During the recent World Congress of Agroforestry (WCA2009) in Nairobi, Kenya, the Congress reporting team plunged headlong into social media in a bid to maximize the event’s communications, which was achieved via the Congress blog, the @icraf Twitter account, pictures on Flickr and bookmarks on Del.icio.us.

Much energy and care went into the blog, which the team used for reporting on keynote sessions, announcing presentations and updates as they became available, highlighting the main articles published in the media and in other blogs about the Congress, and publishing the occasional opinion piece on what was being discussed in the sessions.

It was a challenge having to set up a reporting process in a few days, especially since there was so much more going on during the Congress, but the energy and motivation of the people involved helped with this unprecedented task.

However, the real challenge was getting started on Twitter. First, we had to get the team organized into ‘shifts’. We were lucky to have two volunteers joining us, enabling us to cover the keynote sessions. Second, we tried to keep an eye on how word was spreading about the Congress themes and speakers. And that’s when we found another ‘twitterer’ who was sharing info bits containing the Congress’ WCA2009 hashtag.

Curious and excited, Vanessa Meadu (ICRAF) and I tracked down our fellow twitterer and discovered it was Tom Vandenbosch, Programme Coordinator in the Training Unit at ICRAF. A scientist on Twitter? Yes. And much more, as you’ll find out from the following conversation we had with him.

Tom Vandenbosch (ICRAF)

Tom Vandenbosch (ICRAF)

[Antonella – AP]. Tom, who did you have in mind when you were tweeting from the WCA?
[Tom – TV].
Nobody in particular, because I have a few followers. It was more about taking notes and bookmarking interesting things for myself.

[AP]. How long have you been on Twitter?
[TV].
I haven’t had my personal account for a long time. I’m doing a PhD in e-learning, and as part of my studies, I have been testing many social media tools under different names.

[AP]. Did you follow the @icraf tweets?
[TV].
Yes, I followed them from the sessions. But honestly, I think it was overwhelming to have a sort of play-by-play report of what was being presented. Just the key facts emerging from the sessions would have been okay. People are following so many Twitter accounts, so it’s a bit of overloading. On another front, it helped me discover that it’s possible to have RSS feeds for hashtag searches on Twitter, so you can follow the conversations on a given topic with a RSS reader as well. Moreover, I think it’s good that we have the Twitter account labelled ICRAF, it’s short and handy to quote in re-tweets and replies.

[AP]. Do you think that tweets from the various sessions added any value to your Congress experience?
[TV].
It added a lot of value, especially because there were many things going on at the same time. They made it possible me to follow the sessions that I couldn’t attend. The next time Twitter is used for ICRAF events, there will hopefully be more followers and less irrelevant tweets. For example, a tweet like “#WCA2009 Noordwijk leaves the podium to a round of applause following a lovely sing-song!” is not very relevant to a person who is not at the event. Tweets should be used sparingly to avoid flooding followers’ Twitter streams. Potential followers will automatically be attracted to Twitter accounts that tweet high quality information, since this information can be re-tweeted by others. On the other hand, ICRAF might considerr promoting its Twitter account more widely in order to get more followers.

[AP]
. Have you been to other conferences where people were on Twitter?
[TV].
I attended one in FAO last June, where some participants were posting to Twitter but not in a systematic way. But FAO now tweets from a number of interesting accounts, including faonews for news releases and related coverage, and FAOWFD for World Food Day.

[AP]. Do you have colleagues at ICRAF or other institutions who are bloggers and twitterers?
[TV].
Besides Vanessa, who blogs at ASB (Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins) and PRESA (Pro-poor Rewards for Environmental Services in Africa), there are some others, but I don’t know if they’re real staff, students or interns. These blogs usually contain personal stories.

[AP]. Would you recommend your colleagues at ICRAF to get engaged with social media?
[TV].
Definitely. There’s a lot of value in Web 2.0 tools, but I think we’re over-creating new blogs and Twitter accounts, instead of consolidating what we have already, including our presence on other high-impact blogs.  It would be better to liaise and engage with those who are already out there, the same way you want to be on high-impact research journals. To give you an extreme example, if Britney Spears were tweeting about trees on farms, that would be excellent. She has more than 3 million followers on Twitter now, while ICRAF has about 100.

