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:

Harvesting insights (6): A checklist of comms/KM functions in any development (research) organisation or initiative


Just a post to gather my thoughts on this once and for all on this topic.

Together with some colleagues from WorldFish and the Inernational Water Management Institute (IWMI), we have been pondering about the profile of comms/KM profiles and positions in any organisation and/or project, since ILRI and IWMI held a really interesting workshop on knowledge management and communication in the CGIAR research programs.

The reflection on KM positions has been helpful to think about the profile of the people that might have to take care of comms and KS/KM/learning. Now, at a higher level, what are the organisational functions that take care of communication and/or knowledge sharing and management and learning? This is treading suspiciously close to the happy families of engagement, but here I want to think about the functional departments or units of work that any organisation might want to consider useful, rather than look at the fields of expertise as mentioned in the families of engagement.

Every organisation or project has its way of looking at these functions – rightly so – but what could a generic checklist of these functions look like?

I would think this works around different tiers of organizational importance (how this is perhaps currently assessed, not how it should be assessed) and relative recognition of those functions.

  • First tier
    • Public awareness and media engagement (i.e. communicating the organisation/initiative)
    • Dissemination of information (communicating the results -against stated objectives- of the initiative)
    • Marketing (for commercial companies or initiatives that promote a particular product or service)
    • Network engagement (and management) with critical stakeholders and partners
    • Policy engagement and support, advocacy
  • Second tier:
    • Internal communication
    • Data and information management
    • Knowledge management
  • Third tier:
    • Capacity development (around communication and knowledge work),
    • Monitoring and evaluation (of knowledge work and communication)
    • Process documentation (informal monitoring)

For projects and time-bound initiatives, these different functions follow a different lifespan which my colleague Peter Ballantyne drafted here. Let’s examine these functions one level down in granularity:

Public awareness and media engagement: promoting the intervention/organisation, getting public attention through the media and conveying it through more mainstream (and increasingly social) media. This is all about communicating about the project/organisation/team etc. and is usually the most recognised set of communication activities because it might be a requirement from donors but also a good way to get some visibility for the initiative (the quest for immortality shows its nose again).

Dissemination of information and results

Communicating agri-water research over time (credit: ILRI/Ballantyne)

Communicating agri-water research over time (credits: ILRI/Ballantyne)

Second in line, usually, after talking about the intervention or organisation itself is: talking about what comes out of information dissemination. In this other graph by Peter Ballantyne, this would be typically the second peak of communication activities in an otherwise ‘communication-empty’ initiative: PA at the project launch, and dissemination at the end when results are ready. The problem is: it’s not enough. But dissemination remains a crucial function of communication – even though we are increasingly moving towards an engagement-rich communication approach.

Marketing

The projects and organisations that have some products and services to offer to the public – pay-for or not – have an additional communication imperative around the marketing of these products and services. The approach changes a bit between pay-for and free/public products and services but the idea of attracting attention, creating a desire, informing the desiring customers and leading them to action (the AIDA model which is increasingly questioned and reexamined from a socialisation perspective – see graph) or the

AIDA socialisation (credits - CoffeeMarketing)

AIDA socialisation (credits – CoffeeMarketing)

4Ps (price, promotion, product, place) can come in handy to make sure products and services find their customers and users. But again there might be little engagement there. Hence…

(Practice-oriented) Network engagement and management with critical stakeholders and partners

As pure dissemination-based approacheds are finding their limits, network engagement and management (or rather facilitation) is becoming increasingly crucial. Communication is no longer about crafting documents in isolation and sending them to intended target audiences but more and more so about bringing those audiences in the (co-)creation process. Trust becomes an important currency in communication work and partner / stakeholder management. We analyse our social networks, map stakeholders, identify who are the key nodes in the network and work with them from the start.

