What did you Say? (NGOs and Internal Communication in a Technologically Driven World)

January 27, 2011

Last month I wrote about the importance of communication loops to effective internal decision making. Systematizing effective communication is hard within any organization (especially in an era of ‘information overload), but it is especially important and challenging for geographically spread or culturally diverse organizations.  The more stakeholders involved and the more diverse (including geographically spread) they are, the more effort that must be put into effective communication vehicles to avoid misunderstandings.  In the daily rush, it’s easy to overlook that communication must be two-way.   This post primarily addresses the challenge of international NGOs, but much will apply to other organizations as well.

With the increased use of information and communication technologies (ICT) based communication in international NGOs, there is an added acute problem of information overload. Huge amounts of information is being sent electronically every day, but there can be too little structure to sift out what is relevant for learning to take place in the organization, and time and space created for busy practitioners to read and process available ‘lessons learned’ information. An additional challenge is to have structured systems that allow for a filtering and a free flow of  information that is deemed ‘important’ for everyone throughout the organization, while remaining flexible in responding to changing circumstances and allowing local units the ability to respond to their local needs.

Management guru Peter Drucker wrote in a 1999 Atlantic article that ‘What we call the Information Revolution is actually a Knowledge Revolution. What has made it possible to routinize processes is not the machinery; the computer is only the trigger. Software is the reorganization of traditional work, based on centuries of experience, through the application of knowledge, and especially of systematic, logical analysis. The key is not electronics; it is cognitive science.’

How do we balance the use of new technologies with the realities “on the ground”, dealing with many different individuals (and cognitive processes), especially when an organization’s operations are far-flung?

1.      Leadership commitment to being a learning organization –  Information is only as good as the human ability to use it.  There are a number of steps here that all require organizational follow-through and commitment.  They include: Conceptual (what does it mean to our organization to be a learning organization with a commitment to communicating with each other and externally so that ‘lessons learned’ can be shared and put to good use?); Resources (what time and money needs to be devoted to developing our internal systems, with input from different users throughout the organization?); and most important Implementation and Sustaining our systems (How do we ensure that they are used and modified periodically as appropriate, staying flexible to changing realities).

2.      Developing systems that provide some useful structure, while staying flexible – Naoki Suzuki, in his book, Inside NGOs: Managing Conflicts Between Headquarters and Field Offices writes about the challenge of developing systems that both provide some consistency among different parts of the organization while maintaining some flexibility for the local staff.  Part of the challenge with internal organizational communication, when you have very different perspectives among the stakeholders, is finding common ground to understand, appreciate and plan for  differences.  Suzuki suggests that much of what can make this difficult balance successful is focusing on developing strong relationships throughout the organization and staff centered policies. His book was written in the late 1990’s but this dilemma remains and has only become more complicated in some ways by technological options that can work to put barriers in the way of these discussions if not used effectively.  One way to break down artificial barriers is for organizations to make opportunities for their headquarters staff to “get out in the field” and for their field staff to spend time in headquarters.  It builds important human relationships and broadens perspectives.  We better appreciate what we can experience ourselves.

3.      Keeping communication as a two way street, being cognizant of what may or may not work in different parts of the organization –  Cynan Houghton, a capacity building coordinator  in a international NGO notes that  email can kill knowledge management (KM) and continuity of program management, but email is also  an inescapable field tool. Ergo, knowledge management approaches must come to email, rather than trying in vain to get field staff to use fancy/heavy applications.  His full post on this: Email KM Killer or KM Salvation.

Linda Raftree in her recent post on ICTs notes: “Organizations that want to integrate ICTs in their work need to plan ahead and  strengthen their staff capacity on the ground…Digital technology is only one way to innovate, and technology needs to be seen as one tool in the information and communication toolbox. For example, SMS might be just one communication channel among many options that are laid out in a project or program, and the most appropriate channels (which might also include face-to-face, paper, community bulletin board, phone calls, etc.) need to be chosen based on a local situation analysis and end-user input. Full post: Incorporating ICTs into Proposals

As much as we as an international community talk about the importance of good communication systems, and the changing realities in a very technological world, we still have a long way to go in the sharing of what we are learning.  There is still far too much ‘recreating the wheel’.  There is an increasing amount of good practical information and “tips” being shared in the ‘blogosphere’ but it is fleeting and ‘good practices’ are usually not easy to access when you need them.  There is a wonderful knowledge sharing site that has been started by a number of UN agencies – Knowledge Sharing Toolkit –  but it would be great to see more movement in this direction.