Knowledge Management… the fountain of resilience, adaptation, innovation and sustainability (and buzzwords!)

It goes back a long while that I’ve been asking myself what KM is and why it matters. This morning, while running, it struck me: it is just what makes us more resilient, adaptive and innovative, beyond the immediate challenge we are facing. Incidentally, KM is also dangerous with that ability to catch all buzzwords in its trail (resilient is the new adaptive, and innovation is the talk of E-town)…

Miracles of Evolution - Africa - Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

Miracles of Evolution – Africa – Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

What is KM trying to do? 

Of course KM supposedly helps organisations achieve their mission, be more effective in that endeavour, but KM focuses a lot (my expectation) on ever-learning, looking back to look forward, keeping track and avoiding to reinvent the wheel (though it’s sometimes ok), institutional memory curation, lessons learned, picking peoples’ brains and co-creating… so really KM is about developing a collective intelligence and finding ways to anticipate and prepare for what comes next, away from silver bullets, in the itchy corner of our brain where the next solution (trial) lies.

That is at the heart of being resilient, of adaptive thinking and working, of innovation.

Hmmm. Only given that some key things are in place. I am thinking about all these things right now when thinking about our local KM4Dev Addis Ababa/Ethiopia network, so I can progressively disengage myself from the coordination side to ensure that this network can continue on its own (without a non-Ethiopian to coordinate it). So what helps in strengthening resilience, adaptiveness etc.?

  • Thinking from the start about an exit strategy (and a good induction program) or some strategy to ensure that the initiative is embedded and owned by whoever is directly concerned, independently from the individuals involved in that initiative;
  • Developing capacity consciously, from the start and throughout, by questioning beyond the WHAT? and focusing on the knowledge, attitude and skills required to make the initiative successful;
  • Documenting the process throughout, so that all the generic context (simple or complicated, not complex) of an initiative, can be partly passed on to anyone else;
  • Making sure that there isn’t a single point of failure, that responsibilities are shared over teams so the success and transferability of good work does not depend on one person only (even though individuals matter a lot);
  • Mapping relations and expertise so anyone can find out where to go to find answers to their questions…
  • Organising conversations around these issues of resilience, adaptiveness, sustainability, long-term, roles and responsibilities, risks and how to mitigate them…
Diversity... also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Diversity… also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Now, away from that KM4Dev network and back into the reality of organisations…

The issue – and the problem of a lot of KM initiatives – is that the transition from ‘the team here and now’ to ‘the others out there, now and for the eternity’ often proves a real chasm and gets in the way of making use of all the good work by that team.

Scaling up, out, in space and time, that is the real challenge of resilient, adaptive KM.

And yet organisations are much better placed than individuals (and perhaps even networks) to make that leap. Because organisations (supposedly) have a coherent narrative to them, that all their employees can relate to, whether they like it or not. And crucially an organisation has some control over its employees. So it can probably enforce the transfer of skills, the curation of information and the sharing of knowledge to other teams and future employees (the latter is notoriously difficult still)…

Is it actually desirable to seen an organisation enforce this? And does it really happen? There are quite a few other questions to sharpen our critical thinking about the promised lands of resilience, innovation and sustainability (and yes indeed Nancy, critical thinking is subtle):

  • Is it better to go for KM below the radar (stealth mode) as I usually advocate, or to go for a slightly more ‘out in the open’ approach that perhaps has better chances of achieving that resilience and innovation at (a larger) scale?
  • Is there actually a point at encouraging organisations to be resilient, adaptive, innovative, if their finality is perhaps to disappear (I’m thinking about international, Northern hemisphere-based organisations working on global development). Isn’t there a risk of perpetuating structures when they may not be needed, or even helpful?
  • Related to the previous point: is it possible, over the long haul, to combine resilience/adaptiveness with sustainability? Isn’t that a contradiction in the terms?
  • Where does KM set the boundary in focusing on the organisation’s mandate or rather on the wider agenda that consider tradeoffs or compromises in space or time (more on that in another post)…, with the risk of going against the organisation?
  • What are the political options of KM to counter with the self-sustaining drivers of organisations (how can KM continue to promote the right ideas despite the organisation’s [hidden?] agenda to invest in its survival cost what cost)?

Perhaps these questions are some of the reasons why scaling up good KM (in space or time) does not easily take place… and why KM keeps focusing on the next buzzword to find another way to get at the same objective?

Related blog posts:

The death of nice communities of practice?

Greeks always argue about facts (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

Argument, oiling in respect among friends… but beyond? (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

An interesting conversation is happening in KM4Dev – when is it not the case? – in relation with Dave Snowden‘s recent inputs to the conference on ‘Knowledge for Development (#DIEK4D see and his reflections on this post (full meeting wiki notes are available here).

Oh and close down those communities of practice which are now so hide bound as to be only of use to the avid naval-gazers.  We need more disagreement, more passion, more argument, more engagement which is not conditional on not upsetting people. (Dave Snowden, reflections on #DIEK4D, 9 July 2014)

Two interesting take-homes from this:

a) Let CoPs die!

b) Nice is the new poison

Interesting and provocative statements of course – just wanted to rebound on these, but I highly encourage you to see all strings from that conversation on the KM4Dev mailing list here (link possibly requiring log-in credentials).

Ad a) Let CoPs die!

Not getting Involved (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice, between agreement, argument and indifference? (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice (CoPs) won’t die just now. Even though it seems many of them are not doing well.

The problem is rather the proliferation of these CoPs, and the fact that many of these CoPs might have been set up and labelled from the onset as ‘CoPs’ although they were just groups of invited people in a top-down manner. CoPs need their time to develop over time. The case of KM4Dev is testimony to that slow simmering process.