Whether by means of visits, exchanges, workshops, training courses, brown bag seminars, informal and formal lunches, bilateral discussions, network engagement is becoming a central bone in the communication spine. The practice aspect of this function is to ensure that the engagement effectively leads to transforming and adapting discourses, ways of thinking, behaviours i.e. the formal and informal practices of these actors we are working with and for. It is the alter-ego of the next function…

Policy engagement and support, advocacy

A related field is that of policy engagement / support and advocacy. The objective here is to ensure that research and other activities inform and influence policies, support them, and advocate issues that might have been blind spots until now. Increasingly, policy engagement is moving away from conventional advocacy (the one that is following a PR approach of unilaterally targeting messages for audiences) to embrace a much higher degree of interactions with these policy-makers and political actors that should be influenced. In multi-stakeholder processes, these political actors are part of the co-creation process and that is a new way of engaging with policies.

The next three areas are less obvious functions of comms/KM but people talk about them and recognise their importance. They simply don’t act upon it systematically.

Internal communication and knowledge sharing

Perhaps this ought to just be part of regular communication but it has often been overlooked in the past, because internal teams were not a key ‘target audience’. As we are in the network era, the importance of communication, cooperation and coordination dawns on project managers, and as teams are increasingly decentralised and scattered across various countries and locations, internal communication and knowledge sharing are also increasingly recognised as an important area of comms/KM.

Data and information management:

Data and information management are typically an area whose importance is recognised. Lip service is frequently paid for it, but following through with elaborate and robust systems for data and information management are a mile further which many are not ready to run. Still this is an area of concern for communication because the documentation part of the work collects a lot of information and the platforms and channels are usually set up by the communication (or KM) team. In research organisations, this function is sometimes nested directly in the research teams – but the challenge remains intact: someone needs to ensure data are collected, tagged and meta-tagged properly, cleaned, archived and sorted. Information outputs and records should also follow this logic, at a higher level of processing.

Knowledge management

Maybe this also ought to be lumped up with its sub-components of knowledge sharing, dissemination and information management, but knowledge management ought to be a function (if not a formalised position) to ensure the integration of conversations with documentation and learning. It becomes the life and blood of reflexive communication in and outside the organisation or initiative.

Now we enter the obscure areas in comms/KM, those functions that are usually not accounted for, not paid lip service for nor even thought about much, if at all.

Capacity development

One of these obscure areas is capacity development for comms and KM. In any organisation or initiative, there are people writing, presenting, engaging, reflecting, questioning… but they’re not part of the comms/KM team. They are sometimes very strong in all these areas that are perhaps not typically in their portfolio of activities. But sometimes they are not and they should be trained, coached, sharing their perspective with peers to improve their own practice. And sadly, there isn’t much in store for them to do so. Organisations and initiatives of the future should include a capacity development aspect to their activities to make sure that everyone involved is strong at conversing, documenting and learning individually and collectively…

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of knowledge work and communication

Of course M&E is recognised in most development/research organisations but formally including the monitoring and evaluation of knowledge work, much less so. Yet a formal assessment of communication and KS/KM activities would help all parties get more effective at what they are doing. Simple reporting on outputs is far from reaching this goal and understanding dynamic relationships, use of knowledge, effects of learning, transformative consequences of engagement are subtle but critical areas of importance for all of us if we are to remain relevant over time and strong on adaptive/proactive management.

Process documentation (informal monitoring)

I’ve already blogged in the past about process documentation and its Latin and Francophone variants in the past. It seems to me (and to my former organisation IRC) a crucial area to learn by doing and to improve the way an initiative is unfolding against its theory of change. Alas too often people recognise the importance of processes but fail to monitor them, not even informally – documenting discussions, reflections, insights, questions is not the cup of tea of most people, but I do think it is absolutely essential to instil a learning culture and to support various other areas of work: communication, KM/KS, M&E. See this publication for more information on this topic.

Morphing these categories?

Communication is evolving. Social learning is blurring the boundaries as it tends to bring together a lot of these activities together. And every organisation is mixing these functions in its own ways, so there isn’t a fixed menu but rather a set of options that can be combined and recombined in any comms or KM strategy. The functions themselves are however relevant to think about.

What changes do you see happen in this field? What is missing among these organisational functions?

Related blog posts:

Revisiting the links between communication and knowledge management


At the fifth informal get-together of the Ethiopia/Addis Ababa KM4Dev network, one of the focused conversations we held was about the relations between communication and knowledge management. I wrote this year about how KM can power communication. I also blogged about the different families of engagement in which comms and KM can be found.

