MIND THE GAP: Lessons from the TTI PEC Africa Workshop

TTIPEC2 My dad went through this crazy phase where he randomly used to say ‘mind the gap’ then laugh. Being rather young during this odd period, I never really paid much attention to it, something about baby boomers and generation x… couldn’t really keep up so I totally ignored it. Then as I grew a little older I started to see this was something plastered all over train stations so I made the logical conclusion that my dad had fallen through the gap at a train station somewhere. Okay, maybe not, but in all seriousness I never really gave much thought to the idea of gaps… until last week.

While attending the TTI PEC Africa Workshop in Nairobi Kenya, the gap suddenly became very apparent to me. Sitting with a group of middle aged women who have spent years trying to improve development communication across Africa, I was struck by how these intelligent women were so aware of the gaps in our field. There was a richness in their dialogue that I think we may have lost in this age of 140 character tweets.

TTIPECLet me try and contextualise this for you, someone casually mentioned how their teenage years were spent waiting down the street at a phone booth for their ‘mate’ to call them so that they could talk for hours even though they had spent the day together at school. I was very amused by this, laughing endlessly at the inconvenience of waiting at the red phone booth at the end of the street for a chat, but it was brought to my attention that my generation is not much different, being unable to live without a cell phone signal and going to all ends of the earth to get one if unavailable. It suddenly struck me that although the manner in which we communicate may have evolved our desire to communicate with one another remains the same.

This got me thinking about some of the work we do, trying to help researchers in Africa to increase their capacity for policy engagement and communication. Instead of approaching it from the point of view of saying “our ways are newer and better why don’t you use them?,” I needed to be mindful of the gap. We need to understand that our desire to be effective is the same; however, we may be approaching it from different points of the gap. I needed to understand where some of these researchers and communication personnel were coming from and how best to help them make the transition from the red booth to the endless text messaging that is whatsapp.

So I came up with a list of three gaps to watch out for when engaging with workshop participants especially around social media and ‘innovative’ communication.

1. The Generational Gap

The generational gap is the easiest to visualise. Some of the people we engage with don’t understand the need for endless self promotion. They were born in a generation where networking was largely done face-to-face and your success was not quantified by the number of people who follow you or like your Facebook page. The emphasis was on the quality of the interaction, and although this is still at the heart of good communication, we need to be mindful about focusing on the elements that they can identify with, a good message that can reach more people, not only to promote themselves but to contribute to global learning.

2. The Digital Gap

Although great strides have been taken in connecting Africa with the rest of the world it is important to remember that there are still significant data constraints for the average person. A simple Skype call uses more bandwidth than the average person has available, so be sure to be sensitive to this when introducing new tools of engagement.

3. The Skills Gap

So as strange as this may sound to some people, setting up email alerts is not obvious to everyone. Some people have very basic computer skills. What may seem simple and obvious to some is not as obvious to everyone. Yes, to some people the # is symbolic of the word ‘number’ therefore they do not understand why these hashtags should be trending on Twitter. Basics are important.

The list of gaps is actually quite long and this is by no means exhaustive but I have found this is a useful way to begin to conceptualise how best to engage with our various clients, once you are aware of the gap, it is much easier to be mindful of it and navigate it successfully.

Find out more about the work we do for the Think Tank Initiative Policy Engagement and Communication (TTIPEC) Programme on the Research to Action TTIPEC Dialogue page.

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