How can we make Knowledge Exchange work better?

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The Knowledge Exchange imperative

The UK prides itself on being home to some of the best Universities in the world and has long been a research powerhouse that attracts scientists from the world over. It is estimated that the HE sector already contributes over £70 billion to the national economy, and the UK ranks second in the world for University-Business collaboration. One of the ways research and teaching have an impact on society is through a process known as knowledge exchange – the sharing of learning, ideas and experiences between academic researchers, students, and individuals or organisations.

In these times of great economic and political uncertainty, the UK Government wants to further improve knowledge exchange to drive innovation and economic growth. It therefore asked HEFCE to develop a performance framework to help Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) improve their Knowledge Exchange activity. As part of this effort, we were commissioned to identify examples of good practice in knowledge exchange and consider the value of developing a repository of knowledge exchange materials. The results of this study have been summarized in a report, published on the HEFCE website. Our work also informed the findings of the McMillan group on technology transfer, whose report was published earlier this month.

Mapping the landscape

We found that a wide range of public bodies, membership organisations, professional associations and others are already actively working to improve KE practice in UK universities. Identifying the many different players and understanding their roles is a challenging task in itself. We therefore chose to map out the landscape and resources using Kumu, a data visualization platform. The maps are all freely available to view here, and help convey just how much work is already underway.

Sources of effective practice / Kumu

What good practice material is out there?

With so many potential sources to choose from, how do knowledge exchange practitioners know where to look? Our stakeholder consultation showed that there is some interest in the development of a repository, which could help showcase and preserve key materials. We considered roughly 500 resources, mostly but not wholly in the public domain, but concluded that only half of them are of practical value for KE practitioners. We classified these 252 items as ‘effective practice’ or ‘reference materials’ – the full list is publicly available here. However, good practice material on Knowledge Exchange isn’t just found in documents. There are a range of web-based resources aggregating knowledge exchange material, online platforms to support IP commercialisation activities and equipment-sharing, and training/professional development resources, many of which are not well-suited to a repository.

What we are left with is a relatively small number of reports (which provide guidance or observations on the effective delivery of knowledge exchange), how-to guides (giving practical guidance on supporting and delivery ‘on the ground’), and templates and checklists (mostly taking the form of contractual agreements between universities and other parties). We have suggested a range of options for developing a repository, from a simple static resource, to a fully-curated repository or knowledge-sharing platform. However, each of these options has potential disadvantages, and the cost/benefit of creating a repository remains unclear. Would demand for a knowledge exchange repository justify the investment? And would the repository enhance the existing landscape? The case for it remains unproven.

Mind the gap: knowledge exchange is not just a technical matter

In summary, our work showed that there is a lot of knowledge exchange material out there, and that many different bodies are already working to share and promote good practice. Despite this, considerable gaps remain. When considering how to make knowledge exchange work better, policymakers tend to focus on technical and legal barriers. But, as knowledge exchange has moved beyond a narrow focus on technology transfer, recent studies recognise the need to prioritise ‘relationships’ over ‘transactions’. Making knowledge exchange work then becomes less of a science and more of an art – it is not completely elusive but it does not have a fixed formula either. Communities of practice who can dynamically exchange ideas and enrich practice are more valuable than any number of online resources

Furthermore, when one moves away from the more generic advice, the drivers and mechanisms for undertaking knowledge exchange vary significantly between institutions. University leaders have a critical role to play in KE, as the McMillan group observed, but their role has too often been neglected in past reviews. We identified little established guidance on the establishment and management of institutional collaborations in knowledge exchange, or on the mechanisms and infrastructures that HEIs can use to play an ‘anchor’ role in their regions.

In the end, there is no simple answer to how we make knowledge exchange work better. But perhaps one can get away with a simple metaphor. Treat knowledge exchange like a marriage: in order to work, it requires empathy, dialogue, compromise and a good lawyer.

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