KM and comms overlap a lot - with the exception of learning?

KM and comms overlap a lot – with the exception of learning?

The KM4Dev Ethiopia discussion we had focused on the following two questions:

  1. Where do KM and comms sit in your organisation / project and are they formally or informally connected? How?
  2. Where do you see comms and KM work together and possibly integrate?

The conversation highlighted a few points which I think are worth looking into here.

KM and comms are defined very differently in different organisations or projects; they encompass each other (KM is part of comms, comms is part of KM) or they are totally separate depending on the concepts that form the foundations of that organisation and the politics of different departments… What is sure: There has to be a real purpose in bringing comms and KM together to encourage formal and/or informal cooperation among these approaches.

As many other things, definitions don’t matter so much (we’ve been working on comms and KM all along without labeling these ways) so long as your organisation/project feels comfortable knowing what it does with it. That intention matters, particularly if as I have advocated KM (and comms) includes a strong emphasis on learning. Purpose is essential to accelerating learning.

One of the main differences between KM and comms has been the idea of messaging (highlighted in the definitions in one of the resources mentioned below) which has characterised much comms work in the past: In organisations and projects, comms – understood here as a department rather than a function or skill set – has been traditionally focusing on unilaterally sending messages to target groups. There has been very little said about multi-lateral relations in comms work and also very little about (face-to-face and online) engagement from the start. This is changing, however, with more and more communication strategies and activities paying attention to nurturing the network (or ecosystem) as part of which the organisation or project is part. This change of approach is perhaps the main reason why there is such a blur between communication and knowledge management: comms is evolving; and so is KM, moving away from being understood as just information management (more about the difference between the two on the KM4Dev wiki). Adding to the blur, is that knowledge sharing is essential in KM and might be understood – wrongly – as communication.

Comms and KM retain nonetheless deeply distinctive features. As mentioned in the engagement families analogy, the marketing and PR branches of the communication family are very different from what KM does or intend to do. The learning aspect is also usually not a very prominent aspect of comms, while it is adamant to good, agile KM. And information management is only thought of as distantly supporting comms, while it is part and parcel of KM.

Perhaps another key difference is that comms is recognised and mainstreamed a lot more in business and has been traditionally used as a strong corporate arm, i.e. a controlled field which organisations pay attention to regarding what they are communicating and how they are engaging with clients, partners, beneficiaries etc. With the advent of social media, the corporate comms side has continued to extend its influence, while the KM arm is perhaps moving increasingly towards personal knowledge management and the role of social networks to influence the conversations, documentation efforts and learning issues of people – and their organisations if they are employees. 

Ultimately both comms and KM wish to change the behaviour of a number of internal and/or external audiences… But communication tends to still have that ‘corporate’ feel to it, while KM and its inherent recognition of learning – and of the power of social learning – recognises much more explicitly the importance of external signals and of co-creating knowledge to get to smarter conversations that solve current problems and pre-empt future issues. This is introduced in this recent explanation by TheKnowledgeCore. The method to achieve change is not the same – much more controlled in comms and  arguably much more open to social learning for social change in agile KM.

Coming back to the initial point here, if there is a real will to make communication and KM work together, it really happens. KM then informs ‘smarter’ communication while KM also benefits from the expertise of comms to approach different internal and external groups more effectively, offline and online. And such a comms-fuelled smarter KM connects strong information management (having information well organised, available, accessible and indeed accessed) with strong communication, to ensure that communication and knowledge sharing are based on existing and pertinent information.

So, this definition and distinction game is a fuzzy affair, but there is certainly much to gain in stimulating interactions between proponents of workers of the comms field and those of the KM field. That’s what agile KM is also about. I am a knowledge sharing and communication specialist, so it makes perfect sense to me that both fields are related, perhaps this post gives you some ideas to consider it too?

And while at that, here are some possibly interesting resources around similar discussions in the past:

Related blog posts:

A journey through five years of blogging


On this day, exactly five years ago, I started blogging. On this very blog. My first time ever. Not a particularly great post actually. Nor many posts that followed that primal scream on the web.

