Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Devcom Mindset


Professor Emeritus Dr. Felix Librero, PhD
University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU)

Keynote address delivered at the International Symposium on Development Communication, Indonesian Development Communication Forum, Bogor Agricultural University, Bogor, Indonesia, 30-31 October 2013.


The theme of this symposium is “development communication for sustainable development of rural community,” which is rather interesting and intriguing at the same time.  Interesting because the development of rural communities is always a dynamic enterprise, and intriguing because until today  we still talk about the concept of sustainable development, both from the point of view of development communication.

My focus in this address, however, is limited to the issue of devcom mindset, but I wish to articulate this issue through two questions, namely:  are we ready for a devcom mindset?  or is devcom mindset even necessary?  Let me articulate my points and then I will let you decide for yourselves.

In December 2011, UPLB Professor Emeritus Nora Quebral delivered a lecture on development communication at the London School of Economics, where she was awarded an honorary degree for her achievements in  development communication.  Her lecture was essentially a summary of the e-Book titled Development Communication Primer that was released in Penang, Malaysia by Southbound Publishing Company in January 2012.  This Primer contains both Professor Quebral’s definitions of development communication in 1971 and in 2011, four decades apart. 

In 1971, Professor Quebral said development communication was the “art and science of human communication applied to the speedy transformation of a country and the mass of its people from poverty to a dynamic state of economic growth that makes possible greater social equality and the larger fulfillment of the human potential” (Quebral, 1971).  In December 2011, she said development communication was the “science of human communication linked to the transitioning of communities from poverty in all its forms to a dynamic, overall growth that fosters equity and the unfolding of individual potential” (Quebral, 2012).

These definitions are not drastically dissimilar.  Perhaps the fine distinction between the two might be that in the new definition the unit of measure, as it were, is the individual, as in “individual potential,” while in the old definition the unit of measure was “humanity” as in the catch phrase “human potential,” which definitely was much more difficult to measure.  Besides, in the new definition there appears to be a stronger and more definite role and function of communication in the process of achieving social development because “communication is linked” to the process of development, while in the old definition communication was merely “applied” to the transformation of society.

These two definitions refer to possible measures that would indicate a communication action to be development communication or otherwise.  However, it is not as if a focus on a variable identified to be part of the development communication process no longer appears in mass communication or corporate communication activities and efforts.

What this is telling us is that the definition of development communication could change, as it has many times in the last four decades, usually depending on who the definer might be, or the context in which the definition is anchored.  But, as a concept, development communication has not changed.  If anything, it has strengthened as an academic discipline.  The definition, in spite of what appears to be some differences, minor as they are, actually remains necessary because that is what definitions are for, as anchor for everybody to maintain their moorings to the concept.  What does change is the manner in which the individual constructs the meaning  he or she attaches to it and its processes, which become the basis for the development of a mindset.  For example, in the early years of devcom, I personally considered devcom as a vocation, some kind of a calling.  I still do, and I have, in fact, stuck to that mooring much more deeply as I have learned to view development phenomena from a more personal perspective.

In the decade of the sixties, development meant economic development.  Then, beginning in the seventies and on to the eighties the social and even spiritual dimensions were added to the equation.  From the largely economic development orientation in the sixties, devcom practitioners in the succeeding decades became increasingly concerned with total human development.  It was during this transformation that I internalized at least a little bit more confidently what devcom was, given the totality of my own experience and exposure to human conditions under varying circumstances that I did not experience earlier on. 

During the first decade after the introduction of devcom, I was preoccupied with economic development issues as a direct result of experience and was a bit detached from the realities of other social and psychological dimensions of the human development agenda during that time. This influenced my own personal concept of what communication could do as a variable in the development equation.

Concept of a Devcom Mindset

Now, I am beginning to look at devcom as communication mindset rather than a mere variable in the development equation.  I happen to believe that the guidepost for a development communicator is a process of trying to reach the level of mental preparedness, readiness, and willingness to pursue with single-minded confidence and commitment the achievement, through the use of communication, of a human development purpose or end-goal.  It is a mental state that predetermines how we might respond to and interpret a situation in order to be better prepared to pursue it through various means of communication. 

In other words, we must be willing and prepared to pursue people’s development, whatever it takes.  That phrase “whatever it takes”, however, must be tempered with creativity and rationality.  You don’t just plunge without a clear understanding of the problems you are committed to help solve and a clear defensible course of action to take.  You do things deliberately based largely on a scientific understanding of the problem situation. 