The proliferation of guidelines for how to set up and use CoPs (just see some of my personal bookmarks on CoPs) seems a fair indication that there is a lot of bad practice going on and that CoPs take time to grow to a mature level. So the problem is not so much with all those navel-gazing CoPs but rather all those that are steered by a navel-gazing base of narrow-minded people setting up the CoP without budging away from their original thinking, and probably inviting people that are too much alike.

The paradox is that even if it’s not forever and even if it’s not in a real community of practice, having a space for people to question their practice can be a really helpful thing – it just takes a lot of time to develop into a real community of practice that generates the critical mass required to make way for constructive disagreement… And it leads thus naturally to point b)

Ad b) Nice is the new poison

That argument really is an interesting one, as it seems to denote a trend that happens at some point to a lot of people studying (and ‘doing’) work on collaboration. The Wageningen UR teams who theorised multi-stakeholder processes have also progressively shifted their interest away from the positive aspects of cooperation to the conflicts and negotiation of these conflicts around setting a collective agenda.

I think the issue here is rather about the conditions of establishing a space for learning and decision-making. Learning is very much steered by the conjunction of ideas coming from people with very different walks of life. Allowing that diversity to flourish means that the people in that space need to be open to wildly different ideas, listen to all and make something of that. And the decision-making process in those spaces should cherish that diversity and not kill any deviation from an ‘orthodox practice’.

This can mean allowing disagreement to revisit the foundations of work as we know it. That is deeply disruptive. And itchy. Not pleasant to most people, and thus the reason why disagreement is somehow snuffed in the bud in some spaces. Now, while I see how sterile conversations can be if everyone agrees to everything, I’ve always been an advocate of the ‘Yes and‘ principle of improvisation theatre, which is not about disagreeing but building upon each other in a creative way.

Every conversation has its dynamics, they need not be all about agreeing, neither about disagreeing… It is all about the space that you entertain and the negotiated outcomes that a group seeks at a given time. And it’s all dynamic, so agreeing to keeping an eye on the diversity of views and possible disagreements is an essential part of the process. Some of the key questions are thus perhaps:

  • To what extent are you paying attention to diversity, curiosity over establishment and creative disruption in your collective learning space?
  • What tells you that a space has become stale? What are the early signs that something needs to be done or that space needs to disappear – or that it needs to go through a massive disruption process?
  • Who are you actually to say that this or that space is not helpful and should disappear, if it allows others to find their own space for personal development? What is your mandate and your stake in that decision?

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

Oh, an are you gonna say something about your silence these past few weeks? On another note, I’m coming to terms with some of the feedback – that I invited and – that I received a while back: This blog is indeed probably not the #1 most innovative of all blogs around. Yet it is my blog and that blog reflects who I am. I may not be Harold Jarche, but I think I do have some innovative ideas…Yet whether that’s true or not, I can’t really pretend to be someone else, so I reckon it will keep on reacting on the signals that I find interesting, because this is my mode of processing a lot of that information, and actually innovation happens at the edge, in transforming and combining bits of information such as these… that does not prevent me from taking into account a lot of the other comments I received. But I prefer to keep blogging with my limitations rather than be stopped by the blank page syndrome because I should be someone else…

Related blog posts:

The key to success in the networked age? Just look around and be humbled

Curiosity killed the cat (Credits - Stuff by Cher)

Curiosity killed the cat (Credits – Stuff by Cher)

(Another older post that I just finalise here before I get on with new stuff based on your feedback)

When I was a child, one of the sayings that finger-wagging adults liked to throw at me and fellow little people was that ‘la curiosité est un vilain défaut’ – Curiosity killed the cat.

How much we have moved on from that age when staying where we are was the desired end state. A neverending never changing state. Now the only thing that never changes is change itself, though even that is not true because the pace of change is increasing – and so is our need to connect to others, with curiosity, and a little something else, of great importance.


As modern knowledge workers, we have to connect the dots, we have to find others, build trust with them, and do ‘stuff’ together. If ‘In complex initiatives, expert predictions of outcomes are barely better than flipping a coin‘, we must harness collective intelligence. And that will not happen with alpha male chest-beating behaviour but with humility, the other godmother of learning (remember the happy families of engagement?) next to curiosity.

Being humble doesn’t mean we don’t know where we’re headed and think everyone else does stuff better than us or better stuff than us; it just means that we recognise we are trying to do something (or some things) without full certainty, and are open enough to hear what others do in relation, and occasionally pick up useful elements from their approach.

The path to wisdom is paved with effectiveness, focus, humility and empathy and just so we learn by being intently open to any signal that may improve our own understanding and thought-processing, set of practices and attitude. Any opportunity is good to power up another segment of the collective brain grid, the common energy grid of intent, purpose and calling (something I’ve written about before).

We can keep our criticism about, we should question our education and educate our questions but this is no longer the time to be cocky, know-it-all and ‘go it alone’. We need specialists in this complex world, but only combined with other talents.

Humility, being ‘in over our head’ is what keeps us sharp and connected. It’s a non-negotiable in the networked, agile, constant learning age, unless you’re the best in the world at what you do. And even then, arguably…

Want some spicy questions, Nadia?

  • How come leadership still seems overwhelmingly attracted to alpha-male, know-it-all styles?
  • Is humility enough to be a good modern knowledge worker? What other traits of personality allow us to be agile, ever-learning, increasingly effective?
  • If humility was considered to be assessed (or even measured) in an organisation – for broad effectiveness – how would we do so to qualify it?

I’m all ears…

Related blog posts:

Facilitation and collective action back on the menu… big time!

