Communicating inside to learn outside?

In justifying a proposal we submitted to a donor supporting learning at IRC, I came to revisit my ideas of internal communication and its link with the learning activities that we carry out or promote as an organisation.

In the proposal we submitted, we focus on three levels: internal communication capacities and channels, experiences and insights in supporting local governance for WASH services and supporting sector learning initiatives as in the resource centre network and learning allliance processes we are promoting through our regional and externally funded programmes.

The three learning areas of work of IRC in this proposal

The three learning areas of work of IRC in this proposal

The figures above and below show our logic of intervention: focusing on IRC (learning within, which IRC controls entirely), focusing on the sector (learning with our partners, which we can influence a bit – as they can), and focusing on our partners’ interactions with the sector in sector learning initiatives (learning for the sector, where we are interested in playing a role but are acting through our partners and therefore have no influence on).

IRC's learning priorities in the proposal: internally, on the sector, on sector learning initiatives

IRC's learning priorities in the proposal: internally, on the sector, on sector learning initiatives

The interesting thing is that so far our learning and sharing has been reallyfocused on our external work, not as much on our internal processes. This is perhaps not extraordinary in itself in the sense that many organisations in the development sector seem to be better at preaching around than brooming and grooming their own ground, and sometimes with good reason too: the ultimate beneficiaries are not in our own organisations, they are in the countries where we carry out ‘external’ work.

Then again, it is really remarkable that we are not paying enough attention to our internal communication and knowledge sharing processes. In a ‘walk the talk’ perspective we should also be able to fluidify our communication to allow useful experiences and insights to inspire our products and services and to interest, influence and involve partner organisations and the wider WASH sector in the longer run.

Internally, we have a number of processes to improve, even though I maintain we have a learning organisation approach and we have indeed achieved a certain degree of coherence.

So what can we do about those internal processes, which are essentially focused on improving communication? First off, I guess the overall purpose is to achieve a greater degree of coherence. Coherence means a certain degree of integration between activities to ensure that we work as one unit, not as a chaotic collection of individuals with disconnected visions, capacities and activities.

What matters, I think, is to promote the following:

  • Greater coherence in the vision we have: articulating our vision, mission, objectives and priorities, principles and strategies on the basis of a shared analysis and understanding. On this level we have finally seriously considered developing an IRC-wide communication and knowledge-sharing strategy, we have also identified specific communication challenges in a two-tier communication summit highlighting priority areas. The consolidation work we are carrying out around learning alliances, process documentation etc. comes to feed this effort very nicely. And for having shared a number of papers to define concepts in the context of the WASHCost project, I can personally confirm another time how essential it is to ensure that we understand each other and are working in the same direction. Too often it is assumed that we all agree and work together.
  • Greater coherence in the capacities and skills we have to achieve the broad vision mentioned above. This for us will mean more emphasis on the induction programme of new IRC staff, to adapt it a lot more to their own needs and to ensure a coaching process that allows deeper learning and faster preparation. But we are also finally working on an ongoing training cycle for our staff on the concepts, tools and approaches that various individual staff members have mastered but have not systematically shared with the rest of the organisation. How to move from individual skills to organisational capacities in other words.
  • Greater coherence in the communication environment to allow us to communicate effectively internally. This means for us a better adapted info-structure (information infrastructure) by means of rediscovering and adapting the communication channels we have against our working needs, and identifying new promising channels (Twitter, Facebook, wikis, but also virtual conferencing facilities) that would ease up our work. This would particularly help us to a) share knowledge, ideas, insights quickly with staff – taking advantage of the lively matter at IRC and b) document and share information products and services with external audiences.

Further down the line, this also contributes to our work on supporting local governance processes and sector learning initiatives, and there are other activities planned to support these two other objectives in the proposal. Still, internal communication primarily increases our collective capacity to develop and promote innovations, disseminate it and support our in-country partners with coherent and relevant ideas, approaches, products and services. It prepares learning with partners and other sector stakeholders.

As we are amidst a change process – arguably we never cease to be anyway – I hope that this surging focus on internal processes will indeed push us to accept with humility our areas for improvement and to embrace joint initiatives ever more generously, as learning never works as well as with others, and internal communication is only the fuel that feeds the fire. How to combine fire and water? That is another question…

[Just to make sure that this is not understood wrongly – this reflects my own personal view on our work. In no way does it represent the official perspective of IRC].

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