Knowledge Exchange Processes in Organizations and Policy Arenas: A Narrative Systematic Review of the Literature

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Citation: Damien Contandriopoulos, Marc Lemire, Jean-Louis Denis, Émile Tremblay (2010/01/01) Knowledge Exchange Processes in Organizations and Policy Arenas: A Narrative Systematic Review of the Literature. Milbank Quarterly (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2010.00608.x
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2010.00608.x
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2010.00608.x
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Knowledge Exchange Processes in Organizations and Policy Arenas: A Narrative Systematic Review of the Literature
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Policy Evaluation (RSS), Social Research (RSS), Epistemology (RSS), Organizational Theory (RSS)


How do organizations and groups make use of research knowledge? In this literature review, the researchers summarize findings from two fields: (a) studies on the uses of social science research and (b) political science research on the role of knowledge in policymaking and knowledge. This paper is valuable for two reasons. First, it explains how researchers have tended to think about the impact of research. Secondly, the authors conclude that "research is unlikely to provide context-independent evidence" and that anyone trying to create impact through research should tailor their work to the context of its use.

Collective Processes in the Use of Knowledge

The authors wrote this article because many researchers have completely different traditions and beliefs about how knowledge leads to action within organizations (445). They focus on "collective-level processes." Rather than think about autonomous people who have the ability to make their own decisions based on information, most research-based actions occur in structures of "interdependency," where "none of the participants has enough autonomy or power to translate the information into practices on his or her own" (447). In these cases, the use of knowledge depends on social processes and structures of:

  • sense making (Nonaka 1994; Russell et al. 2008; Weick 1995)
  • coalition building (Heaney 2006; Lemieux 1998; Salisbury et al. 1987)
  • rhetoric and persuasion (Majone 1989; Milbrath 1960; Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969; Russell et al. 2008; Van de Ven and Schomaker 2002)

The authors argue that the complexity of social decision-making has created difficulties for quantitatively evaluating the effect of research on organizations, unlike medical research, where scholars can measure the effects of research across the decisions of many somewhat-autonomous doctors.

Focus and Methods of the Literature Review

This literature review focused on collective processes, and solely on initiatives involving deliberate exchange of knowledge and attempts to influence policymakers (compared to other kinds of diffusion, such as when a policymaker just happens to pick up a book authored by a researcher). The authors review the many different definitions of knowledge exchange, decisions, and instrumental versus symbolic uses of knowledge. They settle on the following:

"our review is focused on the collective level of analysis in order to understand deliberate interventions aimed at influencing behaviors or opinions through the communication of information" (450).

To conduct this review, they used a snowball sample starting with 33 "seminal papers" across seven traditions. These "seminal" sources are included in the appendix of the paper.

  • "political science literature on lobbying and group politics"
  • "works on agenda-setting processes in policymaking"
  • "literature on policy networks"
  • " 'mainstream' literature on knowledge transfer and exchange"
  • "works in the evaluation field about the use of evaluation results"
  • "organizational-level literature on decision processes and learning"
  • "social network analysis works on information circulation"

The authors then used the Web of Science Citation Index to identify 4,201 papers that cited these ones, choosing 189 that matched their goals. Next, they found 5,622 more papers that these articles cited and snowballed again. In the end, they organized three people to look at 204 documents and identify themes. Here is what they found:

Components of Knowledge Exchange Systems

Individuals in Collective Knowledge Exchange Networks

Research on knowledge exchange often tries to understand the role that individual people play to influence the use of knowledge, often putting them into the groups of "**producers**, **intermediaries**, and **users**" (455). Producers rarely have the capacity to put knowledge to use, users are those with the power to implement things, and intermediaries often play a role as "conveyors," "brokers," "intermediaries," or "lobbyists" (455).

The authors argue that "many models or actual knowledge exchange interventions concern only two of the three. For example, political science models of lobbying often neglect the production side, and some knowledge-based models of evidence transfer tend to disregard actual utilization processes" (455). The authors warn against just using these three groups in analysis, since people carry out these roles within a variety of structures, within a subconscious social world, or *habitus* (456).

Knowledge from Information to Evidence

Here, the authors summarize different approaches to knowledge. In the healthcare literature, the assumption is that knowledge is based on evidence that is causal and internally-valid (456). But numerous studies have found that "internal validity per se does not influence information use (although perceived legitimacy does positively influence use...) (457). This could be for several reasons:

  • maybe information users lack training to recognize valid research
  • maybe external validity matters more
  • maybe the social sciences tend toward "shallow" insights that seem like common sense
  • users often have to balance competing information from different sources of knowledge and power, factors which are more important than the validity of research (457) (the authors seem to find this most persuasive)

"The literature reviewed offers compelling support for the idea that in the exchange and utilization process, scientific evidence is treated no differently than other types of information" (458). The authors "suggest that knowledge exchange interventions should be conceptualized as generic processes unrelated to the internal validity of the information exchanged" (458). The authors encourage people working on knowledge-exchange to see the two tasks of "developing scientifically sound advice and then designing knowledge exchange interventions" as completely different things that need to be combined.

Defining Knowledge Use at the Collective Level

The authors couldn't find any definitions of knowledge use that "seems to dominate" (459). They concluded that "scientific evidence seldom, if ever, directly solves organizational or policy-level problems" (459). Instead, evidence is effective when it's part of "what political science calls *policy options* and could generically be called *action proposals*" (459).

