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A research agenda for knowledge exchange in environmental management and beyond

Knowledge exchange (KE) is a broad term that includes concepts such as sharing, generation, co-production, co-management, and brokerage of knowledge. It can be defined as processes that generate, share and/or use knowledge through various methods appropriate to the context, purpose, and participants involved. Many such processes have been studied in various ways for centuries. Some fields of study, such as knowledge management (with work mostly from organisational management), have research journals dedicated to the study of KE. There is, however, increasing emphasis on finding effective ways of sharing knowledge, such as in environmental management, sustainability and public health, where there is recognition of the need to involve multiple stakeholders in the co-production and sharing of knowledge. In the UK, research councils now require impact plans in research proposals, with KE being conceptualised as key to the pathway of generating impact from research. Yet many questions remain about how KE works and how engagement, interaction and learning from KE can be improved. KE is also rapidly becoming a recognised research area in its own right either as a subsection of other fields of study (e.g. within environmental management), or as a cross-disciplinary subject that transcends and applies to many other more established fields.

In recognition of these trends recent research has developed a research agenda for improving understanding of KE for environmental management and other fields of study. This research elicited the expertise of 20 academics involved in research and practice of KE from different disciplines and backgrounds (e.g. education, international development, environmental management). Many of these had extensive experience in the practice of KE and some had primary roles as KE professionals.

There was general consensus among the experts about many aspects of KE, including:

  • That KE is generally a process of individual or social learning within or between groups of individuals;

  • The process of KE can be unidirectional, but to be more effective, KE needs to be seen to be a multidirectional process that involves the co-production of knowledge;

  • Viewing knowledge as something that can be passed around in inert form through traditional processes of ‘transfer’ is outmoded and does not reflect what is known about how knowledge is constructed and shared;

  • Viewing knowledge as fixed or inert, no matter who exchanges it, how it is exchanged, or in whichever context is problematic. Such a view does not reflect relatively common and accepted understandings of researchers on knowledge about how it is constructed and shared;

  • KE is very significantly influenced by a range of contextual factors including political and social considerations, power relationships, the status of individuals, and what the process aims to achieve;

  • Outcomes of KE can be wide ranging, from the generation of information that can be shared, individual learning, enhanced cohesion and trust, empowerment, participation, ownership and responsibility for decision-making, and flattening of hierarchies between individuals and groups;

  • Outcomes depend on a range of individual factors, such as how people internalize knowledge, the skills of facilitators of KE, and past experience, expertise and background; and

  • Outcomes depend greatly on how KE is defined, how goals are identified, and projects implemented.

The experts reviewed a number of key themes from defining and conceptualizing KE, to evaluating KE, and from the efficiency and effectiveness of KE to the role of power in influencing KE and its relevance to participation and the coproduction of knowledge. A diverse range of 80 research questions were also identified, such as:

  • How are definitions of KE influenced by, and related to, definitions of knowledge and processes of knowledge generation, co-generation, storage, transfer and management?

  • What indicates success in a KE process?

  • What criteria should be used to evaluate the success of KE processes in different contexts and over different time-horizons?

  • What incentives and conditions need to be in place for different groups of people to want to engage and remain in a KE process?

  • How do different motivations of individuals influence KE (e.g. ‘altruism’ versus ‘what’s in it for me?’)?

  • By what ‘processes’ do individuals become ‘more expert’ in KE settings?

  • Whose knowledge counts most in a given KE process, and why does this occur?

  • What role do new technologies play in KE?

Such questions and the review of the themes have highlighted five key issues. First, there is a wide breadth of questions relating to KE requiring attention. Second, much greater attention is needed on improving understanding of the process of KE. Third, particular emphasis is required on how KE should or could be evaluated. This is not only because evaluation of KE projects and programmes is currently lacking but also because developing effective evaluation methodologies and implementing them is key to addressing many of the other research questions. Fourth, many of the research questions cannot easily be addressed without addressing others. For example, to address questions about evaluating KE, some of the questions about identifying objectives and how KE is conceptualised also need to be considered. This highlights the need for those setting research agendas to simultaneously encourage in-depth and robust investigations of KE in ways that also ensure work is integrated across research themes.

Overall, the research has raised awareness of KE as an interdisciplinary applied field involving a multitude of topics that requires input from researchers, practitioners and beneficiaries and consideration of diverse epistemological and ontological perspectives and needs. Addressing research gaps will not be a linear process, and research and practice in KE need to develop alongside one another in an iterative manner. Incentives are therefore required to help facilitate research that establishes and uses appropriate action research methodologies; that makes best use of the learning opportunities provided by existing KE projects; and embeds evaluation as a normal part of KE research and practice. By doing so an adaptive learning approach where continual learning about KE will be encouraged.

For full details of this research see the article online:

Fazey, I., A. C. Evely, M. R. Reed, L. C. Stringer, J. H. J. Kruijsen, P. C. L. White, A. Newsham, L. Jin, M. Cortazzi, J. Phillipson, K. L. Blackstock, N. Entwistle, W. R. Sheate, F. Armstrong, C. Blackmore, J. A. Fazey, J. Ingram, J. Gregson, P. Lowe, S. Morton, and C. Trevitt. In Press. Knowledge Exchange: A review and research agenda for environmental management. Environmental Conservation. DOI:


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