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…

Related blog posts:

Development is CAPACITY (to move all together through learning loops)


Yes: Global development (#globaldev) is glocal capacity – to move from single to triple loop learning, all together…

It just dawned on me in all its patent obviousness as I was running last weekend. Of course it’s more complicated than that, and global development is made of various distinct components:

  • ensuring safer homes,
  • having sustainable water and sanitation services,
  • good road infrastructures,
  • flourishing agriculture,
  • smart education,
  • ever improving livelihoods etc.

Development actors, at all levels and from all horizons, tend to focus on the deliverables related to each of these components, very often in isolation from one another, because it seems to provide the proof of development work, and of course that is important.

But the red thread of global development is really much more about the last two items in the list above: learning to improve one’s options in life. Capacity to make choices and ensure that these choices progressively lead to better choices.

Proverbially, we know it is better to teach how to fish than to fish for someone. Better still is to actually wonder whether fishing is the best idea, or even (moving from single to double to triple loop learning) wonder if thinking about fish and fishing is the best thing to do. We will know that global development has reached its goal when everyone will have reached that state of consciousness – how ideal and idealistic! Fluffy bunny thinking – though useful as a source of inspiration.

The move from MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) to SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) is a testimony to this shift of ‘increased smartness’ away from single loop learning (how to provide better xyz) to double loop learning (is this really enough, what is the goal we are really seeking to achieve?).

When you think about it, global development is meant to help us humans develop our capacity to run through Maslow’s pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs

Maslow's pyramid of needs

Maslow’s pyramid of needs

It is meant to help us get more adaptive, resilient, learning-focused, smart – and caring!

As one can see in so-called ‘developing countries’, global development is just another sector of economy. In so-called ‘developed countries’, it is not called global development but it is just as present in economy and society, echoed in art by people like Pawel Kuczynsky. In some ways, all sectors of an economy and a society are connected to global development, from architecture to industry, from education to foreign affairs, from waste management to intellectual property management. #GlobalDev is the cornerstone of it all, the spider in the web that connects all the active thinking and learning matter of all other sectors. All that makes it whole and better able to run up the Maslowian stairs.

This is why…

Global development is influenced by all efforts at all levels – all attempts at increasing the smartness of individual nodes and increasing their potential to connect with other nodes to form a whole grid of global capacity. So capacity is local, capacity is global, capacity is individual, present among teams, organisational, societal.

And two things matter in global development, for these two conditions to emerge:

Both are very slow processes, building on the development of expertise, building on social learning to accelerate and connect those learning/adaptive capacities (and become a hero) and on developing trust to ease the social learning process – that’s why, arguably, relationships matter more than results in development, because relationships have long-lasting effects on a very complex and slow-moving set of issues.

Interestingly, #globaldev has a whole scary history of failures, because we keep focusing on the wrong things, the what, instead of the why and how, the results instead of the (process) conditions that favour better results.

But these development-focused relationships are well worth investing in, so that eventually our Maslow pyramid is matched by a collective, human pyramid. And that would be a beautiful development to aspire to, wouldn’t you agree?

Monument to human pyramids (Credits: Susan Renee / FlickR)

Monument to human pyramids (Credits: Susan Renee / FlickR)

Related blog posts:

Communication for development, KM and blurred boundaries: an interview with Michael Victor


In December 2013, a couple of very interesting workshops took place on the ILRI Ethiopia campus around the topic of knowledge management and communication. On that occasion, I interviewed Michael Victor, communication ‘Comms’ and KM coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF) and for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. 

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Having been involved in the Nile Basin’s share of the CPWF experience with research for development, I had heard of the concept of ‘blurred boundaries’ that seem to be at the heart of comms and KM in that program, and Michael is one of the proponents of this approach. Here he explains what is meant with it, what his interest in KM is all about and how he sees the field evolve…

  • Blurred boundaries between KM, communication etc. what is it all about?

It’s that

It’s with these system-based learning approaches (knowledge sharing, information management, communication, monitoring and evaluation etc.) that you see learning blurring all connections. You have specific disciplines but you no longer have a database manager, a librarian and a writer. Now the IM/Comms field is a lot more blurred. It’s about getting knowledge at the right time to the right people to make the right decisions. I don’t even understand the difference between comms and uptake.

However there’s real resistance to see these fields get interlinked and to see them support programmatic or external change. And you still need specialists but they should all be working together.

  • What trends are you observing in comms/KM in the development world (or any closer arena)?

Moving from service orientation (corporate) to much more outcome-oriented focus. Also moving from a support.administrative function to a strategic one.

With all the social media we’ve been spewing, I think we’ll see more targeted approaches. We’ve lost the whole connection with national systems and with national comms/KM conduits. We forget that our next users will be the national level users which are not using all these online channels all that much.

