Applying systems thinking to knowledge mobilisation in public health
Haynes, A., Rychetnik, L., Finegood, D., Irving, M., Freebairn, L., & Hawe, P. (2020). Applying systems thinking to knowledge mobilisation in public health. Health Research Policy and Systems, 18 (1).
Context: Knowledge mobilisation (KM) is a vital strategy in efforts to improve public health policy and practice. Linear models describing knowledge transfer and translation have moved towards multi-directional and complexity attuned approaches where knowledge is produced and becomes meaningful through social processes. There are calls for systems approaches to KM but little guidance on how this can be operationalised. This paper describes the contribution that systems thinking can make to KM and provides guidance about how to put it into action.
Methods: We apply a model of systems thinking (which focuses on leveraging change in complex systems) to eight KM practices empirically identified by others. We describe how these models interact and draw out some key learnings for applying systems thinking practically to KM in public health policy and practice. Examples of empirical studies, tools and targeted strategies are provided.
Findings: Systems thinking can enhance and fundamentally transform KM. It upholds a pluralistic view of knowledge as informed by multiple parts of the system and reconstituted through use. Mobilisation is conceived as a situated, non-prescriptive and potentially destabilising practice, no longer conceptualised as a discrete piece of work within wider efforts to strengthen public health but as integral to and in continual dialogue with those efforts. A systems approach to KM relies on contextual understanding, collaborative practices, addressing power imbalances and adaptive learning that responds to changing interactions between mobilisation activities and context.
Conclusion: Systems thinking offers valuable perspectives, tools and strategies to better understand complex problems in their settings and for strengthening KM practice. We make four suggestions for further developing empirical evidence and debate about how systems thinking can enhance our capacity to mobilise knowledge for solving complex problems – (1) be specific about what is meant by ‘systems thinking’, (2) describe counterfactual KM scenarios so the added value of systems thinking is clearer, (3) widen conceptualisations of impact when evaluating KM, and (4) use methods that can track how and where knowledge is mobilised in complex systems.
systems thinking, knowledge mobilisation, public health, policy-making