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Interview with Raza M. Mirza, PhD
Network Manager
National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE)

How is your event geared towards knowledge exchange?

The National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE), a Canadian charitable organization housed at the Institute for Life Course and Aging at the University of Toronto, is recognized internationally as a leader in knowledge mobilization and exchange. The Annual NICE Knowledge Exchange, the cornerstone of the knowledge mobilization strategy at NICE,  is not a typical scientific conference; instead, it is a unique one-day event that offers delegates the opportunity to participate in hands-on training sessions and to participate in dialogues with experts in areas of their interest. It is a broadly multidisciplinary and intersectoral event that encourages the networking of delegates across a broad range of disciplines as well as creating links between research creators and research users, both in practice and in the community. As such, the research mobilized at the Exchange represents a number of different understandings and perspectives on issues that impact seniors. The concept of knowledge mobilization, at its very core, is about bidirectional flow of knowledge and information, and to this end, the event is a true knowledge exchange event that encompasses both knowledge dissemination as well as training in knowledge mobilization.

Interactive “Theme Team” sessions are a key feature of the Exchange. NICE operates through Theme Teams that are relevant to current issues in gerontology and geriatrics including caregiving, ethnicity and aging, end-of-life issues, law and policing, education, poverty, and the intersections of the arts and aging. NICE “Theme Teams” represent interdisciplinarity and promote exchange in two ways: first, they are co-chaired and comprised of researchers, practitioners and community members and, second, the members of the theme teams represent numerous disciplines (such as law, police, social work, psychology, medicine, nursing, rehabilitation, economics, art, music). The “Theme Teams” mobilize knowledge by, for example, working together to develop user-friendly, easily accessible tools that make quality research and practice guidelines easy to use. As a result of Theme Team activities, both as part of the Exchange and other research activities, over 200 evidence-based tools have been developed. These tools are available in many languages such as a suite of tools on elder abuse; assessment/intervention tools for financial literacy for low-income women, new immigrants and kin care grandparents and tools on caring for the caregiver. NICE uses numerous platforms for knowledge mobilization, including websites, tools in both paper and digital formats, social media and electronic newsletters. NICE has had well over a million requests for its tools alone.

Overall, with regard to knowledge mobilization, the Exchange has four objectives:
(1) train participants in knowledge mobilization and/or community intervention;
(2) disseminate current research in "Theme Team" areas;
(3) facilitate face-to-face, interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge sharing amongst "Theme Team" members and delegates; and
(4) facilitate networking among all delegates, especially students and new scholars.

The Exchange is a particularly important knowledge mobilization event for NICE because it is the annual event where members can network, hear about the Network progress, participate in knowledge mobilization training activities, and collaborate on the design and evaluation of the NICE knowledge mobilization tools as part of Theme Team sessions.

What strategies would you recommend for someone undertaking a knowledge sharing project or conference? 

Knowledge sharing projects or conferences face a number of challenges. Some of the challenges relate to effectively reaching a target audience, to creating opportunities that foster communication and sharing of perspectives amongst stakeholders, and ensuring that outcomes of the project or conference are significant to the day-to-day activities of participants. Challenges aside, Knowledge sharing projects and conferences, such as the Exchange, remain important for bringing together stakeholders and for bridging the “knowledge-to-action” gap. While it may not be possible to breakdown the multidisciplinary silos from which various stakeholders operate, knowledge sharing projects should aim to facilitate the nexus of stakeholders such that, even if briefly, the silos can connect to exchange ideas and perspectives.

The diversity of the Exchange activities (i.e. workshops, Theme Team sessions, student research competition) and delegates are the main strengths. A key goal of the Exchange has always been to foster intersectoral and multidisciplinary understandings and responses to issues facing older adults. Sessions at the Exchange help foster communication and sharing by offering a platform for open dialogue on topics relevant to gerontology and geriatrics, to inspire new research agendas, to continue to better understand current issues, and to understand the key contributions that various stakeholders can make to various areas of interest. In so doing, the Exchange works to mobilize knowledge between researchers and community, increase the accessibility and use of diverse knowledge and expertise in the field of gerontology, build new relationships among research creators and research users, and to develop student capacity in both research and practice.

