When partners set out to achieve Collective Impact and review the five conditions; Continuous Communication can feel like the ‘freebie’ and little to no time is spent on figuring out how to achieve it. Coalitions operate with the mindset that just having more meetings will bring about the type of communication that is necessary in achieving a bigger impact. They invite more people to the table and spend lots of time talking about the issues and create big static documents that can never achieve the traction necessary to motivate and inspire the stakeholders into action. Then they can check off the box for that condition and move on to some of the other areas of Collective Impact that seem harder to achieve.
This blog post will outline 3 ways to be better communicators and bring the tools to the table to manage the information and get more done.
Upgrading from Frequent Meetings of Partners to an Optimized, On-line Collaboration Platform for effective and Continuous Communication
Some successful Collective Impact coalitions were so committed to achieving success (and sufficiently funded) that they were able to pull partners together for frequent large meetings—sometimes twice a month. Those meetings are not ideal for many types of information management. The appropriately-designed strategy management platform can be much more efficient. A strategy management platform is very different from a social media platform. In far too many cases, coalitions launch a Facebook-type platform and believe that this will be the technology that keeps everyone connected. This typically results in a new Website that people rarely visit and get little value from. A strategy management system is entirely different. It is designed from the start to accomplish something, and it should be integrated into a process for intentional collaboration. When properly designed and implemented, an on-line collaboration platform can be a valuable resource that has important information at the fingertips of anyone who cares in a format that they can easily consume or update.
When people have this type of platform for sharing information, they can have fewer meetings but be much better informed. The meetings they do have will be much more productive—because people can arrive having already learned the information they need for high-value discussions. Also, the information, decisions, questions, updates and action items from the meeting can be entered into the on-line platform either during the meeting or immediately after. This efficiently keeps everyone informed—even if they can’t attend all the meetings personally.
Upgrading from Large, Static Documents to a Dynamic, Zoomable On-line Information System
Aside from big meetings, the most common form of Continuous Communication among coalitions attempting to achieve Collective Impact is the document or PowerPoint presentation. With a sufficient budget, these documents and presentations can be beautifully crafted with elegant formatting, photos and charts. There may be concise executive summaries and lengthy documents with even more details in the appendices. But, they share many characteristics that typically keep them on the shelf and not significantly contributing to action and outcomes.
- They are static. Picking up the plan document two months after it was created is not going to provide any updates on what was accomplished or how different organizations helped flesh out details for the ideas that involved their organization.
- They are linear. Readers of the large documents go through the same linear story regardless of whether they are an outsider who is just learning about the initiative or one of the core team members who was deeply involved with each step of the journey. Different people may scan through it with different interests, but there is not the type of dynamic navigation you find in Wikipedia or Google Maps where users easily navigate to the information that is relevant to them and then zoom in to learn more as needed.
- They are not interactive. If you are viewing the report, you can’t just update it, explain more details of the progress your organization made in the past few weeks, or add new data.
The limitations of the output documents are just some of the many shortcomings of typical information management practices of the early stages of Collective Impact. There is often two to four months when people from dozens of organizations are interviewed and meet in groups to share information, discuss topics, envision opportunities and consider obstacles. The vast majority of this potentially valuable information rarely ends up in the final document. If it does, it may be in a long, linear, difficult to navigate appendix that few people ever look into. An ideal practice would efficiently capture that content in a form that can be used and reviewed at any time by the people who need it.
The static reports that are usually delivered at the end of the process of developing a Common Agenda area also just a starting point. They usually are filled with clauses such as:
“Preliminary strategies under consideration to make progress against each outcome are defined in Appendix D. These strategies are drawn from stakeholder interviews and relevant lessons learned from successful national substance abuse collaboratives. They are intended only as a starting point for workgroup discussion, and are not prescriptive. Workgroups are encouraged to use any or none of these strategies, after researching and analyzing data…”
The documents are clear that they are just a starting point for the workgroups. Unfortunately, the workgroups that are supposed to have discussions and move forward are rarely equipped with the information management tools and processes that help them succeed in building on the content in the document.
The alternative to static documents is a dynamic and “zoomable” on-line information management system that supports information as it is being gathered, organized, viewed and updated by different audiences. The information management capabilities of a strategy management system are not designed as an output document, but as an interactive platform that supports each step of the journey. Different audiences with different interests can “zoom in” to view the content they need and not be overwhelmed by other information. Information may exist in the system once but be presented in multiple ways for different audiences—which will be elaborated on in the next upgrade.
There are multiple technologies for creating zoomable dynamic content. Ideally, these technologies should be integrated with the other concepts, like Strategy Maps to create a consistent structure. An on-line system should have templates that simplify the work for the various teams that are working on sub-sets of the strategy. Those templates help provide consistency of structure even though many different teams are working in parallel. A good on-line strategy management should support this type of information management—not just measurement or dashboard.
Upgrading from hand-crafted, customized presentations for each audience to a self-service, presentation-ready on-line platform.
The typical approach to improving Continuous Communication in coalitions attempting to achieve Collective Impact is to have carefully-crafted presentations for each unique audience. Some presentations are crafted to communicate with community leaders or elected officials. Others are geared toward funders or for recruiting new partners. Some presentations or documents are intended for internal reviews or for just answering questions among various participants or stakeholders. Each presentation tends to become another static information island, with the potential for information to change, get out of sync or be inaccurate. The amount of time spent creating the spreadsheets, documents, and presentations can consume a huge amount of staff time (and budget). Because it is so time consuming to prepare for a meeting, the meetings tend to be infrequent, hindering the goal of Continuous Communication.
The upgrade is to have information in an on-line platform that keeps most information in one place, but able to be viewed in many different formats for different users with different levels of detail. The information should not need to be re-crafted into a chart or merely used as a source document for creating a presentation. It should automatically be in formats that are useful for the people who need the information–whether they are checking on their smart phone or using their laptop the night before a meeting. If the wide range of stakeholders can click to view the close-to-real-time information they need in a format that is relevant to them, the efficiency of Continuous Communication is dramatically improved.
The chart below is a conceptual example that illustrates the cost of hand-crafting each presentation versus using presentation-ready on-line tools.
Stay tuned next week when we look at how to have a better Backbone Support and how new techniques can help to start moving the needle and creating the real impact.