Communication, KM, monitoring, learning – The happy families of engagement

Many people seem to be struggling to understand the differences between communication, knowledge management, monitoring, learning etc.

Finding the happy families (Photo: 1st art gallery)

Finding the happy families (Photo: 1st art gallery)

Let’s consider that all of them are part of a vast family – the ‘engagement’ family. Oh, let’s be clear, engagement can happen in many other ways but for the  sake of simplicity, let’s focus on these four and say that all of these family members have in common the desire – or necessity – to engage people with one another, to socialise, for a reason or another. And let’s try to unpack this complex family tree, to discover the happy families of engagement.

The engagement family is big, it contains different branches and various members in each of these. The main branches are roughly the Communication (Comms), Knowledge management (KM) and Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E).



The comms branch is large and old. Among the many siblings, the most prominent ones are perhaps Public Relations and Marketing. They used to be the only ones around in that branch, for a time that seems endless. All members of this branch like to talk about messages, though their horizon has been expanding to other concepts and approaches, of late.

  • Public relations has always made the point that it’s all about how you come across to other folks and enjoys very much the sheen and the idea of looking smart. But some accuse him of being quite superficial and a little too self-centred.
  • His old sibling marketing has adopted a more subtle approach. Marketing loves to drag people in a friendly conversation, make them feel at ease and get them to do things that perhaps they didn’t want in the first place. Marketing impresses everyone in the family by its results, but he has also upset quite some people in the past. He doesn’t always care for all that, as he thinks he can always find new friends, or victims.
  • Another of their sibling has been around for a while too: Advocacy is very vocal and always comes up with a serious message. Some of his family members would like him to adopt a less aggressive approach. Advocacy’s not silly though, so he’s been observing how his brother marketing operates and he’s getting increasingly subtle, but his image is very much attached to that of an ‘angry and hungry revolutionary loudmouth’.
  • Their sister communication is just as chatty but she is a bit behind the scene. Communication doesn’t care about promoting her family, selling its treasures or claiming a message, she just wants people to engage with one another, in and out of the family. She is everywhere. In a way she might be the mother of this branch.
  • Their youngest sister, internal communication, has been increasingly present over the past few years and she really cares for what happens among all members of her family. She wants people to know about each other and to work together better. She has been getting closer and closer to the second main branch of the engagement family tree: knowledge management, but she differs from that branch in focusing on the internal side of things only.
Knowledge management

Knowledge management

The Knowledge management branch also comprises many different members and in some way is very heterogeneous. This branch doesn’t care so much for messages as for (strategic) information and conversations. For them it’s all about how you can use information and communication to improve your approach.

  • The old uncle is information management. He has been around for a while and he still is a pillar of the family. He collects and organises all kinds of documents, publications, reports and puts them neatly on shelves and online in ways that help people find information. His brothers and sisters mock up his focus on information. Without people engaging with it, information does little.
  • His younger sister knowledge sharing was long overshadowed in the KM branch but she’s been sticking her head out a lot more, taking credit for the more human face of the KM branch. She wants people to share, share and share, engage and engage. She’s very close to her cousin Communication from the Comms branch, but what she really wants is to get people to get their knowledge out and about, to mingle with one another. She has close ties with her colourful cousins facilitation, storytelling and a few more.
  • They have another brother called ‘organisational learning’, who was very active for a while. He wanted everyone to follow him and his principles but he has lost a lot of visibility and momentum over the years when many people found out that the way he showed was not so straightforward as he claimed;
  • The little brother PKM (personal knowledge management) was not taken seriously for a long time but he is really a whiz kid and has given a lot of people confidence that perhaps his branch of the family is better off betting on him, at least partly. He says that everyone of us can do much to improve the way we keep our expertise sharp and connect with akin spirits. To persuade his peeps, PKM often calls upon on his friends from social media and social networks (though these fellas are in demand by most family members mentioned above).
  • A very smart cousin of the KM branch, innovation, is marching up to the limelight. She’s drop-dead gorgeous and keeps changing, never settling with one facet of her identity. Her beauty, class and obvious commonsense strike everyone when they see her, but she disappears quickly if she’s not entertained. In fact, many in the KM family would like to get her on their side but she’s alluding. Perhaps if many family members got together they would manage to keep her at their side.


The M&E branch has always been the odd group out. They are collectors and reporters. Through their history they have mostly focused on indicators, reportspromises made, results and lessons learnt. Other family members consider this branch to be little fun and very procedural, even though of late they have bended their approach – but not everyone around seems to have realised that.

  • Planning is not the oldest but perhaps the most responsible one of this branch. He tries to coordinate his family in a concerted manner. But he is also quite idealistic and sometimes he tends to ignore his siblings and stick to his own ideas, for better (or usually for worse). Still, he should be praised for his efforts to give some direction and he does so very well when he brings people to work with him;
  • Reporting, the formal oldest brother, is perhaps the least likely to change soon. He takes his job very seriously and indeed he talks to all kinds of important people. He really expects everyone to work with him, as requested by those important contacts of his. He doesn’t always realise that pretty much everyone consider him rather stuffy and old-fashioned, but he knows – and they sometimes forget – that he does matter a lot as a connector between this whole funky family and the wider world.
  • Data collection is the next sister who tends to wander everywhere; she lacks the sense of prioritisation, which is why planning really has to keep an eye on her. She’s very good at collecting indeed a lot of stuff but she doesn’t always help her siblings make sense of it. Everyone in the family agrees she has an important role to play but they don’t quite know how.
  • Therefore her other sister reflection is always behind to absorb what data collection brought forward and make sense of it. She is supposedly very astute but occasionally she does her job too quickly and misses crucial lessons or patterns. Or perhaps she’s overwhelmed by what data collection brought to her and she settles for comfort. But she usually has great ideas.
  • They have a young sister called process documentation. She’s a bit obscure to her own kin but she seems to have built a nice rapport with the other branches of the wider family and seems more agile than her own brothers and sisters. She goes around and observes what’s going on, picking up the bizarre and unexpected, the details of how people do things and how it helps for their wider work.
Learning is patient

