When Mahamoudou Sawadogo joined the Volta Basin Development Challenge (VBDC) of the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) as a Project Officer tasked with communication and knowledge management activities, he knew that there would be a lot of challenges to overcome. However, having not been there from the start, and with little documentation or monitoring and evaluation of previous efforts, he didn’t know exactly what to do.
As the program came to a close at the end of 2013, he told the story of the ‘river of life’ of communications and knowledge management in the Volta—how knowledge management (KM) and communications supported the research-for-development program in its activities and achievements—at a workshop held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in December 2013.
So what did this ‘river of life’ look like?
One thing that characterized the river of life of communications and knowledge management in the VBDC was a continuous and concerted effort to better understand and plan impactful communications.
One of the first tasks Sawadogo undertook in his role was a communications audit. This audit involved finding all program and project communication plans that had been developed and analysing these based on a few key criteria:
- Target groups to be reached;
- Communication goals to be achieved;
- Communication activities to be carried out;
- Communication tools to be used; and
- Resources available and needed for communication.
The next step was to map out all of the communication tools and channels that were expressed in those plans against functions and target audiences-especially whether it was for internal or external purposes. It was found that most project teams planned to develop a website for making relevant information broadly available, a wiki for sharing data and information internally, and a central database for storing and sharing information and data. Knowing this meant that it could now be better coordinated.
One general observation from the audit was the strong focus on publications and printed outputs, with less focus in the project plans on more interactive forms of communication through social media or audio visual media (radio, TV, etc.). And although face to face engagement mechanisms were part of project research processes, there was little in the project plans about how to support this. In a partnership-oriented program these were gaps that would need to be addressed.
Another key result of the audit was that availability of staff time to carry out their communication plans and budget allocations ranged widely across projects. This meant that strong skills and coordination efforts in KM and communications would have to be deployed in order to meet expectations.
With the valuable information and new understanding about communication across the program revealed by the audit and validated at the VBDC inception workshop, a strategic communication plan could then be elaborated for the VBDC. This is where the ‘river’ started to change.
Based on the results of the audit, a new bilingual (English & French) website was developed for the VBDC in 2011. It became an example of a major achievement along the ‘river of life’ for the VBDC. Through monitoring of website statistics the team watched a remarkable increase in traffic. By the end of 2011 there were 478 unique visitors, which quickly jumped to 8,476 in 2012 and skyrocketed to 46,128 in 2013, with statistics for the number of visits and overall hits showing equally impressive increases.
But not satisfied with this win alone and fuelled by its continuous quest for how to better inform their own communication efforts, the VBDC communications team looked further at the statistics available on the website. Data on the top ten countries of origin of visitors to the website were analyzed to see if that yielded any meaningful information about the current or potential impact of this communication channel.
In 2012, a reflection and planning workshop on effective communication presented yet another opportunity to ensure that communications were being done in the best way to support the program and its goals. It is a further illustration of how the communication efforts of the VBDC have been characterized by a constant search for assessment tools that can be used to draw meaningful information to improve communication efforts.
What else did they learn along the way?
One of the major lessons learned along the ‘river of life’ of the project is that KM and communications are resource intensive in terms of skills, time and money. The audit revealed that time and budget allocations were inadequate in most projects.
In looking back over its own ‘river of life’ the VBDC communications team identified that general lack of capacity in communications for research-for-development prevented projects from moving forward at times. It also highlighted the fact that a lot of valuable communication efforts are, and should be, carried out by researchers as well as communication professionals. The VBDC recommends using incentives, such as inclusion in performance evaluations, to support this researcher-led communication. The VBDC also recommends that a more comprehensive assessment tool be developed or applied to assess the effectiveness of communication products and tools, especially online tools, as they are used in a research-for-development context.
Reaching the end of the river
So does this mean the end of the river of life of the VBDC and its communication efforts? According to Sawadogo it is just another bend in the river. Most of the VBDC key research outputs will be handed over to the Volta Basin Authority (VBA) with key scientific results and data available to regional players in the water sector through the VBA Geoportal and the TAGMI decision-support tool. It is expected that VBA will carry on with dissemination of the VBDC research results in 2014 and beyond.
- Volta Basin Development Challenge website
- Volta Basin Development Challenge Results and Stories
- Communication in the Volta Basin: A workshop brick in the wall of collective research for development
- Demystifying Monitoring and Evaluation
Blog piece written by Nadia Manning-Thomas (Independent Consultant) who was the facilitator of the CPWF KM and Communications River of Life workshop, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in December 2013, based on a ‘river of life’ presentation given by Mahamoudou Sawadogo (VBDC).