Becky wrote an interesting post recently about KM and cakes. She made the very good point that knowledge mobilisation isn’t something that happens at the end of the research process, like adding the icing to a cake, but that it is part and parcel of research. I thought this was a great metaphor and want to take it a little further.
Let’s stick with the idea that research is like making a cake. A certain understanding of research is that cake-makers (clever researchers) make a fantastic new cake (do some research), present the cake (do some dissemination, probably through the standard academic routes of peer-reviewed publication and conference presentations) to a room full of hungry people (an imagined audience of practitioners or clinicians or policy-makers or members of the public, etc.) and then the people consume it (it is taken up and becomes part of routine practice). Or at least that’s how some people seem to imagine it works.
More commonly, in my experience, the cake is made and then one of a number of things happen, including:
– lots of people hear about the cake and eat it (this doesn’t happen often)
– some people see the cake but think it’s for someone else so they don’t eat any
– some people hear about the cake and one or two people nibble the cake but they think it looks funny or smells funny or just plain don’t like the way it tastes
– a few people hear about the cake but there are so many cakes to choose from that they are distracted elsewhere
– a few people hear about the cake but already have a cake so don’t pay any more attention
– the cake sits in a cupboard for a while. Eventually it gets so mouldy nobody would ever eat it. Perhaps it’s sitting there still. (This happens a lot.)
So sometimes this approach works but very often it does not. A lot of the time this is because it’s simply the wrong cake.
It’s your birthday and someone brings along a wedding cake: wrong cake.
It’s breakfast time and someone brings along a rich chocolate cake: wrong cake.
Everyone’s asked to bring along a salad and you turn up with your delicious pineapple upside-down cake: wrong cake – in fact, wrong food altogether.
The cake need not be totally wrong – maybe you’re happy to eat wedding cake on your birthday or have chocolate cake for breakfast – but for a lot of people it will be. And so it goes with research, at least according to the model outlined above: something is prepared with limited or not understanding of the context in which it’s going to be used.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could avoid this problem? How about, instead of turning up with a cake and hoping the people in the room will like it, we speak to them beforehand and find out what kind of cake they would like? A birthday? Great – I can make you a birthday cake! Going even further, we can keep speaking to the people who will eat the cake throughout the process to find out what they need and have them contribute to the cake-making: How many people is the cake for? A little less sugar? How thick do you like your icing? You’re not going to produce the perfect cake but you’re going to come a heck of a lot closer to producing the kind of thing people want to eat than if you just turn up with your random cake.
Cake making. It’s an implementation thing. (The cake is not a lie.)