  • What is your personal interest in the field of KM – now?

My personal interest is communication for development (comms4dev) and policy communication  i.e. finding ways that we use comms/KM approaches, tools, products, processes, networks (informal or formal) to get research into use and people to get engaged in the research process, using the knowledge from the research in a certain way and get research to be more relevant, better informed etc.

The trick is to trap people to get interested in research but there’s another loop to use people to influence the way research is done.

I’m also kinda interested in this innovation systems and learning to make it practical. It’s still very airy fairy but it sounds very powerful – the question is: “how to get it into use”?

  • What are your sources of inspiration in KM/C?

By talking with people, learning. I don’t think I’m an active learner (e.g. on social networks) but I’m engaging with people. The inspiration for me, overall, was my community forestry experience, learning about Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), understanding that what we’re dealing with is not a technological change but a social movement, getting people more involved and to take over, not just “be developed”. There’s a couple of people that really inspired me: Cor Veer, John Raintree..

Learning-blind development (aid) and the missed opportunities for a real difference


Failure's freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

Failure’s freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

The global development sector is a learning universe, a space of experimentation and failures. One can read this positively – as in “a lot of learning is happening in it” – or negatively – as in “a lot has to be learned still and so much effort goes to waste”. Are we blind to learning in development (aid)?

Thing is: this situation is totally systemic. And since we only realise now how all aspects of development are connected (e.g. roads and other infrastructures allow better access to market; access to water allows improvement on agriculture and further down the line education etc.) there has been indeed a lot of wasted resource reinventing the wheel in development (aid) which could have been used differently.

At a moment when the public scrutiny towards spending on development aid is ever more alert and leads to budget cuts (which is a good thing since it forces everyone to cooperate for scarcer resources), the imperative for learning has never been more important than now – something which is fortunately happening, somehow, even between regions (as e.g. between Africa and the Pacific).

But a lot remains to be done still. It is not always obvious how learning can really improve development (aid), and the costs of learning (i.e. the investment in it – and I’ll come back to this in a later post) can seem much steeper than the benefits. But the cost of not learning is quite obvious.

So now, let’s look at a typically bad – and alas too frequent – development (research) project and its missed opportunities for learning; and let’s compare this with an ideal project which pays much attention to learning throughout:

What happens too often with typical / bad development projects

What ideal (learning-focused) development initiatives would look like

Preparation

It usually has overloaded ambitions in an unreasonably short project period (it’s not realistic and not designed in the light of previous experiences) Upfront, there have been extensive consultations with key parties – current and future partners – to determine the agenda and the ideal duration of the initiative. Literature research and scoping past experiences is also instrumental in building upon the legacy for this new initiative

Initial phases

The new project or program is meant to start delivering almost as it starts – no consideration has been paid for the time it takes to build meaning, trust and abilities The new initiative spends considerable time (a flexible inception period) collecting insights to refine and work further on ownership, capacities relationships and better plans
The project only addresses the ‘what has to be done’ and assumes that the people involved can just get on with it

Initial briefing is only about what the project aims to achieve, its organogram and reporting lines etc. all bureaucratic information

Much consideration goes into ‘Why are we doing this’ as well as ‘how are we going to handle it’ and ‘do we have the right capacities or should we invest in our capacities or in extra capacity?’

Initial briefing has therefore taken stock of the capacity gaps among staff and partners and addresses simple things like working with Word/Excel, social media etc. a s well as concepts that matter for the initiative – so the why and how

Who’s driving the project

External parties are driving the whole agenda and exploring new (thematic and geographic) areas Endogenous parties (and perspectives) are in the driving seat and have been selected for their mandate and capacity, network and other assets to sustain the initiative in the context(s) of the initiative- all of this is known because there has been proper reflection and consultation with them at the onset
A small team organises all activities for everybody. Occasionally some ad hoc team meetings are held which help the central team pass on information to everyone else A small team facilitates the implementation by other teams. It puts emphasis on holding regular team meetings where real two-way conversations are held, with proper documentation of key discussion points and jointly agreed decisions

Running activities and events

Activities are implemented by a small team working in isolation from other teams – they’re too busy ‘fire fighting’ to share anything with anyone else Every opportunity is seized to see if there is sense in following a social learning approach, putting the emphasis on ‘genuine’ participation. And the teams take time to find alternative solutions if they see that they end up ‘fire fighting’ all the time.
Activities are following the plans because the plans dictate what has to be done according to donors, when they granted the money. Activities are following the outcome logic and theory of change but they are regularly revised along the way, in line with changes – and that has been agreed with donors as the latter rather focus on a more effective yet deviated initiative than a useless original plan
Events organised during the project are scarce and when they happen they consist in death-by-Powerpoint executions, are ill-documented and quickly forgotten about – everyone sticks back to ‘business as usual’

