences between boundary spanners, gatekeepers and knowledge brokers (published 2015 in Journal of Knowledge Management), that the key distinguishing aspect for knowledge brokers is they translate and co-create knowledge between two or more groups that the knowledge broker does not belong to. This definition implies a role devoted to knowledge brokering would be more of an impartial facilitator with broad generalist knowledge in research, policy and industry. With research impact becoming more important it appears that many researchers, belonging to one or more fields/sectors are also participating in some degree of knowledge brokering and may have it as part of their job title.

      • Thanks Faye, I’d not seen the Haas definition, which is useful to see. In case of use, I found various outputs from this UoEdinburgh 2011 conference useful: https://www.ktecop.ca/2011/bridging-the-gap-between-research-policy-and-practice-the-importance-of-intermediaries-knowledge-brokers-in-producing-research-impact/ A question outstanding for me, though, is how much thought goes in to identifying and selecting the right type of knowledge broker. I’m also interested in how those that don’t fit in to established structures support themselves. The UKRI is increasingly pushing for this, yet these ‘career spanners’ don’t appear to have an easy ride of it…

        • Hi Daniel I’d be interested in knowing more about what you mean with “‘career spanners’ don’t appear to have an easy ride of it”. Do you mean that these people aren’t able to find jobs, or are undervalued in what they do, or get paid poorly for what they do? or something totally different?
          I have a personal interest in people who change careers (especially those who find alterative careers outside of academia) so keen to hear your thoughts

          • Hi Ana, I can only speak for myself and my ‘journey’, which appears to be somewhat unorthodox, but my strong sense having worked in research now for around a decade both outside and now inside university is that it’s very hard to switch between. For example, when independent, I had to take on considerable risk when leading research bids, the time of which is a substantial overhead that’s not recognised in the funding (i.e. academics look askance at the daily rates in the application form and compare it against their own without factoring in that earlier unpaid time and risk), not to mention the overheads of running a small business (e.g. accounting, marketing, training, etc.). Independents also have wildly fluctuating income streams, not regular pay-checks, which requires careful management. Also, academic institutions have their own way of assessing the value of human resource; practitioner/real world experience is valued in theory, but more difficult to value in terms of detail against existing HR assessment. For example, my job role does not exist in the university HR system so it’s a ‘new role’ that requires a business case/justification and is still assessed against existing roles. This causes confusion not only in terms of how people are valued, but also what role they have within the academic systems (e.g. professional services usually support the academics, not direct them)…hence why I like Gabriele’s i2S Team Leader and i2S Disciplinary Specialists terms…There’s an awful lot to this ‘nebulous impact interface’. In case of interest, I wrote an early paper on our experience in an earlier pilot: Figs 1-3 attempt to illustrate this: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/gch2.201700103 And my own website here: http://www.db-associates.co.uk. We’ve also got another paper coming out very soon on our experience of setting up TRUUD, which touches on some of this, albeit only in passing.


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