Communication
May 7, 2012

Conversing data into knowledge

There is an old joke about two passengers on a cruise ship. “The food is not very good,” says one passenger to another, who replies: “Yes, but at least there’s lots of it.”

“Lots of it” is a good description for the amount of data and information circulating in government offices across the country. This is not a phenomenon unique to government or to Canada. Never in human history have we hunted for so much data and information. However, also never in human history have we gathered so much that is useful but not used.

The acceleration of our hunting and gathering for data and information appears to be true for most types of human activity, whether we are raising children, buying food, designing products, disposing of waste, caring for the sick, creating art, governing resources or writing policy. There is plenty of data – but not always the knowledge required to make good decisions. We seem to be collectively suffering from infoglut or data-obesity – too much that is not mentally nutritious.

I had the privilege to serve at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) from 1998 to 2005, a period during which we experimented with new programs and initiatives to create the conditions to help solve some of our society’s more complex problems. These initiatives included two very important pieces for improving our ability to go from awareness, to understanding, to action and value creation.

The first program was the Community-University Research Alliance program (CURA). It was understood that some problems require people to move out of their silos, to collaborate to allow solutions to complex problems to emerge. The CURA program helped fund that “space in between” academic research and practical application.

The other program was “knowledge mobilization.” During the evaluation of the CURA program it became increasingly clear that many, if not most policymakers, rarely have time to read research reports. It also became apparent that university researchers often have a hard time communicating in the simple, unambiguous language used by many public servants – the PowerPoint deck, the one-page briefing, or the hallway conversation.

To address this, SSHRC began looking for ways to mobilize the results of research so that policymakers, business leaders, service providers, teachers and the media would have what they need, when they need it, and in a format that they could use. The challenge with raw data or piles of information is that it really isn’t knowledge. As Dr. John Seely Brown, the former head of the labs at Xerox, has said, “data and information is for machines, it becomes knowledge when it has a social life.”

Knowledge mobilization is about taking what we know, from multiple sources, and making it ready for action or service to build value. Ecologist Richard Heinberg has written that taking in traumatic information and transmuting it into life-affirming action may turn out to be the most advanced and meaningful spiritual practice of our time. In a simpler way, it is about asking and answering three questions: What? So What? and “Now What?”

These questions open up a wide range of possibilities, thus knowledge mobilization really is an umbrella term. It includes activities such as the management and mining of data and information (knowledge management); the movement of data, information and knowledge from one operational context to another (knowledge transfer); the creation of syntheses, and multiple formats of reports from findings and evidence (knowledge translation); and the exchange among similar parties as well as across sectors (knowledge exchange).

These processes require the creation of infrastructure and the development, facilitation and maintenance of venues and conditions for dialogue and debate. As an example, the production of research articles requires that significant thought be invested to insure that the findings are transformable into meaningful action.

So how do you bring a social life to evidence? The short answer is conversation.

While content is important and is always the foundation of good knowledge mobilization – the last thing we want to do is mobilize false or poor data – a report should be considered the midway point of a conversation and only a fraction of the way towards deriving the full value of the content.

This means that there is a series of things that are of equal importance to content. We must consider the actions and processes related to the capacity of individuals and organizations to act on the findings, including consideration of incentives for modified behavior. The context in which people operate must be examined to ensure that adequate infrastructure is actually in place, that partnerships are established or processes are being established, and that there is a diversity of channels and perspectives provided by networks.

Furthermore, the overall culture that supports the push and pull of knowledge, while important, must also be diverse enough to encourage linkages and opportunities for exchange. It is at the point of exchange that value from any initiative is really determined.

The Government of Canada has begun to explore public participation through social networking tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other associated channels. This permits a broad dissemination, easy access, as well as user-friendly opportunities to contribute to the collective understanding of a particular issue.

However, when we think about the word dissemination, it means “the scattering of seeds.” For seeds to grow, we must prepare the soil. Once planted the seeds must be nurtured and protected so that they can reach the harvest. At harvest, we have a complex set of activities that take the produce to various markets and through value adding processes. Once complete, the cycle begins again.

In many ways, data are like the seeds that get planted – add sunshine, water, good soil, and nurturing and maybe, if everything works out, you get a crop that has value in the market.

We invest billions of dollars in producing research: in universities and government departments and agencies, not to mention all the research produced by NGOs and corporations. We also invest billions in educating and training people to produce a highly literate and functional population that produces new ideas and innovations daily. It may be time that we seriously begin to invest in activities, processes, and infrastructure that link the two together in meaningful and sustained relationships aimed at value creation.

While this has begun in earnest in certain sectors – such as the knowledge translation work at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research or the Knowledge Mobilization units at York University in Toronto or Queen’s University at Kingston – we are still in the early days of moving from assuming that data is useful to supporting the conversations that make it usable.

Peter Levesque is the director of Knowledge Mobilization Works, a consulting and research company. Previously, he served as a deputy director at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

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