There is particularly a ‘big bang’ kick-off event with lots of money and the presence of national media, followed sometimes only by a major closing event. Nothing much in between

The initiative is all about learning and engagement therefore it offers many opportunities and contextual events for the people involved to come together, reflect, ask questions, take decisions, follow up with actions, revise activities and plans

Engagement means that there is constant interaction with key influencers and movers, not just at the onset and sunset. All events that take place are properly facilitated to ensure learning is maximised – and well documented in accessible and compelling formats for future reference and action monitoring

Involvement and engagement

Working with partners at this stage means that partners do some activities either on their own but with very close ‘big brother-like’ supervision or totally separated from the rest of the project. The interaction relates to executing a plan and reporting about it – all that matters are the results. Partnership for the project staff means ‘more reports, more work, fewer results’ Working with partners builds upon the trust from the pre-project and early stages. Everyone shares insights, regularly engages in a joint analysis and it means a lot of opportunities to do things differently, to do different things, to learn differently (three learning loops) and to develop everyone’s capacity – a good set of assets for future initiatives too! Partnerships here means more ideas, more capacity, more energy, better quality learning, better results, better relationships: SYNERGY!
When conducting ‘field activities’, local community members are invited to respond to a (sometimes excruciatingly long) predefined questionnaire. They may never see the results of this. But it’s ok, since they’re project beneficiaries, they will benefit in a way or another, won’t they (it’s just not very clear how ;) ) Field activities are guided by a certain ethics of engagement, are participatory in design and in practice, are developed jointly with the locals involved and results are therefore automatically shared, visions for the future elaborated collectively and plans adjusted together, starting from different world views
High level engagement consists in developing a few outputs at the end of the project and sending them to a mixed group of important decision-makers, hoping they will read and apply these High level engagement – which also contributes to leading to development outcomes – means that cherry-picked decision-makers have been involved in the process from the start, own the process and results (perhaps they have been involved in action-research themselves) and become the best advocates of the initiative’s work themselves
People involved in the project feel isolated and detached from the project and from each other. They don’t look critically at options to improve the situation for themselves and the whole group People in the project feel energised, involved, concerned, motivated. They all apply ‘personal knowledge management’ (PKM) to some extent so they personally improve and they connect their personal sphere and network with the initiative to question and improve it and to sharpen critical thinking. They are encouraged to reflect on their own as well as collectively

Capacity development

After the initial briefing, if there is any capacity development activity it is training, conducted by external trainers, to address general skills, not specific contextual issues that the project people are effectively facing. And that is, again, if there is anything planned to address capacity gaps. Everyone’s capacity is positively monitored (followed) and leads to several activities along the initiative, moving training from the theoretical terrain to the workplace experience and moving from just training to a whole set of capacity development activities (coaching, exchange visits, involving people in communities of practice etc.) focusing generally on improving the institutional capacity for change

Communication and outputs

The website and other communication channels are mostly unidirectional (‘here’s what we have to say to you’) and not well connectedStaff and partners deplore that so little communication is taking place – but they’re not doing much to change this The different communication channels are interrelated, engaging (they feature dialogues, consultations etc.) and although they look slightly messier perhaps, they are echoing and amplifying what the initiative is trying to accomplish, through multiple engagement routes

Everyone contributes to communication efforts

The outputs developed by the project are released at the end of the project and without much passion – more like ‘according to plan’ – and are not really informing other activities. Occasionally they are being promoted on e.g. the website, as standalone ‘results’ A variety of outputs are released throughout the project (away from dotty dotted communication), mirroring the different reflections, conversations and actions that have taken place by different people at different times and locations, about the thematic content focus of the initiative as well as about the process leading to its development. They are connected, refer to each other, and crucially are used (both content and output development process) for further engagement, reflection and action by the parties that are supposed to use them as opportunities and levers of change

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation boils down to the bare minimum reporting. It is centralised but requires partners and outputs to provide a lot (random?) facts without background information as to why that matters. No one knows what happens to those M&E reports anyway. Probably they’re never read M&E organically addresses accountability, in an ongoing dialogue with the donor, but it also addresses learning needs to identify and address systemic gaps around the initiative’s objectives (and inform future initiatives). Everyone contributes to M&E although in practice M&E and project requirements are often the same because they have been integrated at the onset. Reports are just the (process) documentation of the conversations that happen in the initiative

What happens at the end of the project

The final project report is a sort of ‘annual report’ with some results but little passion and curiosity. It is only shared with the donor (Annual reports are an excellent measure of learning in organisations by the way)

Too bad, the website will never be updated – some people might think the project is still going on (luckily that horrible project is finally over though!)