For me personally, it has come to a point where when I look at an activity I get that feeling of connection where I can say “this is a devcom situation” or “this is not a devcom situation.”  The first time the idea of devcom being mindset crossed my mind was in 2007 when I was speaking before participants of an international seminar on development communication at Kasetsart University in Bangkok (Librero, 2008).  At that time I had considered devcom as mindset at a very crude stage. 

I am now trying to look at it as a comprehensive psychological state that still defies a formal definition, but a situation heavily influenced by what has been accepted as the definition of development communication.  It is a situation wherein one just knows when he or she is doing development communication work.  It’s a situation wherein you do things practically automatically without bothering about definitions.  When you consciously go by definitions and sets of criteria in the business of the human development enterprise, you tend to do things more mechanically, which does mean you may be less sincere and, therefore, less effective in the ultimate analysis.

Understanding the Communication Contagion

The Concept of Contagion

Moving towards achieving a devcom mindset means that we need to gain a clearer understanding of what I have referred to as the communication contagion. 

The term contagion is used to refer to the explanation of the attitude and behaviour of network members in the fields of  interpersonal communication, organizational communication, mass media, communication and information technology, health communication, language theories and linguistics, media culture and society, public relations, advertising, marketing, consumer behaviour and such other similar fields of study.  The fundamental assumption of the concept of contagion is that contact is provided by communication networks that serve as mechanisms or conduits to expose people and organizations to information and messages that affect behaviour (Burt, 1993; Contractor and Eisenberg, 1993).  As a result of this exposure to this network, it is assumed that members would develop beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and behaviour similar to those networks to which they belong (Carley & Kaufer,  1993).

Contagion theory, therefore,  seeks to uncover the relationships among organizational members of the network.  The significance of this relationship is that all members of the organization, the network if you will, are presumed to have similar levels of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours.  Under this condition, members of the communication organization or network would tend to influence one another into demonstrating similar levels of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour.

Applying this conceptual framework to a communication situation, I propose that when we communicate a specific message, there is always a focus for the communication act which is a product of the interaction among the major strategies of communication, of which  we are not always mindful.  This communication contagion is the influential interaction among different communication strategies that I expounded upon during a training session at ADB in October 2011 (Librero, 2012).  I referred to this situation as the development communication, mass communication, and corporate communication contagion, which is to say that devcom, masscom, and corcom are three major communication strategies that I have in mind. 

I refer to mass communication as generally focused on informing and entertaining the audience.  I view mass communication as having evolved through the practice of propaganda that further evolved into public opinion and public relations, which eventually influenced the development of the study of advertising.  Mass communication essentially evolved from the practice of journalism and advertising.

I refer to corporate communication as generally focused on informing and convincing its audience – the stakeholders of the organization concerned.  It evolved from public relations.

I refer to development communication as generally focused on informing and educating its audience.  Its roots may be traced back to agricultural journalism, educational communication technology, and advertising.

I don’t know if those who particularly are not enamored with mass communication should be happy, but from the point of view of a growing number of mass communication experts in North America and even in the Philippines, there now appears to be a crossing over from masscom to media communication or mediacom.   For now, mass communication is still very much around and I would like to refer to it as part of what I call the D-C-M contagion (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  The Devcom-Corcom-Masscom (D-C-M) Contagion.

Corcom and Devcom have become independent of and more purposive than Masscom
Masscom is slowly being overtaken by Mediacom.
The broken lines indicate “direction of influence”
Everything operates within the ambit of human communication
Diagram indicates only the mediated aspects of human communication as they relate to Masscom, Corcom, and Devcom

The fundamental parameter for this model is that the over-all purpose of communication is to achieve the end-goal of the specific communication strategy.
The mention of these three communication strategies (masscom, corcom, devcom), is not incidental but by design.  Each of masscom, corcom, and devcom has its own definition and follows specific sets of processes and procedures in order to achieve specific purposes.  However, features, characteristics, procedures, processes, tools, and even general measurements of success are not mutually exclusive among these three.  It is more of a zero-sum game: when you highlight devcom, you would correspondingly lessen references to masscom and corcom; when you highlight corporate communication, you correspondingly lessen references to masscom and devcom; and when you highlight focus on masscom, you correspondingly lessen references to devcom and corcom.   That is what the contagion is about.

Blurring of the Boundaries

These various focuses are governed largely by the initial intention of the communication act.  This communication contagion refers to the situation whereby each of masscom, corcom, and devcom interact with and influence one another in order to achieve the end-goal of the communication act, or the communication strategy’s end-goals.  In the past, we have been clearly emphatic in our efforts to pursue specific intentions for mass communication, or corporate communication, or development communication.  Today, that seems no longer the case.

