About Ewen Le Borgne

Relentless optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. 10 years of experience learning / KM, comms, innovation for change in cooperation & development. I cherish empowerment. Based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Open access; open facilitation: One week, two good ideas


Ewen Le Borgne:

Why facilitation and open access matter for ILRI, and for a great many other people, and what trends for ‘open facilitation’ and open KM are on the horizon…

Originally posted on Maarifa - Communications and Knowledge Management:

This week is ‘Open Access Week‘ with lots of activities happening worldwide. A good week to celebrate the freedom of information to circulate.

This week is also ‘International Facilitation Week‘; also a good opportunity to wonder how open facilitation helps knowledge circulate just as openly…

International Facilitation Week hosts chat events (credit: Martin Gilbraith / IAF)

The International Facilitation Week hosts various chat events (credit: Martin Gilbraith / IAF)

Open access – let information circulate

In a scientific organization such as ILRI, information is key. As it is the cornerstone of evidence that is generated by sound scientific research, and it is hopefully used to inform discourses, behaviours, policies, and further research.

Open (Access) is part and parcel of the communication and knowledge management work done by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), from providing access to open journals (and more recently welcoming the Knowledge Management for Development Journal back into Open Access), publishing open journal articles

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MY time for YOUR content? Make it short, or make it mine!


The effect of social media (and some other things) on us... Are we all going to suffer from ADHD? (Credits: AssistedLivingToday)

The effect of social media (and some other things) on us… Are we all going to suffer from ADHD? (Credits: AssistedLivingToday)

This has got to be one of the KM evergreens of the Big Data Deluge age: how to synthesise ideas in the best (quickest?) possible way – for others to find, absorb and enjoy them.

Because, let’s face it:

We’re all time-starved…

We’re all shortening our attention span by the day – hmmm, what are we talking about here? Sorry gotta move on to my next appointment…

We’re all ever more connected using social media, interactive devices, networked softwares, networking apps, and even good old fashioned face-to-face events etc…

So we’re all suffering from filter failure, ever more congested with information coming our way from all these online and offline (human) connections – even if social media (and particularly Twitter in my case) help us filter that information.

One side of that coin is thus how we filter information – that’s the demand side.

The supply side is about adopting a good information synthesis routine and transmission etiquette to make it easier for others to find, filter and factor information – that’s what I’m talking about here, in relation with making knowledge travel.

This ties in nicely with a recent post from ever-excellent Duncan Green’s ‘From Poverty to Power‘ blog, about ensuring people read research reports, where the author lists all sorts of research outputs that could nicely complement the release of any report that ought to be read and acted upon…

The issue: people have to find that information that you’ve come up with, but they’re also flooded in information processing armageddon, so what to do?

The antidote

Sort information processing out by acting on three different dimensions of information creation and sharing:

  1. The content itself (the data)
  2. The forms, channels and spaces you use to convey that content into information
  3. The environment in which you get people to find and use that information (the knowledge ecology around you)…

1. On the content itself:

  • Don’t compromise with quality, as it’s what builds your name and the long term interest others may have in what you’re saying, writing and doing…
  • Be genuine – it makes your content stand out as uniquely interesting. It’s like a good quality arthouse movie and its distinctly subjective touch vs. a bland Hollywood movie that is produced to relate to the lowest common denominator between people around the world…
  • Write concisely. Short sentences; with bullet points; no jargon;
  • Read and edit, read and edit, read and edit. Strip it bare, to the max;
  • Test your content on others, get your formula right, sharpen the angles;
  • Add illustrations and media that reinforce your point – it makes mental images and associations easier. Use smart infographics, creative visualisation and solid information architecture;
  • Write with an active tense, tell a story, reveal the promise and also the action that you ask of your audience;
  • Ask questions, invite people to come back with their experiences and their other questions; pursue a quest together…
  • Tag, meta-describe, curate that content, so you make it more accessible, findable, usable at all times.

And at the end of the day, bullet point #1 matters more than anything else: don’t compromise with quality!