The final project output is an interactive set of multimedia resources addressing different audiences, providing practical tools and guidance on approaches, in a variety of formats, distributed to all parties involved in the initiative, backed by an interactive event that looks forward and builds on previous conversations about this. All communication channels are also geared for that ‘post-initiative’ stage.
At the end of the project, it remains unclear what will happen with the people involved (staff, partners, beneficiaries), with the outputs (where will they be made accessible) and with the lessons that were gathered from the project – but at that stage, is there anything that should be saved from that horrible project, if not lessons about doing things differently next time? At the end of the initiative, a lot of options are on the table because there has been a thorough conversation throughout about sustainability, exit strategies etc. so everyone knows what they can do and have activated their networks to make it happen.

The initiative’s outputs are all openly accessible in a sustainable database and the many many lessons from this initiative have informed activities by many parties involved for future work – institutional memory across projects is taken care of.

Learning and sharing - the essence of smart development work

Learning and sharing – the essence of smart development work

It’s always dangerous to use such caricatures as it lends to think that it might refer to reality. It does not, of course, and a lot of development initiatives are somewhere on a continuum between situation A (the horrible project) and situation B (the ideal learning initiative), but clearly there are many opportunities for learning in development, so let’s focus on what’s being learned and use it to learn even more, rather than despair at all that is there to learn yet while ignoring the legacy from the past… 

Echoing, here, the man of the month (year, decade, century?):

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again (Nelson Mandela).

Does this assessment ring a bell? Does it resonate with your experience of what is happening with development aid or not? What other options do you see?

Related blog posts:

Managing contacts, as impossibly as knowledge flows?


I promised myself never to deal closely with a customer relationship management (CRM) system ever again.

Back in my IRC days, I did end up in that position and came to know about all the horrible details that make CRM any information manager’s worst nightmare.

The "5M's" of Social CRM - holding a promise for dev orgs too? (Credits - eremiah_owyang)

The “5M’s” of Social CRM – holding a promise for dev orgs too? (Credits – eremiah_owyang)

Indeed CRM systems are among the most difficult systems to keep up to date. The reason is manifold, either at individual or at collective level:

  • The data CRM is concerned with is most fluid of all: people. Human beings. In all our complexity and idiosyncrasies. We change organisations, we move positions, our teams are restructured, our competencies and pet-topics evolve over time. We live, we change, we make tracking our every move quite difficult, whether intentionally or not.
  • Because we change a lot, it seems to make sense to give us control over the CRM system so we can update our own records, preferences, subscriptions etc. alone – but that’s an open door to messing it up and multiplying duplicates (the real hell of CRM: which John Smith do I want to contact among these 17 entries for three really different people?)
  • What of modern workers who live across two or three locations, use up to seven email addresses and are actually better reachable by Yammer or Facebook than by phone or email? Where does all this complexity sit in a CRM system that wishes to remain simply usable?
  • We tend to need a point of contact to manage the central system, but then that means we abdicate our sovereignty over our own network, and our ownership into keeping the system up to date. It’s the brother bugger of letting chaos in by allowing everyone to manage the CRM system. 
  • And how much time are we *really* happy to invest in tagging business cards with all appropriate and relevant attributes for a given record, the kind of ‘intelligence’ that makes the difference between a contact entry and a strategic contact that allows us to DO something with it? Not much, likely. I never sat longer than 10′ going through business cards I had brought back from an event. 
  • Organisations are sometimes based in various countries. Their name changes, the letter at which they’re registered may change too, their acronym changes – though not always. Despite elaborate protocols to sort lists of contacts and organisation names in a logical manner, it remains extremely difficult to keep all records up to date.

Whatever the CRM system is, however it works, however up-to-date a system once is, in no time it relapses into the dangerous waters of 50% quality 50% garbage – and soon dips further down from there. So it happens that I haven’t (yet) come across any (development) organisation where CRM worked well.

But recently I talked with a colleague who was telling me that her previous employer was using SalesForce CRM to great success. And I came to think again about it. The colleague was working for a private sector business and then the obvious dawned on me: There can be no really successful CRM system among development organisations, so long as there is no financial/business incentive to keep the database up to date.

What this suggests?

A) that compared with private businesses, development organisations are really sloppy with some basic business gardening such as keeping track of contact details…

B) that probably most development organisations still start from their own perspective to reach out, rather than from their partner/beneficiary/donor/patron and customer relationship perspective. The likes of Outcome Mapping are luckily tilting the balance towards our boundary partners but by and large we fail to really . The same wishy-washy story as with partnerships. We’re befuddling our own most precious resource together with our skills and insights: the people we work with and around.

If this era is truly social, truly we should zoom back on our key contacts, and our CRM would follow. So perhaps managing contacts is not as impossible as knowledge flows, it’s costly and time-consuming and messy and complex, but it’s the price for quality work made with a quality network.

