Being a knowledge mobiliser: nature or nurture?

lawI’ve recently had a number of discussions with different people about what it takes to be a knowledge mobiliser. Conversations have inevitably taken us down the route of the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate – i.e. can people be trained to be knowledge mobilisers or are they just born that way?

Perhaps the first thing to consider is what we mean by a ‘knowledge mobiliser’. Human beings are essentially social animals and all of us go through life learning from and sharing knowledge with each other. When was the last time, for instance, you found out something new or shared some nugget of information or wisdom with someone else? I can’t imagine it’s very long. For me, that’s the essence of a knowledge mobiliser – someone who is able to simultaneously identify and share knowledge which could interest and/or benefit themselves and others.

This begs the question – if we are all mobilising knowledge as part of our day to day lives, what makes a ‘specialist’ knowledge mobiliser? This is a question that several people have turned to over recent years. For David Phipps and Sarah Morton a specialist knowledge broker looks a bit like the picture on the left.

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Copyright Dawn Cattanach 2013*

Based on their years of experience leading teams of knowledge mobilisers, they identify 7 personal qualities which seem to be associated with the knowledge mobilisers they have employed. Knowledge mobilisers are nimble, enthusiastic,  creative, courageous, tactful and have tireless commitment as well as being communicators, listeners and supporters. A recent study of academic knowledge brokers in Kenya added to this list, finding that knowledge mobilisers are determined, unrelenting, respectful and team players and have a strong social and moral conscience.

Having cleared that up (and developed quite a daunting list of personal qualities to aspire to!) the final thing to think about is whether and how these qualities can be nurtured or taught. From what little I could find on the subject, approaches such as mentoring, reflective practice and role modelling can be used to help nurture personal qualities such as enthusiasm, determination and respect. But if I’m honest, I struggled to find much that provided any clear advice on whether it is possible to teach these qualities and how to effectively nurture them in others. Most of the material I found didn’t go beyond relatively simple exhortations for teachers about the need for them to be enthusiastic about what they are teaching!

In response to this apparent gap, I began to reflect on my own experiences of being a knowledge mobiliser and to consider these characteristics in a slightly different light. What if, I began to wonder, these aren’t personal qualities and characteristics, but are instead markers of desirable behaviours in a knowledge mobiliser? I might not always be enthusiastic about something, for instance (e.g. going for a long run on a cold and wet winter’s night), but I can behave enthusiastically (e.g. if I’ve got to lead a group of other runners on a cold and wet winter’s night!)

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Photo by Garry Knight via Flickr.com

Suddenly I could imagine a whole range of training and development that might help people to develop these behaviours – from acting skills and workshops through to leadership development resources. And it also gave me some sense of hope through realising that I don’t necessarily need to be all of these things, all of the time, just as long as I’m prepared and able to behave as if I am when I need to!

As usual, please add comments or questions below!

* published in Phipps, D & Morton, S, Qualities of knowledge brokers: reflections from practice, Evidence & Policy, 2013, 9(2)

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5 thoughts on “Being a knowledge mobiliser: nature or nurture?

  1. Qualities are what some is. Skills are what someone learns. I hire for the soft qualities and train for hard skills. I never get 100% of anything on my long list if skills and qualities for a knowledge mobilizer role but I look for more soft qualities and the ability to train up in the hard skills.

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    • Here’s the interesting philosophical point, though. I can ‘appear’ enthusiastic (or to have any of the other qualities) at different points in time, but am I really, deep down? And when you are interviewing/hiring, how do you tell if someone has those ‘soft’ qualities. Surely it’s *just* that they behave as if they do at the interview… I know, it’s all a bit meta for a Monday!

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  2. Pingback: The loneliness of a knowledge mobiliser | KMb Researcher

  3. I mentioned this great blog in a recent webinar on “How does a knowledge Broker fit in the world of KT” (see http://www.msfhr.org/ktconnects#2). In my limited N of 1 experience, I have found that many of the characteristics identified by researchers as key to successful knowledge brokering, appear to be more closely related to innate characteristics. However, clearly ‘honing skills; falls within the ‘nurture’ domain.

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    • I can never decide whether I’m a nature or nurture person. Some of what’s in the literature seem to be innate skills, while others seem trainable. Perhaps it’s (yet) another example of the messy nature of the KMb literature?! If you do think these qualities are innate, do you think it’s even possible to ‘train’ a knowledge mobiliser/broker?

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