Using Knowledge Brokering in the Non-Profit Sector

Read Endeavour’s Letter to the Editor (re: “Using knowledge brokering to improve business processes,” McKinsey Quarterly, January 2010) and the authors’ reply to Endeavour at mckinseyquarterly.com or the McKinsey Quarterly Facebook fan page

Author: Wasib Muhammad, Director of Knowledge Management, Endeavour

Abstract

Knowledge retention and sharing can be a significant challenge for organizations in the non-profit sector. Due to variability in volunteer retention and the scarcity of resources for volunteer and business process development, the approach of seeking external ideas from people in a variety of industries, disciplines, and contexts (Davidson & Billington, 2010) can prove to be invaluable as well as prudent for non-profits.

A recent McKinsey article, “Using Knowledge Brokering to Improve Business Processes,” talks about how private sector companies are applying open-source thinking to improve a range of core business processes. This Conversation Starter article expands upon Endeavour’s letter to the editor on the McKinsey article to discuss how Endeavour has been using knowledge brokering within the broader organizational framework to improve consulting processes and outcomes. Has your non-profit organization been using knowledge brokering to improve its processes and impact? Do you have success stories and lessons in knowledge brokering to share?

We invite you to comment on our blog, as well as suggest topics for future discussion.


Knowledge Brokering – A look back

Knowledge brokering is one of the human forces behind knowledge transfer. It is a dynamic activity that goes well beyond the standard notion of transfer as a collection of activities that helps move information from a source to a recipient. Brokering focuses on identifying and bringing together people interested in an issue, people who can help each other develop evidence-based solutions. It helps build relationships and networks for sharing existing research, ideas, and stimulating new work. Knowledge brokering supports evidence-based decision-making by encouraging the connections that ease knowledge transfer (Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, 2003).

The concept of knowledge brokering can potentially be applied to a very broad range of activities. To be useful as a concept, we need to be able to distinguish between situations within a specific context. Oldham & McLean (1997) propose three frameworks for knowledge brokering, namely: Knowledge system framework, Transactional framework, and Social change framework (Oldham & McLean, 1997).

For the purpose of this article, the following discussion only pertains to the social change framework.

This framework addresses the situation where the end-users, who need knowledge, are members of the general population. Knowledge brokering in this context relates to activities that enhance access to knowledge within society with the expectation that the enhanced access may directly or indirectly lead to positive social outcomes.

Role of the Knowledge Broker

Traditionally, the role of the broker is about bringing people together and acting as a negotiator who facilitates communication, access to information, and exchange of knowledge among team members (Higgins, 2000). In this sense, knowledge brokers act as intelligent change agents that stimulate difference and increase the number of external exchanges in a focused way, as well as creating momentum for action.

In regards to knowledge and skill, (Leonard, 1995) identifies three major types: public-specific, industry-specific, and firm-specific. Knowledge brokers facilitate the sharing of these three types of knowledge between the knowledge sources and knowledge needs. Besides their technical knowledge, knowledge brokers possess what may be called ‘relational knowledge’, allowing them to know what others know, while providing the managerial and physical tools to access that knowledge (Sousa, 2008).

Knowledge Brokers in Non-Profit Consulting and at Endeavour

In the non-profit sector, fulfilling the knowledge brokerage role not only becomes a necessity but it also comes with more responsibility. Primarily due to limited resources and the dependence on external funding, non-profits use knowledge brokers by matching both experience and the sector to share resources and facilitate best practices. At Endeavour, a non-profit consulting organization, knowledge-brokers form a key resource to most consulting engagements.

“The impact of the knowledge broker is often unpredictably powerful because it is often their anecdotal presentation of their experience that creates a breakthrough for a team.

[In] a volunteer organization, continuity of knowledge can be more at risk than a for-profit organization because it is just that – volunteer. The volunteer population generally is more transient than an employed staff and that is fine… Therefore having a continuous bank of knowledge brokers available helps fill these knowledge gaps.”

– Judy Fields, Endeavour Engagement Manager, Spring/Summer 2009

In order to provide a meaningful experience to the consulting teams and the clients, each team has a knowledge broker assigned to facilitate knowledge sharing while providing insights on research and strategy, and sharing resources that facilitate client relations and project management from prior consulting experience. This is also a unique opportunity for Endeavour to engage past consultants in leveraging their volunteer experience and developing their skills as a mentor to the team.

