The Trick with Knowledge Mobilization

“It doesn’t matter how good your work is if nobody knows it exists.”

This is a take on a quote I heard years ago, author unknown, that really helped me put into context the goal of marketing. While I heard this quote in the context of writing, it applies to just about anything, including research.

Writers are notorious for hating marketing. They are solitary creatures performing a solitary craft. Publishing and marketing the published product are acts that involve other people. Yuck! So, this quote really gets to the root of why writers need to at least tell people that they’ve written a book. Because it doesn’t matter how good your writing is, it doesn’t matter how skilled you are as a writer. If no one knows you and your book exist, your book is going nowhere.

This also applies to researchers and their research.

Researchers, in general, are much like writers. They are an insecure bunch, with fragile egos. It takes a lot of effort and personal and professional growth for them to play well with others. But beyond this, usually researchers do their research to make a change in the world. So, if the world doesn’t know the research exists, how can it change?

This is key:

  • if a writer wants to sell their book, the reader needs to know the book exists
  • if a researcher wants to change the world with their research, the world needs to know the research exists

This is where the Golden Rule comes in, or rather the NEW Golden Rule.

The old one goes like this:

Do unto others as you would have done to you. 

This is a self-centred rule focused on you, the giver. It is focusing on how YOU, the giver, would prefer to be treated.

The NEW Golden Rule is this:

Do unto others as they would have done to them. 

This self-centred rule focuses, instead, on the receiver. It involves learning how the OTHER person would like to be treated and responding appropriately. Yes, it involves the effort of getting to know the other person, figuring out their likes and dislikes, and how they like to interact. This is the core of what Project Management calls Stakeholder Engagement; it’s what academia calls Community Engagement. And I’d like to bring attention here to the word ‘engagement’.

If you want someone to be engaged, you need to get their attention AND pique their interest enough that they want to interact with you. Engagement is a two-way street.

Let’s take the dating world, as an example.


Picture a crowded and noisy bar. Person A is across the room and sees Person B. Person A wants to ask Person B on a date. Person B is talking to a friend and doesn’t know Person A exists.

Scenario 1) Person A walks up to Person B’s back and starts to talk. It’s noisy and Person B doesn’t see or hear Person A.

Scenario 2) Person A walks up to Person B, taps them on the shoulder and starts to talk. Person B turns away from their friend, and witnesses someone talking, but doesn’t know who they are and isn’t introduced. Person B turns back to their friend and ignores Person A.

Scenario 3) Person A walks up to Person B, makes eye contact and smiles. Person B sees and acknowledges Person A with a smile. Person A approaches Person B in a friendly manner. Person A introduces themselves to Person B and asks who they are. Person B replies. A conversation is begun in which both parties learn about each other.

In my experience, writers and researchers act like Person A in Scenario 1 and 2: they release something out into the world and expect it to automatically be heard or seen; or they start talking and, again, expect they will be heard because, hey, they’re talkin’ here!

If you want someone to be engaged with you and your book/research/message, you need to develop a relationship (or at least rapport) with them. A relationship is a two-way street in which you learn about and respect how the other person prefers to be treated.

That’s engagement. Let’s tie this to knowledge mobilization.

Knowledge mobilization is the act of moving knowledge to those who need or want it. To use the writer/researcher example, it’s about finding the readers or the users (the audience) and getting them the book or research (knowledge). Note here there is a verb in the definition of knowledge mobilization: it’s about moving knowledge. I’ll say it’s about moving knowledge from Person A to Person B. In the dating example, Person A wants to move the knowledge to Person B of their desire to date.

How do you know someone needs or wants the knowledge? You seek them out and ask. Then you make the knowledge accessible so that the user can get it. Often knowledge mobilization is used interchangeably with knowledge transfer or knowledge translation because knowledge is mobilized/transferred/translated from Person A to Person B. For Person B to acquire and use the knowledge, they must understand it and find it useful. Sometimes understanding the knowledge requires a bit of translation. In the dating example, this was the issue in both Scenarios 1 and 2. In Scenario 1, the knowledge isn’t accessible. In Scenario 2, Person B sees something is being said, but doesn’t understand what Person A is saying or doing.

The trick to knowledge mobilization is to engage the target audience.

When you engage the target audience, you discover their needs and wants AND you discover how they like to receive their knowledge.

In the dating example, the target audience is Person B. How does Person A know whether or not Person B is interested in dating? They ask. In the dating world, there is a lot of non-verbal language both in asking and answering, so this may not be the most explicit example for knowledge mobilization, but I feel it is the most relatable example. In this example, eye contact and a smile from Person A and reciprocated by Person B acts as a question and answer.

Here’s a more explicit example:

Let’s say you and your spouse struggle with picking up groceries. Your spouse writes items on a paper list tacked to the fridge which they then take to the store. You keep track of items on an app on your phone.

Whenever you text or email your spouse to pick up an item, they forget it. Whenever your spouse gives you the paper list from the fridge, you lose it or forget it.

You have had several arguments with your spouse about forgotten groceries and each of you has taken these instances personally.

In this example, you each have your own preferences for how you remember and keep track of grocery items. Instead of being angry with the other person, I suggest you be aware of how the other prefers to receive their information. Your spouse likes handwritten paper copies; you like digital copies. To ensure the knowledge of grocery items is used by you, your spouse should engage with you via digital copy. To ensure the knowledge of grocery items is used by your spouse, you should engage with your spouse via handwritten paper copy.

Knowledge mobilization isn’t about you; it’s about the other person/group. And, as such, I find it quite anthropological.

What can you do to ensure your knowledge is being heard or seen by the people who need it?

Further Reading

Lauren Sapala – Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers

Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Government of Canada – Guidelines for Effective Knowledge Mobilization

Mental Health Commission of Canada – Engaging Stakeholders for Knowledge Translation: Where Do I Start?

The Research Whisperer – Treating Networking Like a Research Project

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