(Disclaimer for Nadia, Russell and others who commented on this post [and see feedback/results here by the way]: This post was drafted before and thus does not yet reflect some of the changes that I hope to bring into this blog based on your collective feedback…)

Lots of different happenings in the world of event/process facilitation as far as I’m concerned – lots of useful links and ideas that might inspire you too…

Graphic Facilitation with Nancy White (Credits: Gauri Salokhe / FlickR)

Graphic Facilitation with Nancy White (Credits: Gauri Salokhe / FlickR)

I’ve finally gotten into reading ‘The surprising power of liberating structures‘, and what a platinum mine of useful reflections, methods, tips, designs etc. a real gem for all collective action process (and event) facilitators… It’s perhaps the best recent thing I can think about that might help me revive the post collection ‘The Chemistry of Magical Facilitation

I’ve been following some LinkedIn groups (particularly the ‘Professional facilitators network‘ – mind that this link requires login) on facilitation with excellent insights. This is some incentive for me to actually blog more about facilitation… and perhaps even start a blog on facilitation as it’s a slightly different topic than strictly agile KM and learning (even though the two are interlinked for their focus on learning and collective action).

Another interesting idea came my way this week, prompted by my colleague Peter Ballantyne: the walkshops – an idea that the UK’s Institute for Development Studies has piloted and reflected upon. This is something to try out, and I think I just might in what could possibly become the third workshop focused on CGIAR communication and management for CGIAR research programs (or kmc4CRP ;)). Actually last week for an ILRI Comms meeting we had a walking session and it was a hit.

Perhaps most importantly, me and a group of fellow KM4Devers are thinking about focusing on facilitation, for the issue 11.1 (May 2015) of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal. We are still debating the exact focus, as we’re rather struggling with too many ideas than too few. Our initial thoughts are available here. I personally hope we will cover blended facilitation (online/offline), moving away from events to fold into longer engagement and learning processes, modern uses of technology (using phones, clothes and other smart devices) to get groups to evolve, the distribution of facilitation and developing an empowering leadership culture as well as how capacity development comes into the picture. At last, I don’t despair finding time to come up with my own facilitation approaches – notably mimicking patterns found in nature and among animals. Wild, eh?

At last, I’ve had some conversation with Nancy White about doing an online (recorded) conversation for already quite a while, to feature on our blogs, and I think this ‘facilitation’ topic could very well be the topic we might want to zoom in on, but that is something Nancy and I need to co-create so certainly not certainty there ;)

Amidst all of this, I actually have a lot of events to facilitate in the coming months so time to kick myself out of comfort zone and to try daring new ideas and approaches. Wish me luck in changing myself, it’s never a given ;) !

Related blog posts:

See all posts under the category ‘Facilitation’

Sharing and feedback done, now learning and change to go…

And so the results of the feedback survey on this blog are in (though you can still vote here). A big THANK YOU to you all for chipping in! View the results via the link from the survey box below.

So: 19 votes pleading for more KM and more communication, and perhaps less on M&E. Two very valuable comments. One attached to the post ‘Fire your frank feedback and forecast what follows on Agile KM for me & you‘ and the other one below:

Ewen, nice strategy of engaging with your readers; I would suggest asking for domain/subject suggestions that might be of interest. The reason I skip your blog, at times, is because:- it is either too jargon filled and too much jargon suggests a closed language world and leads to inclusion and exclusion dynamics;- your blog is too much a reworking of other stuff and there is no personal or original thinking in there- as i am increasingly moving away from international development and working on regional and local issues, once again i am struck by this divide we have managed to make the international development and domestic/local focus; this is fascinating, it shows that there are different worlds (of thinking and working) around. I do not know if this is bridgeable, it is an area of longstanding concern.Good luck and keep on blogging and thinking out loud …. see john Stepper

Where does this leave me? With a number of excellent pointers which I will try and apply, though of course I also follow my own intuition and will not keep stuck with one way of doing things, or blogging in this context.

  • Use more visuals;
  • Write shorter posts;
  • Use spicy questions;
  • Avoid jargon;
  • More personal thinking;

And you might have your own ideas still about what other things I need to change…

In the meantime, before I process this feedback into the posts, here’s what’s boiling on this blog’s pan for the next weeks and months (that I can foresee now):

  • More reflections about event/process facilitation in relation with a number of important events and happenings;
  • Some counter-reactions to ‘Working out loud’ and getting it work collectively;
  • The sequel to Anatomy of learning: how we (individuals) make sense of information which will feature my very own thinking indeed (but it may take some time);
  • Smart consultant practices for modern organisations;
  • … and your topics of choice? Will you let me know…

Oh, and I reckon improving this blog is not just about visuals, but also about audio cues. So before I get seriously into this, here’s one for Richard Martin who confessed he loved references to Radiohead…

Let me get this blog to see improvements trickle down the pyramid, Richard!

Related blog posts:

Fire your frank feedback and forecast what follows on Agile KM…

Feedback (Credits: gforsythe / FlickR)

Sometimes I wonder if what I’m writing on this blog is of any value to anyone.

It certainly is to me, as I’ve come to realise quite a few times in the past. But at this stage I am much more interested in engaging with the readers of this blog, and the people that engage with the posts. And then I also fear my ideas might be stagnating. A former colleague of mine (not complexity & KM guru Jaap Pels) said that everyone has only three of four stories to tell and that’s it.

Have I reached that point of exhausting my stories to tell?

Have I hit a wall?

Perhaps YOU know that better than me.

Of course there are positive comments on this blog and also about this blog. That’s really great and I already expressed my gratitude in the past, especially when that feedback comes from your heart, such as a fellow KM4Dev member recently commented (on the conversation about why the World Bank’s PDFs don’t get read):

I reflected on how I find “gold” in the form of well-hidden online reports and discussion papers and there are a few ways
1. Through wonderful groups like KM4Dev – yes, we are part of the solution!
2. Through personal contacts in the organisations or other networks
3. Through conferences, workshops, meetings etc
4. Through references in other pubs.
5. Blogs – Ewen, I regularly pick up gems from your blog among others! Thanks!

Some posts get amazing ratings (the happy families of engagement – What the heck is knowledge anyways or Portrait of the modern knowledge worker).

