Moving conversations up the trust ladder… and scale of influence

The infinite recognition [R. Magritte, 1963]

The infinite recognition [R. Magritte, 1963]

At the end of the day, as some would say (‘KM is about increasing the quality and frequency of conversations that get your job done’), in KM it’s all about conversations.

Conversations of contact-making (contextual webs)

Conversations of meaning-making

Conversations of joint exploration

Conversations of co-creation (in events and otherwise)

Conversations of trust building

Conversations of network weaving

Conversations of influence

But: we’re not well-suited to have all these conversations with everyone any time. Because that trust is not there, because we don’t understand everyone else’s language, because we don’t know what motivates them, because…

So the trick is – for professional purposes – to converse as often, as deeply, as intentionally with as many people people that are interested or influential in the work you do, so you move away from a small opportunity to talk, towards a small chance to work together up to a major joint endeavour. bearing in mind:

  • What you hope to and what you realistically can achieve with or vis-à-vis the person you’re conversing with…
  • What degree of affinity you have with that/those person/s (remember the 50 shades of influence?);
  • Simply what pleasure you derive from conversing with that/those person/s;
  • And sometimes indeed just drifting by, letting yourself go gently together wherever the conversation takes you, without predefined end destination…

By doing so, you increasingly develop a rapport, trust (once again – and I really have to write a post entirely on this cornerstone of agile KM) so that you can move mountains.

Some ideas for conversing more effectively – if you want to influence things as you go forward:

Step out of your social comfort zone, speak with the people that are blatantly not part of your natural 'clique'!

Step out of your social comfort zone, speak with the people that are blatantly not part of your natural ‘clique’!

  • Converse with the non-converts – you can stick to your comfort zone but this world will change only when you start uniting fronts that are not directly bought to your cause. So go out there and engage!
  • Bring eclectic mixes of people – the way Theodore Zeldin tried it at his dinners – as it is the surest way to get an interesting collage that resembles more the bigger picture than you yourself or you and your friends would be able to paint otherwise;
  • Adopt unconventional standpoints to provoke reactions and additional layers to the conversation(s);
  • Use techniques that push you to take other peoples’ perspectives to understand and shift perspectives… DeBono’s six-thinking hats is only one of various such methods…

But remember that conversations – although they should be enjoyed in and of themselves, simply – are always opportunities to move up on the scale of getting the next big thing done, the next big movement marching on.

So go out and converse, don’t be shy, that’s the way humanity has been going on and growing up… And this way you avoid dotty communication and that’s not a bad starting point😉

Related posts:

Sharing and learning: the ‘glue and grease’ of comms and (I)KM

The ‘glue and grease’ – what a horrible expression!!!

The glue and grease: sharing/learning (Credits: GaryPuppa)

The glue and grease: sharing/learning (Credits: GaryPuppa)


The first time I heard a former colleague of mine use that expression to refer to the role of communication I didn’t like it either.

But I’ve got to say that until I find a better expression for it, it’s a pretty accurate description of what our (then) comms team was supposed to be to others: the glue that brings everyone together, and the grease that lets knowledge flow easily.

But the ‘glue and grease’ only happens when the sharing (and learning) in KM comes together with communication.

Not many organisations have a KM unit that covers knowledge sharing. Not many companies have a comms team that looks into the learning and sharing that true agile KM offers… In a typical (research for) development organisation, one finds a ‘comms’ unit that typically takes care of media contacts, press releases, corporate communication and public relations, and generally publications. It’s the ‘big mouth’ of an organisation. And then one finds a ‘KM’ unit which essentially is an information management unit taking care of databases and portals and all kinds of information systems etc. That’s the ‘legs’. But where are the hands and arms that join forces and the brains that connect all actions with intentions?

The glue and grease is the sharing and learning (not in a literal, respective manner). And it’s time to bring comms and KM together, to power comms with KM inside, to pay a central attention to processes of sharing and learning. So: what are you doing in your organisation or environment, to ensure there is this glue and grease?

