Email management and deflecting the unavoidable

Fight email overload: space, time, action and reflection (Credits -

Fight email overload: space, time, action and reflection (Credits –

Somehow, emails are not really part of what I would consider a KM infostructure, even though in practice they are essential, with apparently 62 billions of emails shared every day.

So, some word of advice about email management might help. But there’s plenty out there. Hey, wait! A knowledge management professional should be able to give you some good advice on email management, right? So here we go for your (well, my) agile KM worker’s tips to overcome the unavoidable email glut, baked in many years of sifting through emails and reflecting about it by myself and along better-informed people before me…

Create email time: Not all your time should go to managing emails

  • Focus on your work rather than on emails and other distractions. Otherwise you’ll be interrupted too often – and it seemingly takes 7 minutes to reconnect to what you were doing (though the link above mentions this takes up to 23 minutes… either way you might lose focus easy but gain it back only slowly)…
  • Turn off email notification pop-ups and other apps that drive your attention to your inbox at all times.
  • Take specific moments to look at your emails. I do it early morning when I start, after lunch break and at the end of the day. 30 to 45 minutes at a stretch. And that helps. I occasionally still don’t resist the temptation of checking emails more regularly but these three slots are really all I need and the rest is more like distraction tickling my bored brain.

Tame your  email space – Prioritise and deflect: Not all your communication should be email-based, so it’s a matter of prioritising your emails and deflecting what is not meant for you or for your email inbox

  • Do, delegate or dump. Another great brain spark of my dear ex-colleague Jaap Pels, and a variation to the theme: fight, flee or freeze. Either you can take care of the email yourself, or you should pass it on or you should just delete it because – seriously – it doesn’t matter!
  • Use Yammer and other means of communication. Some people like Leo Babauta and Luis Suarez have been living the past 2+ years without email and without withdrawal syndromes… For me, Yammer helps catch up with a lot of information that would normally end up in my inbox. Granted, this presupposes that my colleagues also use it. That means you can also create a group routine to collectively reduce email overload. 1+1=3
  • Do not put emails in a ‘to check’ folder – you will just never get to it. One related system that actually works in my case (on Outlook) is to categorize emails (e.g. websites to check, messages to check, friends’ messages etc.) but to keep them all in my main inbox so I think about them regularly and every so often act upon them.

Act (or not)!

Once you’ve set up your routines, act upon it – or sometimes not (as it might be an even more effective approach…)

  • Answer within three minutes: If an email takes you less than 3 minutes to react, then just deal with it. On. The. Spot. Seriously, it will help.
  • Do not react if it comes from someone that is quicker than their shadow to react. Emailing to one another is like dancing (except much much less pleasant): you need to find your common pace and style. There’s good chances you will always be overwhelmed if the person you’re receiving an email from is electronic mail’s Lucky Luke.
  • And my secret tip (which might not work if you’re a CEO or top manager): Ignore emails for long enough that people will have found alternative solutions. Similarly, don’t reply too quickly or it boomerangs back…

Learn to learn how to manage your emails

Sharpen the saw, Stephen Covey would have said: find ways to remain dynamically in control over your emails.

  • Explain to others, whenever you can, what your personal preferences/policy are regarding email. This way, they know that you react quickly or not, that you prefer to be called or visited face-to-face, or yammered to etc. It creates that dancing motion I mentioned above…
  • And as for pretty much anything else, just try different approaches and reflect upon what works for you or not. It’s been my best weapon to disarm the email nuclear threat…

And here is a selection of a few very recent articles or posts about this topic:

What are your tips to resist email overflow?

Related blog posts:


A tribute to KM4Dev: how it transformed my life and how I hope to share the magic

For a long time, in the sector where I used to work, I felt out of place: a mad and fuzzy communicator in the rigid, logical (but smart) kingdom of water and sanitation engineers. I guess I kinda accepted I was different and just had to rub it in.

And then I had my first KM4Dev (Knowledge Management for Development) face-to-face experience. And it was, professionally speaking, absolutely life-changing. So here’s a tribute to this fantastic game changer of a community that has become my natural dysfunctional and confusiastic professional family.

The KM4Dev group at the annual meeting in Almada, 2008 (Credits: unknown)

The KM4Dev group at the annual meeting in Almada, 2008 (Credits: Peter Bury)

My colleague Jaap Pels had brought KM4Dev to my awareness and got me to sign up on the discussion group for a couple of years and I surely enjoyed the conversations, but I didn’t quite realise how important KM4Dev was truly going to be for me. My first face-to-face event was in Brighton in 2006. And I really had the eye-opening experience of finding kindred spirits for the first time in the professional sphere. People that were different from me and had different interests but also cared for a lot of similar issues: learning, communication, knowledge management, empowerment, social change… far away from the image of a geeky male-dominated picture that a colleague of mine had about KM4Dev at that time (obviously without knowing it first hand).

I became a core group member less than a year later, and started blogging shortly after that. And that was just the beginning.

So here’s how KM4Dev changed my life and how I decided to repay that back (and how it keeps paying off)…

How KM4Dev changed my life

There are so many levels at which KM4Dev has added depth. Here is a non-exhaustive attempt at listing some of the benefits of being in KM4Dev, following the typical KM ‘People, process and technology’ approach 😉

The people

  • I met wonderful people, who (for some) became very good friends, bound by a different kind of common chemistry;
  • These people revealed to me the art and science of creative and wonderful facilitation, paving the way for my future work in this field later;
  • I found, through the mailing list, the wiki, the Ning group, some people that to date I still haven’t met but have been connecting with on many levels to discuss KM and learning-related issues;
  • They have taught me to seek questions, not answers; to be happy with confusion (confusiasm), to dare asking questions and challenging thoughts, to build upon each other but to go beyond the ‘yes we all agree and that’s wonderful’, to look for what is not there, to care for each other, to value people and ideas beyond organisations, to trust myself and others, to let go, to experiment and experience, to live and learn…

The processes

Having been involved in the KM4Dev core group, the KM4Dev journal and from 2009 onwards the founding group of the Francophone KM4Dev sister SA-GE, I have learned a lot of things in terms of KM processes, particularly related to management, facilitation and communities of practice, from building initiatives around champions, decision-making processes based on lack of disagreement, testing and expanding ideas, self-organisation, technology stewardship, acting upon promises made (based on personal, non-funded, commitment), creative brainstorming and co-creation of events and processes, organising discussions and documenting these on the spot (e.g. with live minutes on Skype or otherwise)…

And of course again the creative facilitation using Open Space, World cafés, fishbowl, six-thinking hats, peer assist and many many more ideas for facilitation.

The technology

To date I still don’t consider myself a techie nor a geek. But I’m interested in tools in as far as they bring about new practices and new ways for people to learn and connect with one another. I’m certainly an early adopter for many online tools. And that is the legacy of KM4Dev.

I wouldn’t have tried the following tools if it were not for KM4Dev: blogs, wikis, Twitter, Slideshare, Delicious, Blip TV. And next to these direct influences, I am now much keener on exploring new tools such as Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ etc. as a result of my exposure to KM4Dev. Secondary – but crucial – tools such as Doodle, MeetingWords, Wordle etc. also came to my knowledge via KM4Dev friends and folks.

Last but not least, KM4Dev really helped me decide that my focus field would indeed be (social) learning and knowledge management.

What I’m doing to pay KM4Dev back for all it’s given me

Given the above, it sounds like I will spend the rest of my life paying KM4Dev back. I don’t know where my love story with the community will bring me but I have taken some small steps to pay something back:

  • Being a core group member. This is and has always been a totally voluntary effort. So I do this after hours, in the evening, over the weekend and holidays, but taking part to the reflections of this group of people who care for the community matters to me. And as much as I would love other people to invest their time in this, I see too little of it happening so for now I’m happy to play my part. And this gives me extra fresh information about some crucial information regarding the community: funding, next face-to-face events, and the overall governance of the community. It’s also a great way to keep in touch with my close KM4Dev friends – quite a few of them being core group members themselves.
  • Being a KM4Dev journal editor. Now this is a real challenge because I find it difficult to make time for it but the journal – although (and that is really terrible but about to change soon) it is not open access – is important to me as it encourages practitioners from the global South to publish their experiences and reflections, as opposed to many academic development or KM journals. This role of editor means I contribute to shaping up issues from the journal and discuss with other fellow editors how to make it evolve in the right way, e.g. coming up with different article types, finding solutions for open access solutions, reviewing the list of board members, discussing possible topics for future issues etc. I’ve headed some issues of the journal on francophone KM, KM in the WASH sector, organisational KM and soon about multi-stakeholder process facilitation…
  • Being one of the lynchpins of SA-GE. We are actually trying to rely less on the few people who, like me, have played a strong role in SA-GE since its onset. But when nothing happens, I chip in and share relevant links, conversations, documents with the Francophone group, as I really hope it takes off and see many opportunities for more exchange on KM and learning in the Francophone world.
  • Occasionally facilitating the community platforms for a month – like this month with Bruce Kisitu. A great way to make sure all conversations are attended to, answered, linked with other relevant links, that peoples’ questions are answered, that orientation is given if need be and that all the while new ideas for improving this community facilitation emerge along the way…
  • Being a member of the Learning and Monitoring group. IFAD has granted KM4Dev some funding for 2012 and early 2013 and I am part of the group reflecting on the funded activities and trying to understand what KM4Dev brings to people but also how it could become more effective. This is a fascinating endeavour to understand this community from up close.
  • Developing local KM4Dev networks. Wherever I’ve been working I try to export some of my enthusiasm for KM4Dev by stimulating people from the network (or people that could benefit from becoming members) to meet up. I did it in The Hague, in Burkina Faso and more recently in Ethiopia. These local networks have their own dynamics but somehow they follow the philosophical trail of the global community of practice.

Next to that, of course I’m a regular member of KM4Dev so I contribute to the mailing list, post some resources and questions or conversations on the Ning etc.

Last words… and if it were you?

If KM4Dev has made a profound impact on your work and/or life, like it has on mine then feel free to let the community know, or me for that matter, as that kind of testimony would be really useful to assess the effectiveness of this community of practice, and to ensure it continues to be a useful guiding light for all people hoping to use learning and knowledge work to contribute to a better world, of empowered people taking care of their own and their community’s livelihood.

Related blog posts:

Harvesting insights (4): Making knowledge travel?

Time to revisit a concept that’s key in the recent past of ILRI’s and some other CGIAR knowledge work architecture: making knowledge travel. This concept and approach was, among others, central to the Agricultural and rural knowledge Share Fair organised in Addis Ababa in October 2010.

This post written by organiser Nadia Manning right after the event summarises some perceptions about ‘making knowledge travel’ from the Fair.

Making agricultural knowledge travel (Credits - Nancy White / FlickR)

Making agricultural knowledge travel (Credits – Nancy White / FlickR)

What are we talking about and what are the implications of this concept and its meaning?

The idea, in the ILRI/CGIAR practice is quite simple: we are overwhelmed with knowledge and information but we also struggle to unlock useful information (and perhaps they would say knowledge) that remains stuck in silos, databases and private spheres. We should promote ways for that information and knowledge to travel further than those static ranches of safeguarded knowledge treasury. We have to make it travel.

An important distinction: let’s agree that for this post by ‘information’ we mean concrete/tangible data put together to be consumed readily (i.e. articles, videos etc.) and by ‘knowledge’ we mean peoples’ exchange about information.

So what does it mean in practice?

A lot of things:

  • We have to make information available, accessible and applicable (the Triple-A framework that the above-mentioned post highlighted) which means information should be developed (available), easy to find in full access (accessible) and developed in a way that makes its use possible (applicable). More on this in the implications.
  • It means we should make use of the information long tail to counter the tyranny of ‘pushing yesterday news out’ – some of that older information remains useful long after its first publication.
  • Finding, encouraging, stimulating, developing spaces for connection between information sources and consumers – whether these be multi-stakeholder processes or specialised channels between certain groups of people.

What it implies for our organisations and for ourselves?

There are lots of lessons to take upstream if we want to make knowledge travel downstream.

Indeed, information-wise we and our organisations need to:

  • Turn our work into information – not only the results but also the work processes – documenting the process to tease out important insights.
  • Share that information in various ways, using websites, social media (which have a very strong potential to redistribute that information more widely by the virtue of trust-based network affinities) and other media that are fit for that purpose.
  • Save that information in available, open access places where anyone can find it later – ideally properly (meta)tagged to help others and search engines assess the relevance of that information against a given query.
  • Develop that information in open standards so that it can more easily be (re-)used and adapted by others.
  • Format/version/package that information possibly in different formats and levels of language and technicity for different audiences.

And knowledge-wise:

  • Encourage contacts with wider networks, beyond our familiar networks, which can be amplified by social networks (following people that are at the edge or our own networks i.e. the people that are followed by the people we follow).
  • Organise effective events and conversations to weave information and knowledge in trust-based networks that are reinforced by face-to-face contact.
  • Indeed use multi-stakeholder processes – where applicable due to the complexity of the agenda at stake – to encourage knowledge sharing and further connect distant/remote parts of a given social network.

As you might have picked up, this involves once again a sound personal knowledge management practice of ‘working out loud’ but also other things. And then again, ‘making knowledge travel’ does not entirely unveil what is at stake.

What this approach perhaps doesn’t emphasise enough?

Perhaps the ‘knowledge’ aspect itself was not sufficiently emphasised – as the overall approach of making knowledge travel actually seems to relate mainly to information. What it thus doesn’t say enough is that not only should we make sure our information is available, accessible, applicable (and actually applied!) but that we should also organise processes – using specific tools, since despite their over-reliance tools are not so bad after all – to ensure that people connect and share knowledge to make it travel further.

Consequently, the most important aspect is to connect knowledge (thus people) rather than information because what matters is not information, not even knowledge, but learning from both and acting upon it. Learning out loud is instrumental, in this respect, to go one step further than making knowledge travel perhaps emphasises.

Maybe we should talk about making learners travel together, as a more accurate and more useful paradigm. Using other face-to-face methods of social learning would come in handy in this respect too: farmer field days, exchange visits, study tours, secondments, knowledge fairs, coaching and on-the-job training, job rotation, peer assists, action research and the likes are all ways to do this – and the more consistent, repeated, long-term these processes are, the more likely they are to build trust and to become useful for social learning and more effective action.

Finally, the very idea of making knowledge travel could be fallacious, if we believe a great few influential KM thinkers on the basis of this post by Harold Jarche and its comments. I tend to agree with them. I think we can share knowledge but we can’t transfer it (more on this in this post), so I doubt we can make knowledge travel, but information we certainly can. And stimulating more and more diverse ways to share knowledge should be amplified as part of this approach too.


At any rate, making knowledge travel is more helpful than making information rot in the cavern and knowledge stay quiet in our heads. So, thank you Nadia, Peter and others for inviting us to make knowledge travel about making knowledge travel… the journey is very exciting already!

Related blog posts:

The role of positive deviants in organisations

(I summarised the results of the discussion mentioned below on the KM4Dev wiki: here).

Some members from KM4Dev are organizing a series of ‘focused conversations’ either about the community itself or about the field of ‘Knowledge management for development’. I volunteered for one of the latter. And I’d like to focus that conversation on the role of positive deviants in development organisations.

In any community, there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers. These individuals are referred to as positive deviants.  Sternin, J., & Choo, R. (2000).

Fascinating! People that just manage to be smarter without following the same path as everyone else, and end up unearthing solutions that no one else saw?

Now the interesting thing for us/me is that positive deviants could very well be what would make a difference in getting a lot of knowledge work (i.e. conscious, structured but flexible approach to creating, sharing, applying, assessing knowledge through learning and action) accepted and practiced in development organisations.

How can we tap into the power of positive deviants to show us alternative paths? (credits - ExplorativeApproach)

How can we tap into the power of positive deviants to show us alternative paths? (credits – ExplorativeApproach)

Perhaps we need these positive deviants to get wider organisations to embrace learning, change, complexity, participation, empowerment, dialogue and a host of other things that we/I stand for in our organisations to make development and knowledge work more noble and effective.

So this raises a lot of questions about positive deviants vis-a-vis knowledge work in development organisations:

  • Have you noticed such ‘positive deviants’ in your organisation or other organisations you are familiar with?
  • What characterises them? How different might they be from the champions that are sometimes alluded to in knowledge work (or other) initiatives?
  • What kind of benefits do they bring to their organisations?
  • Are these benefits recognised / how accepted are these people in their organisation?
  • How could they be mobilised to highlight alternative paths?
  • Do they create a ‘knock-on effect’ to influence other members of their organisation to follow their path and if so how?
  • If positive deviance seems useful in practice, how to stimulate and amplify it (if at all possible) in organisations?

So, I’m curious to see what will come out of that focused conversation…

Want to read more on positive deviance? I found this presentation…

Related blog posts:

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

The social media guide for African climate change practitioners

The social media guide for African climate change practitioners

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the social media guide offers, altogether

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog posts:

The tool obsession, a serious(ly) childish posture…

In my work around agile KM, I use a lot of tools for learning, sharing, documenting. I have yet to blog about the bouquet of tools that I use. In this post, I’m ranting against the biggest illusion of all in this field of business: the sacrosanct worship of tools.

Stop thinking that all your problems are nails and that you need a hammer! (Credits - Adam Rosenberg / FlickR)

Stop thinking that all your problems are nails and that you need a hammer! (Credits – Adam Rosenberg / FlickR)

Tools are what every serious person wants to solve serious issues, not like ‘hot and fuzzy’ knowledge sharing processes. They don’t realise it’s pretty childish to have such simplistic expectations… And unfortunately that misplaced expectation is running down the spine of most people, not just serious managers: From the recent Komms Klinics sessions we run at ILRI – the last one being about ‘managing and finding information‘, to a recent study tour that a UNICEF team did at ILRI, everyone is in search and need for tools…

This is not a new problem in KM, but what can we do about it? At ILRI we changed our approach with the Komms Klinics training sessions to emphasize communication and KM processes more widely, rather than (just) tools, and made it clear in our announcement that we were going to do so… only to find out that most people attending the sessions expect to be trained on tools. We want people to think about the tools, but preferably when they realise the context where these tools make sense, not as blanket solutions that will fix everything.

While looking for some additional answers here are some reasons why tools are not the panacea for your information and management issues…

  1. A tool serves a purpose – some tools are even designed for a certain (set of) purpose(s). This has two implications: firstly, tools give the false impression that they can solve every single problem – someone with a hammer sees nails everywhere as goes the proverb. But not every issue is a nail… tools do not solve all problems, they are not magic bullets, they are not blueprints for universal issues.
  2. Second implication: Focus on the purpose rather than the tool first. Form follows function, and tools may not be the answer for the problem you have. But a tool adapted to a clear purpose could indeed help.
  3. Once the purpose is clear, a tool comes with a practice (blogging, tweeting, saving bookmarks on, sharing knowledge etc.). The practice is all about behaviour change – that is real transformation and problem solving (even though tools help then) but it is a slow transformation.
  4. It takes time to understand, play around, reflect upon, muster or master tools to get them to work for you – so in the short run they are certainly not the answer to get more effective.
  5. When used collectively, tools take additional time for awareness-raising, training, coaching about ongoing use, devising principles of use and guidelines etc. Otherwise tools create more mess than order.
  6. Tools keep evolving quickly, meaning that over-reliance on them makes you more susceptible to run into trouble later. The purpose for which the tool has been set up is what should drive the solution, once again.

Tools are not magic bullets, they are shortcuts to improved practices, provided that those practices are questioned as well. No tool is going to replace the reflection that one needs to establish their needs, capacities and required practices. So rub it in fellows: while it’s seriously cool to play with tools, it’s smarter and more effective to focus on a practice that’s reflexive.

Related blog posts:

Global information systems, between the info monster ‘Charybdis’ and ghost town ‘Scylla’

I promised I would write this post quite quickly to a KM4Dev Ethiopia mate who is (perhaps unfortunately) seeing to the establishment of a global-local information system for a large organisation. The focus of that information system and the client organisation matter little really, as I’m here interested in the generic case – and you will undoubtedly have come across various examples of such information systems yourselves:

An information system that is global in its nature, draws upon the latest available expertise but also taps into indigenous knowledge (tick the box ;)), is magically updated all the time and works for pretty much everyone. Ha! and it is, will be or certainly should be sustainable. But right now the organisation that will be in charge of that system has asked a consultant (my mate in this case) to develop it for them. Eventually they should be in charge again. You know what I mean?

How to avoid the creation of yet another information monster?

How to avoid the creation of yet another information monster?

I told my mate: I don’t think these ‘catch-all portal / one-stop-shop / jack-of-all-trade’ systems are of any use and are in for any success… If anything, this mad idea is likely to end up as an unmanageable ‘Charybdis and Scylla‘ scenario: your information system could become an information monster or a ghost town. In the worst possible case it could even be a combination of the two.

But then with mad ideas we shake the world so why not give him the benefit of the doubt and focus on some safeguarding considerations instead…

Where would I start if I wanted to make such an information system sustainable? Here are some pointers…

  1. Look around, check what’s in place and carefully assess your value proposition
  2. Involve the people that should inherit the management of that system
  3. Play with the knowledge system in place
  4. Think about the capacity of the people in charge
  5. Focus on your content strategy
  6. Make your system conversant with other initiatives
  7. Develop your glocal network and alliances

In a bit more detail…

1. Look around, check what’s in place and carefully assess your value proposition

There are many other (delusional?) initiatives trying to offer the ultimate information system to all on a given topic. Some are totally global, some are totally local, some are (positively delusional) totally on both fronts. Some do that and are just brilliant (Wikipedia) but came up from long term investments efforts.

What matters is that you look at what’s out there, what has been done in similar fields and how this new initiative you promote offers something new and unique. Perhaps it has a better interface, perhaps it much more focused on local information, perhaps it has access to an unprecedented pool of expertise. If you can’t determine what that ‘unique selling point’ (USP) is then your system seems pretty flawed from the start.

So: do your literature and practice check and scratch your head to find your USP – in fact, better ask the people that you’re doing this for what they need to work more effectively, what their current needs and questions are.

2. Involve the people that should inherit the management of that system

If you’re building that system for third parties and plan to hand it over to them, involve them as early as possible, not only the management of that third party organisation (to think about the purpose and aforementioned USP) but also the people that will be in charge of the information system, both technically, in terms of communication and promotion. They need to be part of the project or the post-consultancy graft will be doomed at handover phase… and then you end up again in ghost town (they really don’t bother), or with an information monster (they’re not managing this well and the system quickly gets messed up…).

3. Play with the knowledge system in place

Building a cadillac of a system in a Trabant garage is not going to work out. Adapt to the local environment. All the bells and whistles will not be of any help if the people that run the system later cannot easily embed that system in their routine work. Look at existing information and knowledge management & sharing practices, protocols, responsibilities, capacities and tweak your system to adapt it to this environment. Otherwise you end up in infomonsterland – at least that’s what it might feel for the organisation that will be in charge of that monstrosity of a system later.

4. Think about the capacity of the people in charge

Which derives from the previous two points… Make sure that the people in charge are properly trained and coached in using the system and running it both technically, in terms of communication and promotion. Prepare good tutorials, good communication materials, a good coaching process to ensure a smoother handover, ideally spanning a few months so that the coaching centres around effective practice. Perhaps they need specific training on other types of skills (language, typing, database management, social media) which would help them perform their function better. Perhaps the people that are supposed to use the system also need some kind of information and skill training in order for the information system to work?

5. Focus on your content strategy

Think carefully about your content strategy (Credits - Raphaelle Ridarch / FlickR)

Think carefully about your content strategy – it’s not just about social media, it’s about getting great content quality and process (Credits – Raphaelle Ridarch / FlickR)

A lot of information systems and ‘databases’ (the magical word that means nothing but means everything to its proponents, hoping that it contains all their hopes and semi-conscious aspirations in one big can of wonderful data) are developed with the idea that once they are set up, the job is done. Yet it’s precisely when they are set up that the real job starts: keeping the system updated, relevant and interactive.

This is where you need to focus on who’s going to provide information, via which protocol or process, in what format, at what frequency, on what basis (remunerated or not – and if not why would they bother). What template (if any) will you provide for third parties to submit information, who will be quality checking it, who will be entering it and double-checking that it’s not duplicated etc.? And finally, who will be dealing with interactive content e.g. comments, questions, interactions etc.? If you build a system to be interactive and by chance there are interactions around that system, you need to be out there attending to them. Who will take care of it, on what basis, at what frequency etc.? It’s that kind of strategy that is likely to prevent your system from being another sad ghost town…

6. Make your system conversant with other initiatives

As part of your content strategy over the long run, using open data standards would be a useful decision to let others (re-)use your information, both when the system is up (to connect with other relevant information systems) and if/when it’s down for ever, i.e. closed, for others to use the legacy of your information system.

And while at that, you might want to document the process of using that system, to help others make use of your information and processes as best possible. So keep working out loud and get your system to work in a net rather than in a silo that will quickly sink to the bottom of our consciousness’s ocean…

7. Develop your glocal network and alliances

Finally, your system is part of an environment and the people in charge of it too. Make sure they weave links with relevant global and local organisations, networks and people, that the word gets out and that you test (and fail) that system at soonest and repeatedly, to find out how it is received by others and what needs to be tweaked – assuming that the system itself is of any use to someone.

As content or community managers, the people in charge will have to build alliances to extend the potential reach of the system, both to be used and to be fed/fuelled with regular information flows. And this once again takes a lot of time and effort, usually not planned and paid well – but this is the best way to keep your info town lively and the monster at bay…

And perhaps with all of this your system might reveal some usefulness, robustness, perhaps even some signs of sustainability?

Final considerations…

A final idea I gave my mate was to submit his work to a ‘peer assist‘ in our upcoming KM4Dev Ethiopia get-together so that he could pick our collective brains to go ahead with more informed ideas.

I’m still not convinced that such broad information systems should really come up in the first place (unless spearheaded by massive coalitions of respectable organisations that have decided to gang up – unfortunately that’s rare), though the question is not really about those information systems but rather about systemic expectation management… in itself that’s perhaps well worth a post in its own right. You reckon?

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Managing or facilitating change, not just a question of words

The other week, I participated in a change management training course at ILRI. Like many organizations, ILRI is currently going through an intense period of change. Perhaps I should say: like most (all?) organizations, ILRI is perpetually going through an intense period of change. But this time, on top of it we are developing a new strategy for the next ten years. A very good moment to look at how we deal with change.

Control change  - perhaps new but still not the right way to deal with change (credits_DaleC_FlickR)

Control change – perhaps new but still not the right way to deal with change (credits_DaleC_FlickR)

So we had a very lively change management session, we discussed the kinds of change we observe at ILRI, how change happens in general, reasons for resistance to change, possible rationales behind change etc. all kinds of very useful slides and ideas which I partly covered in this blog post and others mentioned below. But this post is more about the subtle yet essential difference between facilitating and managing change.

The change management course we went to is inspired by the general CGIAR reform that (helpfully) urges all CG centers like ILRI to cooperate more with other CG centers and with development partners. A very good reform, and the interesting thing is that it is triggered by CGIAR donors – i.e. external actors – who want more bang for the bucks they give. So here we are essentially trying to cope with a change that outsiders hope to bring upon us. But ‘coping with change’ doesn’t sound very serious so we are focusing on ‘managing change’.

That’s where I’m wondering if it’s not worth dimming the management side and amplifying the facilitation side, as in dealing with complexity. Let’s explore this a little more, shall we?

Change management gives the idea that we can (and should?) manage change. In the course we heard change usually happens through external stimuli. So, managing change means managing the consequences of external events. It gives some security to manage that change, to carefully and neatly put it in a box and know that it’s tame… that eternal need for security and certainty which pushes us to manage and control. But there are three interrelated fundamental mistakes in this approach:

A) Managing change gives a false sense of stability and security. Change is not a destination to reach, it’s a voyage to take advantage of. A voyage that will change you and make you better prepared for future changes, perhaps inspire eagerness for more change even. This leads to the second point.

B) Managing change perhaps misses the point of embracing change. It feels like we have to manage it or it will get out of control and bring a disaster. It sounds to me like the man vs. nature argument again – dominate or be dominated. We probably can manage change and put it in a box and we will end up at the desired destination, except that the dynamism, thirst for learning, opportunities to work as a an empowered networked set of teams using change as opportunity for improvement – all aspects posed in this presentation which I featured in my last blog post – will dwindle. Usually all these positive effects of change are squeezed out by the time pressure requiring us to change quickly before the environment catches on with us. Fighting the change, not riding it…

Managing change can lead us to catastrophes... let's think carefully how to surf it

Managing change can lead us to catastrophes… let’s think carefully how to surf it

C) And finally, managing change, with its emphasis on command and control, means that we go down the road of hierarchy, as opposed to the connections between all parts of the system (be it an organisation, network, team etc. going through the change process). Change can lead to great bursts of empowerment for teams and people, which leads them to become more effective. Remember Daniel Pink’s Drive lessons? Autonomy, mastery and purpose are what drives us to go the next mile. Change is a wave and rather than having one person surfing it and telling others to keep their head above the water, it’s better to have more people surfing together and in the same direction, it brings you further.

But back to the externally-imposed reform. The change management that unfolds from such impulses means that we see change as a necessity to survive. Sure. Better late than never, so we might as well wake up and try to survive. But a smarter way would be to see change as a necessity to thrive. To have a proactive take on it.

This is when facilitating change comes in. It’s not about reacting to change but rather anticipating it and surfing on it, dancing with it. making change part of the working factors affecting the system, accepting that it happens and taking advantage of it rather than suffering from it and minimising its consequences. Change can be seen as a way to raise our game and perhaps even change it (remember the double and triple loops of learning?).

Rather than change management, we should perhaps bet on adaptive and proactive management and on facilitating change. In practice this means keeping attuned to perceiving signals, analysing feedback loops and using those signals to mitigate what is not going well or amplify what is going well, turning challenges into opportunities.

Here’s a table summarising some of the key differences between managing and facilitating change:

Managing change Facilitating change
Being run by the change Running the change
Adapting Anticipating
Aiming for the destination Appreciating the voyage
Change leading to new stability and security Change leading to ongoing dynamism and flexibility
Working under time pressure Working with a smart use of time
Imposing solutions Co-creating solutions
Commanding and controlling Empowering
Strengthening central capacities Improving feedback loops and capacities on the edge
Being affected by change Becoming change
Change management Change facilitation and (ongoing) adaptive/proactive management

At the end of the day, it really boils down to going fast alone or going far but together. Except that one attitude is about running behind and the other one is about walking forward, with – if ever so slightly paradoxical – the confidence of uncertainty.

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