Home » Are all approaches equal: the difference between technique, tool and method
The road to successful engagement can be a long and winding one – with no prior experience it is often difficult to think of places to start. The situation is complicated further by a myriad of engagement and participatory practices available, which makes it hard to understand the benefits of one over the other or what really makes them different. This article will delve into the topic of engagement tools and approaches and offer a loose classification of said approaches, as developed and conceptualized by the Institute of Baltic Studies and the Turku University of Applied Sciences in the GreenSAM project.
First, we need to understand what engagement is and why it matters to think of tools in categories. According to the “Atlas on participative approaches to age-friendly green mobility”, engagement/participation “can be defined as the possibility to participate in decision-making, concerning both individuals’ everyday life but also the wider society and political system”. Now, it is important to understand that one-time participation in the making of one decision is not truly engagement in its proper sense – true engagement is a long-term process that involves building trust between the decision-makers and the citizens, and showcasing actual concern and interest in the opinions and well-being of people.
As such, it makes sense to assume that using whichever engagement tool once without much thought or follow-up hardly constitutes as engagement, even though it is often categorized as such. To better understand why, let us look deeper into the nature of participation tools, which in the GreenSAM project, have been visualized in the interactive Toolbox and explored further in the Concept Papers.
When compiling the list of tools found in the Toolbox – it can be safely said that there are hundreds of tools out there! – the partners were faced with several challenges. The most important of these was understanding what is a tool and what is not? To develop a consistent definition, the partners looked at all possible tools that were mapped during the early stages of the project and tried to conceptualize them as Concept Papers. Does the tool have a specific aim, is it a specific way of doing something, is it already established and widely used in its current form – were only a few of the questions the partners asked. As a result, it was agreed that a tool is all the above, namely a specific engagement device that is widely used and recognized and that can be explored further in the Concept Paper. These are, for example, workshops, roundtables, interviews, living labs, etc. Naturally, most of these tools can be modified to meet the needs of the implementer but they do have widely recognized forms of use, which formed the basis of categorizing them as such. However, since the GreenSAM project explores participation in a wide range of forms, the project has also coined a few new tools or variants of existing tools such as Mobility Lab and Street Talk. The ‘tools’ that lacked the characteristics described above, then depending on what exactly it lacked, were categorized either as a method or a technique.
Methods, it was agreed, are umbrella terms that describe the general approach or principle a tool takes, its main aim or its most distinctive characteristic. When using different tools, the general method behind that tool should be kept in mind. For example, the “feedback” method includes tools such as interviews, observation, and questionnaires. Again, while it is true that these tools can be used for more than getting feedback, then this is their widely recognized primary function. Let us look at one more example: the method “on-site” encompasses the tools study visit/site visit and walking group, both of which require participants to travel to a specific location. While the aim of these tools may also be feedback or something even completely different, their distinctive characteristic is that they take place on-site – if that aspect about them were changed, e.g. if the method were changed, it would be a different tool altogether.
As evident, the main distinction between method and tool is their level of specifity: it would be difficult to write a detailed Concept Paper on “feedback” as a tool but it makes more sense for a specific tool of gathering feedback, e.g. interview.
Now, in the hopes that these distinctions were not too complicated to understand, we come to techniques. While it is only natural that engagement methods/tools/techniques are often used synonymously then for our purposes, we had to make a distinction. Collectively, we agreed that while method and tool seem ‘broader’ somehow, then technique is something much narrower and more specific. A technique does not have an inherent aim such as tools do but is rather an extra exercise or activity that can be done when implementing a tool. As a result, this became the definition of technique – a simple exercise or engagement activity that can be used when implementing a tool.
Our list of techniques includes exactly these types of exercises and activities: hand-raising, polling, sketching, problem tree, mobile apps for quizzing and polling, and many more. The idea was to include all devices that were too ‘small’ to be separate tools but that would make more sense as single exercises to be used while implementing a certain tool. By all accounts, inserting techniques into tools has a good, if not certain, chance of increasing the level of engagement. For example, during a focus group, using hand-raising or other polling exercises allows you to get quick feedback and know what the majority thinks during an otherwise discussion-intensive session where some participants’ opinions may dominate. Another example: during mentoring, it may be helpful to sketch a problem tree or problem analysis, so the mentor gets a more detailed understanding of the mentee’s needs and concerns. Without this exercise, mentoring may miss the some of the core concerns of the mentee.
As evident, it may be said that often there are quite clear boundaries between method, tool and technique – although we admit, that there are certain instances where the lines are more be blurred. Still, it was our wish to understand these differences in a meaningful and coherent way to ensure that the Toolbox is useful to not only the project partners but to everyone else who finds this topic interesting and useful and wants to benefit from our learnings.
We hope this article has been informative and in case of questions, we are always eager to discuss and explore these ideas further.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.