Taking think tank communications to the next level: Figuring out where to begin (Part 1)

27 August 2013

A “commsversation” between Jeff KnezovichMelissa Julian and the communications team at ECDPM

[Editor’s note: The main content of the blog has been written by Jeff, while text and information presented in the boxes comes from Melissa and the rest of the communications team at ECDPM]

There are a number of great tools out there for think tanks to communicate their work. Some are more costly; others are less so. Some require a certain technical skillset; others can be done with little training. But for an organisation (or indeed a programme or a particular initiative) working to build its research uptake and communication capacity with limited resources – both in terms of money but also in terms of staff and skills – with which communication tools should one start? What’s the best first investment? Hint, it’s probably not podcasting (though they certainly have a role to play in the comms mix!).

Under pressure to innovate and to kick communication activities up a notch, many organisations start branching out and overstretching themselves. I consider this trying to run before walking – if an organisation doesn’t have a solid set of core outputs and a technical ability to deliver them consistently, experimenting around the edges can quickly lead to trouble.

Therefore, I would argue that the best first investment isn’t a new external communication product at all, but rather it is getting organised – and doing so in such a way that it sets up the technological infrastructure to structure and deliver content to a range of audiences.

To clarify, this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be experimentation and innovation at all, in fact early experimentation can help refine future products. Rather I’m suggesting that the balance of effort should be focused on first getting organised.

How to get organised

Effectively, what I’m suggesting here is reviewing what content and outputs already exist within a particular organisation or programme. One could potentially take a number of approaches to doing this – but I suggest developing a set of ‘core lists’, which will form the basis of future communications infrastructure, potentially both internally as well as externally. The process I outline here might take a lot of effort to setup and get right depending on the size of the organisation or programme, but as these lists develop, they will serve as the backbone that supports the whole. In the long run they will save a lot of work and allow for a lot of automation.

The first important thing to understand is that almost all systems, websites, intranets, and other computer programmes are built from a simple foundation: relational databases. Effectively, these are a set of lists/tables/arrays/spreadsheets that are inextricably linked to each other

It’s often an overlooked skill for communication professionals, but data structuring is going to be one of the most important skills for communication professionals in the next decade. Luckily, for those without out some of these technical skills, ‘content management systems’ (CMS) were expressly designed to facilitate the process of building and managing datasets.

The strength of developing content structures as a relational database is that, for example, in a list of programmes, individual researchers can be selected from the researcher list as part of that programme. Likewise, a researcher’s name might be pulled into the author field of a publication, and a publication can be highlighted as an output of a programme.

I should clarify what data means in this context. We’re not talking about vast spreadsheets of ones and zeros. ‘Data’ in a communications context includes content (e.g. blog posts), metadata (e.g. authors) and process (e.g. publication approval processes). Structuring data in this way will become increasingly important as think tanks develop content to be accessed on multiple platforms.

When it comes to data structures for think tanks and research efforts, many will look similar. In my experience, most will require some version of the following lists: publications, events, projects, programmes/teams, themes, researchers, and research locations. There are a wide variety of other lists that might be required – especially internally – but those tend to depend on the specifics of an organisation. The International Initiative on Impact Evaluation (3ie) is a great example of an organisation that had to build a number of databases to support their communication and other objectives. In addition to creating inventories of their own communication outputs, they also manage grants and catalogue findings from impact evaluations and systematic reviews.

ECDPM’s knowledge collaboration approach

ECDPM’s IMAKE (Information Management and Knowledge Exchange) project is a set of tools, policies and collaborative approaches to support and facilitate our work. The

overall goal is greater efficiency and effectiveness of ECDPM. The project substantially reorients our information management processes. It will enhance knowledge exchange, networking and learning while opening the door for intensified knowledge generation both internally and with our partners.

With the IMAKE project, we will resolve our information storage and retrieval problems, update our document production processes and renew our peer exchange, sharing and learning systems. An important element of the initiative is the restructuring of ECDPM’s digital architecture to transform it into cloud-based computing.

IMAKE offers opportunities for individuals, programme teams and partners to work more dynamically, as it will allow enhanced information and communication flows.

IMAKE will help us to align ECDPM’s knowledge management and brokerage work even more closely to the unfolding opportunities of virtual information management.

The IMAKE project will further help us to achieve our external communication and internal monitoring objectives. Its collaborative approachcompatibility with social media and cloud computing set-up will support publication production, outreach, exchanges with our audiences and the measuring of our outreach performance.

In the next blog post, we’ll work through a couple of examples of how to develop these lists in practice.