The authors decide to "define collective-level knowledge use as the process by which users incorporate specific information into action proposals to influence others' thought and practices" (459). They argue that the shallowness of any individual study isn't due to the thinness of the evidence, but instead "a characteristic of collective-level contexts" (Kothari, Birch, and Charles 2005). By defining knowledge this way, they are also able to include the role of research in setting policy agendas, not just deciding what to implement.

Collective Action Systems that Knowledge Exchange is Part Of

Ideology and Polarization

The authors find agreement across the literature "that the use of knowledge is influenced by its relevance, legitimacy, and accessibility" (459-60).

  • "Relevance refers to timeliness, salience, and actionability, all heavily context-dependent characteristics"
  • "Legitimacy refers to the credibility of the information"
  • "Accessibility refers to dimensions such as formatting and availability"

All of these factors are mediated by the perceptions of knowledge users, themselves can be influenced by politics and ideology (460). Basically, people come to decisions with their own set of "opinions, preferences, and interests." The likelihood that someone will use a certain bit of knowledge is dependent on all these factors for a given context. For researchers, it can be helpful to differentiate between low and high polarization contexts of information use, asking:

  • how much consensus is their that "the given situation is a problem" ? (461)
  • how much priority is this issue given
  • are their agreed criteria for success?

Debates over evidence tend to be technical in cases with low polarization, while debates tend to be more ideological in contexts with higher polarization, to the point where debate may not be able to bring about consensus (461). Researchers tend to dislike the way their findings are used in contexts of high polarization. For political scientists, on the other hand, "a polarized context is the normal state of affairs" (461). Political scientists who study networks have shown how polarization explains (a) "the extent of involvement in knowledge exchange" and (b) "the structure and shape of knowledge exchange networks" (261). In these traditions "because information is a prized commodity in political struggles, with both a price and a value, it should be offered to allies and strategically used against opponents" (462).

The Cost-Sharing Equilibrium in the Knowledge Exchange System

Another tradition looks at the costs and values of knowledge. Many researchers have assumed that since knowledge has value, it will reach the people who need it (Bardach 1984). Many scholars assume that the stakeholders of research invest in it relative to the value it could bring, which generates incentives for people to do research and to use research. Because researchers are part of this cost-benefit system, they also often become "de facto lobbyists advocating for specific action proposals.... to defend their preferences or advance their interests" (463).

Social Structuring

The authors point to many studies showing "that interpersonal trust facilitates and encourages communication," a feedback loop that "is at the core of the numerous recommendations in favor of developing a close collaboration between producers and users" (463). The authors ask: is it actually possible to "intervene in the shape and nature of communication networks" used by researchers (464) ? Projects that aim to act as knowledge brokers try to do this, but it's hard to pull off: "Although conceptually appealing, presentations of this model often fail to discuss the practical difficulties of such a role in communication networks in which numerous sources of information are competing, polarization and politics matter, and information is unlikely to be neutral, objective data but, rather, bundled action proposals" (464). The authors expect that knowledge broker systems are more likely in situations of low polarization and high investment from the users of knowledge, e.g. "when a viable cost-sharing equilibrium is found" (464). They suggest the following possibilities:

  • "when users are willing to invest enough resources to hire producers as consultants" (464)
  • " when producers or, much more often, intermediaries perceive knowledge exchange activities as a legitimate and viable means to defend their own opinions, preferences, or interests and decide to invest in lobby-like activities" (464)


Referring to The Many Meanings of Research Utilization by Weiss, the authors argue that Weiss's models refer not just to different ways of *thinking* about research use, but actually different kinds of research use. They offer a model for where these uses might be more likely, depending on who bears the cost of the research and the polarization of the area. They worry that "few levers are available at the micro level to act on the perceptions of users or producers in order to influence their willingness to invest resources or efforts in knowledge transfer" (467).

Advice for The Practice of Research

The authors conclude with advice for researchers:

  • "Collective knowledge exchange and use are phenomena so deeply embedded in organizational, policy, and institutional contexts that externally valid evidence pertaining to the efficacy of specific knowledge exchange strategies is unlikely to be forthcoming"
  • "the best available source of advice for someone designing or implementing a knowledge exchange intervention will probably be found in empirically informed and sound conceptual frameworks that can be used as field guides to decide the context and understand its impact on knowledge use and the design of exchange interventions" (in other words: the best they can offer is a field guide of issues to anticipate, rather than helping people solve those problems)

Key References

(this article is a trove of sources. You should just read it rather than rely on this list)

  • Bardach, E. 1984. The Dissemination of Policy Research to Policymakers. Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization 6:125–44.
  • Kothari, A., Birch, S., & Charles, C. (2005). “Interaction” and research utilisation in health policies and programs: does it work?. Health Policy, 71(1), 117-125.
  • Weiss, C. H. (1979). The Many Meanings of Research Utilization. Public Administration Review, 39(5), 426–431.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

How should we think about the uses and impact of research in society? This article reviews over 200 articles from over 40 years of research in political science and the social sciences to suggest major questions to think about when trying to study the uses of knowledge. They focus on the components of knowledge exchange and the structures/contexts in which the exchange occurs. They offer a rich resource of references and "seminal texts" on the topic.