Some get quite a few likes (The art of blogging: Taking stock - Social web metrics: between the cracks of evidence and confidence or What are we waiting for to walk our talk (on KM and comms)?)

And some of these posts remain popular through the test of time: Managing or facilitating change, not just a question of words – Tinkering with tools: what’s up with Yammer? or the eternal Learning cycle basics and more: Taking stock

People visiting this blog kindly never seem to make really difficult comments (or perhaps I’m not reading between their lines well enough)… though some post ratings are bad/critical, and I know for myself that some (most) of my posts are not breaking ground and probably deserve better crafting, more ideas… But how do I get to that feedback that improves this blog to make it more engaging for all?

So, if I’m being true to my word, or to my motto ‘fun, focus and feedback‘, I’ve got to check with you lot if this blog is on track; and actually what it might be on track to, or what it should be. As much as I’ve dreamt of the feast of fools of feedback, now is the time to make this a reality for the blog.

Could you please tell me what you like on this blog, but more particularly what you don’t like so much, where you think I’m missing the mark, where you see interesting opportunities? 

I would just love your feedback. A simple comment will do :) It could be about the topics I cover (or don’t cover), the type of posts I share, the look and feel, the conversation I have with you, anything that comes to mind!

And in addition, or perhaps to help the above, you might help me find some ideas for next posts and topics (please reply to the poll above).

I owe you, so I promise to act upon the comments I receive, and I’d be really glad to make this blog a more exciting place about agile KM and learning (for social change)…

Now the floor is yours, this is Agile KM for me… and you?

Effective Feedback - Some rules for effective feedback? (Credits: teachandlearn / FlickR)

Some rules for effective feedback? (Credits: teachandlearn / FlickR)


Complexity in aid: An interview (by Ben Ramalingam) with Jaap Pels

Jaap Pels is a former colleague of mine and as he describes himself an ‘idea guru’.

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Pretentious you might think, but Jaap is close to his own mark, as he’s been one of the main sources of inspiration on KM for me and is a very thought-stimulating (and prolific) contributor on KM4Dev. In this interview, he reflects back on how complexity theory/ies contributes to global development (aid). These are very useful responses to a series of questions that Ben Ramalingam (author of the excellent ‘Aid on the edge of chaos‘ and serial blogger) shared with him when assembling thoughts for his book, back in 2010. This interview is shared here again as it never was publicly but Jaap, Ben and the KM for Development Journal senior editor Sarah Cummings (who will publish this interview in one of the journal issues later this year) seemed all happy or ok to see it shared here).

  • What is your understanding of what complexity theory / complexity science means?
  • What in your view, is the potential value of complexity sciences / complexity theory for international aid problems, and for knowledge and learning efforts specifically?
  • What do you see as the practical benefits of new conceptual and theoretical approaches for aid agency knowledge and learning issues? What examples come to mind?
  • What might KM / Organisational learning practitioners need to do differently to realise the value and benefits of new theories and ideas more systematically?
  • What are the toughest challenges to address in bringing new, complexity-oriented, perspective to knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector?
  • What kinds of changes might need to happen in the aid sector more generally?
  • How optimistic are you that the changes described above will take place?

What is your understanding of what complexity theory / complexity science means?

My understanding stems from my background and education. I studied molecular sciences, more specifically genetics, organic chemistry and fundamental physics. Apart from that I took courses in the philosophy of the natural sciences. Alpha still is envious of beta-methods… In that respect it is fun to read on the KM4Dev list about Popper, Kuhn, normal science, Kepler, Newton and Lorentz (the one from the butterfly effect). From oscillating chemical reactions / biological systems (heart rhythms), I learned that feedback loops lead to complex systems like lemming populations and birds flocking or systems tending to increasing entropy.

Also I attended a number of lectures (studium generale) in the nineties (yes, last century) on chaos in organizations, for example to understand when a business can grow etc. Also I read ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Hofstadter and I attended a course in programming for artificial intelligence :-). In organisations I always wondered why managers hired ‘types like themselves’ and found out about self-(re)-production, autopoiesis, self-organisation, emergence etc. as, in biology, viruses that self-assemble from components.

Over a long period I have read a broad spectrum of books related to organisations, how they function, how to lead them, how to improve them etc. All in all also a lot of airport literature (The world is flat, The tipping point, 10 ways to become a strong leader / rat etc.) but also just from the news, papers, Internet. Prigogine, Castells and Gray are my anchors when thinking about complexity and sciences, networks / societies and societies / enlightenment. And of course I must have been one of the first to subscribe to ‘Aid on the edge’ blog :-). Recently ‘Why nations fail’ by  Acemoglu and Robinson colored my picture why aid works or not.

So for me complexity is a phenomenon, something we recognise when one boils water and the pattern suddenly gets chaotic, or as path dependence when that butterfly in Spain invokes a storm in the US (just an example), or as the black swan or as fractal pattern, or as anomaly in our mechanistic deterministic view – or better paradigm – we tend to approach reality and fail of course, just because that reality is not predictable; it is – although it seems sometimes – notSimcity. We measure and model the environment we live in and with just that measurement we interfere, we change reality. We theorized from telos (Gods will), to logos (mechanistic, Newton, Darwin and Weber), to chaos (Foucault, Gray, Lorentz).

Thus complexity science tries to develop understanding, theory (in the real Popper / Kuhn / Lakatos / Feyerabend / Marcuse / Freire and a whole bunch of bright heads, though more traditional), tools, research etc which results in a complexity community, a website, blogs,Cognitive Edge services etc. It is fun.

And that’s where my understanding comes from. Others stem from another habitat, perhaps a school of thinking and they will understand the c-science & theory different. I would be interested to know how North Korean people appreciate complexity. I would like to research if complexity is a Western thing; let us plot complexity-realm-hubs (people, schools, experiments etc.) on Google maps :-)

What in your view, is the potential value of complexity sciences / complexity theory for international aid problems, and for knowledge and learning efforts specifically?