Learning is patient

The wise godmother (1) of them all is learning. Learning generously brings her good advices to all her family, for them to improve over time. She wants her Comms branch offspring to engage in ways that benefit everyone; she encourages their KM siblings to nurture more genuine and deeper conversations that lead to some more profound insights and more effective activities; she invites the sidetracked M&E branch to find their place, not be obtuse and use their sharp wits to bring common benefits and help understand what is going well or not and why. More than anything, she encourages all her godchildren to get along with one another because she sees a lot of potential for them to join hands and play together.

Learning could do it all on her own but she prefers to socialise, she loves socialising in fact, and that’s how she keeps on top of the game, and keeps bringing the light over to other parts of the family. It’s not an easy game for her to bring all her flock to play together. There’s a lot of strong egos in there, but she is patient and versatile, and she knows that eventually people will come to seek her wisdom…

Do you recognise your work in those happy families? Who am I missing and where in the tree should they fit?

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Stop taking hostages! The ills of poor event design and facilitation

Since there will be a lot of event facilitation for me to do at ILRI, it is likely that I blog more about it in the coming months. It makes sense after all, since productive conversations (and learning) are central to my understanding of knowledge management, and well-designed events generate truly productive conversations.

Badly designed ones, on the other hand, take us as hostages and they are still all too frequent.

What too many events lead to... (credits: SD on FlickR)

What too many events lead to... (credits: SD on FlickR)

We have all been attending ‘death-by-Powerpoint‘(1)  conferences and events. Typically, this kind of events would entail: A plenary format (all in the same room) showcasing an endless stream of presentations, usually eating up the time planned for group work (if any at all). In those events, sometimes there is also one or more panel discussions that give a fake impression of conversation. If (over)time allows, the audience may finally be invited to ask a few questions. And perhaps there are a few break out/parallel sessions where more often than not another stream of presentations happens… you get the gist.

Having mulled over those events all too often, here is one attempt at explaining what is wrong with this type of events and why they are taking everyone as hostage:

  1. By letting one person monopolise the power to speak in the audience, they are freezing the (costly) time of everyone in the assembly – whether they are interested or not.
  2. Precisely, not everyone may be interested in the topic discussed in the plenary session, but there is no way out! While precious enthusiastic conversations could be taking place instead, everyone is stuck in a long monologuing prison.
  3. Most people like to talk – or perhaps rather listen to themselves – and most people don’t rehearse their presentations, which means that they will usually go (well) over the time allowed. One delay leading to another, the four presentations planned for one hour are taking twice as much time. Too bad if this means you have lunch at 3pm…
  4. Particularly panel discussions tend to subtly create a competitive dynamic where, unless properly facilitated, every speaker secretly wants to shine more brightly than the others. More long monologues, more delays, more death of attention.
  5. The large size of the group (say, in a plenary session of 50 to 300 people) does not create an intimate space where anyone could feel free to express themselves. It can be intimidating to speak in front of 50, 100 or 500 people. So the same type of people will tend to speak again and again – missed opportunity for a richer perspective.
  6. Because time becomes such a pressing issue after all these delays, time planned for group discussions is pushed to almost nil, locking further opportunities for a rich dialogue.
  7. If that group work session ends up being another set of Powerpoint presentations, there is even less time for dialogue.
  8. Monologues favour only one perspective and perhaps only a few questions. It is a shallow exploration. In participatory mode, participants could jointly elaborate solutions together and explore at much more depth – and non-speaker participants might even have a lot more to say about a given issue than the invited speaker.
  9. The human brain can only handle so much information. Death-by-Powerpoint events encourage information overdosis to the detriment of learning-oriented conversations, ignoring the wise native American saying: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may not remember, involve me and I will understand“. And that is perhaps my whole point here at its simplest.
  10. And if we continue with these events, at least speakers should really beef up their communication and presentation skills. From my experience, only 10 to 20% of of speakers in formal plenary sessions really have an interesting story to tell and a compelling way to communicate it.

…Which leads me to final conclusions:

Death-by-Powerpoint conferences are inefficient and ineffective. They are inefficient because they make a very poor usage of participants’ time, perspectives and qualities. They are ineffective because they lead to very little co-production of knowledge (even remembering) and focus on restricted perspectives, preserving no or too little space for social learning and joint solutions. So much waste of resources to so little effect…

And finally, what about all those sleepy, boredom-struck participants zombified through those poorly designed events? Talking about fun, focus and feedback, we are in 2011 and it is time to stop with hostage-taking conferences, don’t you think?


(1) The concept of ‘Death by Powerpoint’ was brilliantly exposed in this old (Powerpoint) presentation. Here, I am looking beyond Powerpoint, which is not a problem in itself, as rightly emphasised in that presentation.

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