Community Engagement: From Knowing to Doing
In Heart Disease Creating Life Expectancy Gap I read:
"We live in a rich sea of knowledge about heart disease, but we are treating patients with high blood pressure on a suboptimal basis," Morosco told the conference.
This is an important insight that has relevance beyond health issues. We do live in the midst of a rich sea of knowledge, yet our ability to engage that knowledge may not be as rich. With respect to the issues described surrounding heart disease, Dr. Gregory Morosco (PhD, MPH, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) captures a critical problem with knowledge in general, that is the difference between having knowledge and being able to communicate and implement practical applications of it.
We often here slogans such as knowledge is power and notions of a knowledge society and knowledge management. While having a certain kind of appeal and perhaps offering a respite from an over-emphasis on information, these ideas seem transitory in nature. Knowledge is important, but it is simply not enough. Dr. Morosco describes a key issue...
"We must create the right incentives for different groups in different localities," he said. "And we must have measurements of how we are doing that are credible, clear, and comparable. ... When people see how they are doing compared to other communities and other nations, they start to ask why. And when people start to ask why, you start to get real action.
I have come prefer the word engagement as a way to describe how knowledge can be leveraged through communication and transitioned into meaningful action. Tamarack's ideas about community engagement and vibrant communities initiatives offer a great deal of insight into effective strategies for knowledge engagement. Tamarack's mission is to reduce poverty in communities, but the core strategies and applications they are using are just as applicable to educators, marketers, brand developers, knowledge managers, chief learning officers, e-Learning designers, health practitioners, and so on.
We can also see this focus on engagement in other areas. For example, through Keith Pezzoli's Frontiers of Regional Ecology we see that his mission is, "Linking Knowledge and Action Through Science, Art and Technology." One of the areas Keith is exploring is sustainable science, which is closely connected to the Forum on Science and Technology for Sustainability: "The Forum on Science and Technology for Sustainability seeks to facilitate information exchange and discussion among the growing and diverse group of individuals, institutions, and networks engaged in the field of science and technology for sustainability. It seeks to provide access to emerging ideas, relevant activities, key documents and web sites."
In Community Engagement: Interaction Design we see another organization that places fundamental importance on engagement:
Engagement goes further than participation and involvement. It involves capturing people’s attention and focusing their efforts on the matter at hand – the subject means something personally to someone who is engaged and is sufficiently important to demand their attention. Engagement implies commitment to a process which has decisions and resulting actions. So it is possible that people may be consulted, participate and even be involved, but not be engaged.
Dr. Morosco's comments in In Heart Disease Creating Life Expectancy Gap reveal the same need for greater engagement in existing knowledge.
In Knowledge Isn't Power decided to write a criticism of what has become for me a vacuous slogan after listening to an inpiring speech given by Stephen Lewis. We need to preserve a contrarian view to phrases that become habits of mind, not as a view to merely criticize and condemn, but as a means to ensure we remain aware of the limitations and perhaps more delusional aspects of them. For example, we can create probes for exploration such as:
- Knowledge isn't power;
- Knowledge cannot be managed; and
- There is no such thing as a knowledge society.
These probes invite us into a thinking process that gives permission to question underlying assumptions in order to find gaps or weaknesses. These gaps or weaknesses in turn become opportunities for growth and development.
Knowledge can become powerful through vibrant communities and engagement. From a design perspective, this means that the designer of a system would place a broad range of interaction (across a comprehensive view of people, places and things) as the most fundamental source of design. Knowledge, of course, remains a critical component of this interactivity, but it is the result of effective design, not the object of it. This was the basic building block of Connected Intelligence Network Learning Environments.
Website designers, especially those in the field of e-Learning, need to make this fundamental shift in their thinking. To do this would mean that the desire to shape content (i.e. - information) by the way of traditional mechanisms like subject disciplines and courses of study (as well as minor additions such as online chat, bulletin boards, and testing) would be replaced by a new assumption - a new source of design. That source might be a comprehensive and holistic view of engagement such as those being described above, or in more traditional design terminology, a broader and more comprehensive view of interactivity - or what website designers might describe as interaction design.
The implications of this shift can be extensive. New questions and possibilities present themselves. For example, a marketer focused on developing a brand identity might first consider how they wish people to be engaged in the product, whether or not they want authentic engagement beyond consumption, and if the brand should be more than the mass marketing of billboards, television commercials, web portals, special interest groups and so on. An educator might first consider what range of people from related areas of expertise can be brought into the learning experience, what other places students need to experience besides a classroom, and how many different kinds of tools and technologies they can leverage to explore the questions at hand.
Of course, all of this opportunity also generates a sense of friction with the exisiting norms. Placing brand identity in the midst of authentic engagement may in fact result in forms of knowledge that may not be desirable from the perspective of profitability. I can imagine that such an approach for pharamaceutical company being risky. Placing curriculum, instruction and assessment in the midst of authentic engagement may present fundamental challenges to exisiting structures of expertise and bureaucracy. The design ideas are easy to imagine, but the practical realities of implementing within existing and well-entrenched structures are formidable. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in design.