Annual reports, the gold standard for the state of KM in the company?

The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

Annual reports are a painful exercise, for most companies anyway.

I have seen managers, designers and communication specialists from various organisations tear their hair by lumps working on this annually recurring chore.

Being personally much more inclined towards the knowledge-sharing and collective thinking side of communication (away from unidirectional message massaging, marketing verbose and public aware-mess) I never quite understood what was the big deal about the annual report: a glossy production that usually reveals little about the real struggles and aha-moments of a company. And that report is sent to a group of people that either don’t really read that information because they don’t care or they do care but know enough about the company in the first place to make the reading of this peculiar publication totally superfluous.

But then, perhaps annual reports are actually interesting in another way: They may be the gold standard that reveals the maturity of knowledge management and its status in each organisation – an epitome of all the struggles and opportunities that knowledge management may face in an organisation all bundled in one.

Annual reports are indeed an open battle field of different influences and forces in presence which reveal a lot about the ‘KM culture’ of each company:

  • Form vs. function: The design says a lot about the place given to form vs. function (pure text text text). The integration of multimedia, the use of infographics, a different way to present the report are all ideas indicating there is attention put on the way information is presented or not (with a view to encouraging the reading of the contents);
  • Formality or informality: The very tone of the report indicates to some extent the degree of informality that is tolerated in the company. In many cases, annual reports are very corporate and formal productions, but the wording and design can make informal dents into that ‘keep-it-serious-don’t-smile’ publication, which might also say something about the tolerance for informal peer-learning at other moments than the development of the annual report;
  • Marketing vs. learning: How much of the report is oriented towards promoting the organisation and how much is it focused on the agenda (i.e. the set of strategic issues and challenges) that the organisation pretends to address? If it is learning-oriented it might stress crucial questions and aha moments achieved in the past year, rather than reassure everyone that the the organisation is doing the best job in the world in the most important arena of the world.
  • Internally focused vs. externally focused: The position of partners and other actors or networks acting at the edges of the organisation is presented quite starkly in most annual reports (or indeed royally ignored). This might give an indication as to the tendency of the organisation to include learning on the edges (through personal and organisational networks), which itself indicates the organisation’s maturity vis-a-vis learning (as we know that learning at the edges is crucial);
  • Unidirectional vs. engaging: most annual reports tend to just disseminate carefully selected information without inviting any feedback. However it doesn’t have to be this way – perhaps the annual report could indeed invite others (especially important partners) to share their view. Perhaps it was done in the process of compiling the annual report and that can be mentioned – but perhaps nothing of the sort happened and then so much for a culture of engagement and conversation;
  • Centralised vs. decentralised knowledge flows: The production process of annual reports reveals some power and knowledge flow tendencies: will it be compiled by a central unit or with a wide involvement of other staff – crucially those in decentralised offices? This is a very good indicator of the state of documentation as well. In many cases, this is precisely the painstaking point of annual reports: it feels like pulling teeth and tongues from all staff members to get these stories that will illustrate the work done, results achieved and new questions unravelled… Although an organisation with a mature approach to knowledge work should find it easy to reap the fruits of working out loud and continually documenting processes.

How do all these factions and factors come into play in a concerted way (or not)? This is what the annual report production process (and the finished product itself) actually reveals. It does give a good overview – perhaps more so for internal staff than external audiences – about the state of learning, knowledge sharing, documentation and conversations (remember KM=CDL) in the organisation. It also weighs KM against public awareness and message-based communications.

So, however painful the annual report exercise turns out to be, it does disclose a great deal of useful information for the organisation. Perhaps it’s time for me to look into the ILRI annual report and get a better sense of where we’re at…

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2 thoughts on “Annual reports, the gold standard for the state of KM in the company?

  1. Hello Susan!

    Wow, nice one. I was not aware of course, having been at ILRI for less than year, but this is encouraging. The syntheses sound like an interesting product to revive indeed – and taken together with a presentation they could help our colleagues come up with updated overviews of their projects and work too.
    This reflection could be part of your discussion in mid July about branding, design, visual identity etc… ?
    Thanks a lot for the updates, at any rate 🙂

  2. If you do look at ILRI’s annual reports, you’ll find partners galore (2007), a lengthy summation of knowledge of ILRI’s several decades of work on animal genetic resources (2008), the latest information on how livestock systems impact climate change and vice versa (2009), brand-new multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary graphics and knowledge of the central importance of mixed crop-livestock farmers to global food security (2010), and a broad-brush picture of how livestock influence 7 issues of major global public concern (2011). VIEW FROM ANOTHER SIDE: Another term for such compilations is ‘syntheses’, a kind of knowledge product sufficiently scarce at ILRI to be in increasing demand by our partners, donors, clients and other stakeholders, as well as by our own scientists and directors, the latter of whom annually prioritize the (highly valuable but greatly time-consuming) job of producing syntheses of our knowledge, but are typically frustrated in finding time to do so. We used to produce an annual snapshot of all our research progress (ILRI scientific annual report) in addition to our less technical annual report, both of which were highly regarded as a prime information resources, but we no longer have time for the scientific version, which now leaves only the corporate annual report. Perhaps it’s time to revisit ILRI’s production of syntheses by all of us—scientists, directors, KS experts, PA . . . . 🙂

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