Harvesting insights (6): A checklist of comms/KM functions in any development (research) organisation or initiative

Just a post to gather my thoughts on this once and for all on this topic.

Together with some colleagues from WorldFish and the Inernational Water Management Institute (IWMI), we have been pondering about the profile of comms/KM profiles and positions in any organisation and/or project, since ILRI and IWMI held a really interesting workshop on knowledge management and communication in the CGIAR research programs.

The reflection on KM positions has been helpful to think about the profile of the people that might have to take care of comms and KS/KM/learning. Now, at a higher level, what are the organisational functions that take care of communication and/or knowledge sharing and management and learning? This is treading suspiciously close to the happy families of engagement, but here I want to think about the functional departments or units of work that any organisation might want to consider useful, rather than look at the fields of expertise as mentioned in the families of engagement.

Every organisation or project has its way of looking at these functions – rightly so – but what could a generic checklist of these functions look like?

I would think this works around different tiers of organizational importance (how this is perhaps currently assessed, not how it should be assessed) and relative recognition of those functions.

  • First tier
    • Public awareness and media engagement (i.e. communicating the organisation/initiative)
    • Dissemination of information (communicating the results -against stated objectives- of the initiative)
    • Marketing (for commercial companies or initiatives that promote a particular product or service)
    • Network engagement (and management) with critical stakeholders and partners
    • Policy engagement and support, advocacy
  • Second tier:
    • Internal communication
    • Data and information management
    • Knowledge management
  • Third tier:
    • Capacity development (around communication and knowledge work),
    • Monitoring and evaluation (of knowledge work and communication)
    • Process documentation (informal monitoring)

For projects and time-bound initiatives, these different functions follow a different lifespan which my colleague Peter Ballantyne drafted here. Let’s examine these functions one level down in granularity:

Public awareness and media engagement: promoting the intervention/organisation, getting public attention through the media and conveying it through more mainstream (and increasingly social) media. This is all about communicating about the project/organisation/team etc. and is usually the most recognised set of communication activities because it might be a requirement from donors but also a good way to get some visibility for the initiative (the quest for immortality shows its nose again).

Dissemination of information and results

Communicating agri-water research over time (credit: ILRI/Ballantyne)

Communicating agri-water research over time (credits: ILRI/Ballantyne)

Second in line, usually, after talking about the intervention or organisation itself is: talking about what comes out of information dissemination. In this other graph by Peter Ballantyne, this would be typically the second peak of communication activities in an otherwise ‘communication-empty’ initiative: PA at the project launch, and dissemination at the end when results are ready. The problem is: it’s not enough. But dissemination remains a crucial function of communication – even though we are increasingly moving towards an engagement-rich communication approach.


The projects and organisations that have some products and services to offer to the public – pay-for or not – have an additional communication imperative around the marketing of these products and services. The approach changes a bit between pay-for and free/public products and services but the idea of attracting attention, creating a desire, informing the desiring customers and leading them to action (the AIDA model which is increasingly questioned and reexamined from a socialisation perspective – see graph) or the

AIDA socialisation (credits - CoffeeMarketing)

AIDA socialisation (credits – CoffeeMarketing)

4Ps (price, promotion, product, place) can come in handy to make sure products and services find their customers and users. But again there might be little engagement there. Hence…

(Practice-oriented) Network engagement and management with critical stakeholders and partners

As pure dissemination-based approacheds are finding their limits, network engagement and management (or rather facilitation) is becoming increasingly crucial. Communication is no longer about crafting documents in isolation and sending them to intended target audiences but more and more so about bringing those audiences in the (co-)creation process. Trust becomes an important currency in communication work and partner / stakeholder management. We analyse our social networks, map stakeholders, identify who are the key nodes in the network and work with them from the start.

