Thursday, 29 May 2014

Rethinking knowledge products after the 'PDF shock': Make them leaner, faster, and never without the community!

Since the World Bank published its report early this month which states that over 30% of its policy reports have never been downloaded even once (!) and only 13 percent of policy reports were downloaded at least 250 times, a fascinating debate on the purpose and value of knowledge products is flourishing the web, and the posts from KM practitioners all over keep pouring in.

It’s not just the World Bank, but most international organizations

Interestingly, I have been thinking about exactly the same questions for the last 9 months now as I was drafting UNDP’s new Knowledge Management Strategy for the upcoming years. Here’s a passage which captures UNDPs own dilemma regarding knowledge products:

The current process of knowledge product definition, development, dissemination and measurement does not yield the quality, reach and impact that is needed for UNDP to be a thought leader in development.” The Strategy goes on to stress that UNDP intends to revise its process of planning, developing, and disseminating knowledge products in a way that makes them “more easily accessible, more relevant to clients’ needs, more accountable towards the community they seek to engage, more flexible and timely in their development and format, and more measurable in their quality and impact.”

Format matters

A lot of contributors to the debate, such as the commenters of the respective Washington Post article, the DevPolicy Blog, Crisscrossed or my KM colleagues from the KM4dev network highlight how we have to get much smarter in developing formats that actually appeal to an audience that is increasingly passing on lengthy unappealing reports and paper. And there is a lot of truth to this. Colleagues at UNDP are increasingly learning that short and snappy products, such as blog posts, 2-pagers or infographics will allow communicating important key points from their work to a larger audience and also more just-in-time. Compared with heavy research reports which take months and years to finalize, the advantage of light-weight formats is that they allow for adjusting content quickly as new data and evidence emerges, which makes the product more relevant and timely the moment it is distributed.

The launch of a paper cannot be the end of the project

Ian Thorpe (who arguably came up with the most crisp blog title in the debate so far ;) also makes an excellent point in clarifying that we have to invest much more in dissemination and outreach. All too often the launch of a product is declared the successful end of a research project, when in fact, this should be just the starting point of a whole new phase where we reach out to potential audiences through all possible traditional and social media channels, organize webinars and on-site events to raise awareness of the knowledge product and its key points, and inject ourselves into ongoing debates where our product can add real value. Budgets for development of knowledge products leave this part of the process chronically underfunded, and we as KM practitioners need to make a point that a dissemination and public engagement strategy has to be an integral part of any knowledge production process.

The real issue is the lack of community feedback loops

But while clear abstracts, interesting illustrations, good formatting and focused outreach will go a long way in mitigating the “too long; didn’t read” (TL;DR) problem, my personal belief is that we must pay much more attention to where the problem of unread knowledge products starts: at inception. The Complexia blog nails it when it points out that there is a “lack of demand-driven research” in which “research projects tend to be more driven by the interest of individual researchers”.

How can it be that organizations give authors green light for the development of papers and reports for which they haven’t done any preliminary analysis of what the targeted community needs and whether the product to be developed is likely to find an audience? How is it possible that we can go through an entire cycle of a product production process without probing with the relevant communities of practitioners outside our organizations whether the questions we ask and the conclusions we draw resonate with the audience that is supposed to benefit from them? And not just once in a peer review when the product is almost finished, but at every step, from inception to formulation of research questions, outline and early drafts?

It is clear to me that we need to get rid of our internal navel-gazing posture and get much better at involving the relevant communities much earlier in the process, and at much more frequent intervals than we do today. This is not rocket science, as such ongoing feedback loops can be achieved through regular blog posts about work in progress, a targeted e-discussion at an early stage, and frequent participation in external online fora to vet ideas. But it requires that authors start seeing themselves not as isolated writers, but as facilitators of a larger debate who are tasked to feed the essence of that debate into their product. Authors who make a living of the actual impact of their publications understand this, as you can see from countless books of business advisors and speakers. Authors who are just hired to deliver a product for an organization by a certain deadline (often without even being credited for it) don’t have that incentive.

Are we at international organizations ready to change this? What can we do to turn this pattern around and start thinking about the relevance of knowledge product from the users’ perspective?