Researching… good questions from wrong ideas

Communication, KM, best practices, knowledge transfer... too many dead ends are still followed in research (Credits - FreeFotoUK/FlickR)

Communication, KM, best practices, knowledge transfer… too many dead ends are still followed in research (Credits – FreeFotoUK/FlickR)

(A little caveat here: obviously not all researchers fall in the traps described below, and those are not just traps for scientists but also for many other types of people).

It’s been a little under a year that I’ve landed in the fascinating world of research and its even more fascinating appetite for questions. However it’s time for a shoot post about some of the wrong ideas that researchers seem to be asking themselves – around my fields of interest. Here are but a few, I might add more in the future as and when I come across other fallacies…

Best practices

Many people are still talking about best practices in the (CGIAR/agricultural) research world. Perhaps it’s the subconsciously natural connection with ‘best bet’ (to talk about specific agricultural technologies or methods) which leads people to use this phrase, but best practices do not exist. At least they don’t exist outside the spatial and temporal context where they have been assessed as best practices. The reason is simple: best means it is the absolute number one. But there is no absolute number one that can be used anywhere else with the same result. No silver bullet. Rub it in!

Good practices are a much safer alternative.

Knowledge transfer

Same ‘silver bullet’ mentality: you need to know better, I can give you that and transfer to you my superior understanding, experience and all. Why are some scientists (and others) deluding themselves about this? At the age of – finally – revaluing indigenous knowledge, not only do we not rely on just expert knowledge but we cannot transfer it magically from a person to the next. And you know why already: knowledge is not a thing. It cannot be UPS’d, it cannot be downloaded, it cannot be given. Check your knowledge basics if this doesn’t make sense to you (yet).

Knowledge and information sharing, social learning and capacity development are much sounder alternatives to knowledge transfer for the same objectives.

Capacity building

Talking about capacity… this is a minor point but everyone in the agric research world seems to be talking about capacity building, not capacity development. Petty semantic debate you might think. But words are loaded with assumptions. And the word building to me sounds like ‘building from scratch’, while development or strengthening give me the idea that we are building upon what is already there.

And while at that, capacity building/development is not just training: Coaching, exchange visits, study tours, personal study, feedback sessions, e-learning, reflexive work are all other forms of own or social capacity development…

Knowledge management

Two problems here:

  • Same as with knowledge transfer, knowledge cannot be managed (see the knowledge basics here again).
  • But also – and this is the main issue in the agric research world perhaps – people seem to think that KM is the same as IM (information management). Knowledge management is not just dealing with data / databases and information (a librarian function), although in my definition of KM it encompasses that too.

Please folks, DO realise that knowledge and information are very different, and KM is not just a little tick on a research proposal to think about data management. Well, if it’s that for you, fair enough but you’re missing out on the immersed part of the iceberg, the magical and fascinating part of human interactions and learning individually and together…


Ha! Many problems with communication too. Logical, because at least communication is, on paper, a given element in most agricultural research projects (whereas KM isn’t). But in general practice, communication is understood as a military exercise (‘military communication’) of crafting messages (weapons of mass attention) that are fired at target audiences with the intention of hitting them, err, enlightening them with information that supposedly makes them act and react in a different way.

Instead, why don’t we focus on ‘diplomatic’ communication, the kind of communication that is two-way all the way, that is based on dialogue and understanding, on engagement and building a rapport. That is much more effective than military communication, as much as diplomacy is usually a better resort than war.

Ha, and I can think of another fallacy, ‘scaling up’, but I already dealt with this one in the past.

So this is a plea to call upon researchers’ scientific curiosity and thirst for better questions, to start from a better hypothesis than what some of them at times too quickly assume should be a starting point. I have yet to write for the scientists too, about the blindness of comms and KM folks for their perspective, but this is the start of a dialogue, right?


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