Five years of blogging and much more coming (Credits: Stephen Mitchell)

Five years of blogging on KM & co. and much more coming (Credits: Stephen Mitchell)

But like for many others before (Leo Babauta, Harold Jarche, Irving Wladawsky-Berger and most recently Jeff Bullas in the corporate world), blogging has become a central part of my practice. A hobby. A habit. A drug. A source of comfort and peace. A source of intuition and emotions. A passion – shared… And many more useful things

So for this five-year anniversary I’d like to offer a journey through these five years of blogging, selecting some posts that may have gone unnoticed (or not) but really matter to me and characterise the various phases I went through in this blogging journey…

The genesis: confusion of a confusiast

That first post was by a confusiast, but it was also quite confused. I knew I wanted to blog about knowledge management (my main field [of interest]), about communication (my main activity), about monitoring and evaluation (my extended hobby, to focus on learning), about complexity (my main source of confusion and fascination) and other things that popped up in my brain along the way. And I did a bit of all that.

Perhaps the most important posts of that period were:

Back in that period, there was not much quality in my blogging generally (not to say I don’t have my bad blogging days now either): I hadn’t clarified my thoughts, sources of information (sites) and knowledge (people and networks) and had not yet found my writing style, I didn’t link, I didn’t have anyone to converse with… But most importantly I had started blogging and that hugely helped make sense of information over time…

Another asset was my connection with KM4Dev. It is perhaps the main reason that pushed me to blog, but also to tweet, to use Slideshare, Del.icio.us, FlickR, to facilitate workshops in a different way etc. So in a way that genesis period of blogging owes much to this great community which has always been an extraordinary source of inspiration.

The IRC period

My previous employer – the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) is a marvellous organisation, full of learning, innovation, critical thinking, autonomy and fun… so much so that I almost worked for 10 years there. IRC’s cutting edge work really gave me lots of inspiration for blogging before I really moved on to focusing on my own ‘pet topics’. So back in those days I blogged a lot about multi-stakeholder processes (such as learning alliances), process documentation, resource centre networks, sector learning generally.

This is a period during which I focused a lot on monitoring and evaluation (M&E), as I got more and more involved in that type of work. At any rate, most of my posts from that period related to the work I was doing at IRC.

Some blog posts I enjoyed writing, from that period:

My learning take at IRC

Progressively I defined my own route on the blogging seas and took more and more liberty to use my IRC work to reflect on broader topics of discussion. In that period I started to be involved in various initiatives that went beyond IRC: SA-GE the francophone KM4Dev network, the IKM-Emergent research programme, my work in the core group of KM4Dev and as KM4Dev journal editor, my involvement in the KMers group of Tweeters (backed by a much more thorough and consistent use of Twitter) etc.

This is where I also put more and more emphasis on learning in all my KM, comms and M&E work – realising that knowledge management was meant to serve that learning objective to improve, more than anything else – and that comms with learning (and sharing) was in my eyes a lot more valuable than comms with messages.

The blog posts from that period reflect that shift:

An escapist route?

As working at IRC became more of a burden – or fatigue – towards the end, I also shifted my focus even more on other topics and external networks that mattered to me: IKM-Emergent once again, but also the AgShare Fair group (which eventually led me to work for ILRI). During that period I also had a long blogging holiday as I went through a difficult period… only to come back with a renewed and firm commitment to blogging regularly, as I also realised I really enjoyed and needed it.

During the last 15 months of my time at IRC I therefore moved on from focusing on the IRC work to look more broadly at e.g. development work more generally, education, conditions for effectiveness etc.

Some of the blog posts from that period:

Working for ILRI

And then in November last year I started working for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in a fantastic team of really dedicated and good knowledge and information professionals. The bulk of my work when I started off working at ILRI revolved around facilitation (as you can see on this overview of events we supported, there were many workshops since November 2011). So it’s only normal that quite a few of my posts in this new phase have been around event and meeting facilitation.

But there have also been a few posts about the connection between communication and knowledge work / learning. Although my workload increased, paradoxically I have never been as active on this blog as since I joined ILRI, posting up to 3-4 posts some weeks. The work environment in our team and around its projects is stimulating enough that I find lots of matter to think and blog about.

