The other night, on the forelast night of a workshop I realised it would be good to lay out the principles of facilitating a good workshop in my view:

  • The experience of participants matters more than anything else; be ready to spend long nights for them;
  • They cannot fail any exercise but your exercise could fail them: be prepared to revise your inputs and adapt exercises based on feedback received (however frustrating that may be);
  • The more you work the less they work; the less they work the less they learn: Don’t jam their programme with all the knowledge you’d like to share with them and think about more exercises for them to do;

    Facilitating is inviting and assisting others to bring the best of themselves

    Facilitating is inviting and assisting others to bring the best of themselves

  • Spend more time for them to peer review each other! There’s never enough time to review peer work!
    Use as many examples as you can! You will never come up with too many practical examples and this indicates that you actually have first hand experience with it!
  • Work with a colleague on a workshop! A pair (or more) of eyes guarantees better observations about your audience’s reactions!
  • Spend a systematic time reviewing every day, perhaps up to revising the programme entirely!
  • The selection of your participants matters hugely! Try and get to know (about) them beforehand or get a clear participants’ profile before the workshop to know how to adapt your programme to their profile: you don’t design similar events for policy-makers as for technical engineers!

More to come in a future post. Finishing this post from the PPT-rich, communication-poor world water forum in Istanbul is not the best thing to provide more useful ideas 😉


That PD thing again

And here we go again! Second major process documentation workshop after the Lodz workshop in July 2007, a workshop where IRC and partners tried not so much to settle a definition for the concept as to allow participants to play around with three media: text, video, photography. This time, the workshop is sponsored by the WASHCost project and includes participants from other background (see my latest blog post about this).

On this first day, we have covered the why (aims of process documentation), the principles of P.D., the basics of interviewing and the initial steps into a process documentation plan.

First observations from the field – more like a hotel room if you ask me:

  • A definition may emerge. The exercise about prioritising the aims – from a list of over 20 aims that our facilitator Peter McIntyre collected from five different projects using process documentation – went amazingly well and placed a few objectives high up – does this mean an agreement comes naturally or certain messages have been crafted well enough or repeated often enough to influence our participants? Either way, this is a very encouraging result.
  • The lines between communication and monitoring are still very much bordering process documentation work. As my colleague Nick Dickinson put it, process documentation helps identify interesting areas to document – leading to crafting communication messages – and it helps again at the end of the loop to monitor how stakeholders have responded to our interactions.
  • Principles of process documentation are emerging, and the real of information integrity is getting unpacked: one needs to check that outputs are correct (either directly with the stakeholders concerned or at least in the team if the output does not make it publicly); it is clear that some of your partners will not accept your (partial) vision; inside the team, constructive criticism should be encouraged: if the process documentation specialist is roughly a 75% team member role, s/he should also play a 25% external ‘ journalist’ role where s/he feels free to provide constructive feedback.
  • The importance of short feedback loops is essential! Regardless of the final process documentation outputs, key insights from process documentation work should quickly inform the team operating. This is part of the constructive feedback mentioned above.
  • The name, however unsexy it is, has made it in the common language – granted, in certain circles only. The India team didn’t want to change the term ‘process documentation’ because it is known by their learning alliance partners and changing names would create more confusion.
  • In spite of all these very encouraging signs, it is remarkable to see that when it comes to process documentation planning (perhaps an oxymoron?), most teams quickly jump on outputs/products, reinforcing the quick consumption culture of the development sector. Slow food (read: learning) is not on the menu quite yet. Adopting a learning culture is not yet an easy reality to implement. According to one of the external (non WASHCost) participants (in charge of communication activities in her organisation), this kind of process documentation activities was not in the agenda because it takes too much time. Ooh, that battle is far from being won, but hey, one starts somewhere… and still improvements are noticeable.
Process documentation as a reflection on and of reality

Process documentation as a reflection on and of reality

Anyway, with an approach (process documentation) that’s increasingly meaningful, I personally think that it’s never been as good a moment to name this thing differently. No one has come up with alternative names yet, in spite of our repeated urge to devise new names.

My personal brainstorm outcomes: process enquirers (booo), rapid reporters (duh), effective(ness) detectives, action investigators, agents provocateurs (revealing the invisible), change rangers (scouting for and identifying trails), trail hunters… the list could go on and on I guess. It would be fun doing an exercise about the kind of figure (hero, character or even animal) that process documentation specialists think about when considering their function?

