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Developing Research Communication Capacity: lessons from recent experiences

Developing Research Communication Capacity: lessons from recent experiences

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Published by Enrique Mendizabal

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Published by: Enrique Mendizabal on Jun 10, 2012
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01/04/2013

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Mendizabal Ltd
Developing research communications capacity:lessons from recent experiences
Enrique Mendizabal (onthinktanks.org)Martine Zeuthen (Integrity Research)
Key recommendations
 
Do not take demand for granted
: Demand from research organisations should beconfirmed by those contracted to provide capacity development support. Often it can be based not on a real interest to learn and adapt but on a desire to please and managerelations with donors.
 
Consider organisational culture and context in any needs assessment
: Instead of focusing only on technical considerations, needs assessments should enquire into theculture of the organisation, its attitude towards different forms of communication, its business models, the roles of key individuals within it, and how its external contextaffects its choices in communications tactics and channels.
 
Build on what works
: Even the weakest organisations communicate with their stakeholders. Support ought to be built around the competencies and skills that theorganisations already have and seek to add new components, tools, and links to other communication approaches.
Background
What is the best approach to develop the research communications capacities of researchers andtheir organisations? This is a question not often asked by research funders and service providers.The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) (delivered by the Research and Policy in Development(RAPID) programme) and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications(INASP), however, did. In 2011, both organisations designed and delivered a capacitydevelopment project to improve the communications capacity of several African research granteesof the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Both organisations wereindependently approached by IDRC to support its grantees to 1) communicate the research theyhad produced as part of their involvement in IDRC’s ACACIA programme, and 2) develop their own organisational research communication capacities.Enrique Mendizabal and Martine Zeuthen reviewed both initiatives and provided feedback to ODIand INASP. This document is an attempt to bring those reviews together and share the lessonslearned with a wider audience.
The approaches
ODI and INASP pursued different approaches, each informed and affected by a number of internaland external factors. In ODI’s case this project presented an opportunity to test some of thelessons the ODI team had identified in previous collaborations with other IDRC programmes;while for INASP it was an opportunity to explore a new area of work – looking more at the supplyrather than the demand side for research based evidence, given that its experience lies in researchliteracy and working with policymakers.
 
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ODI’s approach comprised of three phases: The first phase involved a series of webinars with allthree of the organisations ODI was supporting. During the webinars, the ODI team presented theRAPID Outcome Mapping Approach as well as several more specific research communicationstools. The webinars were supposed to be followed by the grantees working on their communication strategies; and these were to be reviewed by ODI during country visits. In practice, the webinars could not be implemented as planned and did not lead to draft strategies. Assuch, the field visits, in effect, constituted the second phase of the project. During these visits, theODI’s consultant reviewed the content of the webinars and worked with the researchers and othersin their organisations to develop the draft strategies. The third phase was a follow-up phase duringwhich some of the grantees worked on their strategies.INASP’s approach was markedly different from ODI’s. Its project began with a long diagnosticwhich involved several interviews with the grantees. This informed a workshop for all thegrantees and in which IDRC had an active participation. The workshop was followed up by thegrantees developing strategies and INASP providing support to them in their implementation. Thissupport was provided, in some instances as not all strategies were followed through, throughdirect mentoring.Both projects made important and valuable contributions to their clients but could not meet their full potential.
Lessons learned from the assessment
The following lessons are drawn from the reviews of ODI’s (Mendizabal and Zeuthen, 2012) andINASP’s (Mendizabal and Zeuthen, 2012) interventions as well as an evaluation of ODI’s supportto IDRC’s GGP programme (Mendizabal, 2009), and RAPID’s capacity building experience(Mendizabal, Datta and Young, 2011). They are intended, however, to be relevant for other capacity development initiatives and efforts.
 
The best laid plans…
In both cases, as well as in other cases consulted for the purpose of this review, the interventions did not go as planned. There is little that ODI or INASP, asservice providers, could control and several grantees faced conflicting demands, lostinterest, or were simply not capable of taking advantage of the services offered by theservice providers.
 
An expression of interest does not always imply commitment:
Although the granteeshad expressed their interest in being involved in the projects several were not engaged inlearning and did not change their approach to research communications as a consequence.In one case one of the grantees expresses that their involvement was based on theimpression that the project appeared to be important for IDRC and ODI. In other words,their participation was driven more by an interest in being part of such initiative to satisfydonor demands rather than in the initiative itself.
 
Researchers have other interests and pressures besides communications:
A relatedset of lessons, well known by now, is that most researchers are not only often moreinterested in researching than communicating but the business models of their organisations often demand that they spend as much time as possible seeking anddelivering new projects. Additionally, while an individual project may be a priority for the donor or for the lead partner, it is unlikely to be so for individual organisations or researchers. As a consequence, any activities that are not seen to directly support their core business are unlikely to be given the priority they demand to be effective.
 
Face-to-face is better than virtual, but the web is a good alternative:
ODI’s original proposal had been to host the grantees for a few weeks to give them a chance to meet theteam in charge of research communications and even participate in some activities. Theidea was rejected and instead the webinars were introduced as an alternative. Theyworked well but not as well as INASP’s event. The event did not just offer an opportunity
 
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for face-to-face engagement between INASP and the grantees but also ensured that thelatter were focused on the objectives of the project and not distracted by their day to dayresponsibilities; which, in the case of ODI, contributed to not meeting the full potential of the webinars offered.
 
If it is not done at the beginning, then it is probably too late:
In all cases theresearchers were either done or about to finish with the research. The project came aboutas a final activity for the grantees, added to the project with only months to go.Furthermore, while the support provided was intended to lead to a communicationsstrategy, there were no additional funds to implement such a strategy. As a consequence,researchers had few incentives to engage more than necessary.
 
The right people matter:
Both ODI and INASP intended to develop the capacity of thenetworks or organisations involved and not just that of the individuals who participated inthe capacity development projects. The ambition was for the people receiving the supportto then go on and train or mentor other members of their networks or organisations.Unfortunately, those who participated where not always the right people for thisobjective. Senior researchers, network coordinators, and even communicators may beexcellent candidates to make use of any skills learned during the webinars or workshops but that does not necessarily make them the most appropriate ‘trainers of trainers’. Thiswas particularly obvious in cases where the participants were coordinators of time-boundnetworks that had only been set up for the purpose of delivering the ACACIA programmethat was by then coming to an end.
 
Local or regional facilitators and mentors:
INASP’s approach involved usingregionally based facilitators and mentors. This had a particularly positive effect on the project. The partners learned from the mentors and enjoyed discussing the specificchallenges that they were facing with regional professionals. Conversely, ODI was able toconnect with the grantees it was supporting only after visiting their offices, and concernsabout the consultants’ lack of familiarity with their context were raised.
 
No one is starting from scratch:
All the grantees, to different degrees, have some sort of research communications capacity. In some cases, their personal and professionalnetworks ensure greater levels of impact than any formal research communicationstrategy could ever promise. Furthermore, many communication tactics and channels thatare common for developed countries or the United Kingdom, and that ODI and INASPare more familiar with, may not be appropriate for the grantees’ contexts. Henceregardless of the level of professionalism or resources awarded to researchcommunications none were starting from scratch.
Recommendations
The following recommendations are intended to inform future efforts to develop researchcommunications capacity –but could also be applicable to the development of other competenciesand skills.
 
Start early –right from the beginning:
Developing the capacity to communicate shouldnot come as an afterthought. Funders must plan this right from the start and service providers like ODI and INASP should be careful about being involved if this is not thecase. In these circumstances, the support should target future projects.
 
Confirm demand before starting:
Even before signing a contract, the service providersshould contact the grantees and effectively treat them as clients; inquiring as to their interests, concerns, and commitment to the initiative. The service providers must be veryclear regarding the time and resources that they will have to allocate to the process. Theymust also discuss, at length, who are the most appropriate people to be directly involvedand what will be their responsibilities.

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