Some blog posts from this period:

The work at ILRI is changing little by little and this means I might end up blogging about different matters…

(Agile) KM for me... and you? as a word cloud

(Agile) KM for me… and you? as a word cloud

The next fork on the road?

Now I’m still working for ILRI (for almost a year day for day, as I started on November 1, 2011) but also broadening my scope to other areas that reflect some of the relevant topics for ILRI and for me: information management, monitoring of knowledge work (re-delving into the IKM work I did on that but with an emphasis on practical routine indicators and ways to assess the use of our ‘knowledge work’), training people on information and knowledge management, complexity theories in the field of agriculture innovation systems, change management, agile KM and the importance of mobilising all people towards ongoing change…

I can’t see further than that, but perhaps you have ideas as to where I should focus my blogging and our conversations next?

Researching… good questions from wrong ideas


Communication, KM, best practices, knowledge transfer... too many dead ends are still followed in research (Credits - FreeFotoUK/FlickR)

Communication, KM, best practices, knowledge transfer… too many dead ends are still followed in research (Credits – FreeFotoUK/FlickR)

(A little caveat here: obviously not all researchers fall in the traps described below, and those are not just traps for scientists but also for many other types of people).

It’s been a little under a year that I’ve landed in the fascinating world of research and its even more fascinating appetite for questions. However it’s time for a shoot post about some of the wrong ideas that researchers seem to be asking themselves – around my fields of interest. Here are but a few, I might add more in the future as and when I come across other fallacies…

Best practices

Many people are still talking about best practices in the (CGIAR/agricultural) research world. Perhaps it’s the subconsciously natural connection with ‘best bet’ (to talk about specific agricultural technologies or methods) which leads people to use this phrase, but best practices do not exist. At least they don’t exist outside the spatial and temporal context where they have been assessed as best practices. The reason is simple: best means it is the absolute number one. But there is no absolute number one that can be used anywhere else with the same result. No silver bullet. Rub it in!

Good practices are a much safer alternative.

Knowledge transfer

Same ‘silver bullet’ mentality: you need to know better, I can give you that and transfer to you my superior understanding, experience and all. Why are some scientists (and others) deluding themselves about this? At the age of – finally – revaluing indigenous knowledge, not only do we not rely on just expert knowledge but we cannot transfer it magically from a person to the next. And you know why already: knowledge is not a thing. It cannot be UPS’d, it cannot be downloaded, it cannot be given. Check your knowledge basics if this doesn’t make sense to you (yet).

Knowledge and information sharing, social learning and capacity development are much sounder alternatives to knowledge transfer for the same objectives.

Capacity building

Talking about capacity… this is a minor point but everyone in the agric research world seems to be talking about capacity building, not capacity development. Petty semantic debate you might think. But words are loaded with assumptions. And the word building to me sounds like ‘building from scratch’, while development or strengthening give me the idea that we are building upon what is already there.

And while at that, capacity building/development is not just training: Coaching, exchange visits, study tours, personal study, feedback sessions, e-learning, reflexive work are all other forms of own or social capacity development…

Knowledge management

Two problems here:

  • Same as with knowledge transfer, knowledge cannot be managed (see the knowledge basics here again).
  • But also – and this is the main issue in the agric research world perhaps – people seem to think that KM is the same as IM (information management). Knowledge management is not just dealing with data / databases and information (a librarian function), although in my definition of KM it encompasses that too.

Please folks, DO realise that knowledge and information are very different, and KM is not just a little tick on a research proposal to think about data management. Well, if it’s that for you, fair enough but you’re missing out on the immersed part of the iceberg, the magical and fascinating part of human interactions and learning individually and together…

Communication

Ha! Many problems with communication too. Logical, because at least communication is, on paper, a given element in most agricultural research projects (whereas KM isn’t). But in general practice, communication is understood as a military exercise (‘military communication’) of crafting messages (weapons of mass attention) that are fired at target audiences with the intention of hitting them, err, enlightening them with information that supposedly makes them act and react in a different way.

Instead, why don’t we focus on ‘diplomatic’ communication, the kind of communication that is two-way all the way, that is based on dialogue and understanding, on engagement and building a rapport. That is much more effective than military communication, as much as diplomacy is usually a better resort than war.