At any rate, of all three key PD actions (observe, analyse, disseminate), I would say observe/intervene is the key one. And for that reason, detective or ranger sounds like the closest match.

I can’t wait for tomorrow… see what our productive detectives come up with…

Capitalising on process documentation – and changing names please!

Next week, a group of 4-5 of us from IRC will be in Accra with all country teams from the WASHCost project to work together on ‘process documentation’. Starting from a training workshop, the idea behind this workshop has moved forward to become a kind of orientation and training workshop.

The objectives are manifold: a) agree on a working definition of process documentation (what the heck is it?) b) train all staff about the use of photography, video, interviews etc. and c) decide what we are going to document in WASHCost, starting from the ‘hypothesis of change’ of the project.

There’s a few very interesting sides to this workshop:

  • It will be the largest workshop dedicated to process documentation since the one we organised in Poland in July 2007 – which resulted in a very nice blog.
  • It will not only be about the practice but also a little bit about the theory of process documentation which really needs some agreement. That’s really one of the problems with new trensd and buzz words: everyone uses them in a slightly different way. In Accra, we hope to come up with a common understanding.
  • Leading from that, we should be able to capitalise a bit on all kinds of experiences with process documentation from the RiPPLE project, WASPA Asia, EMPOWERS and SWITCH. We have accumulated quite some ideas and insights from this ‘soft monitoring’ work and IRC is dedicated to documenting process documentation (multiple loop learning here 😉 this year, perhaps to make a toolbox, some case studies, many examples of outputs available…
  • We hope to come up with a better name for ‘process documentation’ and particularly for the person in charge. ‘Process documentalist’ seems to refer to a very scientific entomologist studying hot air, so it’s time to jazz this up a bit and end embarrassment when mentioning the PD words…
  • Finally, some partners from CREPA, WaterAid and the resource centre network in Ghana will also participate to the workshop. They should help challenging our ideas and ways of working, and hopefully they will also spread the word about this process documentation work and perhaps take it up in their own line of work.

Another interesting aspect from this work is that it should very nicely complement the upcoming publication about impact assessment planned for later this year.

What I personally hope is to find a place to park process documentation in the hall of concepts that we have produced in the last few years – and perhaps to sound out colleagues and partners on their take of process documentation. I still think that PD is what essentially what intelligent monitoring should cover as well, but since donors are following different frameworks of reference for monitoring, it is no wonder that process documentation is still an undefined and ill-accepted practice among donors. Perhaps the capitalisation work around process documentation will help change this perspective. And perhaps a sexier name would…

The ever learning organisation

What is a learning organisation? Ever since that term has made it to our vocabulary it seems to provoke more questions than solutions! Questions are great but this time they can really lead to bottomless and fruitless discussions!

In my organisation there are just as many people arguing that we are a learning organisation as there are thinking the contrary.

So what makes a learning organisation? One could come up with a checklist and even a detailed monitoring framework but really that is not the point, is it?

How about following some of those characteristics:

  • Putting learning at the core of every key business operation – instilling a culture of critical reflection in all business operations (as opposed to having a KM unit acting in isolation of the rest of the organisation);
  • “Practicing” learning by creating space for it, among others through regular and planned knowledge sharing activities and ongoing feedback to information systems;
  • Not fearing innovation and the changes this brings to regular organizational processes? In other words, not taking any state and status for granted but being ready to adapt to changing circumstances;
  • Encouraging an open and pragmatic ‘sound criticism’ culture throughout the organisation to encourage early warning system from any staff member (as one unit from the same matrix);
  • Being ready to examine one’s efficiency of processes (single loop), effectiveness in results (double loop) and overall relevance in being (triple loop learning);
  • Establishing very clear rules of mutual respect, recognizing the legitimacy of different people/voices and working consciously on interpersonal communication (listening, talking in a non-threatening way, questioning mental models behind statements etc).
Learning and improving takes a dynamic attitude, not a fixed state

Learning and improving takes a dynamic attitude, not a state of mind fixed on stability

The rules/guidelines that apply to a learning alliance apply to such an organisation.

And perhaps as much as for monitoring one should not only focus on proving but on improving, perhaps when it comes to the learning organisation what matters is the awareness, intention and initiative that matter, not only the result.

