How can knowledge managers learn from campaigners?
Following an enlightening weekend at the in Bonn, Jessica Sinclair Taylor, Global Communications Assistant at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, responds to the idea of using behavioural science to improve climate communcations, in this blog about the role of 'heuristics' in campaigning and knowledge management.
There tends to be a divide in the climate and development worlds between those who consider themselves information or knowledge sharers and those who term themselves campaigners. To use some rash but meaningful stereotypes, knowledge sharers see campaigners as prone to oversimplifying complexity for the sake of a good catch phrase, and campaigners see knowledge managers as dry and unreactive.
, an independent consultant on effective campaigning, recently drew our attention to ’s research on the role of heuristics in people make decisions. Heuristic decisions are those based on emotional or intuitive processes rather than analysis and reflection on the facts of a situation: when presented with a difficult decision, particularly one I may not understand well, I unconsciously choose the option which is presented to me in the most appealing or attractive way. Political campaigners tap into heuristic processes by fronting their campaigns with a charismatic messenger. Television adverts try to make us believe that their product is the most used by people who are better looking and more well off versions of ourselves.
Putting climate communications on the couch
Rose argues that climate campaigns need a 'psychological makeover', based on heuristic principles: we need to talk less in probabilities and possibilities, which people find hard to engage with or act on, and more in certainties and immediacies, which summon a more instinctive reaction. It's easy to see how this could be true for campaigners – but how could heuristics apply to campaigners’ calmer cousins, knowledge managers? What would a heuristically-savvy climate portal look like, for example? Or a policy brief that worked on our emotional, not analytical, thought patterns?
Kahneman invents a remarkably non-heuristic acronym, WYSIATI, or 'what you see is all there is'. However, the idea applies readily to the climate communicators' website: if your user can't see the depth of information or the range of tools you are providing, then as far as they are concerned they don't exist. Too many climate tools require inside knowledge to make the most of them, or event to find them: knowledge managers are not always great marketeers of their own work. Addressing this, and the proliferation of climate information services across the sector, a collaborative Climate Knowledge Brokers project is creating a , so that users can be directed to the one which most closely meets their needs.
One way in which I think knowledge managers could benefit from heuristic-style communications, at least online, is in how they signpost their users once on their site. They say they want to give users access to as many different kinds of information as possible, but may not hold their hand enough. Perhaps too many knowledge portals leave the user to arrive on their site, become overwhelmed by the options and under the pressure of finding the right piece of information in the available time, decide to try elsewhere. Although all users want clear and trustworthy information, different users will want it in different formats – from the journalist, to the researcher to the policymaker. Tailoring sites to provide different user journeys to these diverse users is one way to address this. Establishing what these formats are is another matter - one another Climate Knowledge Brokers project is approaching through .
Tweets vs tomes
I think there is an underlying tension in building knowledge sites, between the heuristic ease of access we come to expect on the web - simple navigation, quick loading, attractive lay outs - and our subtle prejudices about what authentic and reliable knowledge looks like. Highly educated, as knowledge providers often are, we have come to accept that the search for 'hard' knowledge, or understanding, requires effort and application. That heavy economics tome on your bookshelf which you've never read: not particularly helpful, information-wise, but you probably still trust it more than the one page intro that you read in the Financial Times. Will that unread heavyweight help you make a decision? Probably not (unless it's to buy fewer books you know you won't read). Many knowledge-managers have been slow to adopt tools like Twitter: But it is much easier to have a reflexive, intuitive response to a tweet than a ten-page paper - and those few words could just be the hook that draws an information user to the right set of tools for them.
As Rose points out, human beings have an innate desire to jump to conclusions. Short-cuts, is how Rose describes emotional or heuristic decisions, and short-cuts are to the most useful, comprehensible and trustworthy information are just what knowledge websites hope to provide. I have argued that providing our web users with clearly signposted and personalized rabbit holes into our sites is one way to facilitate this, but first we need a clear, evidence-based understanding of what users’ need are.
Do you agree? How else can knowledge managers learn from campaigners, and vice versa?