Ha, and I can think of another fallacy, ‘scaling up’, but I already dealt with this one in the past.

So this is a plea to call upon researchers’ scientific curiosity and thirst for better questions, to start from a better hypothesis than what some of them at times too quickly assume should be a starting point. I have yet to write for the scientists too, about the blindness of comms and KM folks for their perspective, but this is the start of a dialogue, right?

 

Related blog posts:

Annual reports, the gold standard for the state of KM in the company?


The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

Annual reports are a painful exercise, for most companies anyway.

I have seen managers, designers and communication specialists from various organisations tear their hair by lumps working on this annually recurring chore.

Being personally much more inclined towards the knowledge-sharing and collective thinking side of communication (away from unidirectional message massaging, marketing verbose and public aware-mess) I never quite understood what was the big deal about the annual report: a glossy production that usually reveals little about the real struggles and aha-moments of a company. And that report is sent to a group of people that either don’t really read that information because they don’t care or they do care but know enough about the company in the first place to make the reading of this peculiar publication totally superfluous.

But then, perhaps annual reports are actually interesting in another way: They may be the gold standard that reveals the maturity of knowledge management and its status in each organisation – an epitome of all the struggles and opportunities that knowledge management may face in an organisation all bundled in one.

Annual reports are indeed an open battle field of different influences and forces in presence which reveal a lot about the ‘KM culture’ of each company:

  • Form vs. function: The design says a lot about the place given to form vs. function (pure text text text). The integration of multimedia, the use of infographics, a different way to present the report are all ideas indicating there is attention put on the way information is presented or not (with a view to encouraging the reading of the contents);
  • Formality or informality: The very tone of the report indicates to some extent the degree of informality that is tolerated in the company. In many cases, annual reports are very corporate and formal productions, but the wording and design can make informal dents into that ‘keep-it-serious-don’t-smile’ publication, which might also say something about the tolerance for informal peer-learning at other moments than the development of the annual report;
  • Marketing vs. learning: How much of the report is oriented towards promoting the organisation and how much is it focused on the agenda (i.e. the set of strategic issues and challenges) that the organisation pretends to address? If it is learning-oriented it might stress crucial questions and aha moments achieved in the past year, rather than reassure everyone that the the organisation is doing the best job in the world in the most important arena of the world.
  • Internally focused vs. externally focused: The position of partners and other actors or networks acting at the edges of the organisation is presented quite starkly in most annual reports (or indeed royally ignored). This might give an indication as to the tendency of the organisation to include learning on the edges (through personal and organisational networks), which itself indicates the organisation’s maturity vis-a-vis learning (as we know that learning at the edges is crucial);
  • Unidirectional vs. engaging: most annual reports tend to just disseminate carefully selected information without inviting any feedback. However it doesn’t have to be this way – perhaps the annual report could indeed invite others (especially important partners) to share their view. Perhaps it was done in the process of compiling the annual report and that can be mentioned – but perhaps nothing of the sort happened and then so much for a culture of engagement and conversation;
  • Centralised vs. decentralised knowledge flows: The production process of annual reports reveals some power and knowledge flow tendencies: will it be compiled by a central unit or with a wide involvement of other staff – crucially those in decentralised offices? This is a very good indicator of the state of documentation as well. In many cases, this is precisely the painstaking point of annual reports: it feels like pulling teeth and tongues from all staff members to get these stories that will illustrate the work done, results achieved and new questions unravelled… Although an organisation with a mature approach to knowledge work should find it easy to reap the fruits of working out loud and continually documenting processes.

How do all these factions and factors come into play in a concerted way (or not)? This is what the annual report production process (and the finished product itself) actually reveals. It does give a good overview – perhaps more so for internal staff than external audiences – about the state of learning, knowledge sharing, documentation and conversations (remember KM=CDL) in the organisation. It also weighs KM against public awareness and message-based communications.

So, however painful the annual report exercise turns out to be, it does disclose a great deal of useful information for the organisation. Perhaps it’s time for me to look into the ILRI annual report and get a better sense of where we’re at…

Related blog posts:

The most difficult job in the world?