And add that to your process literacy kit, please😉

Image from page 344 of "Anthony's photographic bulletin for .." (1870)

Related blog posts:

Getting KM and comms accepted, valued and right – An interview for APQC

Interview (Credits - Eelco Kruidenier - Smiling_Da_Vinci - FlickR)

Interview (Credits – Eelco Kruidenier – Smiling_Da_Vinci – FlickR)

Of late, I’ve taken up a habit of interviewing people I find interesting for this blog:

  • Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaore on pioneering KM in Burkina Faso;
  • Carl Jackson on new trends of facilitation and collective meaning-making;
  • Ann Waters-Bayer on social learning and farmer-led innovation;
  • Michael Victor on the blurred boundaries between communication, knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation etc.
  • Krishan Bheenick (upcoming) on finding a balance between information vs. knowledge management.

But this time I am the one interviewed. It’s interesting to see how someone approaches you with a specific angle and interest, which may be very different to your own hobby horses and headlights – a useful experience to keep in mind and relate better to my own interviewees in the future.

In this brand new APQC interview, I was asked to answer a few questions related to knowledge transfer and the difficulties of the neglected field of communication. A couple of points I’d like to emphasise here:

  • Although the title mentions ‘knowledge transfer’, I already explained before that I don’t think ‘knowledge transfer’ is possible – based on a certain definition of knowledge.
  • The interview relates to the wider field of KM, not necessarily the sub-domain of KM ‘for development’, with its long history of failures (but also all the opportunities that come with that), which probably explains why a lot of the KM projects I am referring to may not have such clear-cut goals and objectives.

Anyways… Hereby the text of the interview – though you can find it on the APQC website following this link. Thank you APQC for approaching me and for allowing this re-posting:)


APQC recently chatted with Ewen Le Borgne, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, about why communication is a key part of transferring and applying critical knowledge.

Ewen Le Borgne is knowledge sharing and communication specialist at the International Livestock Reseearch Institute, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, and core group member of the global Knowledge Management for Development community of practice. You can read his blog Agile KM for me..and you or follow him on Twitter at@ewenlb.

If you would like to learn more about transferring and applying critical knowledge, you can listen to our free webinar: 12 Best Practices to Transfer and Apply Critical Knowledge.

In a great blog post you said: “Communication and KM are ‘secondary processes,’ which means they are not central operations. As a result they are sometimes underestimated, understaffed and under-budgeted.” In our study, the best-practice organizations structure systematic knowledge elicitation as a time-bound event with clear goals, milestones, responsibilities, and outcomes. It seems so simple but why don’t all organizations lay out clear goals and objectives from the start of some KM projects?

Because KM had its chance a while back, failed because of the passion for tools, and is now finding it difficult to gain ground again. A lot of organizations don’t understand KM well enough and thus “shoot in the dark,” oversell it, and further down the line under-deliver. They are not seeing KM as part and parcel of normal operations but as either a) a special unit that will solve all their problems or b) a “mainstream” thing that doesn’t get accounted for anyway and thus leaves it up to anyone (aka no one) to do it right.

What is the main reason some organizations don’t have a clear line of communication for transferring knowledge?

The No. 1 reason might be that learning and reflecting take time to become an embedded practice. Most people go through their (professional) lives without paying so much attention to that practice. As a result, they don’t learn to look around and use existing stuff. I think the whole trick is really to encourage that personal KM and collective KM through regular reflection, reviews, etc.

Can you elaborate on your point that engaging trusted colleagues around the idea that communication/KM is a slow process that feeds off “little successes” and cooperation at all levels?

In some ways, (most) critical knowledge tends to make its way naturally to the people who need it, because they need it badly and find that knowledge wherever it is. The culture of spreading little successes and cooperation at all levels takes a lot more time, always. But if it works in certain teams—where management shows true leadership and people find a good, conducive peer support atmosphere for their work—it can more easily trickle down into wider units of the organization.

What I mean is that there are people who will “get” KM (whatever it’s portrayed as) and others who won’t. You can more easily create a culture that is conducive to it without the latter group involved, and you need to build on early wins that you socialize so that others see the value of your (KM) work. You build on these small successes for the culture. As for the critical knowledge that needs to be handled properly, the best option is to quickly identify it (knowledge needs) and to run mini-projects that focus specifically on addressing those key knowledge needs. The problems surge when an organization embarks on an ambitious KM program that requires a significant change of culture to be successful.

