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Knowledge Mobilization: Definition & Terminology

Knowledge Mobilization (KMb)

Whenever I mention the work I do in knowledge mobilization, inevitably someone asks me to explain what that means.  Unfortunately, there are a variety of similar terms being used to roughly define the same thing, which has a tendency to “muddy the waters” of explanation.  I engage with other professionals – especially through the Ontario Knowledge Transfer & Exchange Community of Practice (KTE Cop) – and I continue to push for agreement on the use of one, clear term (knowledge mobilization) to describe the work we do. But, it’s not that simple to find agreement as each term has its own history and sometimes very defensive, personal appeal.

First, to define KMb:

Fellow knowledge mobilizer and Director of Knowledge Mobilization Works,  Peter Levesque states that the term originates from the French term mobilisation – making ready for service or action.

KMb consists of a variety of methods in which research and knowledge is transferred, translated, exchanged and co-produced to enhance the practical application of knowledge between researchers and research-users (individuals and community organizations seeking to use research to inform decisions in public policy and professional practice).

Yet KMb is not limited to academic or more formal knowledge. It also includes informal knowledge such as narratives or even Internet blogging/microblogging/wikispaces if it informs and contributes to the greater benefit for society.

However, a multiplicity of terms and concepts are used to describe aspects of KMb including knowledge utilization, knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, knowledge management, knowledge translation, diffusion of innovation, research impacts, and research utilization. Three of the most frequently used terms are knowledge transfer, knowledge utilization, and knowledge exchange.


I argue that all of these terms – including knowledge transfer and knowledge transfer & exchange – falls short in stating the multiple influences of the co-production of knowledge. Exchange still suggests a sharing of knowledge within separate fields of application. KMb is a more recent term and is gaining greater use as it focuses more on the multiple contributions and co-production of new knowledge.

KMb emphasizes the multi-directional links or activities among researchers and research-users with greater emphasis on the multiple contributions and co-operation for the creation of knowledge. KMb includes an array of interdisciplinary methodologies and techniques at many levels and directions to mobilize knowledge within a broader framework.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in conjunction with McMaster University’s Health Sciences Department and Health Information Unit (HiRU), along with the Canadian Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools has created a Wikispace intending to help define and compare terms and concepts across a variety of disciplines using KT. CIHR uses KTE, while The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) prefers using knowledge mobilization as a more appropriate term.

With so many terms being used to describe the same thing, perhaps it’s time to agree on using only one term – a more inclusively descriptive term – knowledge mobilization.

A Little Knowledge Mobilization History Lesson

The belief that having and exchanging knowledge greatly contributes to the advancement of civilization is argued to go back as far as the Greeks (Rich, 1979. Science Communication, 1, 6-30). From the early twentieth-century, one of the great fore-thinkers and contributors to the idea of relational behaviour and knowledge exchange is the French sociologist and social psychologist Gabriel Tarde. Among his theories, Tarde proposed a different way of looking at the social world, not from the perspective of the individual or the group, but from how products, acts and ideas (including knowledge) can be used to classify individuals or groups.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend an Ontario KTE (Knowledge Transfer & Exchange) Community of Practice (CoP) event. I am a member of this KTE CoP and was excited to finally meet nursing scholar and knowledge utilization researcher, Carole Estabrooks at her presentation: Exploring the Applicability of Research to the Practice of Knowledge Translation. The decades of Estabrooks’ work and experience was evident as she shared her knowledge about the history, contexts and research being done in the practice of knowledge translation (knowledge mobilization) today (see blog about KMb definition & terminology).

In a longtitudinal analysis paper, Estabrooks  and colleagues have traced the historical development of the knowledge transfer field between 1945 and 2005 with an author co-citation analysis of over 5,000 scholarly articles. Their research shows limited citation before the 1960s. It’s not until the mid-1960s that a flourishing of the literature on knowledge transfer and knowledge utilization began, with the largest increase from 1995 to 2004. One of the most cited authors and contributors to the field is considered to be Everett Rogers.

It was Rogers who furthered Tarde’s “laws of imitation” in the 1962 book Diffusion of innovations. Rogers also identifies nine major disciplines in which research diffusion is most prominent: anthropology, early sociology, rural sociology, education, public health/medical sociology, communication, marketing, geography, general sociology, and a miscellaneous “other”.  Certainly, many of the members of the KTE CoP are included in these and equally diverse backgrounds. Evolving from diffusion of innovation, Rogers worked with colleagues G.M. Beal and Ronald Havelock to develop the term knowledge generation, exchange, and utilization to provide a more interactive understanding of the process of knowledge use, with a view that knowledge should be useful to society.

Estabrooks explains that knowledge transfer and knowledge utilization emerged as two new domains from the parent domain diffusion of innovation between 1975 and 1984. It’s not until 1992 that a new domain of knowledge utilization appears with the emergence of evidence-based medicine. More recently, knowledge mobilization has emerged to fill the void of the limitation of evidence-based medicine’s exclusion of theoretical or creative forms of knowledge. Other forms of knowledge include indigenous knowledge (such as narrative traditions) or informal knowledge that may influence a greater exchange of ideas leading to government and community policy-making.

It’s the more inclusive and multiple-contribution elements of knowledge mobilization that create greater opportunities to inform and enhance how knowledge is exchanged and co-produced today – especially today via social media. Knowledge mobilization stems from a long history – as far back as the Greeks – and continues to echo the view that exchanging knowledge continues to greatly contribute to the advancement of society – whether from dialogue in the Greek Acropolis to blogging on the Internet.