There is an ever greater need to think about information and knowledge flow – what works and what doesn’t. As the demand for effective research communication grows it is important that we understand more clearly the different concepts attached to this practice. The distinction between dissemination and communication (outlined below) has been kicking around for a few years now, and yet we seem to repeatedly fall back on this as a means to understand what effective research communication looks like.
The need to distinguish between these elements is still relevant. However, it’s time we took these concepts forward and utilise new theories and ideas to fill in the missing gaps. In this short article, I argue that we need to start thinking more strategically about how knowledge passes from one person to another, by putting forward the notion of three way communications. Adding a third element to how we understand communication ensures we fully acknowledge the role of the ‘social’. This social element is vitally important because it ensures that knowledge is more likely to keep flowing rather than be lost or forgotten over time.
Research Communication defined?
DFID have defined three elements that contribute to effective research communications: dissemination, communication and research uptake.
This diagram is good at defining practices and goes as far as talking about multi-directional processes under research communication. However, it fails to underline a fundamental element that brings these practices together – the social element. If we support the view that societies at any scale are best seen as networks (and “networks of networks”) rather than as bounded groups in hierarchical structures, then this element is fundamentally important, yet often gets overlooked.
What is the social element and why is it important?
If we asked ourselves when have we been most influential – when have we left behind something that stuck? Then I think most people would declare that they had most influence within a social ‘node’ that they were able to contribute regularly, regulate to some extent and seek solace in the like mindedness of others. Nevertheless, these social nodes are rare and do not always lie in those places that we would most like to have influence.
Our social structures (networks) are in a constant state of change (especially in the work based environment), as people shift jobs, change geographical location and face technological barriers, even changing telephone number can have a dramatic effect on the extent to which people are able to interact and influence. In order for relationships to remain strong and not dissolve they need to be continuously ‘performed’ or invested in.
The ‘new’ age of engagement
It is undoubtedly the new age of engagement, most obviously evident through the web and the expediential growth of social media. There is a great deal to be learnt about the social element in this context – especially as evidence of how nodes are formed and sustained emerges.
During a recent discussion on EBPDN Jeff Knezovich talked about the need to develop a “Two way process” in research communications stating “Although policy influence and research uptake implies an outward push of information, this consortium views this as a two-way process of engagement designed to stimulate both demand for our research but also research that is more responsive to end-users’ needs.”
The shift from one way to two way communication is indeed progress, and my response was no way intended to be a criticism, but a general reflection on the current state of play between theory and practice within the development communications community. As a response I argued that we ought to be pushing for a three way process of engagement and dialogue; over a two way process, which is likely to be less permanent, less stable and does not have the same scope for cementing processes, thoughts and actions. In other words, we need to be looking to create nodes of engagement and two-way processes may not be as good at doing this. Perhaps we should be looking to explore how we can bring in a third set of relevant stakeholders or interests to help create such nodes
In order to build real ‘impact’ we need to understand that the social element is the cornerstone of research impact. This element must be built on interactive processes that are repeatedly performed. This idea of ‘the social element’ and performance links directly to the concept of communication as a three way process, where social relations are cemented and interlinked through the overlapping of multiple people, places, and technology (among other things). The social element ensures that knowledge is more likely to keep flowing rather than be lost or forgotten.
Mapping the social
Stakeholder mapping and analysis are valuable tools for those working in research communication. In order to map our target audiences effectively we might also want to consider looking more strategically at those networks (containing the social element) that key actors occupy. This is indeed a challenge, but by infiltrating these stable and well developed social networks, where three way communication is the norm, we are far more likely to see research knowledge pass from one person to another.
A number of traditional stakeholder mapping tools focus on the individual, their level of power and their interests, but this overlooks the fact that these people sit within networks alongside others who have not been identified as key stakeholders. Accessing these networks, and finding the social element within them could be far more influential means of research communication than targeting the individual. As I outlined above, social networks only stay alive if they are repeatedly ‘performed’. In the same way, ideas and knowledge only pass from A to B if the social network stays alive through such interactions. By directing research at the individual, out of the context of their social networks, there is less chance that this knowledge will stay alive and have influence. The social element is key!
This article originally appeared within the EBPDN Newsletter, December 2011