You mention that KM can be easy prey for budget cutters because the results aren’t clear.  Do you have an example or experience where “little successes” helped save a KM program from the ax?

Not really in that way, because I never worked on KM programs that focused just on KM. I’ve always included KM in broader activities, and whenever I focused more specifically on KM I linked it back to the rest of the organization or program in some way. However, rather than examples of KM programs being saved from the ax, I have examples of where KM activities led to much bigger programs (i.e., scaling up KM)—for example, from an initial KM assessment of a previous initiative on water projects in West Africa (by USAID) to a large program with a significant component on KM, or from the modest design and facilitation of some workshops at the onset of another USAID-funded program (on agriculture in Africa) to carving out extra resources to make sure that communication/KM/facilitation of events and processes would support the entire program because the donors loved the inputs we provided in designing/facilitating/documenting/acting upon the workshops.

Finally, our best-practice organizations make sure stakeholders are explicitly accountable for contributing and applying knowledge. What is the best way to communicate and implement this in a positive way?

LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Start it from the management—if, and only if, they lead by example themselves. This means that in many organizations it’s just not going to fly because management is too ensconced in the old ways and doesn’t grab the opportunities of this era to empower employees to take hold of key business conversations, positively influence them, and do something with the outcomes of these conversations.

CONNECT CONVERSATIONS AND KEEP SHARING: I believe in personal knowledge management (PKM) also, and part of PKM suggests that we use our social networks (our personal learning networks) to expand the circle of our conversations. I think smart organizations can encourage a knowledge sharing/applying culture by allowing their employees to use their networks and connect them to their work conversations. That encourages sharing more and more, outside but eventually also inside the company.

DEVELOP A LEARNING CULTURE: Ensuring the “apply knowledge” aspect is more difficult because there are strong drivers working against it. Most people don’t like to look back at what others have done (e.g., applying existing insights from past experiences), and some make a point not to do so, so as to reinvent the wheel and leave their own stamp on the work. The (long-term) way to ensure that past knowledge is applied is to develop a learning culture by multiplying spaces and ways for people to engage, share, and reflect: brown bag seminars, learning retreats, online conversations and consultations, mentoring and peer-support, peer assists, after action reviews and the like, interactive workshops and meetings that focus on engagement/participation and learning. All the while, the trick is to exercise good practice—looking back at past experiences, systematic documentation, and proper facilitation—to ensure all voices are invited, etc. And back to PKM: Encourage personal reflection, blogging, diary-keeping, personal content curation, etc. This helps everyone get into the habit of processing the information they need to stay on top of their field, and they can use some of that personal routine for collective work too.

INDUCT NEW STAFF PROPERLY AND PAIR STAFF TO WORK TOGETHER. Perhaps that’s just part of the previous point but induction programs, joint work, and buddy-systems or mentoring programs are excellent ways to ensure the application of knowledge. Having knowledge sharing explicitly mentioned in the Terms of Reference for a given position may help, but norms are always less effective than practices (such as getting a mentor and mentee together to reflect on work).


I love interviews, so let me know if you want to be interviewed (or perhaps interview me?)😉

Communication for development, KM and blurred boundaries: an interview with Michael Victor

In December 2013, a couple of very interesting workshops took place on the ILRI Ethiopia campus around the topic of knowledge management and communication. On that occasion, I interviewed Michael Victor, communication ‘Comms’ and KM coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF) and for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. 

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Having been involved in the Nile Basin’s share of the CPWF experience with research for development, I had heard of the concept of ‘blurred boundaries’ that seem to be at the heart of comms and KM in that program, and Michael is one of the proponents of this approach. Here he explains what is meant with it, what his interest in KM is all about and how he sees the field evolve…

  • Blurred boundaries between KM, communication etc. what is it all about?

It’s that

It’s with these system-based learning approaches (knowledge sharing, information management, communication, monitoring and evaluation etc.) that you see learning blurring all connections. You have specific disciplines but you no longer have a database manager, a librarian and a writer. Now the IM/Comms field is a lot more blurred. It’s about getting knowledge at the right time to the right people to make the right decisions. I don’t even understand the difference between comms and uptake.