…needless to say, I need to do more of that myself with this blog lol ;)

  1. On the channels & spaces to convey the content:
  • Systematically provide a summary of anything that is longer than two to three pages (we really have shortened our attention span, it’s a pity but it’s the case all the same);
  • Perhaps provide a tweet to link to your content and connect – still wondering why the hell you should be on Twitter?
  • Write a blog post with your personal slant to that content, where you can highlight the stuff that really matters in the content you release;
  • Spend more time formatting, packaging, repurposing content than you have spent producing it – consider creative ways of bringing that content about: whiteboard videos, theatre plays, flash mobs, presentations on a napkin, co-created prototyping etc. etc.
  • Use the channels that the people who should read your stuff use – be it obscure up and coming geeky social media, Twitter, blogs, an organisation’s intranet, emails, discussion lists, face-to-face events…
  • Try a new channel every time, to see how it works…

The point is: creative, purposeful content should be brought out through creative purposeful channels.

  1. On the environment – the knowledge ecology around it:
  • Build trust up, down and onwards… Develop a rapport with people that care about your work (engage, engage, engage, reply to posts, post yourself, reply to comments, make new connections, share resources with them, bring them in your work and conversations, welcome new people and questions, explore together, have fun, have fights, remember what it’s like to be humans together)…
  • The KS toolkit: a good example of making a resource easily findable for others - thanks to the power of the collective

    The KS toolkit: a good example of making a resource easily findable for others – thanks to the power of the collective

    Work the net: Involve ‘connectors’ and mavens (according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point), so they can spread the word, influence specific spaces and people and help create a real buzz… and get your network to show the importance of your work and grow the shadow of your jointly co-created content… This is why collective initiatives like the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit are valuable (and read a very interesting conversation about this and re-creating the wheel on Ian Thorpe’s blog and on Nancy White’s blog).

  • Test the speed of your network – not like an internet speed test, but rather to find out if most people that are in your knowledge ecology are rather slow-paced or high-octane. Perhaps they react better to long pieces read at leisure, perhaps they prefer staccato style communication, with elevator pitches and tweets only because they don’t want to spend time absorbing longer pieces.
  • Invite, gather, cherish, process the feedback you receive from the people and groups in your knowledge ecology, and mix it with your next batch of ideas… keep the conversation going like a snowball rolling, each time accumulating more and more matter around yet going faster and faster to the point…

That last bit – the knowledge ecology (oh 2011! Yes, this is another evergreen topic) – really is the crux: you don’t get the ecology right, you don’t get the (political) economy right and no one reads your content, let alone use it.

Taking a step back to look at the bigger picture, we could think of… the Highslow pyramid/hierarchy of information needs… But I’ll come back to this some other time…

So far, does this echo your gut feeling? The signals you’re getting around? Your aspirations? Your practice? Your lessons?

What is the next stage? Where do you strike a balance given the shortage of time you’re also suffering from? What do you see as trends on this horizon?

If you answer, make it quick please, I need to move on to my next task ;)

Related blog posts:

And then it struck me: MUSIC!!!


How could I not think of this one before? How come two overwhelming parts of my brain – learning process facilitation and music – did not connect earlier properly?

While relaxing from the last of three events in a row in Nairobi this week, I ended up chatting with our graphic facilitation duo (check their wonderful work at that event here), one of these artists confessed that of all the elements that make up a perfect event (missing the references for this here – do you know?), he enjoyed our event very much, but really missed one aspect: music!

Now, I’ve been an avid music collector for the past 25 to 30 years, amassing treasured beats, melodies and quirky noise experiments from around the world, across genres, for different moods, on different beats, for different purposes, in different languages, using different instruments. Or none… Over the equivalent of several terabytes of music scattered across various artifacts (CDs, cassettes, mini-discs, MP3s, LPs and EPs etc.)… Such a treasure chest at my hand and I never used it.