International aid problems are many. And a lot of them will not benefit, rather use complexity as excuse where problems might be complicated. I mentioned paradigm just now and some aid people walk around with ‘pink glasses’ and for example in the water sector it is popular to advocate for a paradigm shift, close to the WASH sector that is done in SWITCH (integrated urban water management – where ‘integrated’ is one step away from complex) looking at a city as system and in Triple-S. Looking at, and thinking in systems relates to complexity; although as I mentioned most is complicated or political.

One international aid problem is purely economical: labour costs are much higher in the West than the to-be-developed world. Thinking along the lines of Thomas Friedman (the world is flat) all UN bodies should have their publications made in India / China etc. Money – country 0.7% GNP contribution to development; UN salaries, corruption, collecting it for disasters and then also processing it (Tsunami), accountability etc etc – is a central problem anyway. The NGO world is being MBA-ed because there is a volume of money to process and that is a problem too, because professionals do not like to be managed and managers give themselves a very nice salary (mimicking the banking world; where money flow spills are to be picked up).

By the way, these UN-ghetto’s, as I call them, the big hotels in Bamako where the aid persons sleep, eat and meet, are owned by Gaddafi’s son so aid money goes to a Swiss bank account.  A bigger problem – and Triple-S does an effort to tackle it – is the ‘project thinking’ in development aid which – at least in the WASH sector – resulted in failure to attain the MDGs in 2015. Triple-S does realize that the context for development aid is complex; reality is nonlinear with all the logical consequences as questioning the value of logframe planning, M&E, and indeed for knowledge and learning. One can lead a manager to information but one cannot make them think, so we have to take them along, create a history, co-create knowledge and learn; all within the human dimension, the human context.

Both knowledge and learning give rise to the object / subject discussion. We just had the KM4Dev discussion on the data-information-knowledge-wisdom continuum; how to get from one to the other is possible anyway given you need knowledge to get from data to information! A typical case of Occams razor (see a great post on Occam’s razor); the law of parsimony.  At KM4Dev we are in the middle of a debate on indigenous knowledge. Global warming, philanthro- capitalism, China’s’ interest in Africa, pressure on the Bretton Woods institutions teaches us change to be the only constant. And we – as humanity – better learn how to go about Change. To me sustainable development is exactly about learning and the human measure; learning does not happen overnight and the AHA-erlebnis is the exception.

So to recap, complexity science / theory teaches us to be modest, refrain from nation building and Desert storm actions. Further it tells me to include attention for knowledge and learning into every development aid effort right from the start because of path dependency …. learning happens on the fly; sorry Chris / Geoff :-)
PS Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell. wrote a book on KM called ‘Learning to fly’.

What do you see as the practical benefits of new conceptual and theoretical approaches for aid agency knowledge and learning issues? What examples come to mind?

I am optimistic about cross fertilisation and multi disciplinary team etc, because I think knowledge is a function of human interaction specifically by discourse and that discourse, discussion, dialogue will benefit from a flurry, a spectrum of views that need to align. And that points me at learning. Learning is far and foremost learning how to go about with each other, again rather in dialogue than battle. We have been suffering from top-down approaches – KM stems from organisational sciences rooted in Taylor-ism I think -, advocating for bottom-up and now perhaps mid-round. I think there is a broad consensus now that development has to emerge from the local habitat. Some people link that strongly to good governance or democracy – here again Popper pops up because he defended it (The Open Society and its Enemies) – but in the agricultural – and rural sectors supported self management seems key.

Here again we have to look closer to the agency we talk about. Complexity can easily become the next excuse for making the same mistakes, run for quick fixes and forget about maintenance, education, training, cooperation – btw, I rather speak of development cooperation than aid. Perhaps it is a simple as attention for learning post project and support emergence and that possibly does not result in the outcomes, outputs and impacts we write down in proposals.

How we run Aid organisations, leadership & management can learn a lot. Although very very scary, the best thing might be to hold on to letting go. Working in development has nothing to do with running a ‘beans in cans’ factory but I see many choose and copy just that model.

What might KM / Organisational learning practitioners need to do differently to realise the value and benefits of new theories and ideas more systematically?

UNESCO talks about life long learning. Google grants staff time for own journeys, non corporate planned activities, the Dutch started a development sector academy. What it all boils down to is to create the circumstances for learning to fly or even better learning to learn on the fly.

‘OL an sich’ is non-sense. People are able to learn and unlearn. Most KM / OL efforts start from ‘the organisation’ and that paradigm leads to administration, both on the primary level – what the organisation is on earth for; it’s raison d’être – and the secondary level – the pure admin stuff like time sheets, tariffs, budgets etc. The latter puts a hell of a burden (complicated, not complex!) on aid but my point is that KM and OL and sector learning etc. all mainly depend on the humans involved.

All UN orgs should realize that those internal CoPs have a high degree of belly button gazing. And I know it is scary to open up discussions because control is a major dimension of an organisation. At IRC we had the same discussion on some 60 Google groups we run. At first staff wanted them to be closed, now some of them open up a bit and non-staff can chip in. At KM4Dev gatherings I learn about UN-internal groups, but I am not allowed in where I – through tax – paid for it in the end: I do not get that.

Another one is knowledge transfer. Forget about it. Look at IKM-Emergent for example to read / learn about why that does not work. From complexity one can learn that leapfrogging is hardly possible because of path dependency. At IRC we work on hand washing programmes through schools; that took 15 to 20 years in my family to make my children wash their hands on appropriate moments. I can imagine children in Bolgatanga schools – which btw serve a ‘UN-meal’ a day – need that period too. And then you should know over there, no running water and / or functional toilet is around, anno 2010!!

An axiom by Stiglitz – scan globally adapt locally – applies here.  Practitioners need to stay on top of new ideas, reflect and demand time for that in their work. I use for example the Cynefin geography to figure out what kind of problem I have at hand, and most are (made) complicated and are not complex. In the simple / complicated realm issues like power, patronage, language, timing, information hoarding, corruption etc are far more prominent than for example strange attractors.

What are the toughest challenges to address in bringing new, complexity-oriented, perspective to knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector?

Definitely the existing Babel tower we have built to process the process. Then the three-month business horizon and other approaches that work for making money but cannot be ‘one-on-one-ed’ to shaping aid. Also popular books and gurus that abstract that complex reality into recipes are seriously damaging. Then trade barriers, brain drain, pigeon holding – selling old technology and old concepts plus coca-colonisation (exporting the West paradigm). Populist politicians with their silver bullets mostly boiling down to exclusion. In short perhaps our own denial of complexity :-) and deterministic linear grasp of our future.

The world has been mapped physically – starting with Columbus and before probably also by the Chinese, Indians, Greeks etc. We mastered traveling almost everywhere up to outside our own planet’s habitat. Some countries are fully wired / networked. I can use mobile Internet in a lot of places in this world. Most – if not all – complexity goodies come from simulation, virtualisation, digital (!) networks – a woman friend told me all relationships are complicated … and not complex :-)

On learning humanity still tends to favour formal learning. That is something outside ourselves resulting in a certificate, an investment in oneself, a PhD. When I come to facilitate a workshop participants invite me to lecture – they even call me a lecturer – where I’d rather embark on a trip together. For years, in a former profession, I advised people in the Netherlands on their buying a health insurance. Most know nothing except the price, but that’s not the value. When teaching / learning people to consume you have to take the learning capacity into account and in due time a more complicated / elaborated / precise advice is possible.

I guess the 80-20 rule of thumb and 90-9-1 (CoP population) rules apply here too. Complexity is for a few; most knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector are down to earth about behaviour like sharing knowledge, informal learning, trial and error (mimicking and learning to ride a bike), capacities, power, language and access. Running an anti-AIDS campaign, set up schools / education, providing basic services, breaking down trade walls is complicated not complex; reality may be complex, the trade-offs of an intervention are complex – only explainable in hindsight, but most development is about continuous effort, about blood, sweat, inspiration and tears. It took the Dutch 400 years to master the water-flows a bit so why do we expect developing countries to master that before 2015?

What kinds of changes might need to happen in the aid sector more generally?

The sector encompasses lots of arenas and the sector is an industry too. Development is big business and I mentioned already the NGO’s being managed by managers not by development people. In itself a very natural process in money economies like we live in. Aid is a commodity. We think in targets (MDGs), clients (children, women, Zimbabwean), revenues (days not sick) etc where the reality is that 1 million fellow earthlings live from meal to meal. We Westerners even call that ‘making the case’! Small local NGO’s have to run as businesses too because of all the monitoring and evaluation and other constraints by donors. Donors should be held accountable for the projects they finance, the trade-offs that come with development.

What’s needed is space for people, communities, neighbourhoods, cities, provinces, nations, regions, continents to develop themselves, to learn, to (re) create knowledge. And we need the understanding that this goes beyond the length of a project, programme, or even a human lifetime. So, modesty, continuous support, long lasting relations (perhaps in networks), family-to-family support, focus on informal learning etc.

In our aid agencies we might need to break down the bureaucracies, turn away from global development goals and align on country scale, get all those NGOs to align. Govern-ability is a function of organisation size. Very black and white we have to smell each other to be able to learn together. BTW As humans we deny smell as means of communication but I do believe it is very very basic. If people do not know each other a bit better they are only able to exchange information. Still one of my hobby horses is of course to wifi countries (although that is difficult: see India / China and Google; Ethiopia on SMS / Skype etc etc) and all kinds of powers do not let information be free. And when connections are established you see development evolve; look at farmers, SMS advice, micro financing etc.

How optimistic are you that the changes described above will take place?

You ask me here to gaze in a Crystal ball. My simple view is ‘we are just too many on this planet’ or at least to much concentrated in wet deltas / cities (look at the disasters in Pakistan, China, Indonesia, USA etc). But now from a complexity perspective: change does not take place but we have to start it time and again; complex systems depend on their history and chaos does not, so if you do not want change to be chaotic, but on the edge of it, start making history :-)

As for priorities I hold on to Maslov; first get the basics right: shelter, health, food, education etc but not atomized. We have to help people with their livelihood. And money is never the solution (rather the source of problems and in fact money is information; what is your lifetime consuming value?). Neither knowledge by the way: look at all those African leaders educated in the West that turn out to become constitution changers robbing their own people. Although sometimes for a period a benevolent dictator is best for development.

On the other hand lots of keys are in the hands of the West: trade, patents, footprints (water, carbon, energy etc.), governance in the global institutions, neo-conservative lobbies, (geo) politics, occidentalism, military-industrial-complex (funny!), tribalism etc are all counterproductive to development.

But optimistic I am when I see the KM4Dev growing over 3500 members and all kinds of knowledge share fairs, cafés, learning events, Q&As, e-lists etc are organised. KM4Dev goes under the organisational radar and countries; it works along the personnel axis; the only way for learning I think. Also these global mega events with wine – dine / pecking order / courtesy shows also have useful side events, smaller workshops where people are given space and knowledge sharing and learning takes place.

Related blog posts:

KM and politics… an agile ‘House of Cards’?

If you haven’t yet taken a peek at ‘House of Cards’, just do it! It’s a fabulous series! Non-compromising, eerily and scarily realistic, and as sharp as its main contender ‘Game of Thrones‘ is, bar the physical violence and fountains of hemoglobin… Just have a look:

Where’s the connection with agile knowledge management and learning? At some interesting junctions…

Information is not all that matters: KM is about change and change is about complex technical-political-emotional triggers

Andrea Bohn gave this really good presentation (below) at last year’s ‘ICT4Ag’ conference, cautioning ICT app developers that even in a relatively non-political arena like agricultural ICT applications, information is simply not enough. A lot of other items have to be factored in before change happens – in this case adoption of ICT applications.

Slide 10 sums it all up:

So, KM initiatives that focus solely on managing information (or even managing the knowledge environment), without looking at other factors of change, are doomed. Knowledge management is not sheer dissemination of information: that is also a key finding from one of the World Bank’s top posts in 2012 and an old verse in the gospel of the Overseas Development Institute, a UK think tank.

In House of Cards (HoC), the ‘technical experts’ are allegedly so few that they seem almost entirely not relevant for policy-making… Researchers, so much for our sacrosanct quest for evidence duh!

So now, step away from agricultural development (research) toward more political or personal arenas, and you can be sure that having relevant information is simply not enough to make people change their habits. It is the case with handwashing, with quitting cigarettes and, well, adopting useful KM policies, practices and behaviours…

The factors affecting policy decisions (credits: Strathclyde University)

The factors affecting policy decisions (credits: Strathclyde University)

Policy engagement specialists and think tanks know that they have to act on many other factors than good information: having the right people (capacities) target the right people, at the right time and in the right places (“location, location, location” as HoC’s main political contender Frank Underwood testifies in the video above), with the right props, information and emotional triggers.

And this is another lesson of House of Cards: emotional manipulation goes a long way. We certainly don’t have to go down the road of dirty tricks a la Frank Underwood] but being aware of them could help us get more effective.

KM-induced change can happen with consent or subconsciously; with blows and whistles or following a stealth agenda

Change sometimes needs to be upfront, and even the difficulties that come with it need to be shared early on. In HoC, would-be Governor Peter Russo manages to rally his local constituency (whom he earlier demised with the closing of a major shipyard) while being clear that the shipyard was going to be closed anyway and that the future lies in other opportunities, which demand work, dedication etc. This relates to the culture of understanding and embracing failure. In KM agendas, this is incredibly important. Similarly, if you notice problems that need to be fixed, changed, you can decide to be vocal about it, although that might induce risks for your career (if you follow one ;)).

Yet at other times it can be better to not deal with the problems upfront and to rather harness alliances that help you move your agenda forward. A lot of that kind of politicking happens in House of Cards. In KM agendas, I personally believe that while operationally it’s better to be upfront and open about the difficulties with the people directly involved, strategically it might be better to adopt a stealth approach, relying on local champions, managing expectations and winning people over by showing real progress, not just promises…

In environments when e.g. management or staff are not buying into the KM initiative(s), that sort of discreet alliance building is what can make the difference inside…

If old school politics doesn’t work, move on to out-of-the-box networking guerrilla tactics!

Zoe Barnes, the social media-savvy Washington Herald journalist that operates in House of Cards against the old-fashioned media business model (ruled by CEO Tom Hammerschmidt) eventually decides to move away from the Herald to recover her freedom. Before that happens, as an exasperated Tom tries to curb her will, she defiantly replies:

“when you talk to one person, you talk to thousands”

Politics extends beyond the old boys networks’ clubs nowadays. The Internet has invited itself to the table and networks can be mobilised in order to bring politics to the crowd and let it play a mitigating role (checks and balances). In the KM world, that kind of external network pressure can make the difference in crisis situations such as the one Zoe found herself in. But employees can also use that external network to exert a very positive influence on inside change by regularly referring to these outside network dynamics and inviting them into in-house conversations.

Trust (Credits: Joi Ito / FlickR)

Trust (Credits: Joi Ito / FlickR)

It’s all about trust!

As the HoC clip on top shows, in politics as in KM, trust is critical. Having personal connections with people you trust is of the essence, not least because…

“Friends make the worst enemies” (Frank Underwood in House of Cards)

But also because if…

Knowledge is power… so too (and even more so)…

Sharing knowledge is power. It can be used to leak plots and hidden agendas, killer ideas, but it can also be used to mobilise those networks of influence around… In this sense, perhaps KM differs very much from politics, at least on paper, in as far as knowledge sharing is a natural KM ideal, when in some cases it may be the absolute worst thing in politics!

When F. Underwood requires from Peter Russo “Your absolute, unquestioning loyalty”, it reminds us that the ‘personal’ factor, beyond the human factor in KM is a powerful driver of KM success. Time to get your hands dirty and connect deeply with the people around you, time to consider partners in a real, no-nonsense kind of way

In agile KM, the people are central, so don’t wait: target the game-changers! 

As information and evidence is of so little use in House of Cards, having the right candidates, allies etc. is what makes or breaks politics. Game-changers and natural connections are emphasising the influence of getting personal in KM. So, spend more of your time on the people, rather than the processes and (technology) programs – the people you do KM with and for. They’re your best guarantee for success, and that’s not politics, it’s just about being human and humane.

And since we’re talking about ‘House of Cards’, I leave you today with this beautiful song by Radiohead…

Related blog posts:


What are we waiting for to walk our talk (on KM and comms)?

Back on the blog after a three-week pause related to important developments in my personal life. Still floating a bit and my blogging practice needs to be oiled up again, but I have some ideas of stuff to blog about, starting with: Why don’t more KM and comms specialists actually walk their own talk?

The past few weeks at ILRI have been about appraisals, 360 degree feedback – so a lot of retrospective thinking and sense-making – and also among others an important demonstration of what we do in comms/KM.

All good fodder for thought (yes, I am influenced by the livestock agenda of my organisation ;)) What strikes me in this first week back is that despite knowing that it really can be difficult to ‘sell’ KM and comms, many specialists of that field don’t seem to walk their talk – and I’m not specifically talking about my direct colleagues here, but about a lot of more distant colleagues who ‘should be out there’ and just don’t seem to.

