When Research Meets Media Production
Published on June 14, 2022 by Kyle Oliver
One of the reasons I felt immediately at home when I came on board at Learning Forte is that our company values of strategic imagination and curious engagement with diversity together set the backdrop for a powerful way of working.
We’re always trying to break down silos. We seek out opportunities for seemingly dissimilar individuals, teams, organizations, and communities to communicate better and learn from each other about how to solve structurally similar problems.
Sometimes you can recognize a silo when a word is supposed to mean different things in different contexts. If you push a bit on the distinctions that different communities take for granted, you might discover those differences are pretty flimsy.
The word that helped me understand this phenomenon was interview.
When I served as the lead curator for the Digital Learning Exhibition at Teacher College, we were very clear that we were working both as researchers and storytellers. Our video interviews served the dual purpose of (1) data sources in a qualitative research project about innovative online and hybrid teaching and (2) source material for a set of short documentary film montages deployed throughout a museum-style gallery to help establish the theme of each exhibit.
The way we created the film montages—choosing relevant clips to illustrate the themes we identified—would be familiar to any qualitative researcher as the process of coding.
In effect, Media and Social Change Lab director Lalitha Vasudevan advised our team to break down the silo that separates modes of conducting research and modes of producing media.
This approach then inspired how I went about the dissertation project that has been the connective tissue in this series of blog posts that has covered the power of storytelling, the challenges of experts teaching novices, and the idea of media affordances.
Chapter 4 of Becoming Tapestry is the culmination of the narrative of my time so far with Team Z and the rest of this faith-adjacent foster youth mentoring ministry. It is also where I complete the work that in a more typically structured research project would have happened in the Methods section near the front of a dissertation or journal article. (But the first rule of media production is “show, don’t tell,” so I had to spread out this work to keep the audience engaged.)
In particular, I draw on the silo-breaking ideas of communication scholars Daniel Makagon and Mark Neumann, who believe that ethnographic researchers and audio-based media producers have a lot more in common than either guild may think. In their book Recording Culture, they argue that making recordings is a form of immersive inquiry.
“The process of trying to find the story and telling the story are intimately tied to each other,” they write.
Organizational research that makes an impact
What does all this mean for Learning Forte and our clients?
The pattern I’ve seen over and over again in our organizational consulting is a similar kind of silo-breaking.
Often we’re hired to help a ministry team accomplish its mission more effectively, and that means conducting a thorough survey of how things are working now. This research phase of our work almost always involves stakeholder interviews or surveys, and often a close examination of their existing technology systems and communication platforms.
But we don’t just help our clients find the story of their path to sustainable organizational change. More often than not, we also accompany our clients in putting this research data to work to tell the story of deepening mission in media-rich ways.
If the research phase helps set the stage for our clients to employ strategic imagination, this communication phase is the first essential step in building buy-in and bringing these new possibilities to life.
Doing more than press record
How about you? Is there a way you can put these silo-busting ideas to work right now in your ministry? Do you want to both better understand your organization and set the stage for claiming and expanding your impact?
You bet. But you have to have a plan.
Step 1 is to think like a researcher. Where are you producing and collecting data?
- Evaluation forms after important events?
- Online reviews and check-ins on social media?
- Anecdotes at coffee hour?
- Reports your congregation or school are required to file with ecclesial or accreditation authorities?
Make sure you’re building habits to keep this data organized and safe. And make sure you’re building habits of actually examining it monthly, quarterly, or yearly—whatever rhythm is sustainable.
Step 2 is to think like a media producer. What story is the data telling, and how can you name and claim it for the people who care about your mission—or might come to care if you tell the story effectively?
- Can you regularly feature short testimonials or evaluation responses on social media or during the worship service?
- Can you publish a data-rich, shareable infographic each month, season, or year to sum up your impact in the community?
- Can you pull a few clips from recorded worship or meetings that illustrate important ideas or inspiring occurrences?
Whatever you learn in your research, prioritize choosing the right communications tool for the job to share your findings. And be sure to keep your message concise and accessible to both “insiders” and “outsiders.”
In an era of ubiquitous online activity, it’s easy to press record and hope those files in the cloud will be useful someday. The real work, and the potential pay-off, happens when you find and connect the moments that will help you tell the stories hidden among them.
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