What actually is Knowledge Exchange? Reflecting on PraxisAuril’s Foundations of KE training course

By Victoria Ficarra, 01/04/2021

As a Researcher with Research Consulting since 2019, knowledge exchange (KE) has featured strongly in my work, and I’ve contributed to projects for clients covering many aspects of KE, including technology transfer, industry engagement and business development. More recently this has developed into supporting universities in self-evaluation work for the KE Concordat.

So, with this in mind, when the opportunity to consolidate my knowledge through the PraxisAuril and the (virtual) Foundations of Knowledge Exchange (KE) course came up, I jumped at it.

At 8:55am on the 24th February, myself and 45 other delegates sat at our desks at home and eagerly anticipated being let into a Zoom call to begin our learning. The training course took place over 5 days, and was run by enthusiastic training course directors, Jennie Shorley, Alistair McDermott, Stuart Wilkinson and Vibhuti Patel. The directors led us through the vast KE landscape and did a great job of keeping the sessions interactive and light against the challenge of online delivery. I was mindful of approaching this course from a more ‘external’ perspective to other attendees, who were for the most part, working within universities. I noted that whilst my knowledge of KE going into the course had breadth but not depth, that of my colleagues was entirely the opposite.  Thus, for me over the 5 days, the key areas covered which stood out were:

  1. Defining KE and why it happens
  2. The many different forms of and routes to KE
  3. Frameworks to assess and measure KE

Defining KE and why it happens

The course and our own consultancy work have common ground in that the immediate hurdle for working in KE is understanding what it actually is. A wide range of definitions are used to explain KE, and KE itself describes activities often better known by other names. It turns out that knowledge exchange is formally defined in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, section 93 (4), but more colloquially it can be understood from definitions such as Office for Students’ (OfS):

“Knowledge exchange is a process that brings together academic staff, users of research and wider groups and communities to exchange ideas, evidence and expertise.”

Universities have resources, expertise and connections to provide major social and economic benefits, and they have argued strongly over the years to emphasise their potential in these areas. This has successfully seen additional resources (e.g. HEIF) and focus for KE, but equally has driven up expectations in government and other stakeholders. Meeting these is a challenge for KE practitioners.

As I understand it, KE is all about maximising the impact universities can have on real world problems, which is something we have all seen across HEIs in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, KE is happening at an unprecedented pace, with rapid development and adoption of new vaccines and technologies, data to support rapid policy decisions and the importance of behavioural science. Over the past year I’ve seen KE in reality from some of the work we’ve undertaken. For instance, in our evaluation of one of the Connecting Capability Fund projects, I’ve seen just how much of an impact universities partnering with business can have not only on research and company KPIs, but on regional and national development, and perhaps most strikingly, on individuals. Our consultancy projects have also given insights on how KE is developing internationally, which I’ve seen recently in supporting work with the British Council Malaysia.

Indicative of the real importance of this landscape, is just how many UK reviews there have been of business-university collaborations. As highlighted by the course, there have been 10 reviews in the last 15 years with a whopping total of 329 recommendations.

The many different forms of and routes to KE

Striking to me, was the discovery of just how many different forms and routes to KE there are. This in itself is what can sometimes make the landscape tricky to define and determine, and indeed in our own work with universities we have often seen a confusion over what activities actually constitute KE. The long-standing graphic below from UKRI and OfS does well to illustrate these different elements and showcase the vastness of activity. However, whilst this infographic demonstrates activities, what isn’t really addressed is the connection between universities and the types of external organisations and communities they may engage with. It is this point of connection that is fundamental to KE – and for those working in KE facilitating, sustaining and managing this point of connection is the critical success factor.

Figure 1. (Source: HEIF policies and priorities: Accountability Statements 2020-21 and 2021-22 to 2024-25, UKRI and OfS, 2020)

Frameworks to assess and measure KE

Over the last year we’ve seen new initiatives supporting KE activity, namely the KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) and the KEC (Knowledge Exchange Concordat). The KE Concordat has been of particular relevance to our work in recent months, where we have been supporting a number of universities in the self-evaluation phase ahead of their preparation of action plans. As part of this, we’ve reviewed available literature and materials supporting good practice in KE (including our own 2016 report for HEFCE on Effective practice in Knowledge Exchange, which is still available via the national archives). 

Interestingly in the area of quality management and continuous improvement, both key elements in the Concordat, there is very limited evidence in the published literature that supports this in relevant contexts. Gorringe and Hochman’s (2006) paper examined the implementation of a formal quality management system (including feedback from external partners) at The University of South Australia.  This is in fact, the only substantive example of a university implementing a formal quality management system in a research and KE management context that we could find.  This paper concluded that establishing an ISO 9001 Quality Management System within a university setting was successful and key in driving a process of continual improvement. As an ISO 9001 accredited organisation ourselves, however, we know that achieving and maintaining accreditation is no easy task, but we can see the sustained benefits of operating in this way.

The lack of wider literature in this area is perhaps a reflection of the fact that KE practitioners tend not to actively publish.  We know from our work in scholarly communications, that formal publication preserves the availability of knowledge (this is certainly the case when compared to organisational websites). This can be seen from the Effective practice in Knowledge Exchange report previously mentioned, which is only 4 years old but already archived and hard to locate. The KE Concordat might not encourage more KE practitioners to adopt and publish assessments of their continuous improvement approaches, but if it did that might be a good thing for the profession. 

Concluding thoughts

Overall, I was delighted to attend PraxisAuril’s Foundations of KE course and found it to be an informative hub of KE knowledge. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone, like myself, who’s looking to acquire a better grasp of what KE actually is.