Wire (Kendra/flickr.com)

What does it mean to broker knowledge in a network?

Reda SadkiLearning strategy

Our network function requires that we interact with the network. We observe profound changes in the nature of knowledge, how it circulates, and this affects how we work (learn).

Members in the network, too, have changed. We struggle to keep up with and adapt to these changes. In working with them, we prioritize results against their own expectations as well as those of donors and governments.

Hence, it is difficult to justify learning approaches that take us away from such priorities. We wish for time after delivery to reflect on lessons learned, but such wishes may be swept away by the next urgent task.

The alternative to this frustrating cycle of task delivery at the expense of reflection is to adopt a knowledge brokering approach. We broker knowledge when we link learning with innovation in the context of the long history of work done by the network.

When trying to solve a difficult problem, especially in emergencies, our “fear of failure” drives speed and urgency in finding innovative solutions. We trade off certainty for speed. By contrast, in most of our work, “fear of failure” inhibits speed and risk-taking, as we seek to execute what has been previously established as normative. Therefore, innovation processes require different indicators and metrics than those of execution.

Knowledge brokering provides a model for how we might be able to embed innovation and learning into work, by recombining our past and current knowledge, leveraging the old to do new things in new ways.

The historical model is for the center (headquarters) to produce “trickle-down” knowledge to be consumed by the periphery (network), with feedback as an occasional and exceptional event. For example, even though we know the importance of currency, we wait years before we consider updating guidelines, because making knowledge current requires stopping other work and concerted effort that is difficult to organize and resource.

This traditional model in which members of the network request assistance from headquarters becomes increasingly difficult to sustain when there is more knowledge and everything is faster, calling into question traditional models of expertise.

When we look for commonalities between network members, we question our assumptions about how different they are. In our new role as knowledge brokers, by working with many in the network, we facilitate access to the ideas, artifacts, and people that reside within one member or domain yet may be valuable in others. From this existing knowledge (which also considers existing trainings, guidelines, and tools), we strive to discover new combinations and new ways to transfer experience. When nodes in the network are thus empowered to “do for themselves”, the nature of our expertise changes and we change too.

If members do for themselves, what then is the role for those of us who work in headquarters?

Reference: Hargadon, A.B., 2002. Brokering knowledge: Linking learning and innovation. Research in Organizational behavior 24, 41–85.

Photo: Wire (Kendra/flickr.com)