However there’s real resistance to see these fields get interlinked and to see them support programmatic or external change. And you still need specialists but they should all be working together.

  • What trends are you observing in comms/KM in the development world (or any closer arena)?

Moving from service orientation (corporate) to much more outcome-oriented focus. Also moving from a support.administrative function to a strategic one.

With all the social media we’ve been spewing, I think we’ll see more targeted approaches. We’ve lost the whole connection with national systems and with national comms/KM conduits. We forget that our next users will be the national level users which are not using all these online channels all that much.

  • What is your personal interest in the field of KM – now?

My personal interest is communication for development (comms4dev) and policy communication  i.e. finding ways that we use comms/KM approaches, tools, products, processes, networks (informal or formal) to get research into use and people to get engaged in the research process, using the knowledge from the research in a certain way and get research to be more relevant, better informed etc.

The trick is to trap people to get interested in research but there’s another loop to use people to influence the way research is done.

I’m also kinda interested in this innovation systems and learning to make it practical. It’s still very airy fairy but it sounds very powerful – the question is: “how to get it into use”?

  • What are your sources of inspiration in KM/C?

By talking with people, learning. I don’t think I’m an active learner (e.g. on social networks) but I’m engaging with people. The inspiration for me, overall, was my community forestry experience, learning about Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), understanding that what we’re dealing with is not a technological change but a social movement, getting people more involved and to take over, not just “be developed”. There’s a couple of people that really inspired me: Cor Veer, John Raintree..

At the edges of knowledge work, the new beacons of ever-sharper collective intelligence

Modern knowledge workers don’t really exist. Not with all the highly desirable features we may want them to have. But breaking down what such a super human should do into distinct functions could be a good start to training us all at becoming better knowledge workers. I noted a few of these functions in the profile of a modern knowledge worker such as documenting conversations, filtering information etc. Yet these functions are dynamic and reinvent themselves, and new ones appear.

What are the next knowledge work super-hero functions? (credits - Photonquantique / FlickR)

What are the next knowledge work super-hero functions? (credits – Photonquantique / FlickR)

These new functions are partly addressed already by agile knowledge workers, but perhaps not always with enough intent and consistency. While we may not recognise the following functions, they may become increasingly pertinent in the modern knowledge era, with the intention of mobilising collective knowledge as best we can, particularly around events (online or offline) that bring people to strike rich conversations:

Ex-post sense-maker 

An event that is documented properly leads to rich notes on e.g. a wiki, a Google document, a written report (or otherwise). This is great: anyone participant in such conversations – anyone at all actually – can find and use these traces of conversations. But digital conversation notes are often TOO rich. Too long, too complex. A very useful extra mile for knowledge work would be to go through these notes and tease them out in useful bite-size chunks and compelling formats. An excellent example of this is this documentation of work done on ‘anticipating climate risks in the Sahel‘.

Memory connector (literature sifter)

This is the normal job of researchers. They dig through past documentation and build upon it. But they do it in a specific way – not always most straightforward. So before any planned/structured conversation happens (or any event gets organised), having someone go through all the literature related to the issues at hand, summarising key questions and issues that were raised around that field the last time around (picking up on the trail of ex-post sense-makers), on the latest recommendations etc. would add immense value to the conversations. It’s about mapping out the grid of our collective intelligence and building on it.

Too often we reinvent the wheel out of laziness or lack of awareness about related past conversations. The trick is again to package that preexisting information in ways that make it attractive to the people who will be engaged in the audience. Cartoons? A short video? A Pecha Kucha presentation (see example below)? A list of documents commented with humour? There are many ways to do this. So why do we too often fail at linking the past with the present?

Visualisation engineer

The documentation of conversations is more often than not done in a written format. Or in the best of cases in a myriad of videos. This makes it hard for us to absorb and synthesise that information. So how about visual engineers: people who are able to prepare visual handouts as the conversations unfold, organise intelligent lists of contacts that make networking and connecting easier, sifting through stats and presenting graphs in a radical and compelling way, developing complex thoughts into an-image-is-worth-1000-words kind of graphs and conceptual models.

