Are you working with a consultant or a knowledge broker? / Travaillez-vous avec un consultant ou avec un agent de mobilisation des connaissances?

By David Phipps (ResearchImpact York)

What’s the difference between consulting and knowledge mobilization? It depends on co-creation and the level of engagement.

Quelle est la différence entre la consultation et la mobilisation des connaissances? Elle repose sur la co-création et le niveau d’engagement.

Peter Levesque (@peterlevesque), one of Canada’s few KMb consultants, posted a blog story recently about knowledge transfer, communications and marketing. It is important to note that Peter asked about knowledge transfer (KT) and not knowledge mobilization (KMb). This is an important distinction when comparing to communications and marketing as KT is a unilateral push of information while KMb is a multidirectional engagement of researchers and research stakeholders. I commented and mused at the difference between KMb and consulting because much of what I see presented as KMb looks more like consulting to me.

Academic faculty often play dual roles of academic researcher and consultant. Both are important but research happens under the auspices of the university while as consultants they are operating as independent agents, sometimes as principals in their own consulting company. Sometimes those independent consultants operate on campus and employ students on consulting projects. This introduces all sorts of administrative challenges for the university such as ownership of intellectual property and liability and it also further muddies the distinction between academic researcher and consultant.

When engaging in KMb activities academic researchers work with their non-academic partners. So do consultants (but they are called clients). Both frequently review literature and provide information to partners. Some consultants also engage in primary data collection, analysis and evaluation. So do academic researchers. Both academic consultants and academic researchers will work in an iterative, knowledge exchange fashion with their clients/partners.

So where’s the difference?

Both the Rural Knowledge Network (@RuralKnowledge) and the Toronto Immigrant Employment Data Initiative (TIEDI) work with non-academic partners to identify needs and exchange information that meets those needs. Is this consulting or KMb? Both are funded by SSHRC Knowledge Impact in Society grants. If their partners were clients who paid for the work they would be consultants. The fact that SSHRC funds the work should not be the deciding factor.

I believe the difference is found in the level of engagement. More than just producing a report both TIEDI and Rural Knowledge are present in their communities. They are known in their communities because they make presentations, organize events, convene workshops, hold seminars and yes, they also produce reports that are valuable to their partners. They are trusted in their community as an honest broker (a shout out to a book about science in politics, The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke).

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RI-RIR), Canada’s KMb network, is similarly present in its local communities holding events (such as York’s KM in the AM, MUN’s Synergy Sessions and Guelph’s Open Access Session), sitting on community committees (York sits on the Community Engagement and Research Committee of United Way of York Region) and providing support to provincial and Regional governments and community agencies (via knowledge brokers and graduate students). Bennett & Bennett[1] have described KMb as collaborative entanglement. “Collaborative entanglement consistently develops and supports approaches and processes that combine the sources of knowledge and the beneficiaries of that knowledge to interactively move toward a common direction such as meeting an identified community need”.

Therein lies the difference between consulting and KMb.

As KMb seeks to co-create knowledge with research partners, this collaboration becomes entangled. Researchers and graduate students become entangled working side by side with their non-academic counterparts. Consultants come for a short research visit and leave behind a knowledge product, often a report and/or presentation. It’s a pleasant visit leaving both satisfied but it’s a work for hire, not ongoing, collaborative research.

Here’s another way to think of the distinction. If your overnight research guest leaves you a present (your report) in the morning, s/he was a consultant. If s/he was someone you trusted to help you make dinner, clean up, walked the dog with you, help put the kids to bed and then left you a present in the morning… then s/he was mobilizing knowledge.

That’s what we do at RI-RIR. We co-host your research dinner party where friends come together to meet, exchange and begin the process of co-production.


[1] Bennet,. A. and Bennett, D. (2008). The fallacy of knowledge reuse: building sustainable knowledge.  Journal of Knowledge Management, 12(5), 21-33.

5 thoughts on “Are you working with a consultant or a knowledge broker? / Travaillez-vous avec un consultant ou avec un agent de mobilisation des connaissances?

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  2. Pingback: Which Comes First – Knowledge or Mobilization? / L’œuf ou la poule – la connaissance ou la mobilisation ? « Mobilize This!

  3. What a great blog for discussing the differences between KMb and consulting, and very relevant for the new knowledge society and economy that continues to emerge. No doubt, Peter Levesque is doing some amazing KMb work as a “consultant” working with academics, researchers, government agencies and private organizations. However, the nature of his company ‘Knowledge Mobilization Works’ places an emphasis on KMb as its primary operating focus. This can be considered a hybrid of both KMb and consulting. However, I suggest it’s not how one usually thinks of consulting work. Using the word consultant simply because “people seem to know what it means” can be helpful, but I think further clarification might be required.

    Consultants are usually hired as experts to give advice and create reports to summarize or evaluate for improvement, not work collabortively in the sense that ResearchImpact is rightly pointing out as entangled “co-creation of new knowledge with research partners.” Consultants are hired as experts taking a snapshot in time to analyze everything in the photo. Knowledge Mobilizers are taking constant snapshots and comparing and discussing them with other snapshots taken by boating companions while on a ship sailing up and down a flowing range of waters.

    I suggest Peter is a hybrid KMb/consulant paving the way (or should I say ‘sailing’ the way) for a new form of ‘co-creative consulting’. As both point out, the complexity, entanglement and emergence of developing new knowledge is about the complex process of making knowledge ready for service or action to build value. But who’s value? Is it strictly for the value of an institution, government agency, or private company (sounds like consulting) or does it go further to include societal value beyond one organizational structure? (sounds like knowledge mobilization).

    Thanks for an interesting and valuable post and discussion.

  4. Pingback: The Mindset of the Knowledge Entrepreneur

  5. David,

    This is an interesting take on the conversation about knowledge mobilization. I offer that the distinction is more complex and perhaps emergent than described. Rather than either/or, I suggest that it is more both/and & alternating among a range of possible relationships based on need.

    I use the term consultant for two reasons – people seem to know what it means and it is indeed part of what I do. However, my practice is “CFIT”. Yes, consulting is a discreet piece of work for hire – probably about 50% of my time is engaged in this work. Consulting is linked to facilitation work – work that can only happen if there is trust established from a relationship. Deeper trust leads to the work of imagineering (a term created by Disney to describe imagining and engineering – making the imagined happen). I also do training: in Universities and Colleges, in Government departments, in professional association offices, on cruise ships, sometime online.

    Definitions are important but they reveal only little bits of the full meaning of the intent. When I say knowledge mobilization is about the complex process of making knowledge ready for service or action to build value, that reflects the work I do but does not reflect all possible ways of defining KMb.

    One thing is certain. Good people, ideas and leadership are always needed. The work you are doing fits that to a T. Great people, great ideas, amazing leadership is why York and ResearchImpact is successful. Keep going and inspire those that will some day have your job!


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