The Exchange is often the first and only opportunity for many of the stakeholders to work collaboratively, share ideas, and to gain a better understanding of the unique contributions each other may make to address the challenges facing an aging population.

The program at the Exchange is strategically structured in a way that allows for significant outcomes: first, workshop participants leave with a better grasp of knowledge mobilization with an eye to applying it to not only their work on behalf of NICE, but also their own research projects and activities. Second, Theme Teams collaborate on new research/ practice directions and tools for development, which contribute to closing the gap between research and practice, a key concern for knowledge mobilization. Finally, networking among our participants fosters new interdisciplinary collaborations and opportunities for future knowledge transfer and exchange.

Can you give an example of a knowledge exchange relationship that has developed from the work of the conference?

The Exchange has an overall goal of improving the quality of life and well-being of older adults in Canada and abroad by improving the understanding and response to issues facing older adults. Responses require evidence and research knowledge, often considered the realm of academia; however, the insight and experience to make research relevant to practice or policy and to make knowledge ‘actionable’ often requires a non-academic lens. To this end, an important knowledge exchange relationship that has developed from the work of the conference is between academic and non-academic stakeholders.

Academic and non-academic groups make very valuable contributions to the work undertaken by NICE. Participants at the Exchange are drawn from the following groups:
(1) academics/researchers;
(2) community-based representatives, including practitioners and those in the non-profit and private sectors;
(3) students;
(4) policy makers; and
(5) older adults and their families.

As noted earlier, intersectoral approaches are critical to addressing many of the pressing issues in the field of aging. Academics and researchers are important to the event for two reasons; first, they share their own expertise in their areas of interest and, second, they learn about the importance of other issues in the field of aging and continue or begin studies in these areas. While the majority of researchers in attendance conduct research in the social sciences and humanities, the Exchange also attracts researchers from other fields related to the well-being of older adults, including those from medicine, nursing, rehabilitation and others.

Community-based representatives from social agencies, non-profit organizations and private enterprises (such as social workers, counsellors, decision-makers in long-term care and private retirement homes) are important because they are in a unique position to actively mobilize the knowledge learned at the Exchange to improve the quality of life and well-being of the older adults they serve. Similarly, policy makers are able to mobilize the knowledge from the Exchange in the development of new policies to better support older adults’ well-being. They are also able to offer their important contributions of the best practices for using research to shape policy.

Student development is also a core concern of NICE and student involvement is vitally important at the Exchange because their participation helps build their capacity as researchers and/or as practitioners to respond to the needs of older adults. Through their participation at the Exchange, students not only benefit from the substantive learning about issues facing older adults, but also from other skills that are not routinely taught in programs, such as engaged scholarship, interdisciplinary collaboration, knowledge translation, community partnerships and the value of practice and policy applications of research outcomes. NICE welcomed 47 students to the 2014 Exchange and welcomed over 150 students to the 2015 Exchange.

Older adults and their families are also important participants because they provide the much-needed perspective of the community to the delegates that serve them as researchers, practitioners and policy-makers. At the same time, older adults and their families use the information and tools themselves and have considerable impact through their membership on the Board of Directors and on all the Theme Teams. The fact that all tools that are developed have to be vetted by the seniors committee means they have the final say.

As a result of Theme Team discussions at the 2014 Exchange, for example, a new Technology Theme Team was established. Members of this Theme Team, initially comprised of stakeholders representing over 10 organizations (i.e. healthcare, government, community, research) and groups mentioned earlier, developed a grant and secured funding for a knowledge synthesis project. The work of this Theme Team highlights the important contributions that participants at the Exchange, drawn from important and diverse groups who conduct research, make policy, and/or provide support to older adults, can make when working collaboratively.

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