Vanessa Meadu (ICRAF)

Vanessa Meadu (ICRAF)

[Vanessa – VM]. ASB has contributed to a new blog, the Rural Climate Exchange, where the CGIAR is bringing together the Climate Change and Agriculture initiatives from across the System. Most of the content is developed by professional writers working closely with communications staff in the Centers. This type of collaboration, especially on such a high-profile issue, is bringing a lot of added value with minimal additional cost.

[TV]. When blogs get linked by popular traditional media, they often get a big boost. For example, a blog called Africa Expat Wives Club became one of the most popular blogs in Kenya after being featured in The Times.

[AP]. Do you think that social media have a role in mainstreaming agroforestry research?
[
TV]. Yes, but it is different if we talk about the general public or the scientific community. With the general public, we need to target people on social networks who are interested in receiving information about agroforestry. That’s what my PhD research is all about: me-learning, a new form of e-learning, based on individual requirements, on recommendations based on the user experience history, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. Through cookies or other existing technologies, e-learners can receive learning propositions that suit their interests, experience levels and learning styles.

The role of social media would be different within the scientific community. Scientists tend to have a more traditional approach to publishing, through papers, assessments, journals, etc. And this has an influence on how they perceive the worth of a communications channel. It could possibly take another generation of scientists to start realizing the value of social media for science.

Perhaps it would be easier for them to perceive this value if more projects used these tools to gather data, such as via SMS-based systems. I’m thinking, for example, of an adaptation of Ushahidi for the collection of scientific data from a range of specific locations. Ushahidi is a platform that crowdsources crisis information: people can report incidents via the Web, email and SMS. The reports are then aggregated, geo-referenced, browsable and searchable on the Web.

[VM]. Many projects I’m working on at the moment have a knowledge sharing and communications component built in the design, so this is changing… like with the PRESA, it was a direct request from the donor, IFAD. Impetus is coming from different places, and this could shift research priorities. Many of the scientists I work with understand the value of integrating knowledge into a proposal, with proper funding for it. Hopefully the trend is over, of asking the communications unit to churn out a policy brief at no cost, after the project is already finished.

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I think I’m finally beginning to understand the fear that some organizations grapple with when it comes to blogging. First of all, the nature of blogging itself goes against the grain of any institutional setting. My first job was in a multi-national scientific firm – they expected their staff to project a ‘corporate standard’, from what we said when meeting with clients to the way we dressed – it was all about image! So the idea of an employee writing an article from their perspective, that may or may not reflect the views of the organization must be scary.

Last week, I attended a very interesting session on blogging. This was organized by the FAO knowledge exchange group and facilitated by Gauri Salokhe and Romolo Tassone, this session was aimed at starting discussion at FAO on blogs and their potential to support the work they do. To illustrate the point, several bloggers were invited to discuss how blogs were helping their organizations. The list included Maria Garruccio  of Bioversity International who maintains the library blog, Roxanna Samii of IFAD who has both a personal and official blog, Michael Riggs of FAO who has a personal blog and yours truly, who blogs for the ICT-KM blog site along with at least 5 other colleagues.

For an organization like FAO, this might have looked like collective ambush. But if the staff who attended were keeping an open mind, they would have noticed that the bloggers were responsible, mature individuals who recognized the value of their organizations. The bloggers with personal blogs made a clear distinction between what was private and institutional. They were careful not to represent the voice of the organization.

Roxanna Samii echoed the sentiment of using common sense when dealing with content that may be deemed sensitive. 

For the institutional blogs, Maria, Roxanna and I felt results speak for themselves. The attention the blogs have received show that as a communication medium, institutional blogs are making waves. The ability to measure this impact with statistics (a feature of many blog sites e.g. WordPress) lends credibility. These blogs resonated with people and feedback was encouraging.

The blog content featured may be updates to an event/ activity, but not limited. Maria has been promoting the library and new collections that arrive.  Michael has been using his personal blogs as an avenue for his interests in knowledge management and new technology. I am using the ICT-KM blog site to introduce newcomers to social media – from a non-technical point of view. In short, our blogs have purpose and if they connect with others, it is because of the shared interest.

Used responsibly, blogs become a meeting point for people with similar interests to learn and engage, besides being a great marketing tool for an organization to promote their work. Incidently, here’s an interesting post I read yesterday on why your non-profit organization needs a blog which may help tip the scales for blogging.

Of course, there are challenges aplenty – most apparent TIME. But it was pointed out that time as a constraint does not exist if you are passionate about the topic. Blogging is just another way to get your message across and should not be looked at as an additional burden to your existing workload.

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(photo credit: Microsoft clipart)

The greatest challenge though is the mindset. Whether you’re a part of a large organization like FAO or a small ten-people company, the organizational culture is determined by it. And that is hard to change, though not impossible. Trust plays a big role – Meena says in all naivete. The knowledge exchange team advocating blogs for FAO are embarking on a huge effort, but they’re off to a great start in showing their staff success stories. The proof is in the pudding!   

Till next time…

In the online publishing world, blogs seem to have taken off like wildfire. While the blog may have humble beginnings as a personal journal, it has transformed into a powerful tool for communicating online.  

Not too long ago, research ideas were written in closely guarded notebooks, discussed in hushed tones over coffee and within tight circles. Research collaborators across continents shared ideas via ‘snail’ mail, which may have improved penmanship but probably did not do much for research itself.

The  advent of the Internet and email allowed researchers and academics to learn, share and collaborate, all at a fraction of the time such activities used to take. Beyond the obvious time-saving, researchers gained from a wider network of peers.

Imagine a research scientist working on maize crops or rice varieties in isolated fields in far-flung locations being able to connect with other researchers, academics and even farmers in other parts of the world – people, known or unknown to the scientist as yet. 

While an email exchange connects two or more known individuals, blogging takes communications to a higher level, allowing the researcher to state an idea or question or problem out to a larger landscape of researchers and networks.

Within the CGIAR, researchers are already beginning to see the benefits of blogging. But first, for the uninitiated, what are blogs

 

Blogs consist of a series of regular entries displayed in reverse chronological order. They allow multiple authorship, the integration of several media in one site (photos, video, RSS feeds), and interaction with readers through comments and replies. 

 

With thousands of new blogs launched daily, the so-called blogosphere covers an infinite range of subject matters written by professionals and amateurs alike. There are several blogging software with popular ones being Blogger, Typepad and WordPress

 

Why should an international research organization care about blogging?

 
Blogs are often associated with amateurs and popular culture. Many examples tell a different story, be it social activism (e.g. Global Voices) or raising awareness on global issues (e.g. blogs.worldbank.org).
 
Based on what we see happen on the web, is there a case for blogging in agricultural research?  Let’s consider this:
  • Share and learn as you go. Enrich your ideas and validate your work before finalisation. Intranet blogs are a great avenue for informal knowledge sharing. Knowledge can be shared within a secure environment. Security options can be built-in so that different users have different access rights.
  • Reach out to interested people outside your regular circles. Regular blog posts help to increase readership, as a complement to your newsletter and website.
  • Build your network beyond the usual suspects. Comments allow for greater interaction between authors and readers which over time creates a sense of community.
  • Spread the word about your work. Blogging is direct and current, and can be used to announce newsworthy items much earlier than the time it takes for it to be published in a newsletter or press release. For example, you can share news of your article’s acceptance in a reputed journal, or an award/grant that your work has received. The potential is limitless. Information is shared instantly, and discussion threads can generate tangible knowledge. 
  • Get your name out there even without publications or while preparing a publication (which takes you back to the first point on sharing and learning).

A blog can help you ensure more interaction and increased visibility around your work. And this does start to sound like impact. 

 

How can a blog work to your advantage? 

  • A primary source for news.
    Blogs are ideal for sharing breaking news with a wide audience online; instant reporting on events and conferences. Event updates that get out to people are current and provide personal perspective.
  • Let the human voice be heard.
    Interviews, reviews and commentaries are written by real people, based on first-hand experience. A well-written blog post connects with readers on a personal level, it is the blogger’s personal voice that readers ‘hear’.
  • Project and personal information management.
    Blogs can double as your daily digest of activities and news. Yes, the versatility of blogs can no longer be denied – imagine a one-stop store for your photos, videos, documents and web links; your blog posts with valuable comments/ discussions. And imagine this, every entry has a permanent link and can be searched easily. 
  • Conversations.
    Blogs can be used as the sounding board to debate and voice opinions. Blogs are an avenue for people to step away from conventional communication modes that tend to conform to organizational red tape. Blogs give you a sense of how people think and what is of value to them. Comments to controversial blog posts can be used to gauge reactions and opinions in a less intimidating setting.
  • Knowledge sharing
    Blogging style dictates that authors provide abundant links to additional resources and information. This information is selected, distilled and organized to help elucidate and improve a reader’s understanding of a specific topic. When a reader comments with her own experiences, her own stories, what we have is a charming example of, dare I say…knowledge sharing.
  • Website management.
    Blogging software are content management systems to all effects. You can build a fully-fledged website on this technology. A regular, constant flow of information and exchange would, in this case, be the core of your institutional presence on the web, while still allowing you to manage information that remains stable over time.
  • More traffic = more visibility.
    Search engines crawl (i.e. discover and include results from) sites that are updated frequently and regularly. So in effect, every time you post to your blog, search engines will visit it, boosting your website’s search engine ranking, which is a good thing!
Blogs have the power to help you foster relationships with colleagues, partners, stakeholders, donors, and the community you belong to. And relationships are the much-needed ingredient for effective impact, but only to the extent that they are managed effectively as much as in real life.
 
Which brings us to a discussion thread at the online Social Media Workshop held last month. Simone Staiger-Rivas, ICT-KM, set out to list key elements for effective management of blogs. Here’s her list:
  • Blogs should be updated regularly
  • The tone should not be too formal
  • Ownership: give blogs a personal voice with perspective
  • Link to what other people say or do
  • Answer each comment

I’m not sure if I agree with the last point completely, I’d say answer only if a response is needed for clarification. Your comments on this are welcome.

 

How do we tackle ‘institutional’ blogs?

 

Are you ready to blog?

Are you ready to blog?

If it is all about the human voice and relationships (as well as good, fresh and relevant content), how do we introduce blogging into websites that tend to have a formal, uptight feel? 

 

Readers can immediately sense the distance and lack of personal commitment that come from ‘ghost writers’ and politically-correct writers/ bloggers who use blogs as a channel to give out information that can already be found in websites and newsletters. Interaction not required! 

 

Then, why use blogs?  Blogs have great potential not only to inform but also to challenge perceptions. They can be used to draw out different points of view, commentaries, personal experiences and even, support for your blog post. The blog as a tool empowers people and helps create change. 

 

Nancy White, noted online communication expert and facilitator at the online workshop, stated in the context of institutional blogs:

If leadership wants transparency, in social media, they are going to have to take some personal risks because….people pick up on the ghost writing, the lack of an authentic voice.

 

She questions if they are realistically willing to blog, to be vulnerable and yet confident in their position and voice. 

 

Personally, I started my first blog post in 2005. It was a harrowing experience filled with fear – that my words would represent my stand on a topic or on life itself, that all and sundry would read it and hold me accountable. In short, I was not ready to share my thoughts so I quit with just that one post sitting anonymously in the blogosphere. Until early this year, that is, when I realised that blogging was a great way to share new perspectives and gather feedback. I could post a blog about a particular topic and share it with a wide group of friends and colleagues – mass outreach in a fraction of the time it would normally take if I were to talk to different groups separately. 

 
So, assuming you’ve gotten past the hurdle of not wanting to blog, and you’re now ready and willing, I have paraphrased some of Nancy’s thoughts on creating a zone of blogging comfort for new ‘institutional’ bloggers:
  • Blogs allow several means for communicating your ideas. People who aren’t comfortable with writing may find it easier to record a podcast or a video and post that in their blog with a short summary.
  • When leaders in an organization are asked to blog, a good way to get the juices flowing would be to ask them to ‘tell a story’. It sets a more conversational tone to the blog, cutting out the formal-speak, making it more appealing.
  • Encourage frequent, short updates that aim to keep in touch. This ties in with Simone’s list for effective management of blogs.  
Who’s blogging on agricultural research and development  

And –  of  course – the ICT-KM blog

The list grows daily (if you know of any other interesting blogs, tell us here in the comments). So, check them out. I’m going to subscribe to them via RSS feeds… but that’s another blog post! 

 
Till next time…

 

Resources

Session report from Andrea Pape-Christiansen (ICARDA)

Session Blogging and micro blogging

e-learning room/library 21 Jan, 9:00

Facilitator: Luca Servo

Good technical tips of how to aggregate, search and bookmark blogs and twits

My personal favorite tip: globalvoices.com gives voice to southern bloggers

As part of learning about and trying new tools and approaches to communication, as well as wanting to share with others out there about the workshop- some of the organisers and participants will be blogging on the event- “Maximising Impact of Agricultural Research In Africa: A Workshop on Research Communication” which starts today- October 21st- at UN ECA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The workshop is being organised by IFPRI, WBI, GDN and ICT-KM.

Check out this space for more posts on the event.

Also check out the IAALD blog at http://www.iaald.org/