Graphic recording - a whole palette of options before, during and after... (Credits - Susan Kelly)

Graphic recording – a whole palette of options before, during and after… (Credits – Susan Kelly)

There’s already a lot of graphic recording (see above) happening. I believe in our Instagram-culture of Pinterest drives we are only at the dawn of on-the-spot visual engineering. And this is perhaps not as much a function as an activity that just should occur more systematically.

And here’s another example:

Social network gardener

Perhaps this function is covered under any of the above. The idea is that someone really uses the information recorded and nuggets harvested to plant it/them in the right channels, networks and locations. Combined with the work of a visualisation engineer, this job allows targeted sending of compelling information to the right people.

Social media gardening - takes time but pays off! (Credits - j&tplaman / FlickR)

Social media gardening – takes time but pays off! (Credits – j&tplaman / FlickR)

Social network gardening does take time, but really adds a lot of value to the exchange that happened in the first instance, because it contributes to a universal information base that can reduce the learning curve the next time a group of people are wondering about a similar set of issues. And it does so not just by making information available but also by connecting people, i.e. knowledge – so it’s much more dynamic. Of course a lot of modern knowledge workers are already doing this to some extent. The point is to add structure and intent to this, to maximise opportunities for interaction beyond the group of people already involved.

Interestingly, what all these functions have in common is to combine conversations (knowledge sharing) and their documentation or processing (information management) both before, during and after the conversations happen… Acting upon the conversations as they happen, the nexus of agile KM don’t you think?

Related blog posts:

How do I describe my ‘work in KM’?

Might it be another phoenix of the knowledge management world next to assessing KM: the description of our job as knowledge worker?

There are lots of variation to the job of ‘knowledge management specialist’ and lots of related functions. In a recent fragment about knowledge work identities which I collected on my TumblR from a conversation happening in the knowledge brokers’ forum, nearly 50 job titles were offered for knowledge brokers.

Clearly, knowledge work begs for simple explanations that unveil a complex function.

Ewen Le Borgne (ILRI/KMIS) facilitating the CCAFS workshop on climate-smart crop breeding

What do I tell people who inquire what my work is?

I tell them different things: That I hold a mirror to help us all realise what we do, why and how. That I work on making sure that we become more effective in our work dynamically (i.e. continually, over time, not just for a given task or project) through learning, managing the information that matters to us and managing access to and curation from knowledge sources (conversations and the people behind), and that we do this more effectively as collectives rather than alone – hence the need to become social learning heroes.

I tell them that my work in KM is about avoiding reinventing the wheel, getting more perspectives on the same issue to find better, more sustainable solutions, ensuring that our conversations increase in number and improve in quality and help us get better.

Depending on who I’m talking to, I also tell people that I work in communication but not the message-based ‘military’ type of communication (with bullet-like messages targeted at people with hopes for impact), that I work rather on making communication engaging, collective and reflective. I tell people that I work on all of this from the perspective of knowledge management, communication and monitoring/evaluation/learning.

But is this really good enough?

Nick Milton rightly prompts us all to be able to “sell” our knowledge work in a compelling, powerful and short ‘sales pitch’. So here’s a revised elevator pitch that speaks to the three points that seem imperative to address in conveying our KM message:

  • What’s my point – what do I do for a job? I help people think critically about the information and expertise they need (by themselves or through others) to develop better and more sustainable solutions for the problems they face and connect with or trigger the conversations they need to do that; in the process I make them more likely to proactively seek these solutions in the future, both online through social media and offline through engaging meetings and events.
  • What’s in it for you? I can help you use the potential of knowledge work and social learning to be more effective now and continually, more connected to your field(s) of interest and expertise, more innovative and happier by helping and being helped by others.
  • What do I want you to do? I hope you can point me to the areas you would like to improve to become more effective and better connected and to see how social media and other means can get you there, “standing on the shoulders of giants“.