Related blog posts:

Interview with Ann Waters-Bayer: of KM, social learning and rural innovation


Innovative farming practices in the Sahel (Credits: CGIAR Climate / FlickR)

Innovative farming practices in the Sahel (Credits: CGIAR Climate / FlickR)

Following the interview with Carl Jackson in March this year, I also had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Waters-Bayer on the same occasion, whom I just came across some weeks ago again around the workshop on Agricultural Innovation Systems in Africa.

Ann is agricultural sociologist with the ETC Foundation in the Netherlands and a well-respected author, academic and practitioner in the field of agriculture and rural development. Ann has been particularly closely involved with PROLINNOVA (promoting local innovation in ecologically-oriented agriculture and natural resource management, for which Ann wrote several publications) and with JOLISAA (Joint Learning in Innovation Systems in African Agriculture) which testifies the attachment of Dr. Waters-Bayer to move away from traditional research-led approaches to innovation towards farmer-led innovation enhanced by formal research spheres.

“We’re not involved in scaling up local innovations, we’re involved in trying to scale up the process of farmer participatory innovation which continues to adapt, to changing in circumstances.” (Ann Waters-Bayer)

As with Carl, I was interested to find out how Ann Waters-Bayer conjugated (or not) social learning and knowledge management.

The following terribly unprofessional video (additionally spoiled by some hotel staff passing by and working with dishes in the background) is redeemed by the quality and freshness of Ann’s reflections.

The transcript follows below.

What is knowledge management to you and how does it relate to social learning (if at all)?

Knowledge management is capturing, understanding, analysing and sharing experiences and insights. It could be within a project, an organisation, a network, a community of practice. How would that relate to social learning: In knowledge management we talk a lot about the sharing aspects but not the way in which the sharing would be done and the techniques and media you might use to bring about a change in the way that people reflect on the way they’re doing things, although it’s true that capitalisation of experiences (which is what we often called it) was forcing you to reflect on your experiences and to understand them in a different way than if you had not done it. There was an aspect of at least individual learning and, to the extent that if you were doing it with other people and stakeholders in that experience, then there was more of an aspect of social learning in that.

In a way you could say that the social learning label is something I have been involved in for a few decades.

Where do you think knowledge management or social learning is going and where could be their place in international development?

I think there’s a growing awareness, consciousness of different sources of knowledge. It used to be that about citizens’ knowledge, farmers’ knowledge and farmers experiencing innovation was not so much incorporated as these days. I think it’s partly because of that movement towards innovation systems thinking where you’re looking not at this linear point from research to extension to farmers but you’re seeing that there are various sources of knowledge and ideas cropping up everywhere and people interacting with each other and making things happen and making things better. It doesn’t necessarily come from conventional research. That innovation thinking is much stronger and I hope that’s the way things are going in development.

What are your current interests in knowledge management and/or social learning?

My biggest interest of course is starting with farmers and rural people and natural resource users and how they are themselves interacting with others outside the formal research sphere in order to experiment, try out new things, innovate, improve the ways they’re doing things – and how that can be linked with the formal spheres. There are people trying to do research with farmers and trying to make that linkage in such a way that people are reflecting on it and then people in different organisations are also reflecting on how do we need to do things differently in our organisations in order to support that ongoing innovation process which is happening out there, all the time and which doesn’t depend on research to make that happen, but research could actually support, enhance it, speed things up. This idea of creating that capacity within a group or a community, where they have better linkages with other sources of knowledge and of ideas. If those linkages can be improved then that adaptive capacity can be improved and a lot of the social learning is going to come about through doing things together with different stakeholders, reflecting on  how they’re doing things and how they can improve that. That is the process that I’m hoping we can scale up. We’re not involved in scaling up local innovations, we’re involved in trying to scale up the process of farmer participatory innovation which continues to adapt to changing circumstances.

What would you recommend reading, who would you recommend getting in touch with to hear more about your current fields of interest?

I think it would be good – in discussing social learning – to go back to some of the earlier literature that is of social learning e.g. the RAAKS approach (rapid appraisal on agricultural knowledge systems), AKIS (agricultural knowledge and information/innovation systems, among others mentioned in this fragment of the book ‘Wheelbarrows full of frogs: social learning in rural resource management (2002)’) with Niels Roling and all that’s come out of that in agricultural innovation systems. I think it would enrich a lot of the discussions that are going on now about social learning.

Related blog posts:

Of partnerships, DEEP and wide


Partnership, an anchor and harpoon forged over time (Credits - Rob Young)

Partnership, an anchor and harpoon forged over time (Credits – Rob Young)

PARTNERSHIPS!

The holy grail of development!

Well, when you bother about collaborative approach that is. And some prefer to use partners for results rather than relationships. But for any development organisation with the right frame of mind, partnerships are central. Only it tends to be a lot of discourse and perhaps not enough action.

