FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCES FROM AN IT COMPANY’S R&D TEAM
Written by Elisabetta Delponte
I have always thought of communication as a bridge between people and their different experiences, providing the means to reach a common objective together. When we focus on communication in the R&D context (commonly known as Science Communication or SCI-COMMS), we face the multiple challenges of presenting sometimes complex topics, to specific audiences with different needs:
- R&D members: they’re our researchers, developers and academics partners for project development.
- Other departments: they’re our colleagues in the business and sales units.
- The wider audience: this group includes customers and industrial stakeholders.
If we were to locate these audiences within a SCI-COMMS triangle, you can see how even with different roles and objectives, the audiences are still connected. However, for each target our communication has a different tone of voice to appropriately engage the stakeholder and pursue specific objectives. Within the next paragraphs I am sharing some practices I experienced first-hand in the last few years working in Konica Minolta Digital Services R&D.
ENGAGING WITH R&D MEMBERS: FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
Let’s meet the researchers and developers from Konica Minolta Digital Services R&D: most of them are coming from an academic background. Data is their bread and butter, and in some cases they have the experience of writing papers for a scientific journal. They love to dig into technological details, with some of them focusing as Data Scientists, and others working in robotics or computer vision. Several have a passion for coding, and their main information sources are GitHub, Bitbucket or SourceForge. In our teams we also have Design Researchers, and their perspectives are always providing valuable insights when we need to interact with customers.
What’s the most difficult part when asking a scientist to communicate? Having them speak in simple words, and supporting them in highlighting the most relevant points. When we involve our colleagues from R&D to take part in some science communication activities, we try to focus immediately on the core values of a solution, trying to highlight the most innovative or the technological elements of the service under development. It is always great to leverage the expert’s knowledge and experience, to identify brilliant and engaging stories that could be presented to our audiences.
It’s also important to remind them to inject some empathy and emotions into what they share, because sometimes data doesn’t speak for itself. R&D members are active stakeholders in the content creation and communications: as content is king, we appreciate that our members are the owners of the content and they’re encouraged to share it throughout the organisation. This is one element at the basis of the creation of a company with a culture of content.
LET’S TALK BUSINESS: ENGAGING WITH COLLEAGUES
At the second vertex of our triangle of communication, we find other departments: within this group there are colleagues from across business divisions. Some of them work in sales, others belong to business units and they can be considered as our first clients: we need to make them interested in what R&D is developing. Engaging our colleagues is of utmost importance, as they can become our ambassadors and start sharing our innovative solutions within the whole company. Another important role of our colleagues is that of igniting the engagement with new partners, identifying new use cases with customers, and publicising R&D results to their network.
With this audience group, the main objective for communication is that of translating scientific and technical concepts into words that business people appreciate. Therefore, the focus should be on values: the most important information for marketing and business units is how an innovation will contribute to adding value to a customer, what benefits will be derived by a client adopting a new solution, and how the brand awareness will increase. That’s a whole set of directions that R&D members rarely consider in their daily work.
A good practice we established within Konica Minolta Digital Services R&D are Innovation Days within our local organisations. Bringing a group of colleagues and customers around a table (in some cases a virtual one), and sharing with them technological developments and possible services or solutions, have proven to be successful events. It is mainly by listening to their needs that it is possible to bridge from development to use cases actively solving our stakeholders’ problems.
THE BIG STAGE: BALANCING EMOTIONS AND DATA
A similar approach is valid also for the target group we have on the third vertex of the triangle: the wider audience. Within this group we have new and existing customers of our company: some of them are closely working with us, others know us only for a subset of our products and services, and some have been loyal to the brand for years.
However, when using SCI-COMMS in a corporate context towards a wider audience, emotions should come after the rule of being simple, precise and concrete. In other words, storytelling should be wisely used in the scientific context, as data should be presented in an informative and representative way, rather than with persuasion and gimmickry. As highlighted in an old and controversial Nature article, and especially for scientific journalism, credibility is maybe the greatest value. And that’s why it’s important to be well prepared, consistent, clear and mindful of the potential impact of the communication.
Thinking about potential impacts, however, it is also important to remember that anyway emotions will play a fundamental role when presenting a topic to someone who’s not an expert in the field. In other words, our listener will perceive our message through a filter consisting of their personal knowledge and emotional context. Being aware of this phenomenon, known as the Curse of knowledge, a good practice of technical or scientific communication should convey a message that is built on a balanced mix of facts, data and things that matter to the audience.
For instance, videos are a great media to engage people, stimulate awareness and generate interest. Tech Stories, developed by the Italian Area Science Park, offer a good example of a mini docuseries that focus on scientific concepts. The fil rouge of these stories is the passion of researchers that bring forward their research to have social impact, technological development and progress.
SCI-COMMS, PANDEMIC AND THE PUBLIC
Finally, in the last year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve all seen how science communication is critical and how relevant is engaging people to make them acting in conscious ways. In one of his recent talks, Stuart G. Higgins who is a scientist and the producer of the podcast ‘Scientists not the Science’, reflects on what the pandemic changed in the approaches to Public Engagement of Science and Technology (PEST). Of course, with all face-to-face events cancelled, also scientists identified new ways to reach their audience, and the constraints derived from this situation forced them to new thinking and stimulated their creativity. For instance, this video about Covid-19 vaccine by Anna Blakney got 2.5 million views on TikTok.
However, the core message is still the same, and it aligns with what I think is the main objective of science communication in the corporate context, or with the issue of customer centricity for an AI project: focus on the needs of your audience. Listen to your customers before you start talking, and build your activities on the values that will make your job meaningful and impactful for them.