At the IKM table: linearity, participation, accountability and individual agency on the practice-based change menu (1)


On 20 and 21 February 2012, the  London-based Wellcome Collection is the stage for the final workshop organised by the Information Knowledge Management Emergent (IKM-Emergent or ‘IKM-E’) programme. Ten IKM-E members are looking at the body of work completed in the past five years in this DGIS-funded research programme and trying to unpack four key themes that are interweaving insights from the three working groups which have been active in the programme:

  1. Linearity and predictability;
  2. Participation and engagement;
  3. Individual agency and organisational remit;
  4. Accountability

This very rich programme is also an intermediary step towards a suggested extension for the programme (“IKM 2″).

In this post I’m summarising quite a few of the issues tackled during the first day of the workshop, covering the first two points on the list above.

On linearity and predictability:

Linear approaches to development – suggesting that planning is a useful exercise to map out and follow a predictable causal series of events – are delusional and ineffective. We would be better advised using  emergent perspectives as they are more realistic, for lack of being more certain.

Linearity and predictability strongly emphasise the current (and desired alternative) planning tools that we have at our disposal or are sometimes forced to use, and the relation that we entertain with the actors promoting these specific planning tools.

Planning tools

After trying out so many ineffective approaches for so long, it seems clear that aspirational intent might act as a crucial element to mitigate some of the negative effects of linearity and predictability. Planning tools can be seen as positivist, urging a fixed and causal course of events, indeed focusing on one highlighted path – as is too often the case with the practice around logical framework – or can have an aspirational nature, in which case they focus on the end destination or the objective hoped for and strive to test out the assumptions underlying a certain pathway to impact (at a certain time).

Different situations require different planning approaches. Following the Cynefin framework approach, we might be facing simple, complicated, complex or chaotic situations and we will not respond the same way to each of those. A complex social change process may require planning that entails regular or thorough consultation from various stakeholder groups, a (more) simple approach such as an inoculation campaign may just require ‘getting on with the job’ without a heavy consultation process.

At any rate, planning mechanisms are one thing but the reality on the ground is often different and putting a careful eye to co-creating reality on the ground is perhaps the best approach to ensure a stronger and more realistic development, reflecting opportunities and embracing natural feedback mechanisms (the reality call).

There are strong power lobbies that might go against this intention. Against such remote control mechanisms – sometimes following a tokenistic approach to participation though really hoarding discretionary decision-making power – we need  distanced control checks and balances, hinting at accountability.

Managing the relationship leading to planning mechanisms

Planning tools are one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the relationship that you maintain with the funding or managing agency that requires you to use these planning tools.

Although donor agencies might seem like ‘laggards’ in some way, managing the relationship with them implies that we should not stigmatise their lack of flexibility and insufficient will to change. In a more optimistic way, managing our relationship with them may also mean that we need to move away from the contractual nature of the relations that characterise much of development work.

Ways to influence that relationship include among others seeking evidence and using evidence that we have (e.g. stories of change, counter-examples from the past either from one’s own past practice or from others’ past practice etc.) and advocating itProcess documentation is crucial here to demonstrate the evidence around the value of process work and the general conditions under which development interventions have been designed and implemented. It is our duty to negotiate smart monitoring and evaluation in the intervention, including e.g.  process documentation, the use of a theory of change and about the non instrumentalisation (in a way that logical frameworks have been in the past). In this sense, tools do not matter much as such; practice behind the tools matters a lot more.

Finally, still, there is much importance in changing relationships with the donor to make the plan more effective: trust is central to effective relationships. And we can build trust with donors by reaching out to them: if they need some degree of predictability, although we cannot necessarily offer it, we can try, talk about our intent to reduce uncertainty. However, most importantly, in the process we are exposing them to uncertainty and forcing them to deal with it, which helps them feel more comfortable with uncertainty and paradox and find ways to deal with it. Convincing donors and managers about this may seem like a major challenge at first, but then again, every CEO or manager knows that their managing practice does not come from a strict application of ‘the golden book of management’. We all know that reality is more complex than we would like it to be. It is safe and sound management practice to recognise the complexity and the .

Perhaps also, the best way to manage our relationship with our donors in a not-so-linear-not-so-predictable way is to lead by example: by being a shining living example of our experience and comfort with a certain level of uncertainty, and showing that recognising the complexity and the impossibility to predict a certain course of events is a sound and realistic management approach to development. Getting that window of opportunity to influence based on our own example depends much on the trust developed with our donors.

Trust is not only a result of time spent working and discussing together but also the result of surfacing the deeper values and principles that bind and unite us (or not). The conception of development as being results-based or relationship-based influences this, and so does the ‘funding time span’ in which we implement our initiatives.

Time and space, moderating and maintaining the process

The default development cooperation and funding mechanism is the project, with its typically limited lifetime and unrealistic level of endowment (in terms of resources, capacities etc. available). In the past, a better approach aimed at funding institutions, thereby allowing those organisations to afford the luxury of learning, critical thinking and other original activities. An even more ideal funding mechanism would be to favour endemic (e.g. civic-driven) social movements where local capacities to self-organise are encouraged and supported over a period that may go over a project lifetime. If this was the default approach, trust would become a common currency and indeed we would have to engage in longer term partnerships, a better guarantee for stronger development results.

A final way to develop tolerance to multiple knowledges and uncertainty is to bring together various actors and to use facilitation in these workshops so as to allow all participants to reveal their personal (knowledge culture) perspective, cohabiting with each other. Facilitation becomes de facto a powerful approach to plant new ideas, verging on the idea  of ‘facipulation’ (facilitation-manipulation).

Beyond a given development intervention, a way to make its legacy live on is to plug those ideas onto networks that will keep exploring the learning capital of that intervention.

What is the value proposition of all this to donors? Cynically perhaps the innovativeness of working in those ways; much more importantly, the promise of sustainable results – better guaranteed through embedded, local work. The use of metaphors can be enlightening here, in the sense that it gives different ideas: what can you invest in projects and short term relationships? e.g. gardening for instance planting new initiatives in an existing soil/bed or putting fertilizer in existing plants…

Interesting links related to the discussion:

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On participation and engagement:

Sustainable, effective development interventions are informed by careful and consistent participation and engagement, recognising the value of multiple knowledges and cherishing respect for different perspectives, as part of a general scientific curiosity and humility as to what we know about what works and what doesn’t, in development and generally.

The second strand we explored on day 1 was participation and engagement with multiple knowledges. This boils down to the question: how to value different knowledges and particularly ‘local knowledge’, bearing in mind that local knowledge is not a synonym to Southern knowledge because we all possess some local knowledge, regardless of where we live.

A sound approach to valuing participation and engagement is to recognise the importance of creating the bigger picture in our complex social initiatives. The concept of cognitive dissonance is particularly helpful here: As communities of people we (should) value some of our practices and document them so that we create and recognise a bigger collective whole but then we have to realise that something might be missing from that collective narrative, that we might have to play the devil’s advocate to challenge our thinking – this is the ‘cognitive dissonance at play – and it is more likely to happen by bringing external views or alternative points of view, but also e.g. by using facilitation methods that put the onus on participants to adopt a different perspective (e.g. DeBono’s six-thinking hats). Development work has to include cognitive dissonance to create better conditions to combine different knowledges.

Participation and engagement is also conditioned by power play of course, but also by our comfort zones; e.g. as raised in a recent KM4Dev discussion, we are usually not keen on hiring people with different perspectives, who might challenge the current situation. We also don’t like the frictions that come about with bringing different people to the table: we don’t like to rediscuss the obvious, we don’t like to renegotiate meaning but that is exactly what is necessary for multiple knowledges to create a trustworthy space. The tension between deepening the field and expanding it laterally with new people is an important tension, in workshops as in development initiatives.

We may also have to adopt different approaches and responses in front of a multi-faceted adversity for change: Some people need to be aware of the gaps; others are aware but not willing because they don’t see the value or feel threatened by inviting multiple perspectives; others still are also aware and don’t feel threatened but need to be challenged beyond their comfort zone. Some will need ideas, others principles, others yet actions.

At any rate, inviting participation calls for inviting related accountability mechanisms. Accountability (which will come back on the menu on day 2) is not just towards donors but also towards the people we invite participation, or we run the risk of ‘tokenising’ participation (pretending that we are participatory but not changing the decision-making process). When one interviews a person, they  have to make sure that what they are transcribing faithfully reflects what the interviewee said. So with participation, participants have to be made aware that their inputs are valued and reflected in the wider engagement process, not just interpreted as ‘a tick on the participatory box’.

Participation and engagement opens up the reflective and conversation space to collective engagement, which is a very complex process as highlighted in Charles Dhewa’s model of collective sense-making in his work on traducture. A prerequisite in that collective engagement and sense-making is the self-confidence that you develop in your own knowledge. For ‘local knowledge’, this is a very difficult requirement, not least because even in their own context, proponents of local knowledge might be discriminated and rejected by others for the lack of rigor they display.

So how to invite participation and engagement?

Values and principles are guiding pointers. Respect (for oneself and others) and humility or curiosity are great lights on the complex path to collective sense-making (as illustrated by Charles Dhewa’s graph below). They guide our initiatives by preserving a learning attitude among each and every one of us. Perhaps development should grow up to be more about  ‘ignorance management’, an insatiable thirst for new knowledge. The humility about our own ignorance and curiosity might lead us to unravel ever sharper questions, on the dialectical and critical thinking path, rather than off-the-shelf (and upscaling-friendly) answers – which we tend to favour in the development sector. The importance here is the development of shared meaning.

A collective sensemaking framework (by Charles Dhewa)

A collective sensemaking framework (by Charles Dhewa)

As highlighted in the previous conversation, not every step of a development initiative requires multi-stakeholder participation, but a useful principle to invite participation and engagement is iteration. By revisiting at regular intervals the assumptions we have, together with various actors, we can perhaps more easily ensure that some key elements from the bigger picture are not thrown away in the process. This comes back to the idea of assessing the level of complexity we are facing, which is certainly affected by a) the amount of people that are affected by (or have a crucial stake in) the initiative at hand and b) the degree of inter-relatedness of the changes that affect them and connect them.

Iteration and multi-stakeholder engagement and participation are at the heart of the ‘inception phase’ approach. This is only one model for participation and un-linear planning:

  • On one end of the spectrum, a fully planned process with no room for (meaningful) engagement because the pathway traced is not up for renegotiation;
  • Somewhere in the middle, a project approach using an inception period to renegotiate the objectives, reassess the context, understand the motivations of the stake-holders;
  • At the other end of the spectrum, a totally emergent approach where one keeps organising new processes as they show up along the way, renegotiating with a variety of actors.

Seed money helps here for ‘safe-fail’ approaches, to try things out and draw early lessons and perhaps then properly budget for activities that expand that seed initiative. Examples from the corporate sector also give away some interesting pointers and approaches (see Mintzberg’s books and the strategy safari under ‘related resources’). The blog post by Robert Chambers on ‘whose paradigm’

”]Adaptive pluralism - a useful map to navigate complexity? [Credits: Robert Chambers]counts and his stark comparison between a positivist and adaptive pluralism perspectives are also very helpful resources to map out the issues we are facing here.

At any rate, and this can never be emphasised enough, in complex environments – as is the case in development work more often than not – a solid context analysis is in order if one is to hope for any valuable result, in the short or long run.

Related resources:

These have been our musings on day 1, perhaps not ground-breaking observations but pieces of an IKM-E collage that brings together important pointers to the legacy of IKM-Emergent. Day 2 is promising…

Related blog posts:

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2 thoughts on “At the IKM table: linearity, participation, accountability and individual agency on the practice-based change menu (1)

  1. Hi Ewen, it sounds like youre having a very interesting workshop with lots of thought-provoking discussions. Thanks for sharing your notes and your take on the workshop. It seems like there are some useful topics to take to the learning for change blog. Embracing uncertainty seems to be a challenge for all of us, not just donors.

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