There was a distinct buzz in the air immediately following the dialog session (Finally, a CGIAR Reform Initiative with Legs) between the CGIAR Transition Management Team (TMT) and the group of communication specialists attending the second day of the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop in Penang, Malaysia. A shift in perceptions had been brought about by the open, straightforward discussions that had just taken place.

Susan MacMillan

Susan MacMillan

Susan MacMillan, Head of Public Awareness, ILRI, was not alone in thinking that the candor of the TMT was refreshing. For the first time, she felt there was a distinct possibility that the communication specialists would be able to contribute to the CGIAR change process.

As she said after the dialog, “It always pays to be more straightforward, because you’ll get people’s engagement. The four TMT members said it the way it really is. For example, we heard them say that, yes, the CGIAR change process has been donor-driven.

“When people are straight in their speaking, I find myself trusting them. When people push information at me first, I find it hard to keep listening to them because I have no relationship with them. I would advise the TMT members not to be afraid to tell the truth, but to be themselves and honest about negative aspects of the change process. That will engender our trust.”

This one has legs

Part of Susan’s optimism has to do with some of the things said by TMT member Jonathan Wadsworth, who brings a donor perspective to the Team.

“Jonathan said the reason this reform initiative is different from previous CGIAR reforms is because it has legs,” she explained. “That bit of exciting news – that this change process, unlike former ones in the CGIAR, is going to go to the very end of the change process – has been missing in the CGIAR Change Management newsletter, blog, website and in messages from CGIAR Chair Kathy Sierra.

“In person, these are obviously honest, forthright, committed and intelligent men. But those engaging qualities are not yet reflected in their written communications about the change process. I would like to see more of their personalities and ideas featured in future communications by and about the TMT. I’m actually interested in what they have to say.”

The personal touch

Susan feels that face-to-face meetings are necessary to gain the trust of CGIAR staff.

“With about 10,000 people spread across the CGIAR Centers, real-time meetings with everyone would be impossible, but we mustn’t discount the effectiveness of such interactions,” she said. “For example, I first heard Ren Wang speak when he delivered an 8-minute talk to my Center’s entire assembly of staff. Although I was impressed with what he had to say and how he said it, his message wouldn’t have had the same impact conveyed in a blog or a newsletter. Perhaps we could communicate messages using videos.

“Even during today’s dialog session there were three things brought up that weren’t mentioned in the change strategy or any of the change management communications: change is necessary to keep our jobs; there’s a lack of efficiency in the System; and there’s a lack of leadership that’s palpable. None of this would have surfaced without a face-to-face meeting.”

The need for leadership

“If we don’t know the reasons behind change, if they haven’t been articulated, we can’t even begin to work on a message. We need leaders to tell us how things really are and give us their message for us to work on. Jonathan Wadsworth and his team, who seem to have an appetite for the way it really is and to have the natural ability to tell it like it is, make great spokespeople.”

Want to find out what was cooking at the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop in Penang, Malaysia?

Below, you can find out the ingredients that went into this four-day event. Read what the Transition Management Team had to say; what the CGIAR Communications Heads had to say; what the CIO had to say; what one of the facilitators had to say; and much more …

Then you can have your say, simply by leaving a comment or two.

Yammer Like a Twit

The Rise and Fall of Future Harvest – An Interview with Ruth Raymond

What Gets our Communications Leaders Excited?

Pictures Tell the Story

Finally, a CGIAR Reform Initiative with Legs

Giving the Sleeping Giant a Voice – An Interview with Klaus von Grebmer

A Collective Slam Dunk – An Interview with Nathan Russell

All You Have to Do Is Expose Yourself … So said Enrica Porcari

Fiona Chandler: Waiting for the Next Dance

Of Brick Bats and Kudos – An Interview with Simone Staiger-Rivas

What the participants are saying …

What the Transition Management Team is saying …

Spider Diagrams: CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop Evaluation

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.”

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!