It may not be the hardest job in the world, but it still isn’t easy peasy to be a communication and/or knowledge management specialist in many (research for) development organisations. Typically, communication (let alone KM) has always been one of the first areas where budget cuts affect staff first. There is much expected from communication and knowledge work, which backfires in times of crises, but there is not always a lot of credit given to the people in charge of that work when success happens.

The communication/KM specialist, a mysterious function? (Credits: Eyesplash / FlickR)

The communication/KM specialist, a mysterious function? (Credits: Eyesplash / FlickR)

The reasons are manifold:

Communication and KM are ‘secondary processes’, which means they are not central operations. As a result they are sometimes under-estimated, under-staffed and under-budgeted.

Communication and particularly KM (and learning) processes are indeed very heavy on the process, which is less straightforward than providing just a product. They are about an ensemble of activities and products that together lead to results. But these processes are usually overlooked in documentation and monitoring. They are therefore rarely tracked and less so understood, however important they are (arguably such processes are the only elements that might be scaled up from successful interventions).

Of all processes, they deal a lot with behaviour changes. These are very complex and slow processes, potentially involving information (evidence?), emotions, trust, discipline, support etc. The complexity and slow pace of these processes makes the demonstration of their value difficult and an easy prey for budget slayers.

Communication and KM are highly interdependent. If specialists can play a role in guiding these efforts, they critically need the support from other people and units to feed content, engage in conversations, provide feedback on conversations/processes, ask questions etc. They also need other parties (partners, patrons, beneficiaries) to engage successfully in order for communication and KM to work out (for conversations to spark off, for better questions to be shaped, for research to be taken up, for changes to happen). This interdependency makes communication and knowledge work all the more difficult.

Because there is such a high interdependency, when success arises it is very difficult to attribute it to the communication/KM team (or specialist) alone, however much they may have played a role in it. The team dynamics plays out in successes, individual points of failure are unfortunately too easy to identify in case of no success. So it’s easy to blame communication/KM for its failings but difficult to demonstrate its success.

And finally, having communication and KM specialists rising from the in crowd is the exception rather than the norm. In a research organisation, rarely do researchers end up becoming communication specialists. Knowledge management specialists do not often stem from engineering backgrounds. This creates an additional layer of potential defiance between these soft process specialists and the main crowd in an organisation which is busy with what is perceived as ‘the real work’.

So what can we do about it?

For comms/KM specialists themselves:

  • Brace yourselves for the criticism and lack of cooperation that might affect your work to start with;
  • Develop a rapport with your other colleagues as soon as possible to understand how they work, think, see the world, use information, engage in knowledge processes, communicate, what their needs are etc. Be supportive in the lightest and most relevant way possible;
  • Provide your value by expanding the good work of colleagues, setting easy processes and structures, providing adequate training and on-demand coaching;
  • Provide an example – lead and inspire by example. Be the communication and KM example that you want to see;
  • Engage your trusted colleagues around the idea that communication/KM is a slow process that feeds off small successes and cooperation at all levels;
  • Demonstrate when little successes are achieved (e.g. how the documentation of a workshop can really improve decisions further down the line, showing that a consultation process leading to a communiqué is a step forward etc.);
  • Work together more and more and aim at exploring more complex and deeper dimensions of knowledge work progressively, so they understand this complexity and contribute their part to it.

For others, colleagues of comms/KM specialists:

  • Recognise that soft processes take time and are complex;
  • Accept that good communication and KM requires everyone’s efforts, including your own;
  • Work with the comms and KM  specialists to understand their work processes, expectations, ways to define success and in turn to show them your own way of working and perspective – establish a rapport;
  • Show specialists ways to make their work useful and relevant for you and others by telling them where are challenges you are facing that they could help you with.


We all have different perspectives on the job, but that is precisely what makes our collective work more relevant and interesting. Accepting these differences and using them for a wider goal is the long and tedious road to engagement but that initial investment is ten times worth it, for complex social change work.

Related blog posts:

Power your communication with ‘KM inside’


Where to nestle knowledge management in the work place?

