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.
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?
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…