Of course this pitch needs to be adapted to the very people I engage with, but as a global pitch, tell me if you think that sells it enough and what you would change otherwise:)

Related blog posts:

We need more / better communication! But not from me…

When it comes to communication, everyone points the finger elsewhere (credits: Evalottchen/FlickR)

When it comes to communication, everyone points the finger elsewhere (credits: Evalottchen/FlickR)

I hear that a lot, in many organisations: communication is not good enough or there isn’t enough of it.

What does it really mean though? We are quick at pointing the finger to the problem, but not so keen on explaining what we really mean and what this implies.

Unfortunately also, too often we assume that the communication officer or team will solve all these problems, because ‘communication is their field, not mine’.

The reality is once again less black-and-white than it seems.

What they (might) mean What is really happening (and what we can do about it)
They don’t know enough about other people and departments’ work  Not enough is documented about: ongoing projects, movements (calendaring), meetings and events, outputs published.♣ Contribute to these records: share your travel plans, schedule your meetings publicly, channel your outputs to the official repository. 

Crucially, use a public (working out loud) channel to share information about what they’re doing, their questions, finds and ideas – be it on Yammer, a corporate Facebook group, Sharepoint or the organisation’s Intranet.

♣ Do this individually and in your teams. And stimulate others to do just the same. 

♣ If the above is impossible (e.g. because channels don’t exist), contact the communication team to help make it happen.

They don’t find relevant information through the formal communication channels and experience little connection and relation between the informal (bilateral chats) and formal channels They may not know how to look for information and where, there might not be any information for lack of content ‘fuel’; they receive little information as compared with corridor talks and chatting with people at events♣ Look for an overview of communication channels and procedures. 

♣ Contribute to these channels to enrich them – otherwise there will always be a disbalance between formal and informal channels.

They experience lack of coordination The different relevant entities of the organisation have few structural channels and processes to share relevant knowledge and information among themselves and rely on ad-hoc encounters to share strategic information♣ Use conversation channels and wikis that help people get in touch with each other despite distances, leaves documentation traces for themselves and others, and allow collaboration on joint projects.

♣ Use meta tags to ensure all relevant resources are tagged according to the taxonomy or folksonomy in use.

They feel they are reinventing the wheel There isn’t enough documentation going on during and after projects to share useful insights. Perhaps not enough attention is paid to the process of conducting projects and the specific approaches followed, as opposed to just carrying out stated objectives♣ Very similar to the previous point, this relates to the lack of records or their disorganisation (e.g. for lack of metadata). The agile organisation will ensure resources are easily findable and the persons related to these resources easy to locate. A social network analysis/mapping of sorts might be helpful here. 
They feel the organisation is not well equipped to face up and coming challenges that require more complex cooperation They feel the limitations of the above in doing their job and know they need to connect to other sources of knowledge but are perhaps not so sure as to how to proceed♣ This is where an engagement-focused communication team could really provide high added value support by helping design, facilitate and manage engagement processes with other parties and stakeholders, inside and outside. 

♣ What could also help is to organise more conversations (brown bag seminars, conferences, discussions) that bring together different parts of the organisation and external parties, to shape up a big picture that matters to the organisation’s agenda.

They don’t enjoy enough communication support They may have some genuine capacity needs in terms of communication and knowledge management/sharing but may not be aware of these, and perhaps there isn’t any (adequate) offering to fill these gap or perhaps these are not well known♣ See below. The task of the communication team is to connect the dots and to ensure that people use existing channels and processes to their advantage, without burdening them.
They hear “we ought to do more about communication” There is just external pressure (from donors, partners etc.) to communicate, reach out to and engage with other parties… Either way there is a problem of externally felt need, not a self-recognised weakness♣ This is not an ideal situation, but better realise it than remain ignorant. In this case, all the above applies, and perhaps it would be good to connect with other people, networks, communities of practice and organisations that seem better prepared to 21st century engagement, to get some ideas about what could work or not in this organisation. 

