What might implementation science and knowledge mobilisation mean for What Works Centres?

Implementation science (IS) and knowledge mobilisation (KMb) are just two concepts in the plethora of ideas and terms developed over the last decades in narrowing the gap between knowledge being produced and knowledge being used in policy and practice. Other terms include knowledge brokering, knowledge transfer, co-production, dissemination science, and knowledge exchange. Most of them were developed and have currency in health, environment and other policy and practice areas with a science background, though the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) and other evidence intermediaries (such as other What Works Centres and university policy institutes) are trying to adapt and apply these to social policy.

In the UK, 14 What Works Centres (WWCs) and affiliates have been created over the last decade to bring evidence into policy and practice. Their work aims to inform with evidence how £250 billion are spent annually in areas such as homelessness, education or policing. As a majority of them are now reaching several years of activity, they are exploring how to improve and evaluate how the evidence they produce is being mobilised. Two WWCs, the Education Endowment Fund and the Early Intervention Foundation, have explored the potential of behavioural science to develop a knowledge mobilisation plan for promoting social and emotional learning in schools. WCPP is part of the What Works Network. We thought it would be helpful to clarify what we mean when we talk about terms like implementation science and knowledge mobilisation – often used synonymously but with distinct, though related, meanings.


Implementation Science

IS emerged as a means to fill the gap between research and impact. It sought to address the fact that most research conclusions – 85% in health research – are never implemented. It can be defined as:

“the scientific study of methods to promote the systematic uptake of research findings and other evidence-based practices into routine practice, and, hence, to improve the quality and effectiveness of health services” (Eccles and Mittman, 2006)

IS has its origins in health and focuses on getting evidence into practice. It focuses on how and why evidence can inform practice, not only clinicians’ and other health professionals’ practice, but also identifying factors within the health service, policy and wider societal contexts which might hinder or facilitate the ‘feeding’ of evidence into practice. In other words, it aims to build knowledge about what works, where and why (Bauer et al., 2015), mobilising for instance randomised trials to isolate specific factors. It also includes an evaluation element, looking at how well evidence underpins a given practice.

The newfound desire of applying implementation science to policy is therefore a challenge. IS’s reliance on models and frameworks makes it an attractive choice for those on all sides of the knowledge-policy-practice divide grappling with getting evidence used more. Nevertheless, because IS is fundamentally inter-disciplinary, bringing together knowledge and concepts from disciplines such as economics, psychology (notably its behaviour change aspect) and sociology, it can have relevance for areas outside health, such as social work, education, and waste management.


Knowledge Mobilisation

At its most basic, Knowledge Mobilisation (KMb) refers to the relationship between research and practice. Unlike previously used terms of knowledge exchange or knowledge transfer, Levin argues that KMb emphasises multi-directional links and complexity, notably political, involved when research informs practice. KMb focuses on the knowledge to be mobilised, the process of mobilisation, and the impact of knowledge on practice. For Huw Davies and colleagues, it is equivalent to “approaches to encourage research use”. KMb, unlike IS, also seems to apply more to social sciences than to health; although Davies et al. use the term in the context of UK (United Kingdom) healthcare. However, IS too is increasingly interested in the social aspect of getting evidence into practice. To sum up, the boundaries and definitions of IS and KMb continue to evolve as they continue to be mobilised in different contexts.

Thus, as often happens with popular terms, knowledge mobilisation has varying definitions with for instance David Phipps seeing KMb as applying to policy as well as practice. For the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Mental Health:

“Knowledge mobilisation […] [is] not just about sharing, or publishing, or one-way information flow. It is about engagement, end-user participation and attention to impact”.

Hence, KMb appears to encompass a number of concepts – e.g. knowledge brokering, co-production, dissemination – to get knowledge from producers to users.

Where IS is often considered to be mainly about programmes and top-down models of implementation, KMb is more ‘messy’ and flexible, focusing on processes and policies. Because they focus on getting evidence into practice, but come at it from different perspectives and with differences tools and processes, both IS and KMb are useful resources for evidence producers, brokers and users. What is important is not to get stuck into definitional debates and arguments about which models work best, but instead to explore the variety of models, findings and tools available across the two disciplines to test and experiment with what works in a given context. We however plan to explore different models and tools in a future blog as our project on implementation with the other What Works Centres evolves.