ICM and knowledge management (KM) are often characterised as having three components: People, Processes and Technology (de Brun, 2005). The rapid development of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has sometimes resulted in ICM being seen as a largely technical issue, but in practice it is the people component of ICM that is the most important, supported by processes and technology.
Human beings are naturally communicative, but in the work environment and in the context of promoting research and technology transfer and development, a number of factors can inhibit communication and knowledge sharing. Several of these factors are learnt behaviours. Education systems often perpetuate a knowledge hierarchy in which it is assumed that those with more education know most, and therefore the knowledge of those with less education can be ignored. This creates gaps in innovation systems, and results in scientists failing to appreciate either the knowledge or needs of the very people their research is meant to benefit.
Education systems also tend to promote competition rather than cooperation, a culture that is perpetuated in the work place where performance is often assessed and rewarded on an individual level. In these circumstances knowledge and information are best retained rather than shared, although paradoxically this may be detrimental to the organisation as a whole. Similarly, competition and mistrust between actor groups in the agricultural sector or any domain can limit communication and exchange of information, again creating gaps.
Policies and strategies are therefore needed that encourage individuals and organisations who comprise the innovation system to realign their communication behaviour. Strong leadership is required, particularly in science and technology and research and education institutes, to set the example, by providing appropriate incentives and rewards for knowledge sharing, and facilitating a culture of communication and knowledge sharing.
ICM processes range from the creation, collection and storage of information and knowledge through to its sharing and application. Here it is useful to think about the central process of communication and what it means in different situations. At its simplest, communication involves transfer of information from one party to another. In seeking to apply the results of agricultural research, this level of communication corresponds to the 'pipeline' model or view of innovation, in which scientists are the main innovators, and the new knowledge must then be transmitted to those who are to use it, such as via extension systems to farmers. This one-way flow, widely used in both print and digital media (journals, books, websites, CDs etc) is appropriate for disseminating information to wide audiences, but is often ineffective at promoting adoption of new agricultural technology (Clark, 2002).
Communication is deepened when there is trust and a two-way flow of information, or a dialogue. This increases the opportunity for mutual understanding, and is common within the research community among peers, both informally and in 'communication events' such as conferences. However, often it does not extend beyond peer to peer discourse, and dialogue between different groups of actors in agricultural innovation systems is less common. Multi-stakeholder events and on-farm research are two approaches which seem to provide opportunity for improving the dialogue among actors.
It can be argued that the most effective form of communication occurs when information is not only exchanged, but acted on collaboratively (e.g. Braun et al. 2000). It has been said that communication and participation are two sides of the same coin (Ramirez & Quarry, 2004). Approaches such as farmer field schools have shown that the use of participatory methods in research priority setting and technology development can be much more effective than traditional, supply-led research and development. Yet there have been reports that some farmers perceive this to be not genuine participation but a strategy for researchers to pay lip service to participatory research. There is much scope for the scaling up and out of best practices so that they become part of organisational culture, but this requires changes in personal and organisational behaviour particularly at the interface between research institutions and other stakeholders. These are not easily achieved.
An advantage of participatory approaches to communication is that there is much greater opportunity for individual and collective learning, including learning from successes and failures. Learning is a key process in ICM, and joint reflection on continuing or completed activities, such as through participatory monitoring and evaluation or after action review is extremely valuable, though implementation at more than a superficial level is not always straightforward. Outcome mapping developed at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is one approach (Earl et al., 2001), but it must be built into programmes from the planning stage to be most useful.
ICM processes are influenced by the policy environment. An important area which deserves attention is that of intellectual property (IP). Where there is little or no protection of IP, communication and knowledge sharing will be inhibited. Individuals and organisations need to know that their IP is protected, and feel confident that the policies and legislation are effective (For more information, click here).
Many processes in ICM can be enhanced through the use of ICTs, but it must be remembered that ICTs can do little themselves to change the attitudes of people and organisations towards ICM. Thus in developing ICM and KM strategies, the people and the processes must be considered first. In the past some initiatives have failed because they have mistakenly focused on the application of technology.
Nevertheless, ICTs do offer many new opportunities to enhance and expand communication and knowledge sharing. The internet provides a new world of possibilities, but in many ACP countries it is mobile telephony that has found the widest use, for example in providing access to agricultural market information for rural communities. Hand held devices will increasingly provide access to the internet, though internet access in ACP countries is still very limited in comparison to developed countries. This emphasizes the need for technology to be used appropriately, depending on the needs and capacities of the people and processes in a particular situation. Perhaps, ACP researchers need to rethink their communication strategy and place more emphasis on disseminating information via mobile telephones.
One of the opportunities provided by ICTs is the ability to store and access huge volumes of information, such as through CD or other storage media. However, it is estimated that as much as 80% of knowledge is 'tacit', or held within the individual, and so is not available to conventional approaches for information storage and retrieval. Thus ICTs that promote collaborative working and direct interaction between people may yet be their greatest contribution to ICM, again emphasizing the primary importance of people rather than technology in ICM.
Countries and organisations that want to promote communication and innovation need policies that facilitate the acquisition and use of ICTs; the more affordable ICTs become, the more widely they will be used.
Information and communication management strategies are critical to the effective functioning of innovation systems, and must be seen as an integral part of research and development rather than an add-on activity. Modern ICTs provide many opportunities, but it is the processes and the people supported by enabling policies, that will determine the extent to which information and knowledge are created, shared and applied in ways that stimulate innovation in agriculture and lead to social and economic development.
By Roger Day, Director CABI Africa Regional Centre, Nairobi, Kenya
Braun, A.R., Thiele, G. and Fernandez, M. (2000). Farmer field schools and local agricultural research committees: complementary platforms for integrated decision making in sustainable agriculture. Agriculture Research and Extension Network Paper 105, ODI, London, UK.
Clark, N. (2002). Innovation systems, institutional change and the new knowledge market: implications for third world agricultural development. Economics of Innov. New Tech. 11, 353-368
De Brun, C. (2005). ABC of Knowledge Management. (Click here for online information)
Drucker, P.F. (1995). The Post-Capitalist Executive. In Managing in a Time of Great Change. Penguin, New York.
Earl, S., Carden, F. and Smutylo, T. (2001). Outcome mapping: Building learning and reflection into development programs. (Click here for online information)
Ramirez, R. and Quarry, W. (2004). Communication for development: a medium for innovation in natural resource management. IDRC and FAO.