Of course the communication officer or team does have a role to play, that is to:

  • Set up the channels (public calendaring system, output repository, chat/knowledge sharing platform to share simple updates)
  • Set up recommended processes to use these systems
  • Provide training initially to help staff members make use of these systems and processes/procedures, at various levels (from simple users to power users and administrators), with particular emphasis on meta-standards which help organise information more systematically and retrieve it more easily
  • Coach staff and answer their question (seek their feedback on what works or not) to adjust the work
  • Monitor how these channels and processes are performing over time and contributing to accomplishing the organisation’s objectives
  • Over time, contribute to stimulating a culture of knowledge sharing and open enquiry that is conducive to adaptive management and proactive leadership cultivation

So, next time you wonder why communication in your (team, organisation, network) is so bad, ask yourself what you can do to improve it, and how your communication team can help you help yourself😉

Related blog posts:

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?

Related blog posts:

Revisiting the links between communication and knowledge management

At the fifth informal get-together of the Ethiopia/Addis Ababa KM4Dev network, one of the focused conversations we held was about the relations between communication and knowledge management. I wrote this year about how KM can power communication. I also blogged about the different families of engagement in which comms and KM can be found.

KM and comms overlap a lot - with the exception of learning?

KM and comms overlap a lot – with the exception of learning?

The KM4Dev Ethiopia discussion we had focused on the following two questions:

  1. Where do KM and comms sit in your organisation / project and are they formally or informally connected? How?
  2. Where do you see comms and KM work together and possibly integrate?

The conversation highlighted a few points which I think are worth looking into here.

KM and comms are defined very differently in different organisations or projects; they encompass each other (KM is part of comms, comms is part of KM) or they are totally separate depending on the concepts that form the foundations of that organisation and the politics of different departments… What is sure: There has to be a real purpose in bringing comms and KM together to encourage formal and/or informal cooperation among these approaches.

As many other things, definitions don’t matter so much (we’ve been working on comms and KM all along without labeling these ways) so long as your organisation/project feels comfortable knowing what it does with it. That intention matters, particularly if as I have advocated KM (and comms) includes a strong emphasis on learning. Purpose is essential to accelerating learning.

One of the main differences between KM and comms has been the idea of messaging (highlighted in the definitions in one of the resources mentioned below) which has characterised much comms work in the past: In organisations and projects, comms – understood here as a department rather than a function or skill set – has been traditionally focusing on unilaterally sending messages to target groups. There has been very little said about multi-lateral relations in comms work and also very little about (face-to-face and online) engagement from the start. This is changing, however, with more and more communication strategies and activities paying attention to nurturing the network (or ecosystem) as part of which the organisation or project is part. This change of approach is perhaps the main reason why there is such a blur between communication and knowledge management: comms is evolving; and so is KM, moving away from being understood as just information management (more about the difference between the two on the KM4Dev wiki). Adding to the blur, is that knowledge sharing is essential in KM and might be understood – wrongly – as communication.

Comms and KM retain nonetheless deeply distinctive features. As mentioned in the engagement families analogy, the marketing and PR branches of the communication family are very different from what KM does or intend to do. The learning aspect is also usually not a very prominent aspect of comms, while it is adamant to good, agile KM. And information management is only thought of as distantly supporting comms, while it is part and parcel of KM.

Perhaps another key difference is that comms is recognised and mainstreamed a lot more in business and has been traditionally used as a strong corporate arm, i.e. a controlled field which organisations pay attention to regarding what they are communicating and how they are engaging with clients, partners, beneficiaries etc. With the advent of social media, the corporate comms side has continued to extend its influence, while the KM arm is perhaps moving increasingly towards personal knowledge management and the role of social networks to influence the conversations, documentation efforts and learning issues of people – and their organisations if they are employees. 

Ultimately both comms and KM wish to change the behaviour of a number of internal and/or external audiences… But communication tends to still have that ‘corporate’ feel to it, while KM and its inherent recognition of learning – and of the power of social learning – recognises much more explicitly the importance of external signals and of co-creating knowledge to get to smarter conversations that solve current problems and pre-empt future issues. This is introduced in this recent explanation by TheKnowledgeCore. The method to achieve change is not the same – much more controlled in comms and  arguably much more open to social learning for social change in agile KM.

Coming back to the initial point here, if there is a real will to make communication and KM work together, it really happens. KM then informs ‘smarter’ communication while KM also benefits from the expertise of comms to approach different internal and external groups more effectively, offline and online. And such a comms-fuelled smarter KM connects strong information management (having information well organised, available, accessible and indeed accessed) with strong communication, to ensure that communication and knowledge sharing are based on existing and pertinent information.

