If A Tree Falls – The Unread Report

Many of us will have heard of the phrase:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The question is a philosophical thought experiment that seeks to consider issues such as observation and the knowledge of reality.

This week the World Bank released a fascinating report about the reports that it writes that are left unread.

What happens when a World Bank Report is written, uploaded and  … then … no one reads it.

Whilst the report is not an audit, risk or governance report per se, what are the lessons that the writers of such reports can take from the World Bank experience?

The report captured our attention with the following observation:

About 13 percent of policy reports were downloaded at least 250 times while more than 31 percent of policy reports are never downloaded. Almost 87 percent of policy reports were never cited.

Yes you read correctly – nearly a third of all reports produced by the World Bank are never downloaded.

And if you use citation as evidence of a report that has generated debate, then nearly 9 out of 10 World Bank reports fail this test.

What is it in the reports that does lead to engagement?  The study notes:

  • Costlier reports for middle income countries are downloaded more.
  • Regional reports on larger and richer countries tend to be downloaded more.
  • Complex multi-sector and core diagnostic reports are downloaded more frequently.
  • The objective of the report matters.
  • Dissemination strategies are intended to increase the visibility of reports and, thus, presumably downloads.
  • Measuring internal knowledge transfers is difficult.

In the context of these (and the other) findings how should risk, governance and audit reports be disseminated?

At the moment, the mentality around dissemination is stuck in the mindset of the hardcover report – a mindset pre the internet.

Build it (or write it!) and they will come.

As the World Bank study has shown that does not work for one of the strongest global ‘brands’ so why do we think that it would work within your organisation.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be taken from this study is the writing of the report is only ever the start of the journey.  The author of the report needs to consciously and deliberately work out strategies that will give effect to the words that have been written.

If the report is beautifully written but no one reads it is it worse than never having written the report in the first instance?

If a tree falls …

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