Either because their funders have brought them together or because they have sought each other out, think tank networks can offer great opportunities to their members.
Still, not all networks are useful for all purposes. Research I undertook on networks between 2004 and 2010 concluded, not surprisingly, that when it comes to network design and management “form ought to follow function”. One cannot simply add functions to networks without necessarily altering their form. In a study of networks in Ethiopia we found that donors often asked existing networks to adopt new functions (such as acting as fund managers) without considering the consequences that, in this case, money would have on the relationships between the members or the new competencies (e.g. financial management) that the network secretariat would need. This was fuelled by both a need to reduce admin costs (“let the networks do our work”) and a blind belief that networks are better (“together is better than alone”). Both are incorrect.
So this advice may not be relevant to all think tank or think tanker (for instance, networks of researchers, communicators, executive directors, etc.) networks but it certainly is for those where learning is a key function.
I was recently invited to a meeting of data driven communicators in Nairobi. The group reminded me of WonkComms a bit. And like WonkComms its members are interested in learning from each other.
Think tank funders across the developing world are always looking for “things that work”. They want to know “what works” for policy influencing. They spend, often hundreds of thousands of dollars, on consultants to gather a few cases here and there and offer some recommendations -unfortunately, rarely anything that they or the think tanks themselves didn’t know already: develop good relationships with the media, produce different publications, engage in social media spaces, etc.
But detail is always missing from these studies and consultants’ advice. Sure, we should organise more events but, what is the best format in Kenya? And what about for Peru? What time of the day is the best to draw more policymakers to our meetings? How long should they be? What are the best venues? How can we get the biggest and longest social media coverage post event? What is the best hashtag: a long single and made-up word (#universitiesandthinktanks) or two well-known words (#universities and #thinktanks)?
We could ask the same questions about the media: what is the most likely newspaper to report on our stories? Facts or faces, what has the biggest impact? Publications: what is the most effective length of a briefing paper: 2, 4 or 6 pages? Graphs or pictures, how to illustrate them? Social media: what gets more views, an animated video or a talking heads video? Etc.
Gamification for learning
Gamification is the use of game thinking to solving problems and answering questions like these. A network of think tank communicators in Kenya may not have enough members to ro run a randomised control trial for their communication tools but could easily turn their communication activities into a series of learning opportunities. A network of communicators from think tank in Latin America or West Africa could do that, too. They’d have to ‘correct’ for context, but this should not be a limiting factor.
And although I am using communications as an entry point to this discussion, this same approach could be used for research and management networks, more generally.
The fourth component of Nick Scott’s digital strategy approach is: Revolutionary evolution:
Introduce new systems and processes iteratively and collaboratively.Employ arguments and evidence to convict people of the need for change
In other words, think tanks can use their own work as testing opportunities. Compare, for instance, how many downloads the think tank gets after publishing a new briefing paper on different days of the week and at different times to define when is the best day and time of the day to publish. Or who on Twitter is a better disseminator of your work by asking different people or organisations to share the same announcement and measuring their reach.
If this information is collected in a systematic manner it will soon amount to robust data that individual think tanks can use to develop strong arguments in favour of small and large investments and reforms. I know may communicators who could benefit of this in their daily efforts to convince their think tank leaders and researchers of the value of their work.
But a think tank alone can do so much and it would probably not work well for a it to be constantly testing and risk confusing its audiences with different publication formats, newsletters published at different days or times, events that follow ever changing formats, etc. A few tests here and there are OK, but these have to be managed carefully.
A network provides an opportunity to share the responsibility of testing and learning; and maximise the potential outcomes. And how best to encourage this than some healthy competition.
- Competition because the members of the network would be competing with each other -e.g. who gets the most re-tweets, whose policy brief is downloaded the most, or whose event is more engaging?
- Healthy because they would be sharing their ‘trade insights’ and learning from each other’s successes and shortfalls.
Support to think tanks’ capacity development need not be about funding or services alone. A funder, like the Think Tank Initiative, the think Tank Fund, the Zambia Economic Advocacy Programme, or the Knowledge Sector Initiative to mention four that focus their efforts on think tanks, creates, by its nature the opportunity to learn in a relatively safe space. Politics are not abandoned by think tanks when they come together in a funder supported or sponsored network but it is nonetheless possible to talk more openly.
Funders can act as neutral facilitators of the testing and learning process. They can help organise the games, adjudicate ‘winners’, and encourage analysis of the results. They could do this directly, of course, assuming the role of learning facilitators or, what may be their preferred (yet not always the best) option, outsourcing this role to a consultant. A win-win option may be to outsource it to one of the members to to someone appointed by the members.
This works well for everyone. The thinktankers do not need to worry about managing a learning process (I am sure they are busy enough) and the funders will get to know the think tanks they support even more -and at a deeper level.