The most difficult job in the world?

It may not be the hardest job in the world, but it still isn’t easy peasy to be a communication and/or knowledge management specialist in many (research for) development organisations. Typically, communication (let alone KM) has always been one of the first areas where budget cuts affect staff first. There is much expected from communication and knowledge work, which backfires in times of crises, but there is not always a lot of credit given to the people in charge of that work when success happens.

The communication/KM specialist, a mysterious function? (Credits: Eyesplash / FlickR)

The communication/KM specialist, a mysterious function? (Credits: Eyesplash / FlickR)

The reasons are manifold:

Communication and KM are ‘secondary processes’, which means they are not central operations. As a result they are sometimes under-estimated, under-staffed and under-budgeted.

Communication and particularly KM (and learning) processes are indeed very heavy on the process, which is less straightforward than providing just a product. They are about an ensemble of activities and products that together lead to results. But these processes are usually overlooked in documentation and monitoring. They are therefore rarely tracked and less so understood, however important they are (arguably such processes are the only elements that might be scaled up from successful interventions).

Of all processes, they deal a lot with behaviour changes. These are very complex and slow processes, potentially involving information (evidence?), emotions, trust, discipline, support etc. The complexity and slow pace of these processes makes the demonstration of their value difficult and an easy prey for budget slayers.

Communication and KM are highly interdependent. If specialists can play a role in guiding these efforts, they critically need the support from other people and units to feed content, engage in conversations, provide feedback on conversations/processes, ask questions etc. They also need other parties (partners, patrons, beneficiaries) to engage successfully in order for communication and KM to work out (for conversations to spark off, for better questions to be shaped, for research to be taken up, for changes to happen). This interdependency makes communication and knowledge work all the more difficult.

Because there is such a high interdependency, when success arises it is very difficult to attribute it to the communication/KM team (or specialist) alone, however much they may have played a role in it. The team dynamics plays out in successes, individual points of failure are unfortunately too easy to identify in case of no success. So it’s easy to blame communication/KM for its failings but difficult to demonstrate its success.

And finally, having communication and KM specialists rising from the in crowd is the exception rather than the norm. In a research organisation, rarely do researchers end up becoming communication specialists. Knowledge management specialists do not often stem from engineering backgrounds. This creates an additional layer of potential defiance between these soft process specialists and the main crowd in an organisation which is busy with what is perceived as ‘the real work’.

So what can we do about it?

For comms/KM specialists themselves:

  • Brace yourselves for the criticism and lack of cooperation that might affect your work to start with;
  • Develop a rapport with your other colleagues as soon as possible to understand how they work, think, see the world, use information, engage in knowledge processes, communicate, what their needs are etc. Be supportive in the lightest and most relevant way possible;
  • Provide your value by expanding the good work of colleagues, setting easy processes and structures, providing adequate training and on-demand coaching;
  • Provide an example – lead and inspire by example. Be the communication and KM example that you want to see;
  • Engage your trusted colleagues around the idea that communication/KM is a slow process that feeds off small successes and cooperation at all levels;
  • Demonstrate when little successes are achieved (e.g. how the documentation of a workshop can really improve decisions further down the line, showing that a consultation process leading to a communiqué is a step forward etc.);
  • Work together more and more and aim at exploring more complex and deeper dimensions of knowledge work progressively, so they understand this complexity and contribute their part to it.

For others, colleagues of comms/KM specialists:

  • Recognise that soft processes take time and are complex;
  • Accept that good communication and KM requires everyone’s efforts, including your own;
  • Work with the comms and KM  specialists to understand their work processes, expectations, ways to define success and in turn to show them your own way of working and perspective – establish a rapport;
  • Show specialists ways to make their work useful and relevant for you and others by telling them where are challenges you are facing that they could help you with.

We all have different perspectives on the job, but that is precisely what makes our collective work more relevant and interesting. Accepting these differences and using them for a wider goal is the long and tedious road to engagement but that initial investment is ten times worth it, for complex social change work.

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3 thoughts on “The most difficult job in the world?

  1. Thank you Jaap!

    I’m not sure I understand what ‘activities’ you’re referring to. I laid out some some of the factors that I think affect the way people work with communication/KM folks, and then suggested some ways to improve that rapport. It’s actually quite simple, but the mental images that divide those specialists and their counterparts can be immense sometimes.

    I agree that knowledge work is everyone’s business and also agree that KM is a primary development process, but what I described is the current reality, not our desired reality. KM and comms are not seen (yet?) as primary processes.

    Re: scaling up, this might need further unpacking. Specific set up of comms processes etc. is indeed context-dependent, but communication, cooperation, learning and coordination are in my view much more likely to be scaled up than specific development or research interventions (e.g. ensuring sustainable safe water delivery) because those will really be very dependent on contextual factors. Perhaps not even comms / knowledge work can be scaled up and then we can pack that idea back in its original wrapping paper and bring it back to its manufacturer 😉

    And thanks for the 3-pager (I helped develop it 😉

    Finally, Re: translation, why not but maybe this post would be more interesting for your folks:

    Thanks a lot for your stimulating comments!


  2. … and Ewen, if you really want to do me a favour; translate the text in your mother tongue! I will use it in West Africa … You do probably a better / faster job than a machine translation. Jaap

  3. Hi Ewen,

    Well, I guess I am the KM-er with a technical background …. and reading my way into the ‘socios’ -) Recognize lots of activities thought they seems heavy! My specs (indeed specifications AND spectacles!) on KM is simple: 1) People act and discuss 2) These processes need documentation 3) As result an information repository accumulates [Super would be contribution by people themselves …] / And 4) by versioning information is fed back to the [and / or other] 1)1′)1”) people acting / discussing ad infinitum; see for a two pager with pictures. 1), 2) and 4) is more KS (knowledge sharing) and for 3) you need IM (information management). Also dialogues may need KS facilitation as does concerted action / aid harmonization. To me KM == K…M == KS..IM == KS and IM.


    To me KM – actually KS and IM – (and under that comms, capacity building and evaluations and some others you once described as tree) is a PRIMARY PROCESS for DEVELOPMENT!!!!! The capacity to act of development partners and benefiters needs to go up. That needs all the knowledge you can organise!.

    Your scaling up claim I do not share. Agreed, lots of KM-paraphernalia are context independent. And so are lots of comms first approaches. Or perhaps you point at organisational / partner setting and scale up. As sketched above I think that comms/KM 4 development should focus more on the local (?) knowledge and the capacity to act an with that contextualise….

    PS Fun discourse on local versus global on the KM4Dev list going on.
    PS On LinkedIn I found another interesting one.
    PS How about knowledge curator as new niche?

    Best, Jaap

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