Let me offer, in this shoot post, a few ideas to work practically with partners:

  • Partners are not a category of actors. They’re not NGOs, they’re not governmental agencies, they’re not donors. They can be all of them. Partners are all the actors we care enough to listen to, to work with, to deliver together with, to enrich mutually, to develop each other’s capacities… They go way beyond the vague and slightly demeaning term of ‘stakeholders’. As was said in this week’s annual programme meeting of my employer:

Let’s turn ‘stakeholders’ into partners

 

 

  • Partners are not just for our own benefit, they should be mutually enriching. Otherwise we’re not talking about partners but about parties that we benefit from, like  fat sheep that we prey on. Is it the vision of development you wish to spread around? It most certainly isn’t mine.
  • Partners are not obscure organisations hidden behind generic terms of reference. They are groups of people that we know and that rely on individual relationships, hopefully formally or informally institutionalised enough that they don’t depend on just one person. But let’s not underestimate the deeply human nature of any meaningful (even institutional) ‘partnership’.
  • Building partnerships is hard work. It takes time to find the people that coalesce around some ideas; it takes patience to understand each other’s language, to accept each other’s vision and agenda, to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses frankly; it takes courage to want to bridge the gap, to invest in the partnership beyond the inevitable bust-ups and possible breaches of confidence; it takes resources to bring our organisational apparatus behind those partnerships. It takes years to achieve meaningful partnerships.
  • Maintaining partnerships is also hard work. It implies having genuine discussions about the end of funding for a given initiative, exploring other options together, but also keeping regular visits and holding ongoing conversations – even chit chat – throughout, as two old friends do, without always having an interest in mind.
  • Investing in partnerships is not about multiplying the amount of organisations that are mentioned in our initiatives and projects, it’s about deepening the relationships we have with them, the only way to build the trust out of which authentically well grounded, relevant, jointly owned, sustainable work can emerge. In this sense…

Partnerships are not necessarily about ‘widening’ the list of our institutional friends, they’re about ‘deepening‘ the relationship we have with them, increasingly bringing to the light the difficult questions that one day might threaten those very partnerships and finding ways to address them, together, with maturity.

  • Finally, for genuinely helpful partnerships to emerge, mutual capacity development and a collective eye for critical thinking and adaptive management are key. That is what helps partners understand how the situation evolves and take decisions in a better informed way.

Some of these messages are strongly echoed in the synthesis reflections about the ILRI annual programme meeting:

Partnerships are perhaps key, but they’re not a word to throw around so as to tick boxes, they’re a long term investment, philosophy and care for people of blood and flesh, of ideas and ideals, for development that makes sense and makes us more empowered, honourable and human every day.

Related blog posts:

Social media for empowerment – a guide for African climate change workers


The social media guide for African climate change practitioners

The social media guide for African climate change practitioners

After a couple of months of hard collective work on it, and after several other months of to-ing an fro-ing between AfricaAdapt and ILRI, the Social media guide for climate change practitioners in Africa is finally OUT!

  • The final version of the guide as a PDF doc is only 10 pages long (about 2000 words) and an easy reference for anyone not all too sure what social media are and how they can be used for climate change (and other) work.
  • The complete version of the guide, as a wiki, is more comprehensive and is the object of this blog, as it really emphasises ways that social media can empower people, in this case particularly African climate change workers.

Social media can indeed be an incredibly powerful way to mitigate imbalances between groups by pooling resources together – when the wisdom of the crowd turns into the power of the crowd. The case of Africa – which is the focus of the guide – is particularly revealing in climate change and other development work. A lot of development initiatives have pretended to help Africa and to empower its inhabitants, only to further increase the concentration of knowledge and know-how in the strongholds of Northern development goodwill.

Yet, social media are slowly changing this game, offering African entrepreneurs, artists, development workers and creative people from all African walks of life to connect, share ideas, review and assess products and services, question policies and practices together. And indeed some initiatives mentioned in the guide such as Africa Gathering are tapping into the unrivalled opportunities for mobilisation that social media bring about.

A whole section of the guide is dedicated to this particular aspect of African empowerment. A hidden version of this page provides a slightly more elaborated overview of this topic. Some of the work highlighted in this section is borrowed from the excellent IKM-Emergent programme and other initiatives that really intended to let Africans (and other developing country ‘aid recipients’) define their own approach to development.

This is only one of the elements of the guide but an important one for AfricaAdapt and its constituents, but also for many Africans wishing to organise their physical and intellectual livelihood according to their own terms. Some of the initiatives listed in the guide are a testimony of the vibrancy of such indigenous movements making creative uses of social media.