“Because of Endeavour’s relatively short project cycles of six months, it’s important to hit the ground running and it makes sense to match knowledge brokers to projects based on their past experiences and technical skills. This role is almost a meld of knowledge brokering and being a secondary project advisor,”

– Jeannette Chan, Endeavour Knowledge Broker, Spring/Summer 2009

Given the nature of the engagement, the leadership of the engagement manager, and the team dynamics, the degree of engagement of the knowledge broker varies among the consulting teams. It has however been my experience – having volunteered both as a consultant and as a knowledge broker – that playing an active role provides an immense learning opportunity for not only the team, but for the knowledge broker as well. The opportunity not only exposes the consulting teams and the clients to innovative and industry-specific ideas, but also helps the teams to better direct their time and resources – the primary factors that can make the difference between an engagement’s success and failure.

Recruitment and Training of Knowledge Brokers

Knowledge brokerage is a unique role within the organizational context, primarily because the knowledge brokers are not ‘trained’ for the position and the role provides as much of a learning opportunity as it is designed to mentor. Hence, the training of a knowledge broker is essentially a culmination of their experiences in their practice area(s) and the past consulting engagement(s). Therefore, it will not be far from truth to say that, there is no fixed job description for a knowledge broker.

“Since there is such a broad range of skill sets on the team and many have never consulted or been an engagement manager, the knowledge broker can bring forward the finer points of getting to the final deliverable. For example, one team was really focused on doing a good job but was placing all the pressure on themselves to find the right answer. I steered them early on to explain that consulting is a relationship building business and getting to the right answer takes a lot of informal and formal conversation to build iterations of a solution and get final buy-in and if you build relationships you will get buy-in in most cases.”

– Judy Fields, Endeavour Engagement Manager, Spring/Summer 2009

In a 2002 article, Hargadon says that acquiring the skill for identifying existing knowledge and how to use it in subsequent projects is not easy (Hargadon, 2002); the fact that criteria for evaluating knowledge brokers is still evolving can make the job hard to fill. However, it is possible to list some of the skills that are necessary for effective knowledge brokering; blended with details of a specific organization’s needs and role, they could be worked up into a job description (Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, 2003).

The Core Skill Set

While a one-size-fits-all job description is not possible, there are common core skills involved in knowledge brokering:

Skill Set Description
Evidence gathering In all cases, the ability to find relevant evidence is the key. Expertise in searching the web is crucial and one that can make knowledge brokering more efficient (Ofek & Sarvary, 2002)
Critical appraisal Brokering requires sufficient knowledge to be able to assess information for its quality, relevance, and applicability to a given situation. Good background lets a knowledge broker quickly access knowledge capital to solve a problem (Breton, Landry, & Ouimet, 2002)
Personal attributes

The people who work well as brokers have a certain type of mind: flexible, curious, and able to see the big picture, to make links among a range of ideas and bits of information. Furthermore, self-confidence – not arrogance – is a necessary trait (Hargadon & Sutton, 2000).

The knowledge brokers are generally imaginative, intuitive, inquisitive, and inspirational leaders who are capable of managing human intellect and helping to convert it into useful products or services (Smith, 2001).

Their analytical skills enable them to figure out why some ideas fail while also picking up ‘hints about problems the idea might solve someday’ (Hargadon & Sutton, 2000).

Mediation A successful broker probably has an entrepreneurial side and an inclination towards innovation and risk-taking (Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, 2003).
Communication Communication skills are deemed to be the most important skill for knowledge brokers. It is essential to use clear, simple, and effective language to communicate knowledge to a target audience. (Hartwich & von Oppen, 2000)
Curiosity and listening Knowledge brokers are described as people who invest their time in moving around the organization, talking to as many people as possible, listening and establishing knowledge needs and corresponding expertise so that these can be connected (Hellstrom, Malmquist, & Mikaelsson, 2001)

Table 1 – The core skill set and attributes for a knowledge broker (Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, 2003)

Breaking It Down

At Endeavour, a knowledge broker is a current or past consultant or engagement manager staffed for the duration of the consulting project based on their experience within Endeavour, as well as their background match with the practice area.

Moreover, in a recent effort to further the knowledge brokerage, an initiative to create a community of unstaffed knowledge brokers was undertaken with the premise of establishing knowledge sharing resources that can provide their perspective without any project bias.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 illustrate the breakdown of current knowledge brokers by practice area and sector respectively at Endeavour.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Conclusions

Knowledge brokers fill a very niche gap in any organization, particularly in the non-profit sector where they not only provide technical expertise but also the organizational knowledge that can very well be lost without these individuals. Furthermore, it provides the volunteer organization the opportunity to engage past volunteers in an active leadership role.