Music, the one and only energy and passion driver (Credits: Michael Spencer / FlickR - Friendly Fires @ Future Music Festival 2012 Perth, Arena Joondalup)

Music, the one and only energy and passion driver (Credits: Michael Spencer / FlickR)

Music drives energy and feelings – pretty much just like no other thing. It can dampen the atmosphere and sober everyone out, it can inspire and spark off movement, it can relax and soothe, it can open up hearts. It’s such a powerful current of energy that can be tapped into at all times – among other energy drivers

So it’s also a naturally great knowledge management enabler:

  • It can bring people together – regardless of language and background – and help create trust as it also connects people from their inner self, not just their professional profile;
  • It can create an atmosphere that helps people reflect deeply;
  • It can liberate the energy to drive real action, with a purpose, transcending individuals and appealing to a collective aspiration;
  • It uses our creative facets, rather than relying solely on the intellect…

And these are just some of the many possible uses of music…

On the other hand, using the power of music raises issues of ‘facipulation‘, but on the other hand it’s such a pity not to use this potential. When the graphic facilitator shared his impression, all of a sudden I felt deep down how un-melodious and sadly un-musical that event, and many other events I’ve designed in the past, had been.

Now, some questions to sharpen our sensitivity to music in KM and music in events:

  • What examples do you have of a good use of music to drive action, reflection or otherwise?
  • Where did music actually feel over-intrusive or over-powerful?
  • Where does ‘creating an atmosphere stop’ and when does ‘facipulation’ start?
  • Should music be restricted to multi-participant events or would you recommend using it for normal and small meetings, discussions, work etc.?
  • Should it be limited to the breaks or be the a theme tune in the actual sessions?
  • Do you rely on someone organising the music selection, would you run it as part of facilitation?
  • To what extent do cultural differences play a role in selecting music and to what extent should you use the music you know best, to be authentically true to yourself?
  • What have been interesting tunes or genres that might have proven particularly helpful with knowledge management – if any?

One sure thing is I’ll be using music in my next event(s) and see how it flies… I hope it will work out, because when the music’s over…

Related blog posts:

How social can you be?


Where are human beings in the 'social revolution'? (Credits: intersectionconsulting / FlickR)

Where are human beings in the ‘social revolution’? (Credits: intersectionconsulting / FlickR)

Let me keep this short, and in question style…

Is the internet all about being social? Doesn’t it wear us out? Doesn’t it keep brilliant introverts away from the action? Doesn’t it turn us into online social animals but offline antisocial beasts? Are we not living and going through life increasingly alone?

Also, does ‘going social’ mean we can never be purposeful any more because we always react epidermically, superficially? Like having difficulty finding a balance between thinking and acting?

Is ‘getting social’ our collective goal? Is that the only guarantee that people will share, learn and improve, or are there propositions on the table?

Is the ‘spacing of social moments’ not a useful alternative? Like organising special social happenings, and letting people be the rest of the time? Or can we not resist getting connected but shunning real conversations?

What is better: ever social or ‘intensively social at times’ like the difference between my organisation’s campus in Addis and its ever-social cafe/bar vs. the ‘Last Friday of the month dance bonanza’ of my organisation’s headquarters in Nairobi?

Or is it actually better to keep social at all times to keep sharpening our social sense, one of many aptitudes to develop for the future?

Is the creation of extra, informal ‘social spaces’ (link subject to log in credentials) what it takes for meaningful interactions? Like designing coffee break spaces and other ways of unwinding outside formal event sessions for instance?

Or is the solution not to create safe social spaces for different types of social animals? To encourage dialogue – and sometimes creative conflict – including people that may not otherwise get to speak?

Do we not have different aptitudes to face the ‘social wave’? And if so, do we want to all become more social, or do we want to encourage that difference and the complementarity of minds and souls (like introverts and extroverts) that it might bring about?

Is ‘Social’ the real path to empowerment? Or the golden prison that we’ve been forced to love? Who decides the rules of this game? Who sets the limits?

What are the limits of the social revolution?

How social do we want to be? 

How social can you be?

And really: to do what?

Time to think carefully about this, before we treat ‘getting social’ just like the next email management challenge… with a much bigger hangover upon awakening… You reckon?

Related blog posts:

What an unforgettable KM boss does


Leadership creates leaders, not followers, taking them by the hand (Credits: Growwear / FlickR)

Leadership creates leaders, not followers, taking them by the hand (Credits: Growwear / FlickR)

I am just coming back from Arusha, Tanzania where I was with a colleague who recently shared an article about what unforgettable bosses do. A very useful article, though quite general…

…so a good opportunity to examine what an unforgettable KM boss does.