What the social media guide offers, altogether

This social media guide offers a simple ‘how to get started‘ section on what are social media in general and what are some of the most visible ones in particular, but it is principally structured around four main sections, each displaying a selection of key resources that are worth reading to know more about:

  1. The first section looks into what it means to promote African knowledge (about climate change adaptation).
  2. A second section tries to offer very practical advice on how to use social media along the knowledge cycle.
  3. The guide also highlights some doubts that surround social media and offers some constructive ways to address these.
  4. Finally, the guide also looks beyond social media to see how mass media, face-to-face, mobile telephony and the likes can offer very strong complementarities when used with social media.

For further research and resources, the guide also provides a series of useful appendixes.

There are chances this wiki guide continues to be updated in the longer run. If you are interested in this, contact me on this blog or any other social media where you know to find me…

In the meantime, I hope this guide offers you and your network some additional ways to use online connections (mixed with offline ones) to increase freedom of speech, thought and action. That is after all the single most powerful promise that the Internet once held…

Related blog posts:

The 50-cent and 2-second immortality syndrom


I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, I want it NOW!
Old-timer Queen (of England, but not the monarch, the band) was already onto it: We want things to happen too quickly, in life and at work…

‘Make that website work by next week’, ‘Get our social media strategy functional by next month’, ‘get our team to influence policy by next quarter’, ‘make sure that multi-stakeholder platform is fully operational in 10 months’, ‘show me impact on 50 million lives in 5 years’.

It’s insane!

The dictatorship of pace goes even up to the 30-second elevator pitch and the 2-second attention span that affects us when browsing our tweets…

But our collective delusion doesn’t stop there.

We also want to leave an immortal impression of our passage on Earth. We go for the 50 Cent ‘bling bling’ approach, with the information systems that have the most complete panoply of whistles and bells, the KM strategy that everyone around or yet to born always awaited, the research agenda that will change the face of the planet, the network that will solve everyone’s problems, the development project that will be scaled up ‘till the end of times…

Should we not slow down and take a bit of perspective? (Credits: Jsome1 / FlickR)

Should we not slow down and take a bit of perspective? (Credits: Jsome1 / FlickR)

Woooow, hold on a sec here!

I can understand the conscious or unconscious quest for immortality and leaving traces behind, which Milan Kundera described so well in the eponymous novel.

I can also understand that people want to move fast – I’m not the most patient of earthlings myself. But combining eternal glory and glitz with light speed is just about as mature as a five year-old thinking the world is his/her royal court.

And yet, fast bling bling impact drives the reality of much knowledge management in development.
The tyranny of development ‘projects’ and their limited lifeline pushes us to promise unrealistic impacts; the crowning of complexity has stirred up a cohort of concertation networks and multi-stakeholder processes (great idea) that should all work out at soonest and remain sustainable for ever (oh oh, unrealistic thinking and not even justified); the big-bang KM strategies of development organisations hold all the promises that information filtering and the reinvention of the wheel (which is not always bad) will be erased once and for all; the increasing pace of our social media world seems to condemn slow work, and partnerships should deliver now, regardless of whether or not they are based on solid foundations…

Yet the best development success stories among us are slow, organic, civic-driven developments, from the Grameen Bank to Ushahidi, from Paulo Freire’s popular education to the biggest NGO in the world – Bangladeshi giant BRAC – from Digital Green’s participatory video work to communities of practice like KM4Dev.

Immortality is perhaps not best achieved through fast bling bling, not even through slow shine, but through the seeds of change we plant in each other all the time, carrying, reshaping and expanding the collective wisdom that has brought us up to where we are now (remember the shoulders of giants?)…

So…

  • No, that website won’t work by next week. Even if I killed myself setting it up, it would take time to train people, it should have taken time to consult them in the first place, and it will take time to generate and content and keep pumping more of it into the site, around a solid content strategy;
  • No our social media strategy will not be functional by next month, because it takes weeks  to try out social media, months to find the right people at the edges of your network and years to develop great content and strong engagement around it;
  • No, our team will not influence policy by next quarter because policy-makers have to deal with many different items at a time (of which research evidence is only one by the way), and it will take our team a couple of years to have built a good rapport with policy makers and to be able to start influencing policies;
  • No our multi-stakeholder platform will not be fully operational in 10 months because it will take everyone two to three years to understand each other’s language, perspective, agenda, to grapple with it, agree with a common direction and start effectively building  something together (and we’re not talking about funding the platform beyond project funding if that’s the set-up, which takes additional time);
  • And finally, no, we won’t be able to show impact on 50 million lives in 5 years because impact is very difficult to trace, we cannot really anticipate tradeoffs of our initiative just now and because quick demonstrable, quantifiable indicators have nothing to do with the real quality of life, happiness, connectedness, empowerment and freedom that people enjoy, they’re only crass over-simplified proxies that hint towards that.

And so to the people that Freddie and his Queen fellows addressed in their tune, here’s what my mates from Radiohead have to tell you now: Hey man, slow down!