Plus, one might argue, with learning you are never finished, so you can always improve. Again what matters is not the destination (if there is any?) but the voyage… Now a good example of the ever learning individual would be to come up with a fresher metaphor (lol)… oh well, I guess we will have a long voyage indeed.

Related posts:

Sector learning – scouting in the dark

After several discussions internally at IRC, the decision was taken to set up a new discussion group to build upon the recently held ‘sector learning’ workshop (Delft, November 2008 ) where a lot of our partners came to present their resource centre initiative, national information systems or learning alliance approaches.

As usual with (nice) workshops, participants were quite happy to be there and to share. To share what? To share why? In a way this is one othe most interesting paradoxes of knowledge sharing: everyone is keen on doing it but not everyone is clear on what to share. In this case, it was all the less clear as the overarching topic of the workshop – sector learning – was also not very clear.

After two days, quite a few presentations, many discussions, a mini open space, still no consensus came up as to the term ‘sector learning’. An external editor is in charge of turning those discussions into a briefing note that sets the scene for ‘sector learning’. But this work will not see the light before April. And in the meantime, we would be well advised to take advantage of the momentum.

Scouting in the dark

Scouting in the dark

In the momentum meantime, indeed, a lot of the parties that took part to the sector learning workshop – spanning an interesting mix of Southern and international NGOs – confessed they would like to stick with this group and exchange more about their initiatives.

One of the direct outcomes is this decision to go ahead with a discussion group. Before we used that Google group for the resource centre development partners. Now this platform should replace the former and invite more organisations and individuals to share their practical experiences, issues, challenges and solutions around sector learning.

We are aware that there is no consensus on the ‘domain’ of sector learning. Not a very good start before launching what we would like to see evolve as a CoP, but our experience with partners and with the RCD discussion group is that a lot of active lurkers find something useful in such discussion platforms, to share information face-to-face with colleagues, if not on the virtual discussion group.

So we are there with this upcoming discussion group and the need to define what ‘sector learning’ is – or run the risk of seeing that momentum end in a momentomb.

My take on sector learning?

This will all be clarified by the briefing note mentioned above, and perhaps by initial discussions on this new discussion group, but rather than spelling out the components of ‘sector learning’, I would rather stress some factors that may have helped create that momentum:

  • Since the World Bank’s call to reorient itself towards a knowledge bank in 1996, many development organisations are understanding the value of knowledge and, though grappling with their learning initiatives (an upcoming paper from the IKM-Emergent programme will cover this), there is a lot of momentum for knowledge-intensive processes and for learning in general;
  • Governments, donors, NGOs are all realising that there is a huge overlap between their activities, and sometimes some dreadful gaps, simply because they are not cooperating more. Hence donor harmonisation, basket funding and sector-wide approaches;
  • This trend upwards – in the global arena – calls for visible and wide-ranging networks, constellations that can act as counterparts for donor agencies (having funding but no mandate) and for governmental agencies (having a mandate but usually well under-resourced);
  • All actors are realising that the WASH sector is very complex, because it involves many different kinds of stakeholders (central and local government with different functions – legislators, regulators, monitors etc. – civil society organisations of various kinds (NGOs, CBOs), large private companies and small private businesses and donor agencies). They are realising that a complex sector requires a complex approach, based on uniting forces and resources – hence the sector learning facilitators such as resource centre networks;
  • The project approach is increasingly acknowledged as a non sustainable solution, and therefore the idea of sector learning comes as a promising factor for sustainable learning;
  • Perhaps with a (primarily Northern) development discourse that has reoriented itself from setting up services, and  ‘transferring knowledge’ to enabling Southern organisations to realise themselves and decide how they would like to take their destiny in hands, a lot of international or Northern organisations are increasingly focusing on learning, advocacy, communication as their new niche. Sector learning is a next step on that road;
  • And last but not least, in spite of the obvious need to go beyond sectoral borders (after all, at the scale of a poor person in Africa, development is a mixed bag of education, health, water, energy and many other factors contributing to a sustainable livelihood), working on cross-organisational learning within more contained borders (the ‘sector’) is not as much of a daunting task;

The first few weeks of this new discussion group to be will tell whether this ‘sector learning’ buzzword can lead to actual improvements and whether it finds a niche attractive enough to make it grow.