While we can always initially say that we will do development communication, for example, in actual practice we would be employing the methods and tools that are also methods and tools of both masscom and corcom.  The result is a blurring of the boundaries among the three strategies.  They are differentiated mainly by the context in which they are undertaken, but they use similar procedures and similar tools, using similar measures of success or failure.  The difference lies mainly in the focus of intention or context. 

In order to facilitate the achievement of the objectives of, say, devcom, the communicator could use entertainment as one of the techniques of making content more palatable to and enjoyable for the target audience.  The same thing happens in the case of corporate communication or mass communication.

The purpose of pointing this out is to clarify to ourselves that what we are  doing  we may call development communication, but we ought to be aware that some if not all of the techniques and procedures that we might be employing are techniques and procedures that we also share with other strategies of communication.  In other words, these are not mutually exclusive.  We call our communication action devcom perhaps because our dominant intention is to educate our clientele (see communication contagion) rather than because of the tools we use.

Need for Systems Thinking to Achieve Devcom Mindset

There is, however, a powerful concept that could easily galvanize the concept of devcom mindset, and I refer to this as systems thinking.  Systems thinking, according to Peter Senge (1990), is a “conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that have been developed over the last fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.”  

We may have varied ways of looking at things and would, therefore, work out mentally our individual approaches to certain phenomena.  In the process of doing this, we go by our training and even gut feel, which would include but not limited to becoming generally reductionist in our perspective.  We may have become used to thinking linearly all the time such that any time we deal with a problematic situation our approach would generally be linear.  Indeed, when the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to look at problems as nails.  Systems thinking is a powerful perspective, which includes a set of tools that one can use in addressing stubborn problems in life (Pegasus Communication, n.d.).  It encourages you to “step back and see the whole picture, rather than focusing on just its parts” (Lyneis, 1995).  In other words, systems thinking helps us explore the interdependencies among the elements of a system in order to uncover patterns rather than simply memorizing isolated facts.

In a simpler way, systems thinking refers to our ability to understand and explain the causal interrelationships of various entities affecting our focus of interest.  When this becomes second nature to us, then we tend to look at problems in their more complex nature thereby enabling us to see significant events that are not always easy to see.

As we talk of development communication, therefore, we become more interested in understanding the elements of development itself and the elements of effective human communication and how these affect one another.

When we gain a higher level of understanding of systems theory and systems thinking, we come to a point where we appreciate much better the focus of our concern that is development communication and the manner in which it influences as well as being influenced by a whole lot of seemingly unrelated factors and circumstances.  On second look, of course, these have both direct and indirect relationships.  For example, the manner in which beneficiaries view development efforts in their community influences the way in which communicators shall formulate a plan to promote said development efforts in the same community.  In other words, in a simple one-on-one relationship, we can say that each influences the other.  When there are multiple variables, however, such as in cases where there are multiple development programs and multiple sets of beneficiaries, each one affecting the other, then we must be able to develop in our minds a quick picture of these vast network of relationships.  The way I look at it, we should be able to generate in our minds a clear picture of how factors associated with the problem situation and determine how these factors interact, and what those interactions  could result in.  We should, as a consequence, immediately be able to generate a quick communication reaction plan to deal with the second generation situation.  Naturally, under these circumstances, we should, at the same time, arrive quickly at potential effects of our communication actions so that we could also generate some kind of plan to respond to such reactions.  This is what happens when we have developed some mastery of systems thinking.

Concluding Statement

I wish to encourage everybody to refer back to the communication contagion.  There is more here than simply meets the eye.  We need to do more serious clarification and explanation of the blurring boundaries of the various communication strategies.

Today, we find ourselves confronted with a situation where the boundaries between general communication approaches have become blurred.  Increasingly, these boundaries are becoming unclear mainly because these communication approaches or strategies are now using the same tools and procedures to achieve practically similar end-goals.  The newer technologies of communication are making this happen quickly, but I would hasten to add that this phenomenon becomes much more easily understood if we look at it from the lens of systems thinking. 

This, I would like to leave with you to sink your teeth in.  We need to clarify these blurring boundaries.  However, if we can not, would that mean we would be converging on the single concept of the human communication enterprise where there would no longer be any differentiation between mass communication, development communication, corporate communication, and the like?  Would this be a preferred state of affairs among communicators?



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