So, this definition and distinction game is a fuzzy affair, but there is certainly much to gain in stimulating interactions between proponents of workers of the comms field and those of the KM field. That’s what agile KM is also about. I am a knowledge sharing and communication specialist, so it makes perfect sense to me that both fields are related, perhaps this post gives you some ideas to consider it too?

And while at that, here are some possibly interesting resources around similar discussions in the past:

Related blog posts:

Profile of the social learning hero

Social learning is back on the menu.

It’s always been around but somehow the social media age and the increasing recognition of the complexity we have to put up with all point forcibly to the social nature of learning.

And social learning is no easy task. It means grappling with others, getting hands dirty in negotiations and in collective problem-solving. It is about investing in future good, not immediate return on investment, even though early wins are a plus.

If social learning is the important paradigm of the day, what are the important characteristics of a social learning hero? An extension of the modern knowledge worker?

What does the social learning hero look like? (Photo - Mac3 / FlickR)

What does the social learning hero look like? (Photo – Mac3 / FlickR)

Here’s what I think a social learning hero should gather, in terms of gifts/skills and of attitude. And by social learning hero I don’t mean to describe the function of the facilitator of a social learning process which requires a very specific set of attributes. I’m interested in looking at how various people could engage successfully in social learning if they gather the right skills and attitude – and I’m not bothered with the knowledge and experience of a specific field here. You will see that there is some overlap with a knowledge worker.

Gifts and skills:

  • A capacity for strategic visioning, looking at the big picture in the longer term, to be able to map the different agendas and factors that may play out…
  • An ability to understand different accents, perspectives, and to reformulate what s/he heard to ensure s/he has understood what others meant;
  • A synthetic mind to summarise the various perspectives, identify patterns in those and possible win-win solutions;
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution skills (following the simple lessons of books like ‘Getting to Yes‘) which help avoid dead ends when interacting with others and offer solutions in case real confrontations happen;
  • An open heart giving the emotional capacity to connect with others at a deeper level and build real trust authentically;
  • Outstanding interpersonal communication skills to express oneself articulately so as to share knowledge more effectively and have the possibility to get in touch with a variety of people (see point 1);
  • Good ears and eyes to pick up the signals around (and question them);
  • A solid understanding of the learning process and all its dimensions to shape a strong social learning process;
  • Ideally, good facilitation skills to be able to contribute to organising the process of collective sense-making and problem-solving, with simple methods such as planning the purpose, harvest, actions and invitations.
  • Another bonus would be the ability to work with social tools, as this strengthens face-to-face interactions (more about this in the Social Media Guide for African climate change practitioners).


  • Empathy and openness to others, in the sense of welcoming others (including going out of our comfort zone) wanting to understand other perspectives and inquiring about the values, advantages, challenges of those perspectives;
  • A true curiosity to try new things out and add them to an array of experiences;
  • Humility to accept that one’s perspective is thus not better than another one’s or at least that other perspectives have potentially something to teach ourselves too;
  • Flexibility to keep a sustainable negotiation standpoint – and accepting that not everyone is and can be equally flexible all the time;
  • Clarity about what one expects from the social learning process while keeping attention for the balance with others’ needs and wills – perhaps mixed, as with the modern knowledge worker, with a vision of one’s own development pathway and next priorities;
  • Reflecting in single, double and triple-loop learning, in practice;
  • Intellectual and moral integrity and respect for oneself and for others, preserving the trust of others and perhaps stimulating inspiration from others.
  • Generally, and this is perhaps the most important, a true will to find one’s goal in a collective adventure – a genuine balance between individual and collective good.
  • A bonus might be to be optimistic (but not naive), positive (though not frantically) and  funny, to let humour grease the wheels of social learning…

A lot of these characteristics are also a must for multi-stakeholder and other social learning processes but they also need to possess additional traits. More about this in the future? Once again this is another ideal picture, not a typical profile that is easy to find around the world. But social learning we must be doing, and we might as well work on it from now on.

Related blog posts: