Simone Staiger-Rivas

Simone Staiger-Rivas

Simone Staiger-Rivas has an intensity about her that leaves a mark on almost everything she does. She knows nothing about half measures or being just good enough. At least, not when it comes to her work. And once again, this knowledge sharing exponent was in top form as she went about her business helping to facilitate the recent CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop in Penang, Malaysia.

The event, which brought together communications experts from almost every corner of the CGIAR System, took place a few short weeks after many of the same participants had taken part in a two-week online workshop, which Simone also helped organize.

“While I was helping to prepare and design the Penang meeting with Nathan Russell (CIMMYT) and Laura Ivers (CGIAR Secretariat), I thought it would be a good idea to organize a workshop on social media for the participants,” she said. “I thought it would be especially interesting for this particular group, because social media is not something that many of them use strategically enough. It was great to get the CGIAR Secretariat’s green light, and most of the participants who made it to Penang took part in the online event. Over the two weeks, the participants were exposed to social media tools like wikis, blogs, Twitter, Yammer, etc.”

Simone had also hoped to examine the different ways in which social media can contribute to the new CGIAR.

“Unfortunately, we ran out of time,” she said. “I think the participants wanted to learn more about the CGIAR change initiative before coming to any conclusion about the role that social media could play in a revitalized System, and understandably so.”

The feedback from the online event was mostly positive, and thus it was a buoyant Simone who arrived in Penang, eager to meet the participants face-to-face again.

“Over the two years that I’ve been involved in the ICT-KM Program’s Knowledge Sharing Project, I’ve met almost all the participants at some workshop or another,” she said. “So it was great to meet up with them again.”

Simone used a number of different workshop dynamics in Penang: River of Life to review the past and prepare for the future; Samoan Circle to reflect on communications in the new CGIAR; Card Sorting to prepare the matrix for the 2009 work plan; Spider diagram to evaluate the workshop; and a speed Open Space to share with and learn from colleagues. A popular lunchtime session was Simone’s demonstration of Twitter and Yammer (Yammer like a Twit). The communication specialists were duly impressed, to the extent that the group immediately created their own space on Yammer.


The positive feedback from the Penang event was overwhelming: Here are just a few of the comments: “The best workshop with this group in 20 years,” said one participant. “It was fantastic. I am full of ideas,” said another. “The different session formats along with the facilitation helped us to achieve an enormous amount of things,” said yet another.

Another notable testimony to Simone’s skills as a facilitator came after the first day of the workshop, when one of the participants announced that the facilitation approaches used had enabled him to achieve more in one day than he would normally achieve in a week.

When this feedback was relayed to Simone, she simply smiled.

“Although I appreciate positive feedback just as much as the next person, because it tells me I’m on the right track, I’m  no stranger to negative comments,” she said later. “Over the years, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of skeptics – people who have scoffed at my knowledge sharing techniques and written them off as childish nonsense. Nonetheless, I still believe in what I do.”

Come to think of it, Simone probably deserves a few kudos just for hanging on in there.

Fiona Chandler

Fiona Chandler

When Fiona Chandler arrived in Penang, Malaysia, to attend the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Even after the first dialog session between the Transition Management Team (TMT) and the group of CGIAR communicators had taken place, she felt a clear relationship had yet to be established between the two groups.

The ICT-KM Program caught up with Fiona, the Scientific Liaison Officer for the Alliance Office, shortly after the second dialog session to see if her opinion had changed.

“After that first meeting, it still wasn’t clear how the two parties were going to work with each other,” she said. “But something must have happened overnight, because this morning when they came together for the second session, the communication folks were meaningfully interacting with the TMT. I think people had time to think about the first session overnight and realized the opportunities available to them.

“The group acknowledged that the TMT, which is guiding the CGIAR change initiative, had made time to listen to them, an indication that the group’s input mattered. The communicators also had a choice to make. They could have responded by whining about things that didn’t go well, but instead they took advantage of the opportunity to talk to the TMT in a very strong, purposeful, confident, dynamic way. In return, the TMT gave them good, solid information that they can use. I think it helped that the group had time to reflect on the first dialog session, both as a group and as individuals. We can all benefit from distilled thinking. I was very proud of what I saw today.”

Good stuff
“The TMT was also more than impressed by the communicators,” said Fiona. “When Stephen Hall (DG WorldFish) says ‘that’s good stuff,’ you can guarantee that it is, indeed, ‘good stuff’. When the TMT pushed on certain things, they were rewarded with thoughtful answers, showing that the communicators had really been thinking about their possible role in the change process. This is great for a community who only yesterday said they were lacking leadership, voice, and profile. Suddenly, they’re taking leadership and they’re giving informed, significant comments into the change process. It was a huge switch.”

Getting the job done
Bringing the geographically dispersed communicators together to work on the change process will not be without its challenges, but Fiona thinks the group will rise to the occasion.

“If there’s any group in the CGIAR that can do this work virtually, it’s this one,” she said. “Not only do they really know how to communicate, but they also have the necessary experience and skills to make a difference. Also, with the backing of the TMT, freeing up Center Communicators workloads shouldn’t be a problem.”

One dance doesn’t make a relationship
“Although both parties obviously feel that they are much further ahead than they had been before they met, the dialog still needs to be sustained and good information still needs to come through when it’s needed for the transition process,” said Fiona. “It will be interesting to see how things evolve.”

The workshop was only the beginning hopefully to more communication and exchange among the CG colleagues – thank you for bringing us closer togetherquote from a workshop participant

In-between all this important and exciting traffic on our blog, I am coming back to our social media online workshop to share the results of the participants evaluation.
15 of the 30 participants replied to the survey, which seems like the maximum you can get in those days of evaluation overload. 😉

The workshop was rated excellent by 57% and good by 36%.

Here is a summary of the workshop evaluation:

  • 73% of participants say that after participating in this workshop they have increased their understanding of social media principles and tools?
  • Usefulness of each activity and discussion focus: The lively welcome and introduction session was very useful for 64%. All participants found the tools exploration or very useful (50%) or useful (50%).  The suggested discussion on the opportunities of social media for the new CGIAR didn’t fully kick off, maybe because the 2-week workshop was really short. Only 36% found it useful. The teleconferences and the discussion summaries were useful for those who participated or looked into it.
  • Wikis, Blogs, RSS feeds, Photo-,Video-, and Slide Sharing as well as social networking sites (i.e. facebook) are the social media tools that most participants already use. After the workshop the following tools triggered interest:  Micro Blogging, the use of social media for organisational web sites, social reporting, social media listening and social media for new e-newsletters, as well as social media strategy M&E.
  • Participants found the Moodle platform good in terms of ease of use, connectivity, look and feel, and structure.
  • 65% scored facilitation excellent, 29% good.
  • For the majority (85%) the size of the group was just right. The interaction with other participants could be better: 50% found it good, 36% average.
  • Half of the participants state that they did make useful contacts during the workshop.

ICT-KM is currently thinking about offering two more social media workshops for the larger community, including researchers, partners, and development practitioners. This time the workshop would be 3-week long to respond to the mayor suggestion for improvement: Give more time for the tools exploration.

Stay tuned….

Nathan Russell

Nathan Russell

When the ICT-KM Program caught up with Nathan Russell, Senior Communications Officer, CIMMYT, immediately after the CGIAR communications group had concluded its second dialog session with the Transition Management Team (TMT) in Penang, Malaysia, he was in a celebratory mood.

“The outcome was really fantastic,” said Nathan, referring to the meetings with the TMT during the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop. “A number of important things happened during the first dialog: a group of people who felt largely cynical of the CGIAR change process met the people behind that process face-to-face, had a chance to have a conversation with them, and came away thinking, ‘Well, maybe this process is more important than we thought it was. Maybe it has a better chance of succeeding than we realized. These are pretty smart, well-meaning, committed people, and we think we can trust them to do the best possible job to make this change happen.'”

However, it is patently clear to Nathan and his peers that the TMT needs help with its communications.

As he explained: “A set of messages came out of a meeting in February this year that were, frankly, a source of great concern. This workshop has enabled us to meet the real people behind those messages. And we came away with, as Susan MacMillan (ILRI) put it, a sense that the TMT members are ready for primetime in terms of their personalities, but not in terms of their messaging. I think they now know that they’ve got a valuable resource, a group of professional communications people in the Centers who understand their predicament and who are willing to help them, at their disposal. I feel they respect the professional advice we’ve given them. So I think that was a great outcome.”

Walking a tightrope

As one of the workshop organizers, Nathan knew from the outset that the dialog sessions would need careful planning.

“From the time we began organizing this meeting, Laura Ivers, Simone Staiger-Rivas, I and others realized that it was going to be a balancing act,” he said. “On the one hand, we had some strategic communications issues versus some very specific communications business that needs to be done. And on the other hand, we had the urgent and immediate communications needs of the TMT versus the just as urgent communications needs of the entire CGIAR and the Centers that these communication specialists work for. I think we have struck a balance so far. We’ve addressed all those things in equal measure. As for the TMT, they were royally pleased with what they got out of this. And they were glad that we were able to deal with their business, our business and also the broader business of communications in the CGIAR. We’re not done yet, but we’re on the right track. It’s a good start.”

The feel-good factor

After the communication specialists had said goodbye to the TMT at the end of the second dialog session, the collective excitement in the room was palpable. Nathan puts the group’s success down to team work.

“It was certainly a group effort,” he said. “There was no star player who did a slam dunk of some sort. It was the collective body of advice from the communication people that did it. Personally, I feel pretty good. I really didn’t know what we were walking into before this workshop. I knew that we wanted to discuss a lot of issues that are somewhat sensitive, about which people feel strongly. Some people felt angry about the way those issues had been handled in the past. And I’m pleased that, despite the risks involved, the whole mood and flow of the meeting has been positive.

A group with no name

Despite the fact that the one mechanism that had enabled the communication specialist to act collectively (the Marketing Group) has been debilitated in recent years, the group is optimistic about their collective future.

“One of the reasons some of us are here, myself included, is to revive the Marketing Group,” explained Nathan. “Some people think that it’s a corpse. Others think it’s in a coma. And yet others think it’s just stepped out for a while; it’s in exile but it’s coming back. I would like to see it come back, under some new name, under some new arrangement, but with the essence of it intact. We still have a chance to do that.”

Klaus von Grebmer

Klaus von Grebmer

During the recent CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop in Penang, Malaysia, Klaus von Grebmer, Director of Communications, IFPRI, spoke about the need to implement collective communications activities among the CGIAR Centers. In an interview conducted at the conclusion of the first day of the event, he elaborated further.

“To illustrate my point,” he said, “take the recent food price crisis. The public had three questions during this crisis: What is happening? Why is it happening? What can be done to mitigate the effects or ensure that it does not happen again? IFPRI responded quickly and effectively to this situation and was also able to coordinate with some other Centers to get certain key messages out to the public, but the task was really too big for this core group alone.”

Although the key messages were available and accessible to everyone in the CGIAR System, Klaus does wonder if they couldn’t have gained even more mileage if all the Centers had pooled resources and amplified these messages in their respective regions and from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

“If there is an expert organization on agriculture in this world, it’s clearly the CGIAR,” he said. “It needs to coordinate and pool its resources on occasions like this one to provide clear messages and respond quickly to questions from the public.”

Focus on the System
A System-wide communications strategy would also require staff to be more outward-looking.

“Currently, only a few Centers seem to care about the reputation of the CGIAR,” explained Klaus. “If you want to promote the System, then you have to promote System activities and System media events. If you are too Center-focused, then the System suffers. This was something I also experienced when I chaired the Marketing Group. I saw a discrepancy between authority, responsibility, and accountability. Some communications colleagues didn’t deliver on collaborative work because they felt they would be acknowledged more for the work they did for their own Centers than for the work they did for the System.”

Still, Klaus feels the new CGIAR has an opportunity to address the current lack of a collective communications strategy.

“Presently, the Transition Management Team responsible for revitalizing the CGIAR is mostly focusing on the development of content, such as the mega programs,” he said. “This is natural and very important, but the next area of focus must be on a System-wide communications strategy. You can have the best research in the world, but if the results are not communicated to the right audience, they will not have any impact. It is negligence to invest in research without appropriate investments in communications. If the System wants to enhance and maintain its leadership role in agricultural research, it is vital for it to communicate its research effectively to its key stakeholders, and also to its donors.”

From the length and breadth of the CGIAR they came, communication experts eager to be reunited as a group and keen to examine collective possibilities together. Despite their obvious enthusiasm, though, many of them admitted to a certain cynicism about another item on their agenda: a dialog session with the Transition Management Team (TMT) charged with overseeing the revitalization of the CGIAR . Such was the mood as day two of the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop began in Penang, Malaysia.

All of the core members of the TMT were present at the meeting: Stephen Hall (CGIAR Alliance Executive Chair, Director General, WorldFish Center), Mark Holderness (Executive Director, Global Forum for Agricultural Research), Jonathan Wadsworth (Senior Agriculture Research Advisor, Department for International Development, UK), and Ren Wang (CGIAR Director).

Ren Wang got things underway with a brief overview of the strategic objectives of the new CGIAR. Then Ellen Wilson, Burness Communications, kicked off the Q&A session by asking the first question.

Who asked for this reform?
Jonathon Wadsworth: The call for change in the CGIAR was largely driven by a shift among key members of the donor community who feel that the CGIAR could and should do more but that the complexity of the current System undermines efficiency and effectiveness. Indeed, under the present System, donors are not harmonized and long-term funding is not guaranteed. Although the two previous CGIAR attempts at reform failed, the new change initiative is tackling these issues head on.

Ellen Wilson: “Is this a more profound reform, then?”

Jonathan Wadsworth: “It is the first one with legs. The other reforms were very academic and looked good on paper, but there was no real systematic follow-through.”

The floor was then turned over to the participants. The following are some of the questions and answers from that session:

What’s being eliminated from the old (present) CGIAR?
Jonathan Wadsworth: Some things in the present CGIAR will be replaced to make the System more efficient. The component parts that make up the CGIAR won’t necessarily change, but how they fit together will. Also, the way in which the CGIAR functions as a System needs to be streamlined and clearly defined.

Stephen Hall: There’s a leadership vacuum in the CGIAR: the whole notion of strategic leadership is missing. It’s not yet known exactly how the 15 Centers will fit together into a collective whole, but what is known is that by working together there will be less individual scrounging around for resources in the future.

Ren Wang: We are still developing the Consortium and don’t have all the answers. The ultimate goal of this reform or change is not to reduce the number of Centers, it’s to improve the competence of the System. The number of committees will be reduced; the reporting process for M&E will be more harmonized; and the accountability framework of the Fund and the System will be simplified.

What are the major risk factors that could possibly derail the change process?
Stephen Hall: Establishing the centralized Fund, a process that could affect cash flow at the Centers, obviously involves a certain amount of risk. However, the TMT is working to develop plans for the transition to ensure funding will not be disrupted while the new CGIAR becomes fully functional.

Scientists are not onboard, because the reform is not clear. How will they get their research funds?
Stephen Hall: We don’t even know the answer to that ourselves yet. We do know that we will ensure their work is not negatively affected by the transition and that a driver for the reform is to build a well-resourced and exciting research agenda that attracts and retains the best scientists in the world. As this becomes clearer and the reform changes start having a tangible impact on the research agenda, scientists will certainly be brought onboard.

What’s the partners’ take on the reform initiative?
Mark Holderness: The key risk is “business as usual.” Partners are not satisfied with the CGIAR’s impact or value when it comes to meeting partner demands. There are other players emerging, such as those in Brazil, India, and China, who are enabling national development outcomes. The CGIAR needs to recognize that there is a bigger game going on out there and it needs to be player. Partners want to see a CGIAR that is more open and more partnership-based; a System that focuses on development outcomes and not just technological fixes and research outcomes.

Are donors still behind the CGIAR despite the Financial Crisis?
Stephen Hall: The donors are expecting the CGIAR to change and if there isn’t change, regardless of a Financial Crisis, there may be some donors who will reconsider their funding position.

Jonathan Wadsworth: Several donors are sending out positive funding signs. During the Food Price Crisis before the Financial Crisis, world leaders committed to funding agriculture and doubling funding for the CGIAR. Meeting this ambitious target might be difficult during the Financial Crisis and may take longer, but CGIAR change is critical to strengthen the inflow of resources.

Won’t a more centralized structure stifle initiatives/research and create more bureaucracy?
Stephen Hall: Yes, if it’s not done well. But it’s not likely – that’s why we need leadership.

What about the role of communications in the new CGIAR?
Jonathan Wadsworth: Although the CGIAR has orphaned communications in some respects, people are increasingly aware of the crucial role it can play. At DfID, we’re doubling our spending on research across the board, with 20% allocated for communications.

Mark Holderness: The CGIAR has great potential for communicating what needs to be done and changed. Right now, communications are fragmented because most activities are carried out Center by Center. So we need to have a message on the role of international agricultural research – and there are some very important messages that need to go out. Let’s think big, otherwise, it’s not just the CGIAR that won’t get investments. The knee- jerk reaction to the Food Crisis has been seed and fertilizers, with not much focus on long-term needs.

Stephen Hall: When we talk about “the voice of the Consortium,” we are referring to communications.

What messages should we take to the Centers?
Stephen Hall: There’s a continuum or spectrum of expectation at the CGIAR Centers: there’s a wide range of people, some who care more and some who have interest in only specific aspects of the transition. We need communicators to help us figure out how to handle this divide.

We need to give real power to communications. It’s also okay to have doubts and not know everything.
Stephen Hall: We need a professional strategy for communications.

Jonathan Wadsworth: There seem to be issues with information sharing and communications across the System, with some information not flowing freely into Centers, which seem to be a bit Stone Age. The blockages to free access to information must be addressed.

Will WorldFish become a CGIAR office in Penang?
Stephen Hall: In terms of legal structure, it’s likely that WorldFish will continue as is. The Consortium will be “owned” by the Centers and be a single corporation driven by the Centers. It can be expected that the Center Boards will remain intact and the Directors General will likely go unchanged. Ideas on other structural changes will be considered later in the process, if appropriate.

Mark Holderness: Over time, the purpose of the Centers must be driven by their respective benefits, and we need to see how effective these institutions are. Centers need to be managed so they deliver according to their individual purposes.

At the end of the session, the participants came away with other questions that were in need of answers. Check back here to read one of the participant’s thoughts on this session, and find out what happened during a follow-up dialog the next day!

Day one of the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop kicked off in earnest in Penang, Malaysia, with a history lesson of sorts. Chronicling the joint efforts of CGIAR communication specialists over the last two decades, Collective Communications in the CGIAR: A short history of a longstanding effort elicited a lively discussion among participants, some of whom were around when the Public Awareness Association (PAA) was established way back in 1988.

Ruth Raymond

Ruth Raymond

Ruth Raymond, Head of Public Awareness Unit, Bioversity International, recalls the early days of the Association and its role with Future Harvest.

“The PAA supported an attempt to rebrand the CGIAR System,” she explains. “It established a small office in the CGIAR Secretariat that was tasked with promoting the work of the Centers under the new brand of Future Harvest. As a result, each of the Centers became a Future Harvest Center. For example, IRRI became known as ‘IRRI, a Future Harvest Center’. Although we kept the formal acronym of the CGIAR, the Centers were promoted collectively under the new brand.”

As the Chair of the PAA from 1998 to 2002, Ruth was active during the establishment of the Marketing Group, which succeeded the PAA.

“In 2002, the PAA merged with the Resource Mobilization Network (RMN) to become the Marketing Group,” she says. “This arose from a recognition that the resource mobilization people and the communications people needed to collaborate and coordinate their efforts since the activities are (or should be) dependent on each other. So the PAA and RMN started meeting together during the annual CGIAR meetings. Then we had a big meeting in Annapolis in 2001, where we decided that we would merge the two groups and become the Marketing Group.”

The rise
At the time the Marketing Group was created, there was a good relationship between Future Harvest and the CGIAR Centers.

“Future Harvest was helping the Centers get their stories into the media” explains Ruth. “The Centers were working together on a lot of different projects and often attended major international conferences representing the System. Although this did not discourage individual Centers from promoting their own roles, it told the outside world that we were a system: an alliance of scientists working together to support agriculture research for the benefit of the people. We appreciated the association with Future Harvest: the name is easy to remember and has a certain ring to it, unlike the alphabet soup of Centre acronyms.”

The fall
Although Future Harvest was successful in raising awareness of the Centers’ work, the initiative was to be short-lived

”For a time, Future Harvest had strong support throughout the System. Certainly, the communications specialists in the Centers appreciated the support they received from the initiative. But the overall support seems to have been more personal than institutional and it was questioned by new donors and managers coming into the System who had not been involved in the design and development of the new brand. Many donors identified closely with the CGIAR brand. Also, there was a feeling that Future Harvest should have led to additional resources coming into the System following its success at awareness raising. We were probably overly optimistic about how quickly that would happen.”

With support ebbing, it was only a matter of time before Future Harvest was forced to close down operations. The apparent lack of support for collective action under Future Harvest led the Marketing Group to lose its way, and some Centers didn’t see the benefit anymore of being part of the Group, so they backed out altogether.

“It was heartbreaking for those of us who had worked for years to try to get Future Harvest and the Marketing Group up and running,” Ruth says of that time. “The resource mobilization people never really integrated themselves with the communications people and vice-versa. Despite the obvious link between the two areas, coordination is still lacking in many Centers. In some cases, they are still in different silos and don’t talk to each other nearly enough. It’s not a fight that’s easy to win.”

The future
“There is formally a Marketing Group, but other than sharing information and experiences on a listserv, we really don’t do anything much together anymore. I hope that as a result of this workshop we can come to some sort of an agreement on how collective communications will work in the future, because I feel there are real benefits from working together.”