When I first joined the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) in 2010, I was quite surprised at how low in esteem “communication” was perceived within CGIAR and CPWF (unfortunately it still is). Most researchers disdained working with communicators, and that communications was concerned only with public relations was the prevailing opinion.
I had come from a background where communicators and knowledge managers engaged in development and research activities and were seen as part of a team. The boundaries of communication, knowledge management, information management, extension, policy dialogue, training and research extension linkages were blended. Most importantly, communication and information experts were seen as part of the research and development process.
In the CGIAR, I felt that I had moved into some time warp of 1950s corporate communication (unfortunately without the lunch-time martinis!). Communication was seen as promotional in nature and was passive, reactionary and one-way. Communication was rarely targeted downward but only focused on ‘upward’ users, most often meant to keep donors and our bosses happy. Customer satisfaction and development of materials that could be used were not a high priority.
The Change Began With CPWF
In CPWF, a group of us in the Knowledge Management Team (including Sophie Alaverez, Boru Douthwaite, Tonya Schuetz) began to define a new type of knowledge management and communication paradigm. In this approach, knowledge management (composed of communication, information, and monitoring and evaluation) integrates with research around the project and program impact pathways. This approach ensures that knowledge management systems and activities are geared toward achieving program outcomes and are not just seen as a service or administrative support.
We were joined in our efforts by Peter Ballantyne, Ewen LeBorgne, Marianne Gadeberg, Terry Clayton, Mahamoudou Sawadgo, Javier Baca and the CPWF basin leaders who led the way to re-envisioning communication within the research for development paradigm.
Within CPWF, a whole new range of knowledge management work was initiated, well outside of the realms of corporate communication. Some of these efforts included innovation platforms, wikispaces for collaboration amongst researchers, participatory video, using film in dialogues, writeshops and improving facilitation of dialogues both internally and externally. We also started a dialogue with CCAFS and Livestock and Fish on knowledge management that evolved into an annual workshop on knowledge management and communication for research programs.
Next Step: The Paseo Approach?
At a CPWF writeshop held this past summer, much of this experimentation was nicely articulated and conceptualized in a think piece, written by Tonya Schuetz and Abby Waldorf entitled ‘A PASEO Approach’.
What I like about this think piece is that it re-envisions communications and knowledge management at the regional level. It highlights the need for both communicators and researchers to think differently about how we go about research for development communication. The paseo approach underscores that communication is a process of engagement and not merely a collection of products. It links communication activities to the wider change processes and the outcomes that researchers seek.
Beyond advocating for these changes, the authors also argue a new term is needed to distinguish this approach from public relations communications.
This is where I wonder whether we need to learn from the past rather than try to reinvent the wheel. The paper presents the new approach within a vacuum, only contrasting it to corporate communication. But it could have also looked at the approaches and experiences of previous efforts to reinterpret or reinvigorate the role of communication.
We’re Not Alone: Communications for Development Is a Movement
If we look at communication for development—a field that started back in the 1980s and has continued to reinvent itself—it includes many of the same concepts that are described as part of the paseo approach, with a particular focus on social change.
Learning from other experiences and partnering with those who have experience (again, rather than reinventing the wheel) is one area I see as missing from the paseo approach, and it is something that is important for the CGIAR and others. One has to look only at the incredible work that the Overseas Development Institute has done on policy communication or at the recent publication on new roles for communication in development by the Institute of Development Studies to see that our take on communication for development is part of a wider movement.
Slightly further afield, the public health sector has had huge success in linking communication with science and action. Think of AIDS and other health campaigns that have changed the way we behave and act towards different diseases. In public health, the communication teams have embraced a behavioral science approach to communication, something that the agriculture sector has lagged far behind in.
We Are Making Progress
So after four years of being in the CGIAR, do I see any new movement?
I would say yes! Think pieces like the one on the paseo approach and the hands-on work being done by researchers, communicators and uptake staff at the regional and national level show that a whole new approach is emerging. Communication is increasingly seen as a strategic area of concern for moving research to outcomes.
Do We Need a New Approach?
My personal thought is that we need to continue to invest resources and efforts in bringing researchers, communicators and knowledge managers together to leverage their respective skills. We need to keep on walking the talk and to support the new approach to communication that is already emerging, and has been emerging for years, within CGIAR. I am, however, less sure we have to create a whole new terminology to do so.
Please use the comments to let us know what you think! Are communications and knowledge management well integrated into research for development? How can this be done better?