And please forget about that cheap rap joke… Even if you go for bling bling, remember: speech is silver, silence in golden. Rub it in 50c.

Related blog posts:

Social learning in climate change – Of buckets, loops and social LSD?


Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Last week, I had to facilitate one of the most challenging and interesting workshops in a long time: A very diverse group of researchers, practitioners and donors came together for the workshop organised by the CGIAR program Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The workshop focused on ‘communication and social learning: supporting local decision making on climate change, agriculture and food security‘.

The main topic was thus social learning and how it can be mobilised for more effective engagement strategies in the climate change sphere – a highly volatile and complex sphere.

Although I was facilitating and thus not really joining the rich conversations that braided the workshop, I heard the insightful gems from this fascinating collective of people in plenary feedback sessions.

Hereby, my selection of insights from the conversation:

  • There is still very little evidence of the value of social learning – how does it compare with other approaches to carry out research and implement development work, why do we tend to believe and sense this is so effective but fail to justify our intuition?
  • Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Cynefin framework                             (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Because we may not know much about the value of social learning and perhaps even what it means, it might be better to just throw ourselves in the battle – as we would do in the ‘chaos’ block of the Cynefin framework (see graph on the right). This means we would be well informed to just throw many approaches and initiatives in a bucket (or basket) and then see how the bucket itself reacts;

  • The cost of social learning remains very high: face-to-face interactions with multiple actors is time-consuming and pricy. This puts all the more pressure on assessing the value of social learning;
  • Social learning brings us back to the single, double and triple learning loops. Another reason to put them into practice. What was interesting here was that applied to communication it was introduced as a) simple dissemination of information (single loop), b) reflection about what activities allow us to be more effective (double loop) and c) real transformative change through social learning among multiple stakeholders (triple loop);
  • Social learning in itself is not really worth pursuing on its own if not for action. For this to happen, there must also be an agenda of action, of social change, that actors negotiate among them and keep in mind at all times. Social learning for the sake of it is a useless academic exercise for development issues;
  • Social learning is also a philosophy, at least an approach that can only thrive in an environment that properly supports it. Institutionalising social learning remains a difficult agenda – this has a ‘deja-vu’ feel of the organisational learning era though, doesn’t it?
  • The case for civic-driven initiatives (actually referred to as ‘endogenous social learning’ initiatives here) was made again: don’t build up from scratch, embed where the soil is fertile, where the energy and capacity is already mobilised;
  • Social learning has a twisted relation with power dynamics as it invites people to join decision-making but bears with it the devils of hidden power (who instils the social learning dynamics?), token representation (who is credibly sent to represent a given group?) and of false transparency (how clear is the decision-making process for those involved in the social learning activity and outside it?).
  • Particularly when applied to complex problems such as climate change, social learning thrives on the participation of very diverse groups of people. This, combined with the issue of power dynamics, means we need to consciously make room for social differentiation – accepting the diversity of perspectives, languages and seeing to an inviting process that creates room for groups of people (ostracised indigenous groups, women, youths etc.) to engage in the conversation and decision-making process. That social learning and social differentiation makes a perfect ‘social LSD’ combination that can get us very high (errrr, far);
  • The importance of ‘process facilitators’ is recognised: we need process guidance, a knack for and wits to convene and catalyze social learning;

We need many, many more creative participatory facilitators. Without them, much of what we hope for will not happen. Who, where, in what ways, needs to do what to generate and support them? What needs to change?” (Chambers, personal communication March 2012)

  • That engagement process should be indeed very interactive, continuous or at least iterative, if it is to reflect genuine social learning. Otherwise it risks falling on the side of ‘token participation’ again;
  • Social learning processes need to address the diverse time frames that motivate different people: farmers look at the next harvest, policy-makers at the next election, a community at the next 25 years, climate change scientists at the next 100 years. Incentives and engagement depend on the time frame of reference for each group – as beautifully explained in this post.
  • As ever, trust is the cement of all success. Particularly in large interactive processes such as wide scale social learning initiatives. This is one of the underlying themes in a recent and excellent (but long) post from Nancy Dixon, when pondering why knowledge management didn’t save General Motors.
  • The documentation of the very process of social learning is equally adamant to the success of our social learning enterprises – one of the external reviewers from the final presentation in the workshop mentioned: “the best pilots cannot be scaled up because they are the best (i.e. they are the result of a symbiotic set of factors related to one particular context), scale up the process not the pilots”. Hear hear!!


Social learning is indeed one of the talks of town – and for good reason – so this workshop was very timely, and could be only the beginning of a much longer engagement process, starting with this emerging community of interest.

This also tells me that it’s time I resumed my blogging on multi-stakeholder processes.

Related blog posts:

External blog posts written about this workshop: