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.

Related blog posts:

At the IKM table: linearity, participation, accountability and individual agency on the practice-based change menu (1)


On 20 and 21 February 2012, the  London-based Wellcome Collection is the stage for the final workshop organised by the Information Knowledge Management Emergent (IKM-Emergent or ‘IKM-E’) programme. Ten IKM-E members are looking at the body of work completed in the past five years in this DGIS-funded research programme and trying to unpack four key themes that are interweaving insights from the three working groups which have been active in the programme:

  1. Linearity and predictability;
  2. Participation and engagement;
  3. Individual agency and organisational remit;
  4. Accountability

This very rich programme is also an intermediary step towards a suggested extension for the programme (“IKM 2″).

In this post I’m summarising quite a few of the issues tackled during the first day of the workshop, covering the first two points on the list above.

On linearity and predictability:

Linear approaches to development – suggesting that planning is a useful exercise to map out and follow a predictable causal series of events – are delusional and ineffective. We would be better advised using  emergent perspectives as they are more realistic, for lack of being more certain.

Linearity and predictability strongly emphasise the current (and desired alternative) planning tools that we have at our disposal or are sometimes forced to use, and the relation that we entertain with the actors promoting these specific planning tools.

Planning tools

After trying out so many ineffective approaches for so long, it seems clear that aspirational intent might act as a crucial element to mitigate some of the negative effects of linearity and predictability. Planning tools can be seen as positivist, urging a fixed and causal course of events, indeed focusing on one highlighted path – as is too often the case with the practice around logical framework – or can have an aspirational nature, in which case they focus on the end destination or the objective hoped for and strive to test out the assumptions underlying a certain pathway to impact (at a certain time).

Different situations require different planning approaches. Following the Cynefin framework approach, we might be facing simple, complicated, complex or chaotic situations and we will not respond the same way to each of those. A complex social change process may require planning that entails regular or thorough consultation from various stakeholder groups, a (more) simple approach such as an inoculation campaign may just require ‘getting on with the job’ without a heavy consultation process.

At any rate, planning mechanisms are one thing but the reality on the ground is often different and putting a careful eye to co-creating reality on the ground is perhaps the best approach to ensure a stronger and more realistic development, reflecting opportunities and embracing natural feedback mechanisms (the reality call).

There are strong power lobbies that might go against this intention. Against such remote control mechanisms – sometimes following a tokenistic approach to participation though really hoarding discretionary decision-making power – we need  distanced control checks and balances, hinting at accountability.

Managing the relationship leading to planning mechanisms

Planning tools are one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the relationship that you maintain with the funding or managing agency that requires you to use these planning tools.

Although donor agencies might seem like ‘laggards’ in some way, managing the relationship with them implies that we should not stigmatise their lack of flexibility and insufficient will to change. In a more optimistic way, managing our relationship with them may also mean that we need to move away from the contractual nature of the relations that characterise much of development work.

Ways to influence that relationship include among others seeking evidence and using evidence that we have (e.g. stories of change, counter-examples from the past either from one’s own past practice or from others’ past practice etc.) and advocating itProcess documentation is crucial here to demonstrate the evidence around the value of process work and the general conditions under which development interventions have been designed and implemented. It is our duty to negotiate smart monitoring and evaluation in the intervention, including e.g.  process documentation, the use of a theory of change and about the non instrumentalisation (in a way that logical frameworks have been in the past). In this sense, tools do not matter much as such; practice behind the tools matters a lot more.

Finally, still, there is much importance in changing relationships with the donor to make the plan more effective: trust is central to effective relationships. And we can build trust with donors by reaching out to them: if they need some degree of predictability, although we cannot necessarily offer it, we can try, talk about our intent to reduce uncertainty. However, most importantly, in the process we are exposing them to uncertainty and forcing them to deal with it, which helps them feel more comfortable with uncertainty and paradox and find ways to deal with it. Convincing donors and managers about this may seem like a major challenge at first, but then again, every CEO or manager knows that their managing practice does not come from a strict application of ‘the golden book of management’. We all know that reality is more complex than we would like it to be. It is safe and sound management practice to recognise the complexity and the .

Perhaps also, the best way to manage our relationship with our donors in a not-so-linear-not-so-predictable way is to lead by example: by being a shining living example of our experience and comfort with a certain level of uncertainty, and showing that recognising the complexity and the impossibility to predict a certain course of events is a sound and realistic management approach to development. Getting that window of opportunity to influence based on our own example depends much on the trust developed with our donors.

Trust is not only a result of time spent working and discussing together but also the result of surfacing the deeper values and principles that bind and unite us (or not). The conception of development as being results-based or relationship-based influences this, and so does the ‘funding time span’ in which we implement our initiatives.

Time and space, moderating and maintaining the process

The default development cooperation and funding mechanism is the project, with its typically limited lifetime and unrealistic level of endowment (in terms of resources, capacities etc. available). In the past, a better approach aimed at funding institutions, thereby allowing those organisations to afford the luxury of learning, critical thinking and other original activities. An even more ideal funding mechanism would be to favour endemic (e.g. civic-driven) social movements where local capacities to self-organise are encouraged and supported over a period that may go over a project lifetime. If this was the default approach, trust would become a common currency and indeed we would have to engage in longer term partnerships, a better guarantee for stronger development results.

A final way to develop tolerance to multiple knowledges and uncertainty is to bring together various actors and to use facilitation in these workshops so as to allow all participants to reveal their personal (knowledge culture) perspective, cohabiting with each other. Facilitation becomes de facto a powerful approach to plant new ideas, verging on the idea  of ‘facipulation’ (facilitation-manipulation).

Beyond a given development intervention, a way to make its legacy live on is to plug those ideas onto networks that will keep exploring the learning capital of that intervention.

What is the value proposition of all this to donors? Cynically perhaps the innovativeness of working in those ways; much more importantly, the promise of sustainable results – better guaranteed through embedded, local work. The use of metaphors can be enlightening here, in the sense that it gives different ideas: what can you invest in projects and short term relationships? e.g. gardening for instance planting new initiatives in an existing soil/bed or putting fertilizer in existing plants…

Interesting links related to the discussion:

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On participation and engagement:

Sustainable, effective development interventions are informed by careful and consistent participation and engagement, recognising the value of multiple knowledges and cherishing respect for different perspectives, as part of a general scientific curiosity and humility as to what we know about what works and what doesn’t, in development and generally.

The second strand we explored on day 1 was participation and engagement with multiple knowledges. This boils down to the question: how to value different knowledges and particularly ‘local knowledge’, bearing in mind that local knowledge is not a synonym to Southern knowledge because we all possess some local knowledge, regardless of where we live.

A sound approach to valuing participation and engagement is to recognise the importance of creating the bigger picture in our complex social initiatives. The concept of cognitive dissonance is particularly helpful here: As communities of people we (should) value some of our practices and document them so that we create and recognise a bigger collective whole but then we have to realise that something might be missing from that collective narrative, that we might have to play the devil’s advocate to challenge our thinking – this is the ‘cognitive dissonance at play – and it is more likely to happen by bringing external views or alternative points of view, but also e.g. by using facilitation methods that put the onus on participants to adopt a different perspective (e.g. DeBono’s six-thinking hats). Development work has to include cognitive dissonance to create better conditions to combine different knowledges.

Participation and engagement is also conditioned by power play of course, but also by our comfort zones; e.g. as raised in a recent KM4Dev discussion, we are usually not keen on hiring people with different perspectives, who might challenge the current situation. We also don’t like the frictions that come about with bringing different people to the table: we don’t like to rediscuss the obvious, we don’t like to renegotiate meaning but that is exactly what is necessary for multiple knowledges to create a trustworthy space. The tension between deepening the field and expanding it laterally with new people is an important tension, in workshops as in development initiatives.

We may also have to adopt different approaches and responses in front of a multi-faceted adversity for change: Some people need to be aware of the gaps; others are aware but not willing because they don’t see the value or feel threatened by inviting multiple perspectives; others still are also aware and don’t feel threatened but need to be challenged beyond their comfort zone. Some will need ideas, others principles, others yet actions.

At any rate, inviting participation calls for inviting related accountability mechanisms. Accountability (which will come back on the menu on day 2) is not just towards donors but also towards the people we invite participation, or we run the risk of ‘tokenising’ participation (pretending that we are participatory but not changing the decision-making process). When one interviews a person, they  have to make sure that what they are transcribing faithfully reflects what the interviewee said. So with participation, participants have to be made aware that their inputs are valued and reflected in the wider engagement process, not just interpreted as ‘a tick on the participatory box’.

Participation and engagement opens up the reflective and conversation space to collective engagement, which is a very complex process as highlighted in Charles Dhewa’s model of collective sense-making in his work on traducture. A prerequisite in that collective engagement and sense-making is the self-confidence that you develop in your own knowledge. For ‘local knowledge’, this is a very difficult requirement, not least because even in their own context, proponents of local knowledge might be discriminated and rejected by others for the lack of rigor they display.

So how to invite participation and engagement?

Values and principles are guiding pointers. Respect (for oneself and others) and humility or curiosity are great lights on the complex path to collective sense-making (as illustrated by Charles Dhewa’s graph below). They guide our initiatives by preserving a learning attitude among each and every one of us. Perhaps development should grow up to be more about  ‘ignorance management’, an insatiable thirst for new knowledge. The humility about our own ignorance and curiosity might lead us to unravel ever sharper questions, on the dialectical and critical thinking path, rather than off-the-shelf (and upscaling-friendly) answers – which we tend to favour in the development sector. The importance here is the development of shared meaning.

A collective sensemaking framework (by Charles Dhewa)

A collective sensemaking framework (by Charles Dhewa)

As highlighted in the previous conversation, not every step of a development initiative requires multi-stakeholder participation, but a useful principle to invite participation and engagement is iteration. By revisiting at regular intervals the assumptions we have, together with various actors, we can perhaps more easily ensure that some key elements from the bigger picture are not thrown away in the process. This comes back to the idea of assessing the level of complexity we are facing, which is certainly affected by a) the amount of people that are affected by (or have a crucial stake in) the initiative at hand and b) the degree of inter-relatedness of the changes that affect them and connect them.

Iteration and multi-stakeholder engagement and participation are at the heart of the ‘inception phase’ approach. This is only one model for participation and un-linear planning:

  • On one end of the spectrum, a fully planned process with no room for (meaningful) engagement because the pathway traced is not up for renegotiation;
  • Somewhere in the middle, a project approach using an inception period to renegotiate the objectives, reassess the context, understand the motivations of the stake-holders;
  • At the other end of the spectrum, a totally emergent approach where one keeps organising new processes as they show up along the way, renegotiating with a variety of actors.

Seed money helps here for ‘safe-fail’ approaches, to try things out and draw early lessons and perhaps then properly budget for activities that expand that seed initiative. Examples from the corporate sector also give away some interesting pointers and approaches (see Mintzberg’s books and the strategy safari under ‘related resources’). The blog post by Robert Chambers on ‘whose paradigm’

“]Adaptive pluralism - a useful map to navigate complexity? [Credits: Robert Chambers]

Adaptive pluralism - a useful map to navigate complexity? [Credits: Robert Chambers

counts and his stark comparison between a positivist and adaptive pluralism perspectives are also very helpful resources to map out the issues we are facing here.

At any rate, and this can never be emphasised enough, in complex environments – as is the case in development work more often than not – a solid context analysis is in order if one is to hope for any valuable result, in the short or long run.

Related resources:

These have been our musings on day 1, perhaps not ground-breaking observations but pieces of an IKM-E collage that brings together important pointers to the legacy of IKM-Emergent. Day 2 is promising…

Related blog posts:

Dotty dotted communication – can we avoid this please?


Sometimes, the best example one can offer is a counter-example. My colleague and boss Peter Ballantyne recently proved this point when sharing a presentation, and later a blog post, about what communication in a (research) project could and should look like – and what NOT.
The presentation depicted the general direction of communication and engagement efforts in a research project, as a curve which displayed both what is hoped for and what should be avoided in terms of communication activities and results.

Communicating agri-water research over time

The counter example – here the red line of course – shows that all too often, communication efforts, if at all undertaken, mean:
  1. A big bang project introduction (usually with project leaflet, kick-off workshop, poster, press release etc.) – the moment of glory of public relations and marketing – and spending of course.
  2. Then a long curve of nothingness - perhaps the result of a weak (or absent) engagement strategy?
  3. And then at the very end of the project, another series of activities related to the release of information and communication products – when the project closing / output delivering fever is kicking in.
This is a dotted communication approach: no continuous line, no constant progression. This dotted approach becomes downright dotty if one thinks that this type of interrupted engagement will lead to a wide uptake and impact. Unfortunately, all too often that is what happens in projects for lack of strategic communication thinking and lack of attention for endowing communications with proper resources.
What should change in practice is to ensure that the communication dots get much closer to one another to form an almost continuous line of communication (probably interlaced with all kinds of other lines going up and down but following the general progression trend). This means regular engagement with a wide range of actors, documentation of processes throughout, meshing together people, issues and insights that play out in the initiative, getting our hands dirty to ensure that people reflect, talk, write and work together.
That alternative approach takes courage and yes, resources too, but it brings back the investment manifold. If communication is to play a role, let it be even a modest one but a continuous one. Dotty dotted communication has long lived. Check Peter’s ideas for how we can ensure continuous engagement…
Related blog posts:

What the heck is knowledge anyway: from commodity to capacity and insights


Ten years into KM and this is perhaps the most frequent question I’ve heard or come across to date in the knowledge management field: What is knowledge? Time to shoot at it, or better: time to plant a shoot…
Currently again, there is a KM4Dev discussion about ‘knowledge banks’ (see word cloud below) and on the side, the ‘what is knowledge’ phoenix (1) is reappearing. At the bottom of this question lies another crucial question: do you see knowledge as a thing, i.e. a commodity, or not? This has a profound implication on the KM language you use, the assumptions around KM that you nurture and the KM activities that you might wish to undertake.
The 'Knowledge bank' discussion wordle

The ‘Knowledge bank’ discussion wordle which inspired this post

For me, it’s quite simple: knowledge is not tangible and is certainly not a commodity. And the noun ‘knowledge’ itself sometimes leads to delusional assumptions about what knowledge is. I find it more fruitful to think of knowledge as two different things:

  • Knowledge is a latent capacity that we call upon to combine information available with various insights we have from past experiences, and use it in a given context.
  • Knowledge is also the collection of insights that we have in ourselves, based on information, emotions and intuitions we have. It is in that collection of insights that we tap to use our ‘knowledge capacity’ or our ‘capacity to know’.
At any point, we can tap into the knowledge we have, but we can never give it as is to anyone else. Because it is our very own unique combination and our very own unique capacity, the fruit of our personal development path. So, when we say ‘what do we know about xyz’, we are referring to the combined (abstract) mass of fuzzy insights that we collectively possess about xyz and the potential use we might make from that combined, collective, capacity.
Now, for the sake of stretching our minds a bit, let’s compare a typical (and voluntarily caricaturing) perspective of knowledge as a commodity and one of knowledge as a capacity. It might reveal some of the assumptions and expectations we have about knowledge.
Knowledge as a commodity Knowledge as a capacity
Knowledge is the embodied result of ‘knowing’ (possessing the knowledge) Knowledge is the emerging property of learning (developing new insights / knowledge)
Knowledge is universal – it has generic properties, it is ‘self contained’; it exists as is Knowledge is personal – it is the result of a combination of personal factors. It becomes itself when mixed with insights from experience.
Knowledge is rather static – it represents the ‘knowledge’ we have and changes only every so often, when it is ‘updated’ by some people, experts (e.g. peer-reviewed academic publications) or not (as on Wikipedia) Knowledge is dynamic – it keeps changing whenever it is invoked by anyone, anywhere – it is multi-faceted and ubiquitous
Knowledge can be transferred (one on one) Knowledge can be shared (but it gets necessarily recombined – it is not shared one on one either)
Knowledge can be stored (in a knowledge bank or base?) Knowledge cannot be stored – but insights shared can be codified, turned into information and stored (in an information bank, database or else)
Knowledge can be developed in writing Knowledge can be developed, stimulated / augmented (the capacity of using information can be increased) through social learning, thus not in writing. Information, however, can be put in writing, based on available knowledge (expertise)
Knowledge can be assessed – e.g. by theoretical ‘knowledge’ tests (how much do you know about x, y, z) – in a rather clear, straightforward 1/0 way Knowledge can be assessed by practical knowledge and know-how tests (how can you respond to challenge x, y, z) but it remains a fuzzy process
Knowledge can be managed Knowledge cannot be managed but its development and sharing can be stimulated and elicited – the environment that stimulates knowledge, however, can be managed (working on processes, tools, cultural values etc. to enable the development and sharing of knowledge)
Knowledge management is essentially information management: collecting knowledge and getting it to the right person at the right time to deal with challenges at hand Knowledge management is essentially knowledge sharing and it is about learning conversations that stimulate everyone’s ability to respond better to their own challenges
Of course the table suggests that the dynamic conception of knowledge, as a capacity, is more relevant, and in my eyes to a large extent it really is. I have made this starkly contrasted comparison to emphasise this point. But, for instance, information management is also a very important part of a sound and more complete conception of knowledge management.
This is all about emphasising the dynamic nature of knowledge, rather than the skewed commodity perspective and the dangerous expectations it sometimes generates.
That said, there must be major blind spots in this comparison, I put my knowledge to the learning test here – so what would you say?
Notes:
(1) The phoenix is a mythological animal that ignites, disappears into ashes and arises in its new avatar. I like this as a metaphor for discussions that keep reappearing. In the KM world, typically the ‘what is knowledge’ question is a phoenix. Monitoring/assessing KM is another one.
Related blog posts:

Putting learning loops and cycles in practice


On this blog, among the (by far) most successful posts are two posts about a) learning loops and cycles and b) a stock-taking post on learning cycles. This success might not even be founded as much on the quality of the posts as on the relative interest of many people for single-, double- and triple-learning loops.
Take action, reflect and reflect and reflect (Credits: Echo9er / FlickR)

Take action, reflect and reflect and reflect (Credits: Echo9er / FlickR)

So going beyond the theory, here is an attempt at making learning loops a practical reality.
What can we do to put these loops in practice?

First off, here’s an over-simplified refresher on the learning loops:

  • Single loop learning: the quest for efficiency. Doing the same but doing it better, cutting down useless practices and speeding up;
  • Double loop learning: the quest for effectiveness. Doing different things, whatever else that gives a better result because the original thinking (theory) is not conducive to success.
  • Triple loop learning: the quest for dynamically relevant effectiveness. Doing whatever to always being able to assess whether we can identify what we need to do differently – applying double loop learning to double loop learning itself.

Various activities apply to all three loops:

  • Putting an action plan in writing – laying down the steps hoped for is the first step towards quality improvement. Documentation of intentions helps generate a vision of the result (or change) expected.
  • Documenting the process: based on the theory of action (or change), documenting what happens in the action and how the environment (people, organisations, physical environment) reacts provides the feedback that helps to improve learning loops – and decide what level of loops needs to be considered. In development work, this publication might help: Documenting change – an introduction to process documentation.
  • After action review: related to process documentation, it helps to regularly assess what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, why there was a difference and what can be done differently next time. This is effectively one’s own way of introducing feedback loops and stimulate critical thinking.
  • Seeking feedback – this is the more regular way to effectively introduce feedback loops. It’s no easy task and it is all the more effective as it follows certain ‘rules’ (I just found out there’s even a book ‘giving constructive feedback – for dummies’).
  • When seeking feedback, keeping open to the feedback and new insights, humble as to one’s own knowledge (the more we think we know the more we shut ourselves down to learning) and keeping curious to other options and solutions.
  • Identifying in which kind of context we are evolving for the action at hand – following the Cynefin framework here can be quite helpful as it places emphasis on single- (simple domain), double- (complicated and complex domains) or triple-loop learning (complex and chaotic domains). There is no direct relation between the domains and the appropriate learning loops in the framework but what I suggest here goes somewhere along its lines.

Then again, there are also some other activities that might be more specific to each learning loop.

Single loop learning in practice:

  • Having an action or process map – which explains step by step what is supposed to happen. This allows to map all the different elements that might need to go under the efficiency magnifier.
  • Look at other case studies, stories and examples for carrying out the same task – it might reveal hidden aspects that prevent further efficiency.

Double loop learning in practice:

  • Identifying the ‘theory of change that informs our actions: what is the vision that we have, what are our assumptions about the chain of elements that supposedly lead to the results we hope to achieve? What are the principles that guide us? In practice, all these aspects are very difficult to single out. A theory of change is a sort of complex process map in constant questioning.
  • Identifying all other theories put together by others to inform similar activities. Perhaps they have found cracks in their own theory of change and perhaps also very solid evidence about other ways to go about. Perhaps even carry out your own research on the most effective approaches. e.g. to inform policy, should you build an individual rapport with a policy-maker and have informal talks? Should you lobby their office? Should you provide evidence at conferences? Throw an advocacy campaign?
  • Mapping out all other possible ways to do the same task and perhaps using preps to think differently about it. This can be triggered by… lateral thinking – there are many exercises that stimulate lateral thinking. Paul Sloane has made a great job at profiling himself as a very active lateral thinking and innovation specialist. Using cards with pictures is another option: you get a picture and try to relate it to the topic. Each picture is very different and gives hints at other aspects that might have been overlooked.
  • Using metaphors, which is a more virtual way of using cards, basically.
  • Bringing different people around the table or using exercises such as DeBono’s six-thinking hat. The range of perspectives by itself brings about different suggestions for solutions. This is perhaps why so many complex interventions are nowadays addressed via multi-stakeholder processes.

Triple loop learning in practice:

  • Identifying one’s default learning mode (or style) and what triggers that learning style to kick in. There is much debate about the validity of learning styles and I share some of them – as I think we constantly co-evolve with and adapt to our direct environment – but we all tend to fall back to some preferred pathways for action. Being aware of this and challenging our comfort zones is a good way to engage in triple-loop learning;
  • Thinking about the evidence base that informs our decisions. Valerie Brown came up with a very helpful presentation about multiple knowledges explaining the evidence base of different types of identities. It was also used in the paper we wrote for IKM-Emergent on monitoring and evaluating development as a knowledge ecology: ideas for new collective practices.
  • Going through enlightening experiences such as deep meditation, sabbaticals etc. could arguably also be a way of revisiting one’s profound beliefs about truth, purpose and the learning logic that follows.

I have yet to go on such a path… In the meantime your sparks of  reflection are also more than welcome!
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Development, between results and relationships


Development cooperation work has been decried for its overall lack of effectiveness (links). And I’m not even talking about research for development (or research far from development sometimes) here.
From outside in – i.e. from the perspective of people look at development (cooperation) work but are not part of it  - demonstrating accountability, relevance of efforts and some meaningful results is a big expectation nowadays. The quest for impact is in full swing and return on investment is a must.
Yet from inside out, impact is far-fetched and difficult to trace (much more so to attribute to anyone’s intervention) and every experienced group of people knows that the human factor plays a critical role: capacities are required to achieve impact; more importantly yet, trust is central to any successful enterprise. In the networked age, and as complexity gains recognition and pushes everyone to embark on ever more interactive initiatives between multiple stakeholders, trust is the fertile soil for any development initiative to take root and find its place in the natural ecosystem in which it is ‘planted’.
This begs the question: What is development really about? Results? or Relationships?
“]Should we agree on achieving results or building relationships?  [Credits: KayVee.INC/FlickR]

Should we agree on achieving results or building relationships? [Credits: KayVee.INC/FlickR


Back in April 2011, I attended this event on ‘network approaches and alliance management’ and this question came on the menu too. In the corporate sector this issue has also been raised. And it has also been an ongoing questioning process occasionally leading me to arguments with some former colleagues of mine when thinking about our development philosophy and approach.

Well, since this is a shoot post, let me cut it short and clear about my current thinking on this: sure we should strive for results and need to streamline development efforts, because otherwise we might as well not bother working on this in the first place. But if we don’t invest in relationships, we will never achieve lasting results.

So if you want quick and short success, go for results. If you want long-lasting change and don’t mind the grappling and battling and bartering with approaches and partners, go for relationships. That’s where your best results lay. And if you work in Africa (but arguably anywhere else this is applicable), I don’t think you can afford to skip relationships…

Seeking results can perhaps best be organised around supporting civic-driven initiatives that naturally take less time to take root – that would be a more certain way to avoid the idiocy or grave irrelevance of many development efforts. But even there, building relationships with the nodes in the local social fabric is simply unavoidable.

Now let’s move on to real development and get on with our folks, our friends, our partners, shall we?

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