At the IKM Table (2): individual agency vs. organisational remit, accountability and impact pathways for the future of IKM-Emergent


Day 2 of the final IKM workshop dedicated to ‘practice-based change’. As much as on day 1, there is a lot on the menu of this second day:

  • Individual agency vs. organisational remit;
  • Accountability;
  • Impact and change pathways;
  • A possible extension of the programme: IKM-2
Day 2 - the conversation and cross-thumping of ideas continues

Day 2 - the conversation and cross-thumping of ideas continues

On individual agency and organisational remit:

We are made of a complex set of imbricated identities and cultures that manifest themselves around us in relation with the other actors that we are engaging with. These complex layers of our personality may clash with the organisational remit that is sometimes our imposed ‘ball park’. Recognising complexity at this junction, and the degree of influence of individual agents is an important step forward to promote more meaningful and effective development.

Pressed for time, we did not talk a lot about this. Yet we identified a few drivers that have much resonance in development work:

  • As little as organisations tweet, people do, organisations do not trigger change, individual people do. Pete Cranston mentioned a study done about three cases of critical change within Oxfam, all triggered by individuals: a manager with the power to change, an aspirational individual quickly building an alliance etc. – our impact pathways need to recognise the unmistakable contribution of individual ‘change agents’ (or positive deviants) in any specific process or generic model of social change. Individuals that are closely related to resource generation obviously have crucial leverage power and play a special role in the constellation of agents that matter in the impact pathway;
  • We are obscured by our scale: In politics it took us a long time to realise there were crucial dynamics below nation-states and above them. In a similar swing, in development let’s go beyond merely the organisational scale to focus on the individual agency as well as the network scale – all organisations and individuals are part of various networks which impact both individuals and organisations engaged in them. Teams also play an important role to explore and implement new ways – it is at that level that trust is most actively built and activities planned and implemented. The riddles of impact from the teams emulate in sometimes mysterious ways to the organisational level;
  • These differences of scale tend to place subtle tensions on individuals between their personal perspectives and the organisational priorities. The multiple identities and knowledges (including local knowledge) are inherently in ourselves too, adding layers of complexity as the predominance of one identity layer over another plays out in relation to the other people around – see presentation by Valerie Brown.

On accountability:

Accountability is a central piece of the development puzzle yet, so far, we have embedded it in too linear a fashion, usually upwards, to our funders. Accountability should also embrace the wider set of stake-holders concerned in development initiatives, including beneficiaries and peers, and find alternative ways to be recognised, acted upon and expressed.

The crux of our accountability discussion was around the tension to reconcile accountability with the full set of actors that we are interacting with in our development initiatives. The work carried out by CARE in Nepal (recently finished and soon to be uploaded on the page listing all IKM documents) is a testimony that accountability can and should be multi-faceted.

  • At the core of this conversation lies the question: whose value, whose change, whose accountability? We perhaps too quickly jump on the idea that we know who is the (set of) actor(s) that has(have) more value to bring and demonstrate, that their theory of change matters over that of other actors, and that our accountability system should be geared towards their needs.
  • About theory of change, we already mentioned on day 1 that it is just a tool and any simple tool bears the potential of being used smartly (despite inherent technical limitations in the tool) as much as any complex tool can be used daftly (regardless of the inherent flexibility that it may have). However, the theory of change (of which one guide can be found here) can be quite powerful to ponder the key questions above. A collective theory of change is, however, even more powerful.
  • Perhaps a practical way forward with accountability is to identify early on in a development initiative who we want to invite to map out the big picture of the initiative and the vision that we wish to give it. The set of actors participating to the reflection would represent the set of actors towards whom the initiative should be accountable to. In the process, this consultation could reveal what we can safely promise to ‘deliver’ to whom, and what we can only try and unpack further. This might even lead to shaping up a tree map of outcomes that might be simple, complicated, complex or chaotic (thereby indicating the type of approach that might be more adequate).
  • More often, in practice, we end up with a theory of change (or a similar visioning exercise) that has been prepared by a small team without much consultation. This implies a much simpler accountability mechanism with no downward accountability, only upward accountability to the funding agency or the management of the initiative. This may also imply that the chances of developing local ownership – arguably a crucial prerequisite for sustainable results – are thereby much dimmer too.
  • Robin Vincent also referred to the peer accountability that pervades throughout social media (Twitter, blogs) to recognise the validity and interest of a particular person could be a crucial mechanism to incorporate as a way of letting good content and insights come to the surface and enriching accountability mechanisms.

On impact and change pathways

The next discussion focused on the impact and change pathways of IKM-Emergent. Each member drew a picture of their reflections about the issue, whether specifically or generally, whether practically or theoretically, whether currently or in the future. We produced eight rich drawings (see gallery below) and discussed them briefly, simmering conclusive thoughts about impact and the influence that IKM-Emergent has or might have.

  • Impact happens at various scales: at individual (for oneself and beyond), at team level, at organisational level and at network level (at the intersections of our identities, relations and commitments), it follows various drivers, strategies, instruments and channels. Keeping that complex picture in mind guides our impact seeking work.
  • Our impact is anyway dependent on larger political dynamics that affect a climate for change. The latter could become negative, implying that development initiatives should stop, or positive and leading to new definitions and norms;
  • In this picture, IKM seems to play a key role at a number of junctions: experimentation with development practices, network development, counter-evidence of broadly accepted development narratives, recognition of individual agency and its contribution to social movements, ‘navigating (or coping with) complexity and developing resilience, documenting case studies of how change happens, innovative approaches to planning and evaluation and developing knowledge commons through collaboration;
  • And there certainly are lots of sympathetic agents currently working in funding agencies, international NGOs, social movements, the media as well as individual consultants. Collectively they can help;
  • The combination of public value, capacities and authorising environment are some of the stand posts around IKM’s ball park;
  • IKM’s added value is around understanding the miracle that happens at the intersection between, on the one hand, interactions across many different actors and, on the other hand, systemic change at personal / organisational / discourse level. We can play a role by adding our approach, based on flexibility, integrity, activism and sense-making;
  • If we are to play that role of documenting the miracle and other pathways to change, we should remain realistic: We are led to believe or let ourselves believe that evidence-based decision-making is THE way to inform (development) policies and practices, when – in practice – we might follow more promising pathways through developing new knowledge metaphors, frames of development, preserving documentary records and interlinking knowledges;
  • There is also an element of balancing energy for the fights we pick: Impact and engagement with people that are not necessarily attuned to the principles, values and approaches of IKM-Emergent takes energy. But it matters a lot. So we might also interact with like-minded people and organisations to regain some of that energy.
  • Finally, there are lots of exchanges and interactions and great development initiatives already happening on the ground. The layer above that, where INGOs and donor agencies too often locate themselves, is too limited as such but our impact pathway is perhaps situated at the intersection between these two – how can we amplify good change happening on the ground?

On IKM-Emergent 2:

In the final part of the workshop, after an introduction by Sarah Cummings about where we are at, we surfaced key issues that will be important themes for the sequel programme suggested for IKM-Emergent (the so-called ‘IKM 2’). We briefly discussed a) practice-based change, b) local content and knowledge and c) communication and engagement.

On practice-based change: In this important strand, we debated the importance of the collective against the individual pieces of work – challenging issue in IKM-1. Building a social movement and synthesising work are on the menu, although at the same time it is clear that each team or group of individuals working on independent pieces of work needs to find their breathing space and to some degree possibly detach themselves from the collective. IKM Emergent has been successful at unearthing rich research and insights thanks to the liberty left for each group to carve their space. But the message is clear: connecting the dots helps bring everyone on board and picture the wider collage that an IKM-2 might collectively represent.

On local content and knowledge: In this equally important strand, language is key. So is the distortion of knowledge. We want to understand how localisation of information and technology may differ from one place to the next, we want to move on to ‘particular knowledges’, zooming in on specifics to draw on them. We want to further explore diverse ways of connecting with multiple knowledges through e.g. dancing, objects, non-ICT media. We want to better understand the dynamics of local social movements and knowledge processes and do that with the large African networks that we have been working with.

How is this all to unfold? By creating a network space that allows content aggregation, meetings online and offline, experimental research and production of artefacts, organising exhibitions and happenings and integrating social media.

On communication, monitoring and engagement: This has been paradoxically, and despite the efforts of the IKM management, an area that could have been reinforced. A communication strategy came very late in the process, was somewhat disconnected from the works and rather message-based than focused on engagement and collective sense-making.

What could we do to improve this in IKM-2?

Further integrating communication and M&E, focusing on collective… conversations, engagement, reflection, learning and sense-making. And recognising that both communication and M&E are everyone’s business – even though we need someone (a team?) in the programme to ‘garden communication’, prune our networks (to keep interacting with relevant actors at the edges) and to provide support to staff members and IKM partners to connect to the communication attire of IKM-2

This implies that internally:

  • The success of communication depends also on the production of excellent content to engage people on and around. The constant exploration and openness to new opportunities that characterised much of IKM-1 should be maintained to ensure a wide diversity of mutually reinforcing sources of great reflection and conversation;
  • More conscious efforts are taken to distil key insights from ongoing work – even though we recognise the necessity of (a degree of) freedom and disconnect to develop good work;
  • Distilling those insights might benefit from strong process documentation (1), undertaken by a social reporter (2), supported by regular collective sense-making sessions where those key insights and ‘connecting points’ between work strands could be identified and analysed.
  • We aim at ‘quick and dirty’ (link to post) communication cycles to quickly churn out insights and discuss them, rather than wait for long peer-process processes that slow communication down and reduce the timeliness (and relevance) of the work undertaken;
  • There is a strong need for consistent communication (supported by proper information and training for staff members to feel comfortable with the communication tools and processes) and robust information management (tagging and meta-tagging, long-term wiki management etc. – to be defined).

And externally it implies:

  • That we care for the growing community of conversation that we are having – as an overarching goal for our comms work;
  • That we use the insights to regularly engage a wider group by e.g. organising thematic discussions around emerging (sets of) pieces of work from IKM-2 and invite external actors to connect to and expand that body of work, possibly fund parts of it etc.
  • That we find innovative ways of relating content and ‘re-using it’ smartly by e.g. writing ‘un-books’ with regular updates on the wiki, blogging, syndicating content via RSS  feeds etc.;
  • That we use different communication tools and channels to engage with a multi-faceted audience, so that they find comfortable ways to interact with us and the same time that we titillate their curiosity to try out alternative modes of communication too. There are many relations between external communication and the ‘local content/knowledge’ strand with respect to alternative modes of communication that may not (re-)enforce Western modes and preferences for communication.

 

What now?

After two days of workshops and five years of collective work, we come out with an incredibly rich set of insights – of which this workshop is only the emerged tip of the iceberg – a wide collection of outputs (and more to come), a number of messages for various groups and a dedication to engage with them on the basis of all the above in an expanded programme. There is no funding yet for IKM-2 but with resources, ideas and ambitions, there may well be all the elements to bring us on that way and find like-minded spirits to transform development practices. Impact pathways don’t need funding to work, we are on it, wanna join?

 

Notes:

(1) Process documentation is a soft monitoring approach including a mixture of tools and techniques to ensure that a given initiative’s theory of change is kept in check and questioned throughout its lifetime and ultimately leads to a set of lessons to inform similar initiatives in the future. It has been better described in this IRC publication: Documenting change, an introduction to process documentation.

(2) Social reporting is very close to process documentation although it is usually applied for specific events rather than long term processes. It is better explained in this ICT-KM blog post.

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