A few years ago I co-designed and -chaired an unConference: a global event with innovative intentions towards knowledge mobilization. The intent was to explore different ways researchers, practitioners, program participants (end users), and policy makers could interact with knowledge and each other. And in so doing, challenge assumptions about the fluidity of expertise and ways of knowing.
This unConference has been on my mind recently amidst increasing calls for meaningful collaboration and partnerships between researchers and “community” organizations, expectations of more public engagement, and the need to evidence impact on, and integration of research into, everyday practices and visa versa. Such efforts are important in work-related learning, a field interested in how, and what, practices of knowing are enacted by workers and the kinds of knowledge that circulates. However, the synergies between research, practice, policymaking, and ways of knowing are often unclear and replete with tensions; a well-documented state of affairs (i.e., Bansal et al., 2012). Indeed, in a ProPEL blog posting, Paul Cairney (Oct 22/2014) asks how policy makers and academics can learn from each other when they hold potentially contradictory forms of knowing.
Knowledge exchanges are often seen as desirable by many funding agencies. Conceptualized as an event or ongoing series of activities, knowledge exchanges can be described simply as the interface between research and practice (Bartunek, 2007). Yet, this seemingly straightfoward definition suggests a rather transactional and instrumental process that sidesteps questions about how and whose knowledge is valued as well as what knowledge is actually mobilized.
Fortunately, there are interesting developments in how these questions are being pursued – particularly those drawing from practice-based theorizing. I will briefly introduce two: authorship and coproduction. The theme of the 2015 Organizational Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities Conference was authorship in practice, which the organizers described as a “way of exploring but also leading new ways of thinking and learning, new alternative possibilities of knowledge sharing and their consequences for practice”. Given the range of potential stakeholders implicated in the nexus of research, practice, and policymaking, it might be worthwhile to consider how knowledge fields are co-authored; co-authored in ways that mobilize both presences and absences in particular debates and practices. For example, Azevedo and Vaccaro (2015) presented empirical findings that suggest that it through—and in—interaction that the collective attribution of authorship is negotiated (and sometimes disputed).
Another opening in this debate draws on notions of coproduction. Orr and Bennett (2012) also note the contested and political nature of these practices. They suggest that although coproduction may “offer the potential to draw practitioners closer to the benefit of academic inquiry and perhaps may enable academics to inquire about the worlds of practice in less condescending ways”, the different structural imperatives entangling each stakeholder group evokes a range of tensions that should not be swept away in the “movement toward greater connectedness” (p. 494).
In a recent project, several African and Canadian academics examined how non-academic organizations (such as NGOs) and researchers navigate the complex negotiations of building reciprocal partnerships in order to increase the circulations and impact of different knowledges. This project set out to challenge traditional notions of the knowledge exchange by adopting an unConference model.
Although unConferences originated in technology and design communities and have been around for several decades (Wikipedia), they are now making an entrée into research-informed knowledge sharing events. Central to unConference design is a focus on active participation; emergent sessions, topics, and ideas; and the production of rich digital and physical artifacts. The Digital Youth and Learning unConference was hosted by a Canadian-based NGO (Digital Opportunity Trust), in Nairobi, Kenya. Drawing on African-based research (focused on ICT, youth, gender, and entrepreneurship alongside learning and pedagogy) as a catalyst, the unConference brought together 16 African and North American scholars, 29 NGO staff from both the global north and south, 19 public and private sector-community partners, and 41 end users (program participants). Funded by IDRC, The Mastercard Foundation, and DFATD (Canada), the project initiated partnerships between the NGO and several higher education institutions in Canada, Eastern Africa, and South Africa.
Even though this was not a true unConference in which everything (content, formats, and participation) was organic and emergent, using this term was a powerful signifier that things could be done differently and it became a way of questioning practices. It worked to allow flexibility and nimbleness as well as capture attention and prompt more critical re-thinking of scholarship and knowledge generation.
A distributed multi-configured model of expertise is enacted in an unConference. Speed Geeking, Make a Session, Home Room Pecha Kuchas, Conversation Cafes, and a Voices Panels were just a few of the session formats created. The unConference Toolkit outlines design and implementation suggestions for conceptualizing and organizing this type of event.
Here the unConference could be regarded as a mode of knowledge exchange; a way of co-authoring practices; a form of coproduction. Made more present through this approach was a legitimization of different imaginings and alternative forms of generating knowledge. The scholars involved in the unConference experienced several absences found in more traditional approaches to knowledge exchanges. Expertise was necessarily made present in different ways in different relations with different stakeholders. Such distributed and fragmented conceptions of expertise created spaces where new practices and predicaments emerged. This includes acknowledging and working to address differential power relations.
If knowledge exchanges are considered as epistemic practices (aka Knorr Cetina, 2001), then knowledge, expertise, and knowing practices could be framed as far more fluid, distributed, pluralistic, and contested. It is not merely a matter of sharing information but interacting with different, larger, more multi-faceted networks of people, objects, and ideas in order to create, re-work, and mobilize new knowledges—locally, regionally, and globally. An unConference is one possibility encouraging this shift.
Azevedo, D., & Vaccaro, G. L. R. (2015, April). Authorship as a practical collective accomplishment. Paper presented at the OLKC Conference, Milan, Italy
Bansal, P., Bertels, S., Ewart, T., MacConnachie, P., And O’Brien, J. (2012). Bridging the research-practice gap. Academy Of Management Perspectives, 26(1), 73-92.
Bartunek, J. M. (2007). Academic-practitioner collaboration need not require joint or relevant research: Toward a relational scholarship of integration. Academy Of Management Journal, 50(6), 1323–1333.
Knorr Cetina, K. (2001). Objectual practice. In T.R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 175-188). London: Routledge.
Orr, K., & Bennett, M. (2012). Public administration scholarship and the politics of coproducing academic–practitioner research. Public Administration Review, 72(4), 487–496. DOI: 10.111/j.1540-6210.2012.02522.x.
Thompson, T. L., & Crichton, S. (2014). The unConference Toolkit. Retrieve from: http://education.ok.ubc.ca/research/innovative-learning-centre/The_unConference_Toolkit.html