Is it a field or discipline that deserves a unit in its own right – with its own breed of specialists (the knowledge manager) – or is it a mainstream support function that shoulders every other process? The answer differs in every organisation. In many cases, knowledge management (KM), or knowledge sharing (KS), is hosted within communication (for instance my own function title at ILRI is ‘knowledge sharing and communication specialist’). What are the relations between communication and KM?

How does KM/KS really support communication or even power it?

How knowledge management powers communications

How knowledge management powers both primary (top tier) and secondary (bottom tier) communication functions

The graph here depicts some of the basic outbound or primary functions of communication (on the top half), that is, the front-end activities where communication serves its own purpose and some of the key inbound or secondary support functions of communication, i.e. the activities that make primary communication possible).

Primary communication functions might typically include:

  • Announcing and raising (public) awareness – the typical PR gig,
  • Disseminating information (in various ways and for various audiences, from sending freebies, publications or newsletters to partners and clients to sending press releases to the media),
  • Sharing it both physically (at events) and online or virtually through engaging sporadically with other people around a specific information,
  • Engaging with audiences as a longer term structured process to develop trust and share information more effectively – either as part of an action research programme, a multi-stakeholder process or something else,
  • And ultimately collaborating (assuming that a clear protocol of cooperation and coordination is in place to allow that collaboration to flourish).
These functions are increasingly focused on engagement and co-creation (from announcing where there is no real focus and no or little interaction to collaborating where everything is about collective sense-making and co-creation of content).

Secondary communication functions include:

  • Writing outputs (of all kinds),
  • Documenting (either processes, conversations, work, protocols etc.) which prepares the way for the writing,
  • Publishing and design, which is about getting the written outputs to the next level (design, peer review etc.) and out,
  • Training on a number of communication channels and processes,
  • And finally supporting in any other way (coaching, informing, guaranteeing a helpdesk function etc.).

At the centre of it all, I deliberately put ‘internal communication’ because it is the ‘glue and grease’ that allows all these primary and secondary functions to work in an integrated manner and to create a team spirit and dynamics. It is also what allows information to flow and be used for all these purposes. It is perhaps where KM might operate from.

So how does KM power these functions?
KM is basically a strong enabler of communication for a number of these functions.

First off, though, we need to agree on a working definition of what KM is and does. Without going into very lengthy and cumbersome discussions, let us say that KM encompasses knowledge sharing (interactions between people to use information and making sense together), information management (processes geared at managing, storing, rendering information findable and usable) and critical thinking (where learning helps to keep sharpening knowledge sharing and information management and the wider purpose of achieving one’s set agenda).

Working with this definition, KM supports communication in the following ways:

  • The knowledge sharing element stimulates all interactions in a more effective way – ensuring frequency and good “quality of conversations that get your job done” (borrowed from the definition of knowledge management that Euan Semple and others have provided in the past), which leads to more effective sharing, engagement and collaboration – the top right tier of the graph.
  • The information management element ensures that information a) is there in the first place (generated through writing) but particularly that it b) can be traced and found at all times c) is easily and accessibly organised to raise awareness, be disseminated and/or shared, and d) is systematically channelled back from knowledge sharing, engagement and collaboration activities. It supports directly the left hand side of the graph and indirectly the knowledge sharing processes (offering information that can be used for knowledge sharing, engagement and coordination).
  • The critical thinking / learning element particularly strengthens the documentation (of processes) but also enables all other functions by ensuring stronger questions, stronger ideas, stronger ownership (thinking makes people more involved), stronger content altogether, stronger engagement by grappling together with ideas, chances for survival of the work and stronger embedding in a given context (because the very process of embedding is supposedly questioned then). Subsequently it supports the full spectrum of communication.

Communication, without knowledge management, might fall back to a series of messages that do not inform learning and adaptation, may end up as a series of sporadic and disconnected activities and does not link information with personal interactions and learning strongly enough, leaving a ‘back office’ messy and useless, like a ghost ship adrift.

Does that resonate with your experience?

Related blog posts:

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


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

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

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

On individual agency and organisational remit:

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

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

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

On accountability:

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

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

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

On impact and change pathways

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

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

On IKM-Emergent 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This implies that internally:

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

And externally it implies:

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

 

What now?

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

 

Notes:

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

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

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