Much of the rationale for bosses in general (in the linked article above) still applies, of course, to KM bosses. Yet there are specific traits that KM bosses should also be doing to lead by example. All these have to do with the basics of KM of course: conversation, documentation and learning. Oh, and that little something extra…

Social leadership for KM bosses (Credits: Intersection Consulting / FlickR)

Social leadership for KM bosses (Credits: Intersection Consulting / FlickR)

Conversation: Be ultra-social with a purpose

Unforgettable KM bosses should always be approachable and keep their door open. They should always be the first to share information with relevant people, to be active on social media, to ‘be there’, not to be shown, but to be useful.

Their trademark is to connect people and ideas together to create opportunities for improved action etc. and to make it happen, with creativity, engagement, fun and passion. To be ultra-social, but with a purpose…

Leadership and organising one's information for learning needs (Credits: Anselm23 / FlickR)

Leadership and organising one’s information for learning needs (Credits: Anselm23 / FlickR)

Documentation: Let information flow, simply, and for the people

Unforgettable KM bosses are processing information at all times. Strategic and operational. They let it flow and try to simplify it as much as possible.

In order to do this, they organise information management for their team appropriately and consistently, they create routines for themselves and for others, they encourage everyone to get into personal knowledge management to also (among others) get on top of their own information management routines.

In doing this, they have a keen eye for every detail of that info-structure, but they keep people at the centre of it. Information never supersedes people. Because it’s people that get jobs done, not information…

Learning: Increase the ripples of reflection

Unforgettable KM bosses put all their greatest efforts into learning, because that is what makes them and people around them more effective and also happier. So they do some or all of the following:

  • Review actions on a very regular basis with their staff. From simple after action reviews to larger evaluations;
  • Coach their staff to get the best of them, and to facilitate their own learning – as in the apprentice model;
  • Recognise their own mistakes and draw useful lessons from them – and similarly invite their staff to recognise their own mistakes to distill important lessons from them;
  • Organise regular touch-base chats to get additional feedback loops, without dragging on (one could re-engineer the famous Einstein quote to say: “everything should be shared but not everywhere all the time”)…

And that little something extra…

Transformational Leadership (Credits: GeorgeCouros / FlickR)

Transformational Leadership (Credits: GeorgeCouros / FlickR)

In order to be truly memorable, much like other bosses, KM leaders should be able to inspire collective action. This happens if you do the following:

  • Create an informal atmosphere, which is all the more important since KM feeds off trust;
  • Seek perfection but know when to settle with the 80% (or the quick & dirty) is good enough, again keeping people at the centre of attention;
  • Seek the next challenge, always, and motivate your staff by drawing them onto the collective vision, and bringing KM right into that bigger picture. Stimulate your staff to see that bigger picture and that next challenge at all times;

No doubt, quite an ambitious program, including for me as a newly promoted manager… Well that’s my next challenge then ;)

As for employees, we know what the portrait of the modern knowledge worker looks like already…

Related blog posts:

Killing my darlings: the workshop


Last week I facilitated a really hectic workshop on the fascinating topic of ‘community-based adaptation (to climate change) and resilience in the East and Southern African Drylands‘. A number of us (in the organising team) wondered at a point or another if the workshop was the best venue to create new meaning around this complex topic.

Workshops... are they still any good to express ourselves and create new meaning? (Credits: UNAMID / FlickR)

Workshops… are they still any good to express ourselves and create new meaning? (Credits: UNAMID / FlickR)

Simultaneously – aaah serendipity… – my friend Amanda Harding posted about ‘Reinventing the workshop‘, giving the example of an event (that suspiciously looked like a writeshop, if you ask me though).

Perhaps ‘workshops’ are indeed past their prime?

And since change is here to stay and we have to facilitate it, one of the things we’ll have to do on a regular basis is to kill our darlings, our pet ideas and approaches, our professional hobby horses.

At least review them critically. To see if they still strike a chord in our changing environment.

 

So one of my darlings is about to be killed right here: THE WORKSHOP

Particularly if the objective of ‘THE workshop’ is to carve out new grounds…

The problem of wishy-woshy workshops… Idealistic without a focus…

Amanda points in her post (co-written with Red Plough‘s Terry Clayton) that the workshop has become a ‘meme’. And indeed a number of things are wrong with workshops: They can be terribly designed and end up like orchestrated death-by-Powerpoint anti-learning operas; they may tend to solve everyone’s problems without any clear focus (see meme here); badly facilitated, they can actually contribute to worsening understanding AND relations between people.

But what I’m thinking about here, together with another mate who attended the same workshop last week is this:

Even if well designed, even if well facilitated, have workshops not become a standard solution that we revert back to, in a standard mode and in our comfort zone?

Where is the triple-loop learning here?

It’s not the first time that I have my doubts about workshops and what they can achieve… And one of my conclusions is that despite the best intentions probably the single most important aspect remains building and strengthening connections and relations: the social weaving. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at possible options.

Isn’t there an alternative?

Should we not follow the example of the World Bank’s John Heath (see 12th minute onwards in this excellent videotaped discussion of how The Bank learns) and focus on making time for learning by not jumping on what it is we want to achieve with events or happenings.

 Should we not follow the recommendation to bring diversity and argument at the centre of our deliberations (recommending again this great BBC article about the fallacy of the wisdom of the crowds on this topic) and rather focus on bringing very small groups of very diverse people together, outside their normal work environment, in a sort-of retreat, to explore promising new avenues and explore old topics with fresh pairs of eyes and complementary brains?

Should we not leave our voice and our pens/computers outside to let our other senses guide us in exploring the edges of our consciousness? Creative drawing, using metaphors, miming, observing (e.g. animals), using our body to solicit other avenues of our resourcefulness… ?

Should we not encourage more walking about, more journeys together to reflect on work, more cooking and eating together to explore new surfaces – indeed perhaps a cookshop might be as ground-breaking as a workshop for that matter?

Should we not refuse to bring people together physically and rather bring together virtually a group of people who practice Personal Knowledge Management to explore each other’s questions and musings and build upon that? Could a duo’s journey be not innovative than an entire room full of people?

Hmmm… lots of options hanging up and I’m not sure any of these would bring us further?

And what if the answer is in the workshop itself?

If un-conferences and workshops are sticking around, can we not think of a set of alternatives – which are already tested anyway:

    • Pure Open Space Technology workshops?
    • Other events without a preconceived agenda where perhaps organisers get participants to think about hard/complex questions they want to explore and filter out the most complex/interesting questions in a crowdsourced manner, to go more deeply in the fields concerned?
    • Happenings with staged ‘conversations and interactions for change’ such as this useful idea below…

The bottom line is also that we should clearly understand and distinguish when we want to have a workshop, a workstop (where we would stop working and explore relationships), a talkshop (where people have the entire liberty to explore anything in conversations), a writeshop where the point is to write some outputs etc.

One of the most important questions (from the BOSSY HERALD) to ponder when thinking about organising an event is whether we want to level knowledge or deepen it, and whether we want some output or some interaction. Totally different dynamics are at play in either case…

And all that said, I am still pondering the following, perhaps you have some answers:

  • Can we genuinely ‘explore new grounds’ with a group beyond 40-50 participants?
  • If so, what have been the ingredients, principles or heuristics that worked in your experience and that you would suggest following?
  • If not, what have been the best alternatives to workshops to bring up a totally different experience, that you think could be reproduced in other settings?
  • What have been your best examples of events or happenings that led people to change, not just to learn new ideas and share much? How did IT work?

Phew! Sounds like this reflection might go on for a while still…

Related blog posts:

 

Feel complexity, think ‘Tradeoffs’ and follow the flow


No more tradeoff by default, but purposefully (Credits: Open Web Vancouver 2009)

No more tradeoff by default, but purposefully (Credits: Open Web Vancouver 2009)

This is THE shift we all need to accomplish, if we believe we work on complex, highly interdependent agendas:

  • No more black and white, it’s all grey area…
  • No more blanket approach, it never worked anyway…
  • No more push vs. pull, it’s all customised to the very purpose required
  • No more information vs. knowledge, it’s all in the mix, one feeding the other
  • No more now vs. the future, we have to balance the two (early wins and long term gains)
  • No more all win throughout, it’s win-win-lose between here, there, now, then…
Tradeoffs to help us filter Failure (Credits: PlanetArt/FlickR)

Tradeoffs to help us filter Failure (Credits: PlanetArt/FlickR)

At the centre of complexity thinking, at the heart of wicked problems, we find tradeoffs. One thing leads to another but at the bottom of it is the fact that every activity we undertake has consequences in another area of the system. And these consequences of inter-dependencies are mostly difficult to spot, because we are not prepared to look in all directions.

 

Some more KM-related examples:

  • Your success here could be our failure there: Developing a good, strong team spirit takes time and can go to the detriment of the rest of the organisation – the eternal ‘silo problem’ that leads to the swing between matrix and unit-focused organisations. Something I experienced personally (and was documented) last few years in a water and land management project in the Nile Basin.
  • I hear the wings of the butterfly bring the tsunami: The many waves of KM fads (for one-stop-shop portals, for ‘lessons learnt’ databases, and for all kinds of other over-rated KM initiatives such as the DIKW pyramid) have generated enthusiasm well
    The minitel - a great idea whose tradeoff was a long blog for France's productivity

    The minitel – a great idea whose tradeoff was a long blog for France’s productivity

    beyond reason. What perhaps turned out to be a big hit in one case opened a whole sad trail of miserably poorly copied attempts that resulted in major failures.

  • Today’s innovation may be tomorrow’s problem: Even the launch of Minitel – a great (and prided) accomplishment of French telecom engineering in the 80’s – led France to suffer a long-lasting lag time to join the Internet bandwagon… Win today, lose tomorrow.
Bring in your diverse crowd and get at it! (Credits: Deviant Art)

Bring in your diverse crowd and get at it! (Credits: Deviant Art)

So what can we do about these tradeoffs?

First and foremost, just accept that they are there. We can’t solve wicked problems but we can apprehend them best we can. And here are some concrete options:

Keep calm, and assemble a diverse team around you. Much like for the community of practice debate, tradeoffs are one of the very reasons why bringing a diverse crowd together is the best way forward, so you cover as many angles of these possible tradeoffs.

Think in terms of trade offs across space, scale and time – who gains and loses what here? There? In our group and at its edges? Today? Tomorrow? Use approaches that take tradeoffs into account (see for instance Liberating StructuresWicked questions

Accordingly, we can also develop our negotiation skills – tradeoffs tomorrow start with trade-on’s today ;)

And then of course we can keep wondering how to deal with tradeoffs best:

  • How open is our working culture to think in terms of tradeoffs in space, scale and time?
  • What are we doing to make sure that the exchange, learning and negotiation space is genuinely open to all the people that can help us understand tradeoffs?
  • How do we prioritize based on these tradeoffs and what are good examples to take decisions that minimize the problems?
  • What learning and sharing approaches, and what information or knowledge tools can we mobilise to understand and address tradeoffs best?

How do you or your teams deal with tradeoffs?

Related blog posts:

Blog holiday (or so it seems ;)


One of these ‘point-in-time’ posts again… I will be on leave for the next three weeks and though I might be blogging, (I) don’t really count on it. This part of the year seems to be an excellent period for me to step back and let all these thoughts that were put in the mix after I asked for your (excellent) feedback simmer slowly!

So, it’s a blog holiday, but you never know what may come out of this…

I leave you with the top 10 most viewed, and in bold the most commented/liked posts of these past six months:

Most popular posts:

  1.  Managing or facilitating change, not just a question of words
  2. What is common knowledge about knowledge? A visual tour…
  3. Tinkering with tools: what’s up with Yammer?
  4. Settling the eternal semantic debate: what is knowledge, what is information… (that one really seems to be an evergreen…)
  5. The death of nice communities of practice? 
  6. Putting learning loops and cycles in practice
  7. Portrait of the modern knowledge worker
  8. Scaling, pacing, staging and patterning… Navigating fractal change through space and time
  9. (You’re not welcome) On the dark side of co-facilitation
  10. What the heck is knowledge anyways: from commodity to capacity and insights

See you in three weeks!

Trévignon Bretagne (Credits: Jon Larrañaga / FlickR)

Trévignon Bretagne (Credits: Jon Larrañaga / FlickR)

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?

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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 https://tagboard.com/diek4d) 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…

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