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Invocacy and the role of the change agent

Published on: 27/03/2012

Although I was present at the birth of the ‘invocacy’ notion and thus know what it is  about, I still like the emphasis on the importance of engagement and joint processes of learning and change.

Advocacy tends to talk 'to' while invocacy aims to talk 'with' (people in) organisations and be understanding and considerate about what drives and constraints them. Although advocacy may be needed at some level, the tougher path of invocacy is needed for lasting change.

I saw this confirmed in an article of Cees Leeuwis, professor in Communication and Innovation Studies at Wageningen University ‘Changing views of agricultural innovation: Implications for communicative intervention and science’: “ ...... the current theoretical understandings of communication and innovation imply that it is no longer useful to limit our thinking about the role of change agents (such as agricultural extensionists) and communication professionals to processes of individual adoption and diffusion.” (Leeuwis C. 2010, page 4). And: “From a more evolutionary innovation perspective (Geels, 2002), we would argue that the role of change agents is to enhance the survival chances of initiatives for change, by supporting –through various strategies- that they become more effectively adapted and/or linked to their dynamic selection environment (which itself can also be influenced) than other competing initiatives.” (Leeuwis C. 2010, page 4). In short and to my understanding: the time for dumping messages is over. We need to accept that change is complex and evolutionary and the role of a change agent is not to prescribe to the detail but to engage with (people in) organisations, with what motivates and constraints them and support them on their pathway of change.

Image from by livingfrisbee

Leeuwis proposes three processes to enable the change: network building (a re-configuration of relationships with and between networks); supporting social learning (to develop a conducive fit between innovations and their environment and to encourage different parties to develop overlapping perspectives on reality and start using the same words and concepts in their discourses); and finally dealing with the dynamics of conflict and power (understanding the dynamics and operating in the margins that they offer). (Leeuwis C. 2010, page 5)

There are five tasks to be supported by the change agent in innovation processes: creating awareness of a problematic situation (enable recognition of problems and explicate implicit assumptions); mobilising interest in a network of stakeholders (enhancing conducive conditions for joint development of solutions and willingness to engage with other players); socio-technical design under protective conditions (experiential learning, exploration and negotiation among stakeholders to widen the solution space and merge it with institutional space); gradual lifting of protective conditions (organise feedback from first practical experiences with innovative solutions to the broader institutional environment); further socio-technical evolution and re-design of failure (to keep stakeholders on board and communicate with wider networks) (from: Leeuwis 2010, pages 5 and 6).

This has consequences for communication and change strategies. They cannot be engineered as we thought and probably hoped for. “Innovation and change emerges from complex, politically-laden, incontrollable and largely unforeseeable interaction patterns between networks of stakeholders”. (Leeuwis 2010, page 9). And Leeuwis states that “instead of striving for achieving detailed and predefined objectives and ‘deliverables’ in a given (project) period of time it is more useful to formulate broad search directions and objectives at the process level”. (Leeuwis 2010, page 9). That does not mean that communication should not be planned, but it should be organised to continuously adapt to changing conditions and signals from the network. Learning is crucial in that process. Not the obligatory box ticking of standard monitoring based on ’are our specific and predefined objectives met’, but more like the generals planning the next day in battle based on ‘how are they responding and why are they doing it the way they do’. Don’t take this too literally!

I think that this way of looking at change and the invocacy notion share a more modest perspective on what communication and the change agent can do in the real world of power and interest. Besides the approach and methods Cees Leeuwis suggest, it starts with understanding and accepting that world and engaging with it in compassion. That may or may not be more effective (.... it is a theory of change, damn it!) but it will be much more loving and fun.


Leeuwis C., 2010. ‘Changing views of agricultural innovation: Implications for communicative intervention and science’. In: Florencia G. Palis, Grant R. Singleton, Madonna C. Casimero, Bill Hardy editors ‘Research to Impact: Case Studies for Natural Resource Management for Irrigated Rice in Asia’. IRRI, 2010.  (available below)


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