Currently at Endeavour, we are involved in a pilot program to provide peer mentors for the engagement managers, as the role requires the engagement managers to not only act as team leaders but also as project managers for the engagement.

Judy Fields is one of the peer mentors and she describes her experience as follows:

In my time as a mentor, I am having a very interesting experience as I am mentoring two very different people. One is senior and has been a manager and one who is junior and this is their first time managing a team. A lot of the general knowledge brokering activities apply to mentoring at the engagement manager level as per the points above; however, it takes it to the next level. For the more junior person I guided her by taking her obviously exceptionally good organizational skills and how does she add the people piece to that – i.e. what are the goals you and the team hope to get out of this process in serving the client. It was also by ensuring her that she could talk to me whenever needed about anybody and anything in the strictest confidence and it was okay to make mistakes. When I talked and shared my faux pas of the past, which created a comfort level for them out of the gate.

For the more senior person, there again it was a lot of knowledge brokering direction from the points above, however, her knowledge of people management was much greater so we focused my past experience on how to change the scope of the project so the team could provide value and ensuring them that this was absolutely okay. It’s about how to get to the right answer and giving them feedback on how to steer the client around and get buy-in on a new scope and get a statement of work signed off.

Of course, knowledge brokering is not the only form of support that Endeavour’s consulting teams receive during their projects. Each team has a dedicated project advisor drawn from Endeavour’s Advisory Committee, as well as access to subject matter experts who provide guidance to project teams specific to their area of expertise.

However, it is the culmination of experiences between the project team, the advisors, the knowledge brokers, and the subject matter experts that distils into a successful engagement.

Author

Wasib Muhammad is currently Director of Knowledge Management at Endeavour, and has volunteered as consultant and knowledge broker at Endeavour. He currently works as a project manager at Rockwell Automation. He holds a Master’s degree in Engineering Design from McMaster University and a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Ryerson University.

Interviewees

Jeannette Chan is currently a member of Endeavour’s case competition committee, and has volunteered as a consultant, knowledge broker, and acting engagement manager at Endeavour. She currently works as a research analyst at the Toronto Region Research Alliance. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science and Engineering (Engineering Science) from the University of Toronto.

Judy Fields has worked as an engagement manager, knowledge broker, and engagement manager peer mentor at Endeavour. Her career spans 20 years in aligning technical strategy and execution to organizational goals. Currently she provides as-needed consulting services to several organizations after enjoying a one-year sabbatical to spend time with family. Prior to this, she spent seven successful years at Tucows.com, including as VP, Operations and Planning.


Works Cited

Breton, K., Landry, R., & Ouimet, M. (2002). Knowledge brokers and knowledge brokering: What do we know? Spring Institute of the Center for Knowledge Transfer.

Canadian Health Services Research Foundation. (2003). The theory and practice of knowledge brokering in Canada’s health system. Ottawa: Canadian Health Services Research Foundation.

Davidson, R., & Billington, C. (2010). Using knowledge brokering to improve business processes. McKinsey Quarterly.

Hargadon, A. B. (2002). Brokering Knowledge: Linking learning and innovation. Research in Organizational Behaviour.

Hargadon, A., & Sutton, R. I. (2000). Building Innovation Factory. Harvard Business Review.

Hartwich, F., & Von Oppen, M. (2000). Knowledge Brokers in Agricultural Research and Extension. M. von Oppen, Adapted Farming in West Africa: Issues, Potentials and Perspectives.

Hellstrom, T., Malmquist, U., & Mikaelsson, J. (2001). Decentralizing Knowledge: Managing Knowledge Work in a Software Engineering Firm. Journal of High Technology Management Research, 25.

Higgins, R. (2000). The success and failure of policy-implanted inter-firm network initiatives: Motivations, Processes, and Structure. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, 111.

Kammen, J. v., Savigny, D. d., & Sewankambo, N. (2006). Using knowledge brokering to promote evidence based policy-making: the need for support structures. (84), 608-612.

Leonard, D. (1995). Wellsprings of knowledge: building and sustaining the sources of innovation. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Ofek, E., & Sarvary, M. (2002). Knowledge exchange and knowledge creation: should the emphasis shift in a competitive environment? INSEAD Working Paper.

Oldham, G., & McLean, R. (1997). Approaches to Knowledge Brokering. Retrieved May 10, 2010, from International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD): http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2001/networks_knowledge_brokering.pdf

Smith, E. A. (2001). The role of Tacit and Explicit Knowledge in Workplace. Journal of Knowledge Management, 311.

Sousa, M. (2008). Open innovation models and the role of knowledge brokers. Inside Knowledge Magazine.

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