Knowledge transfer: what it means and how it works

A recent visit to the British Museum brought to mind the subject of knowledge transfer. Broadly, this is the processes by which the world of ideas is translated to social benefit.

The Scottish Further Education Unit did a study earlier this year which explored what knowledge transfer meant for Scotland's colleges. In undertaking our study and reading the literature, we were struck by the fact that this broad notion had a narrow interpretation.

Whatever was originally intended, it had come to mean the transfer of university research findings to economic activity.

That interpretation had emerged through funding opportunities associated with the term "knowledge transfer". Not a lot in it for colleges, it would appear, and college staff were scratching their heads at the notion of their engagement in KT. It was seen as an entirely university matter. That wasn't good enough and we had to return to first principles. When we did - and while still focused on economic activity - we found that colleges were playing a key role in the processes of knowledge transfer.

We found that their potential was beginning to appear in the footnotes of some of the literature. It was suggested, for example, that Scotland's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were more inclined to look to their local college as they came across new requirements and possibilities.

The difficulty was that the vocabulary and what it had come to mean wasn't up to describing adequately the contribution made. So we suggested changing the vocabulary.

Working with college staff, we developed a definition in which knowledge transfer was related to those activities which allow outside organisations to engage with a current knowledge base of theory and practice in a way which makes a difference.

We developed a framework to reflect the purpose of the transfer activity: first, initiating new enterprises; second, adopting changed practices and finally, building capacity for change.

Initiation: This involves the creation of new products and services which have the potential for economic, community andor cultural progress. It is characterised by high risk including company formation, exploiting intellectual property and developing licensing arrangements.

Scotland's universities are good at this and that's fine. Colleges might be limited in the contribution which they can make.

ADOPtion: This is related to engagement with a knowledge base to achieve some change, which is usually experienced in the short or medium term so risk can be managed. This includes company and employment-focused staff development.

Colleges are good at this and derive significant income from it. They have developed these activities by scraping the necessary funding together and they could do more. Certainly, they have not as yet benefited from any opportunity from the funding council for this purpose. It is likely colleges have a particular contribution to make with Scotland's SMEs.

Universities make a contribution too. And that's cool.

BUILDING: Building increases capacity for change. Activities in this area include, for example, enterprise education. Without this we are unlikely to create the conditions by which the other knowledge transfer processes work smoothly.

Both colleges and universities are aware of the contributions which they can make in creating these necessary conditions.

So there we are, a framework in which the broad issue can be understood and the respective contributions of FE and HE may be acknowledged. The new council will have to do more of this and it seems to be working on it.

Having started off in the British Museum, I thought I should mention that the top seller in its bookshop is How to Speak Egyptian; it is officially an international bestseller with an excellent section, I believe, on pharaonic administrations.

Maybe that should be an early task for the single funding council - How to Speak Tertiary - with guidelines for staff in colleges and universities on understanding their respective worlds. The words might be the same and that, at least, enables good surface interaction. The meaning behind them will be different and, without some deliberate attempt to explore and understand these differences, we might be preparing the ground for future frustrations.

We may not be the only part of the public sector to be facing such a challenge. The NHS is recruiting a terminology manager and an interoperability officer. We should wish them well!

John McCann is depute chief executive of the Scottish Further Education Unit.

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