Tapping the tree of knowledge: How Jane Gibson bridged the research-to-action gap

After a decade of leadership, Jane Brenneman Gibson is retiring this summer. She championed the knowledge transfer and exchange department at the Institute for Work & Health from its infancy to its current state: a leader in the field.

Published: August 11, 2011

Knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE) has radically changed how business is done at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) and how IWH interacts with stakeholders. Jane Gibson, long-time director of the Institute’s KTE department, has been the driving force behind this transformation. She is retiring this August after more than a decade at the helm of this dynamic department.

IWH President and Senior Scientist Dr. Cam Mustard, says, I know I speak for all members of the Institute and our many valued partners in expressing gratitude to Jane for her dedicated, confident leadership and for the enthusiasm and joy she brought to the challenge of making research evidence available and accessible to professionals and policy-makers working to protect the health of Ontario workers.

The history and growing importance of KTE at IWH

KTE at the Institute is defined as a process by which relevant research information is made available and accessible through interactive engagement with stakeholders/audiences for practice, planning and policy-making.

When Gibson arrived at IWH in 2000, KTE was in its start-up phase. The Five Year Review in 1996 had specifically called for research transfer (RT) and, in 1999, Gibson’s predecessors, John Lavis and Anne Larson, produced the key document: Towards a New Research Transfer Strategy for the Institute for Work & Health.

Lavis recommended the adoption of a new definition of research transfer and five RT principles, a new corporate structure and annual priority setting, new staff linked to research themes, a formal advisory mechanism, and the basic goals, structure and processes for RT.

The five original working principles from Lavis’ research transfer framework were as follows:

  1. Research messages must be delivered by a credible messenger.
  2. Messages must be audience specific.
  3. Messages need to be ideas related to a decision or set of decisions.
  4. Interactive engagement is critical for successful KTE.
  5. Performance measures must be linked to specific audiences.

Gibson effectively moved KTE from an RT strategy focused on dissemination to an integrated knowledge exchange strategy focused on engagement. Jane built upon what was there... which was no mean feat, explains Rhoda Reardon, former KT associate at IWH and current manager of the Research and Evaluation Department at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.

Jane united KT and communications, continues Reardon. She stayed focused on the scientific foundation of KTE, keeping faith with her IWH scientist colleagues.

Jane is an early pioneer of the KTE movement, says Sonya Corkum, former chair of the KTE Advisory Committee and international KTE advisor. Through her leadership, the program is the best example of a KTE initiative that perfectly straddles the research-to-action space.

Stakeholder engagement

Reciprocity is key to KTE. Gibson emphasizes, KTE is not just about disseminating ideas to an audience or market. It involves getting stakeholders involved right from the start, exchanging ideas with them, getting them to provide research questions at the beginning of the process.

She sums up, KTE at IWH follows the ‘exchange model’ not the ‘push model.’

Gibson has worked closely with IWH’s Scientific Director Dr. Ben Amick and former Chief Scientist Dr. Tony Culyer to embed KTE in all aspects of IWH’s scientific enterprise. During Jane’s tenure as KTE director, IWH has been transformed from a traditional academic research organization into a highly innovative and creative organization partnering with stakeholders to develop and provide evidence-based solutions to important work and health problems, says Amick.

Culyer emphasizes how Gibson’s tenure started at the very beginning of KT and helped it to grow into KTE by emphasizing the exchangeability (E) of knowledge. Jane developed dozens of practical tools to turn talk into action, he says. She was a great pioneer, an untiring teacher of researchers in making their results accessible to non-specialists, and an outstanding recruiter of intermediaries such as educational influentials. She is leaving the field infinitely richer for her contributions.

Success stories abound

Success stories are plentiful. For example, together with IWH researchers and staff from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, KTE staff helped to create the Seven Principles for Successful Return to Work, a guide that has been downloaded thousands of times and garnered praise for its usefulness.

Additionally, the Health and Safety Association Liaison Committee, chaired by Gibson, provides a quarterly forum for discussion and information sharing between IWH, the Centres for Research Expertise and Ontario’s health and safety associations (HSAs). In particular, the committee helps the Institute to understand the research and information needs of the HSAs. 

Also, IWH has been involved in establishing “educationally influential (EI)” networks for six different health-care disciplines across Ontario. These EI networks enable two-way exchanges of information. Researchers gain practical knowledge and opinions from the EIs, while KTE staff share pertinent, evidence-based findings with the EIs who can pass this information along to peers through their networks.

Others now look to IWH for KTE guidance. The Institute has information on how to do KTE on the website at: www.iwh.on.ca/knowledge-transfer-exchange. Additionally, since 2006, IWH has offered a KTE workshop, and participants have included staff from Cancer Care Ontario and the Seniors Health Research Transfer Network.

Most recently, IWH scientists and KTE professionals joined forces to conduct a systematic review of tools used to measure the effectiveness of KTE efforts.

Lessons learned

Gibson recently compiled a list of lessons learned during her time at the Institute. This list will no doubt help to guide future KTE ventures at IWH:

  1. You need high quality relevant research to have successful KTE.
  2. Early and meaningful stakeholder engagement is critical.
  3. It takes time to build relationships and trust with stakeholders.
  4. Context and timing are important.
  5. Stakeholders are interested in evidence and its application.
  6. When you work with smart, dedicated, cooperative people, you can accomplish a lot.

John Frank, director of the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy and founding director of research at IWH, sums up Gibson’s contribution: Jane has created at IWH perhaps the most effective and polished KTE unit in any research facility in North America. She has been able to forge exceptional links to IWH’s diverse and dispersed stakeholder communities, and provide them with a steady flow of easily digestible research findings. Indeed, her IWH unit’s novel conceptualization and actualization of KTE has led the field internationally.