Whether by means of visits, exchanges, workshops, training courses, brown bag seminars, informal and formal lunches, bilateral discussions, network engagement is becoming a central bone in the communication spine. The practice aspect of this function is to ensure that the engagement effectively leads to transforming and adapting discourses, ways of thinking, behaviours i.e. the formal and informal practices of these actors we are working with and for. It is the alter-ego of the next function…

Policy engagement and support, advocacy

A related field is that of policy engagement / support and advocacy. The objective here is to ensure that research and other activities inform and influence policies, support them, and advocate issues that might have been blind spots until now. Increasingly, policy engagement is moving away from conventional advocacy (the one that is following a PR approach of unilaterally targeting messages for audiences) to embrace a much higher degree of interactions with these policy-makers and political actors that should be influenced. In multi-stakeholder processes, these political actors are part of the co-creation process and that is a new way of engaging with policies.

The next three areas are less obvious functions of comms/KM but people talk about them and recognise their importance. They simply don’t act upon it systematically.

Internal communication and knowledge sharing

Perhaps this ought to just be part of regular communication but it has often been overlooked in the past, because internal teams were not a key ‘target audience’. As we are in the network era, the importance of communication, cooperation and coordination dawns on project managers, and as teams are increasingly decentralised and scattered across various countries and locations, internal communication and knowledge sharing are also increasingly recognised as an important area of comms/KM.

Data and information management:

Data and information management are typically an area whose importance is recognised. Lip service is frequently paid for it, but following through with elaborate and robust systems for data and information management are a mile further which many are not ready to run. Still this is an area of concern for communication because the documentation part of the work collects a lot of information and the platforms and channels are usually set up by the communication (or KM) team. In research organisations, this function is sometimes nested directly in the research teams – but the challenge remains intact: someone needs to ensure data are collected, tagged and meta-tagged properly, cleaned, archived and sorted. Information outputs and records should also follow this logic, at a higher level of processing.

Knowledge management

Maybe this also ought to be lumped up with its sub-components of knowledge sharing, dissemination and information management, but knowledge management ought to be a function (if not a formalised position) to ensure the integration of conversations with documentation and learning. It becomes the life and blood of reflexive communication in and outside the organisation or initiative.

Now we enter the obscure areas in comms/KM, those functions that are usually not accounted for, not paid lip service for nor even thought about much, if at all.

Capacity development

One of these obscure areas is capacity development for comms and KM. In any organisation or initiative, there are people writing, presenting, engaging, reflecting, questioning… but they’re not part of the comms/KM team. They are sometimes very strong in all these areas that are perhaps not typically in their portfolio of activities. But sometimes they are not and they should be trained, coached, sharing their perspective with peers to improve their own practice. And sadly, there isn’t much in store for them to do so. Organisations and initiatives of the future should include a capacity development aspect to their activities to make sure that everyone involved is strong at conversing, documenting and learning individually and collectively…

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of knowledge work and communication

Of course M&E is recognised in most development/research organisations but formally including the monitoring and evaluation of knowledge work, much less so. Yet a formal assessment of communication and KS/KM activities would help all parties get more effective at what they are doing. Simple reporting on outputs is far from reaching this goal and understanding dynamic relationships, use of knowledge, effects of learning, transformative consequences of engagement are subtle but critical areas of importance for all of us if we are to remain relevant over time and strong on adaptive/proactive management.

Process documentation (informal monitoring)

I’ve already blogged in the past about process documentation and its Latin and Francophone variants in the past. It seems to me (and to my former organisation IRC) a crucial area to learn by doing and to improve the way an initiative is unfolding against its theory of change. Alas too often people recognise the importance of processes but fail to monitor them, not even informally – documenting discussions, reflections, insights, questions is not the cup of tea of most people, but I do think it is absolutely essential to instil a learning culture and to support various other areas of work: communication, KM/KS, M&E. See this publication for more information on this topic.

Morphing these categories?

Communication is evolving. Social learning is blurring the boundaries as it tends to bring together a lot of these activities together. And every organisation is mixing these functions in its own ways, so there isn’t a fixed menu but rather a set of options that can be combined and recombined in any comms or KM strategy. The functions themselves are however relevant to think about.

What changes do you see happen in this field? What is missing among these organisational functions?

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