  • How many of these specialists are really sharing what their doing on a regular basis – both online and face-to-face – to inform others about their work, to work out loud as John Stepper is convincingly inviting us to work?
  • How many of these specialists are really applying the principles of personal knowledge management (or ‘personal knowledge mastery‘ PKM, as Harold Jarche would have it) to manage their information and sharpen their expertise, knowledge and tap into that of others around them?
  • How many of them (of us!!) not spending adequate time performing a simple ‘after action review‘ (AAR) to ensure we keep learning and adapting?
  • How many of us are really curating our own content and ongoing work to ensure that every signal we come across, as much as possible (since obviously it’s impossible to achieve 100% there), finds its way to appropriate sharing channels and storing repositories, with our own added value to it?
  • And how come so many of us are still struggling with assessing and measuring KM when the field has been around… with the possible exception of Nick Milton’s excellent set of quantified KM stories on Knoco stories?

Many gaps in our own practices, it seems, so how can we expect others, who are not dedicated knowledge workers, to buy into KM and comms and use it for their own benefit? Being an effective knowledge worker requires discipline and dedication, all for the purpose of improving one’s and others’ practices and lives (I share because I care!). It is tiring at times, even exhausting occasionally, but it also continually gives a lot of energy.

This relates to another thought triggered by this first week back at work: a colleague gave a very comprehensive presentation about ILRI comms work. It was quite a complicated job, because the presentation was very broad and covered an incredible amount of items, so this is certainly no criticism on my part – there would have been things to improve anyways, but one thing that struck me was that the presentation seemed to miss an essential element: WIIFM (what’s in it for me).

What's in it for me? If we don't start there, how can we expect others to get interested? (Credits: Gino Zahnd / FlickR)

What’s in it for me? If we don’t start there, how can we expect others to get interested? (Credits: Gino Zahnd / FlickR)

Isn’t the trick, in our field of comms/KM, to start from either the concrete and devilish problems that our colleagues, partners, clients are facing or the opportunities to work more smartly? And then to demonstrate how we do this?

It seemed to me that despite the incredible richness of the presentation, there was a bit too much ‘this is what we do’, ‘this is how it works’, not enough ‘this is why it is going to solve your problems like no other solution’ or ‘this is going to strengthen your excellent work in area xyz’… And ultimately, ‘these are a few steps you might take in that direction…’ Remember Spitfire Communications’ ‘Smart Chart’ and its due emphasis on the ‘ask’?

We know (personal) change is slow, everyone wants others to start it rather than themselves, and it has a lot to do with psychology. So while there’s no need in criticising people for being slow at change, we equally cannot afford to rest on our laurels and not practice what we preach as comms and KM folks.

So, WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP to sharpen your practice? Mine will start with more systematic AARs. Next week. Tomorrow. Now! Still a lot of progress for all of us, me certainly included, to get better at explaining, showing and embodying the power of KM and comms ;) Indeed we need to look at ourselves first, because as Leo Tolstoy excellently put it:

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” (Leo Tolstoy)

What other areas of not walking our talk do you commonly observe in the field of comms/KM? Do you know of similar watchdogs in that field as Shit Facilitators Say (@ShitFacilitator) on Twitter for facilitation heads?

Related blog posts:

(Blog hols) Time to leave KM aside again, life morphs on :) … and some ideas for you…

Another little hand to catch and shake (Credits: Thomas / FlickR)

Another little hand to catch and shake (Credits: Thomas / FlickR)

Nearly three years after KM became irrelevant to me for the first time, another similar event is about to happen, so I will leave this blog for a while and come back to it, hopefully with fresh ideas, probably not with fresh energy ha ha ha.

In the meantime, here are some recent posts you might find useful:

You could find ways to participate differently in a community of practice (CoP), navigating the 90-9-1 rule, as I am trying out, leaving the core group of KM4Dev and trying to influence that CoP from another side

You might find out how to cope with overwhelming and badly run virtual meetings.

You could see if you’re using all parts of your identity to the best of your KM capacity.

You could find four practical approaches to deal with complexity through space and time.

You could ponder on the overall importance of capacity in global development (cooperation).

You could read an interview I gave to APQC about the importance of getting KM and communication accepted and budgeted for.

You could see a prezi about navigating complexity in monitoring and evaluation with the help of KM;

You could find a simple way to deal with information overload and filter failure;

You could discover the idea of ‘blurred boundaries’ at work in development in this interview with Michael Victor.

And here is the top 10 posts of the past 3 months:

  1. Managing or facilitating change, not just a question of words (Shouldn’t we embrace change proactively rather than fear it reactively?)
  2. Tinkering with tools: what’s up with Yammer? (a first ‘Tinkering with tools’ post about Yammer in general and in use within the CGIAR)
  3. What is common knowledge about knowledge? A visual tour… (8 pictorials about knowledge and what worth they are)
  4. (You’re not welcome) On the dark side of co-facilitation (what are some traps in co-facilitating an event and how to get over it).
  5. Settling the eternal semantic debate: what is knowledge, what is information… (a very popular post because of the interest around the DIKW pyramid – though I criticise it here)
  6. Portrait of the modern knowledge worker (A popular hit, listed on the World Bank’s KM portal – what are the skills and attitude required to be an effective knowledge worker nowadays)
  7. Leaders, innovate please! (A rant about managers just not getting what leadership in a complex world means)
  8. Anatomy of learning: how we (individuals) make sense of information (building a framework about learning conversations, between individuals and collectives)
  9. I share because I care! (very short and simple reasons to share knowledge and information)…
  10. Putting learning loops and cycles in practice – a more pragmatic take on single/double/triple loop learning

See you in a few weeks!