Five findings on communicating complex ideas (revisited)

4 September 2023

Researchers are generally more influenced by their own research or peer studies than by external consultants and unfamiliar methods. This is one of the ideas that guided the approach we took to a book I edited in 2014: Communicating Complex Ideas.

At the time, the international development sector had seen a steady and significant rise in funding to communicate research evidence. A mini industry of consultants had emerged to provide research centres in developing countries with communication and research uptake services. 

This had been driven in part by the pressure aid budgets across the world had been under. Research funding, as well as other types of interventions, needed to be seen to have direct and measurable effects.

This shift was facing resistance from researchers who feared that reducing complex issues to simple messages for short-term impact may hinder proper understanding and readiness to face challenges, potentially creating long-term losses.

The book was inspired by, and built upon, earlier works. Such as Frances Cleaver’s and Tom Frank’s 2009 paper ‘Distilling or Diluting? Negotiating the Water Research-Policy Interface’ in which the authors’ candid description and reflection of the dialogue between researchers and policymakers led to insightful conclusions.

It also built on my efforts over the years to encourage researchers to examine the complex relationship between ideas and politics. This led to the books Thinking Politics (2009), co-edited with Kristen Sample, and Links Between Knowledge and Politics (2011), co-edited with Norma Correa. And of course, at On Think Tanks we provide space for a growing community to explore and better understand their contexts and how it affects their work.

I am returning to this book now while reflecting on the findings of a recent study on Knowledge Translation in the Global South. It struck me how relevant these 2014 findings are to the discussions we’re having today. Below I summarise the top five findings.

First, I want to tell you about the study approach, because I think it is a good one that we could replicate today.

We sought to encourage a dialogue between researchers and communication practitioners (ideally within the same organisation or country). 

It is through this dialogue – as well as dialogue with other authors and a wider audience – that  the nuances of the opportunities and challenges that exist in communicating complex arguments to policymakers, the media, and the general public can emerge and be better understood.

Cases ranged from attempts to reform electoral policy in Argentina to the role of the media as an effective means of connecting technical arguments with public values on budget transparency in Indonesia. +

The cases were developed over a period of a year, with several iterations. The chapters were first presented to the public via an On Think Tanks blog series, outlining the research questions and initial expectations. Discussions and face-to-face interactions further enriched the research process, allowing for deeper exploration and understanding.

Here’s a summary of what the cases tell us:

1. It is possible to communicate complex ideas without compromising their nature.

However, at the core of any successful strategy and any ensuing effort, there has to first be an unavoidable focus on understanding and reaching a consensus on the problem. 

Communicating anything beyond a simple solution is much easier when all parties understand the problem that is being tackled; and this includes recognising that the problem is complex and therefore it is impossible to know all there is about it. 

For example, if Ecuadorian policymakers did not quite understand the complex problems that fertilisers have caused (and the complex causes of those problems) then the necessary long list of interrelated actions to solve them would be difficult to grasp and politically impossible to support.

2. The most effective strategies are opportunistic, flexible and open-ended.

Interestingly, none of the strategies described in the cases were implemented as planned. In fact, there were hardly any strategies to talk about at the time when the initiatives began. 

The cases from Argentina and South Africa, for example, show that there was an objective, an intention, and improvised or opportunistic action before there was any sense of a coherent strategy – or even the attempt to develop one. The organisations and the people involved adapted their actions to changes in their environment and to new information that became available as they engaged in the process.

Could they have predicted what would happen and plan accordingly? It would have been impossible for the researchers and communicators to predict what would happen at the beginning of their work. Nor how long it would take to achieve the desired change. Even now, the cases present several unknowns and do not offer sure or certain recommendations for future action.

Overall, then, the most appropriate strategies appear to be ones that are flexible and opportunistic, dynamic and open-ended. Rather than a list of good practices, the cases support a focus on the right people, the right skills and the necessary resources to deal with uncertainty.

3. The competencies and skills needed require teams, not individuals.

The cases suggest that to be successful, or to be at least capable of success, researchers must rely on others. Across the experiences, it is teams rather than individuals who take the central role.

These teams, however, demand skills and expertise that are not always found in individual research centres. Teams need to be: multi-skilled, multi-disciplinary, multi-partner, have shared skills and interests, and common knowledge and understanding about the ideas and context. 

4. Context is internal too.

Unsurprisingly, context emerges as a key factor in these studies of the effort to communicate complex ideas. 

In Ecuador, South Africa, and the Middle East, contextual factors such as local culture and values, are central to the authors’ analytical frameworks. In fact, this is the principal focus of the chapter on education reform in the Middle East and the Gulf States.

A key implication emerges: context, often presented as external or exogenous to the organisations and to their influencing efforts, can be just as easily seen as an internal or endogenous factor.

The ‘context’, best exemplified by the rules, culture, and values of the population in Ecuador, the Middle East, and in South Africa, was precisely what the initiatives were attempting to affect. At the same time, those leading the initiatives belong to and, in varying degrees, participate in that same context – its rules, culture, and values. 

Consequently, we should rethink how we treat contextual factors, reassessing how they affect the interventions and change itself.

5. Research and communication are deeply entwined and require a rethink of how organisations and teams are set up.

Traditionally, research and communication functions are separate. Over the last decade, larger investments in communications have led to the establishment of larger communications and engagement teams with growing independence from the research teams. 

But the cases showed that research and communications are deeply connected. Teams and organisations need to think about:

  • Personal skills: All researchers have to communicate. While they may not be in charge of packaging their studies or shooting a video, they must communicate their ideas to fellow researchers, organise teams, interpret and share their findings, write reports and papers, etc. Similarly, to develop the right communication strategy, communicators need to study the research context and audiences.
  • Feedback: Research involves various phases that present opportunities for feedback and collaboration between researchers and communicators, fostering learning and integration of ideas.
  • Outputs: A press release is no less a research output than a paper, albeit one that is more likely to be put together by a communicator than by a researcher. And there lies the crux of the matter: some types of research outputs are more commonly employed by researchers and others by communicators, but they are all communication tools.

The intertwining nature of research and communication resonates with our findings from the recent study on knowledge translation in the Global South.

Avoiding a separation and trying to integrate both practices in the design of organisations and the development and execution of research projects can foster more effective collaboration, reflecting the necessary dialogue between research and communication functions.


This post has been adapted from the Executive Summary of Communicating Complex Ideas, edited by Enrique Mendizabal and published by On Think Tanks.