Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences

11 June 2012

Donors spend millions every year trying to build the capacity of researchers to communicate their work more effectively. Unfortunately, most of it goes on one-off workshops and attempts to get them to do things they are clearly uninterested in. Sometimes it feels that lessons are hardly ever learned. But sometimes opportunities come about that let us reflect and learn.

Last year, ODI and INASP asked Martine Zeuthen and me to review their efforts to build the capacity of a series of IDRC funded research programmes in Africa. We assessed each one separately and then brought both reviews together in the synthesis below. We found, among other things, that a lot more time needs to be dedicated to planning the interventions.

I am now trying the recommendations listed below in a project I am working on this year with four Latin American think tanks. I’ll report back on how it goes.

Lessons (more detail on these lessons, the recommendations below, and the approaches themselves, is provided in the document in Scribd or GoogleDocs):

  • 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.
  • An expression of interest does not always imply commitment: Although the grantees had expressed their interest in being involved in the projects several were not engaged in learning and did not change their approach to research communication as a consequence. In one case one of the grantees expresses that their involvement was based on the impression 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 satisfy donor demands rather than in the initiative itself.
  • Researchers have other interests and pressures besides communications: Most researchers are often more interested in researching than communicating. 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
  • If it is not done at the beginning, then it is probably too late: In all cases the project came about as 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 communication strategy, 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: The ambition was for the people receiving the support to 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 this objective. Senior researchers, network coordinators, and even communicators may be excellent candidates to make use of any skills learned  but that does not necessarily make them the most appropriate ‘trainers of trainers’.
  • Local or regional facilitators and mentors: INASP’s approach involved using regionally based facilitators and mentors. This had a particularly positive effect on the project. The partners learned from the mentors and enjoyed discussing the specific challenges that they were facing with regional professionals. Conversely, ODI was able to connect with the grantees it was supporting only after visiting their offices, and concerns about 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 communication capacity. In some cases, their personal and professional networks ensure greater levels of impact than any formal research communication strategy could ever promise. Furthermore, many communication tactics and channels that are common for developed countries or the United Kingdom, and that ODI and INASP are more familiar with, may not be appropriate for the grantees’ contexts.


  • Start early –right from the beginning: Developing the capacity to communicate should not 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 the case.
  • Confirm demand before starting: Even before signing a contract, the service providers should 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 very clear regarding the time and resources that they will have to allocate to the process. They must also discuss, at length, who are the most appropriate people to be directly involved and what will be their responsibilities.
  • More than a needs assessment: really understand the organisation and its context: The service provider should start by either spending time with the organisation or hosting the relevant people. Above all, the service providers need to understand the culture of the organisations and the policy contexts they seek to affect. This is not something easily achieved through a remote diagnostic.
  • Consider who is the most appropriate source of expertise: It may be that the organisations conducting the assessment are not necessarily the most appropriate when it comes to delivering the support. Would they limit their recommendation to the services they can offer?
  • Build on strengths: The service providers should seek to either improve what they already do or introduce new channels or tactics that build on those that they are comfortable with. This is likely to make a bigger impact than if the consultants bring along an entirely foreign and all-encompassing new approach.
  • Focus on the organisation rather than on single projects: Support should be aimed at strengthening the organisation’s capacity and not just a single project’s visibility. This is likely to attract the support of senior managers that is crucial for any change to take hold within the organisation. The project itself can be used as a pilot to text the new tactics or channels proposed.
  • Earmark funds to implement whatever strategy they develop: It is unlikely that the organisations will dedicate the necessary time to develop a strategy or plan unless they know that there will be funds available to implement it. Just as the service providers are not helping for free, it is unlikely that these researchers will be able to dedicate the necessary time to the initiative unless their time is covered. The service provider should therefore make sure that there are sufficient funds for this purpose. On the other hand, if the organisation has the funds but is not willing to allocate them to this purpose this should be seen as a sign that there is little buy-in from the leadership.
  • Maximise peer-to-peer exposure: Depending on the kind of skills being shared and the individuals involved, the donors and service providers should attempt to ensure that people with the right experience deliver the support. Researchers, for example, are more likely to respond to other researchers; communication officers to communication officers; and managers to managers. This means that it is possible that the service providers will have to look beyond their organisations for the right expertise. Instead, they may act as facilitators and help the organisations find the most appropriate people for their needs.

Read the full report here: