Communications: Thinking about a better way

“We do so much but no one knows about it. We have to do a better job of telling our story.”

I’ve heard this again and again. So, why’s it so hard? I’ve come to suspect that part of it has to do with the structure of communications within organizations. The centralized structure is a problem. We need to figure out how to make a distributed model work (see an early stab at how this could happen for a network or distributed team). You hear all the time about user-generated content. Well how about staff-generated content? Then the communicator becomes facilitator, supporter, curator. No longer struggling to find out what’s going on but rather focused on packaging and outreach.

This also has implications for knowledge sharing (or whatever KM is called these days) and organizational development. It’s about documenting learning, mistakes, victories. Taking the time to stop and think about process.

So as part of this thinking toward a new model I’ve developed (with help from my friends) a list of observations from my last ten or so years of experience. Mostly these are with international development organizations, most of which were implementing research or social change projects. They all had similar characteristics and issues:

Multi-cultural teams made up of passionate, opinionated researchers and development professionals (read: herding cats)

Partners who are at other times competitors

Far-flung teams and partners facing similar issues and or learning things that are relevant to each other’s practice — they have things to share and are hungry for knowledge

A “boss” (read: donor) who’s not at home — or several absent bosses each with different (sometimes shifting) priorities and stakeholders — so important spend time building understanding, updating, and demonstrating return on investment

Disincentives to document or openly discuss failure stifles learning and innovation (this is the down side of the performance-based contract)

Ability to see organizational issues but no way to fix them — Because of the nature of their work (talking with many team members, needing consistent updates, pushing for clarity on audiences, messages, activities) communicators’ work is affected by organizational issues and information flows, yet addressing these is outside of their mandate

A “core + support” staff structure, where support staff often feel marginalized, their contributions and needs misunderstood or unacknowledged because they don’t do what the organization does (administration, finance, human resources, communications)

  • Communicators not invited — and often must lobby — to attend meetings, events, or site visits that would allow them to better understand issues and activities, create richer content, and build relationships that improve information flows
  • The staff closest to the work are least likely to communicate, so key information, learning, and stories often remains hidden
  • Expectation that communicators can create compelling content from a mix of existing documents: proposals, contracts, presentations, various reports (coded, jargon-laden, sanitized, noisy)
  • Communicators not in direct or regular contact with activities or colleagues in the field must use an investigative-journalist approach to dig up stories, which may annoy field staff as they’ve been preparing reports and communicating regularly with project managers

Little attention or resources dedicated to internal systems (infrastructure + practices)

  • Lack of coordination of basic information such as travel, events, and contacts leads to missed opportunities
  • Productivity lost finding and re-finding assets
  • Little time allocated to reflect on how the organization is working, what can be learned, and how to work better

Have you observed this? What’s the same? What’s different? How do you think these issues can be avoided or overcome? Any ideas for solutions?

One thought on “Communications: Thinking about a better way

  1. Robert B

    I agree with all of the above, and remember what is driving development for many organizations, namely donor funding and, therefore, the need to impress so as to continue to do more “development”. Not that we lie, but we don’t want to wash our dirty linen in public, and development ain’t a clean process.

    So how to get away from this tendency towards obsfucation and the same blah-blah? (we were commissioned to deal with SO## and IR##, to eradicate poverty in country x, and we did STTA and published reports after training so and so..). You see it’s about “did we meet the terms of the contract?”, not did we solve a problem or figure out how not to mess up?

    The biggest issue is that organizations resist looking at development as a process. They spend too much time telling donors that they “solve” problems, therefore they have to document solutions or numbers, not stories about the process of development. But it is the process which is far more interesting and what donors should be interested in seeing to figure out what works. The numbers are only a manifestation of probable solutions, even if there is even a casual link. So it gets back to better evaluation plans, and a broader mix of lenses and approaches for documenting sucesses, not just PMPs (performance monitoring plans) and results-based performance plans (RBMs), but real stories about the process and successes in development.

    It does not mean development funding without accountability, either, or poorly designed projects. But it means really peeling away the layers to get at what is driving the numbers in ways that people can understand, and how development is making progress at the human level, not in some table or chart in a document no one wants to read. Case in point: the annual report in comic book format from the conservation organization –an exceptional use of writing and graphics. We need more such examples to focus on and disseminate the story of making development work.

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