It was only when we voiced in 2015 at the CEF our role as a regional knowledge hub that I started to consider myself as a knowledge broker. Together with colleagues, I capture knowledge, (re)package it and share it with finance officials in South East Europe and beyond. To best do this, we develop relationships to knowledge providers and knowledge seekers, as well as those who can provide the resources to effectively facilitate knowledge transfers through engaging learning experiences.
For writing this blog post, I wanted to better understand what supported me over the years in becoming a knowledge broker. Mapping out the below insights, I realized that whenever I managed to internalize them in my behavior (grasping them not only with my head but also stomach), I developed the most personally and career-wise.
- We all are experts, we all have knowledge. At the University of Maastricht, I got the opportunity to study through problem-based learning. In small groups, we gathered knowledge to respond to problem statements. Before studying a range of learning resources, we always first activated our given pre-knowledge. We all needed some time to get used to this new perspective to learning.
By activating our given pre-knowledge as a starting point, we better apprehend new knowledge, retain it and apply it to new circumstances. Our joint knowledge develops better if every group member shares what he or she already knows and we challenge each other’s pre-knowledge through questioning and requesting examples. By doing so, we all act as experts. Feeling part of knowledge transfer and creation helps me gain confidence in what I already know.
- By learning to voice our knowledge, we promote the learning of others. When studying and working in the Netherlands, I needed some time to get used to the more direct and open communication among the Dutch. I learned to appreciate how important it is to challenge each other’s knowledge, regardless of the counterpart’s rank, title or seniority – what counts is the argument. It did not come easy to me to embrace such directness. I had to learn that direct voicing of one’s views can only be successful, if we also learn to better accept different views and disagreements. It took me some time until I realized how empowering this can be and that it is up to me what knowledge I find appropriate.
- Do not communicate all you know, communicate all that your audience needs to know. Throughout my time at the university, I had to write more and more papers. I typically started writing down all that I knew, and then rewrote and restructured the text during a painful, often long-lasting revision process. I realized that it was my lack of confidence that made me write down all I knew first, trying to convince the reader that I am knowledgeable. It took me time to learn through working with co-authors and more experienced reviewers of my texts how to pay more attention to what the reader needs and wants to read. I came to admire those who write a text starting from the main thought (top down) rather than by distilling the essence of a paper through several revisions (bottom up).
- Knowledge brokers need to be hedgehogs and foxes. I often recall the moment when one of our professors told us that there are hedgehogs and foxes among us. Being more of a fox, we tend to be better in connecting knowledge across disciplines, contexts and people. Being more of a hedgehog, we tend to be better in gathering knowledge through taking a focused and deeper look into a specific topic. Our professor warned us that we should always appreciate that the hedgehog and the fox need each other, and that we should nurture in ourselves the characteristics opposite the animal we associate with, as much as possible.
Considering myself more of a fox, I learned that it is important to get a deeper understanding of a specific topic to always have a ‘strong supporting leg’ in a specific topic or skill on which I can rely if needed. Other researchers who considered themselves more of a hedgehog learned to invest more time in connecting their knowledge to others.
- All of us can be different knowledge brokers but we have to carry at least three hats. At the CEF, I realized that knowledge broking is not only about capturing knowledge and sharing it, but also re-packaging it through adjusting the depth and the focus of the shared knowledge to the specific learning needs by applying an appropriate learning approach and ensuring that sufficient resources are made available. These ‘three hats’ come as a basic toolkit that we have to master to run our program and take on new responsibilities. Nurturing this skillset does not mean that we should neglect our individual strengths; as a team, we benefit from our diversity.
- If good is not good enough, we may not be ready for the best opportunities. I tried to first control every detail of my PhD research as much as possible (e.g. searching for the best methodology and data), which came at the risk of procrastinating my writing. One day, the head of our PhD program warned us that waiting too long with rounding off a paper can imply that even the best data gets outdated or the conclusions become irrelevant.
I realized that fellow PhD students with more work experience had been more pragmatic in accepting that good is good enough, concluding papers and finally their PhD more timely and focused. Once I understood this, I managed to accelerate my PhD research, too.
As CEF knowledge brokers, we regularly need to way off how much we invest in every detail: we strive to ensure the best quality, but if we do not learn to accept that good can be good enough, we might not be ready to invest sufficient time when having the best opportunity.
- Systematic work matters but not everything is worth structuring. Linked to detailed work is our wish to be systematic, following clear procedures, rules and standards. When I am new to a job or task, I typically search to give it structure to get control over the new situation. As a knowledge broker, however, I want to be flexible and innovative. Slowly I have been realizing that too much structure can limit our thinking as knowledge brokers. I have come to appreciate that structure needs to be given on a more aggregate level, so that we can focus our energy on more tailored solutions. It works best when paired with promoting more effective internal knowledge sharing and communication, which we are strongly developing at the CEF.
- If I focus on my own growth only, I develop slower than when focusing on others’ growth, too. For long, I saw my role as a knowledge broker as one vis-à-vis the target audience only. I did not realize well enough that I could be a knowledge broker vis-à-vis everyone around me. Growing in my role as a team manager, the CEF invested in coaching sessions for me, which helped me reflect on how I can enable others more, not only in our training activities. So, I am now learning how to best enable also my colleagues.
- Offering help and solutions is not the same as backing somebody up. When focusing more on how to enable others in their development, I understood that this can be done in two ways. We can either help them find a solution, or simply back them up in finding a solution, trusting in their own problem-solving capacity. The latter is more difficult to realize, as we have to withhold our own knowledge. At the CEF, we increasingly incorporate the ‘enabling’ aspect in our role as knowledge brokers, going beyond our traditional focus on technical knowledge transfer by supporting the development of individual leadership skills.
I still have a lot to progress in terms of these nine learning moments. Have you experienced similar or other learning moments in becoming a knowledge broker?