Interview with Carl Jackson: of KM, social learning and creative design

I recently had the chance to co-facilitate an event dedicated to social learning together with Carl Jackson of Westhill Knowledge Group. Carl is a very good KM4Dev friend and a very knowledgeable person on knowledge management for development generally. He was front and centre in the organising team of the first ever annual KM4Dev event I had the chance to attend, in Brighton in 2006.

Carl kindly accepted to be interviewed about his views on the following:

  • What is KM to you and how does it relate to social learning (if at all)?
  • Where do you think KM is going (what fields is it moving towards) and where is its place in international development?
  • What are your current interests in KM and/or social learning (to do what?)
  • What do you recommend reading or who to get in touch to know more about all of this?

The video interview (3’37”) is totally not professional but the content is totally worth listening to.

The transcript follows below:

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

For me knowledge management is really about how people come to realise the value of knowledge, irrespective of their position or of their level of authority. I think often it is about how organisations get to harness and value the knowledge assets in all kinds of places in the organisation or outside the organisation and in networks.

What’s interesting about social learning and how it relates to KM is it’s really pushing us out of this idea that KM is about looking at an individual organisation and the management of its own knowledge assets and thinking much more about knowledge is held within society more broadly and how people who come in with their professional hats also have knowledge from lots of other spheres of their life and other networks they can be bringing in to help us solve challenges that we’re facing in organisations so it’s making KM much more democratic and much more cultural.

Where do you think KM is going (what fields is it moving towards) and where is its place in international development?

I’ve seen KM become something which is now considered incredibly mainstream. It’s no longer considered to be an innovative thing that people are doing it’s like ‘hey well yeah we all do kinda knowledge management. There’s no particular cachet to be associated with it so now I think it’s much more around people trying to show how practically this is supporting the bread and butter that the organisations are doing.

Within international development I think one of the things where it’s most helpful is that a lot of organisations are working at national, regional and international scales whereas there is no particularly one place where you can go to access all the knowledge that you need. So KM within international development is about being very agile, accessing networks, building alliances and discovering knowledge in unexpected places.

What are your current interests in KM and/or social learning (to do what?)

At the moment, last kinda year I’ve been very excited around how we can start to use some of these ideas from ‘human-centred design’ or ‘collaborative design’ where it’s getting away from thinking of knowledge being primarily a textual or analytical thing and starting to invest in processes that are much hands-on, drawing on disciplines from architecture and design, to create spaces and processes which are creative hands-on innovations that unlock people’s potential to ex-temporise, to do things ‘ad lib’.

What do you recommend reading or who to get in touch to know more about all of this?

I’m not one for reading research papers, what I tend to do is to always rely on my colleagues from the KM4Dev community so seeing the blogs that are associated with KM4Dev and also any opportunity that I can get to work with or attend events that my friends in KM4Dev are part of in because they’re really cutting edge.

Carl Jackson: 

Westhill Knowledge Group:

Related blog posts:


What’s really new about social learning?

In the recent annual science meeting of the CGIAR research program on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS), the theme for the event was ‘social learning’. Upon hearing what social learning referred to, a lot of the workshop participants were wondering what was really new about social learning. For reasons that are too long to explain – and it’s not the purpose of this post – we didn’t really take the time to zoom in on the differences.

So here’s an attempt at making distinctions between social learning and related initiatives and schools of thought in previous experiences. Because there are a lot of previous trails leading to the social learning bush: Participatory action research (PAR), participatory rural appraisal (PRA), participatory plant breeding (PPB), multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs), participatory impact pathway analysis (PIPA) can all legitimately subscribe to a long tradition of social learning. A very rich tradition of participatory work that has been explored extensively by a consultant to take stock specifically of CGIAR experiences in this domain. Yet there is are differences between all that (excellent) work and what might be called contemporary social learning work:

Social learning is...

Social learning is…

Social learning is instrumental, respectful of various perspectives, conversational, a long term commitment, adaptive, reflective, trust-based, visionary, open-minded, context-specific, participatory, dynamic, improvising, flexible, action-oriented, it’s about learning, it’s social and most importantly it is transformative.

It is not just participatory, because participatory approaches could actually just involve specific groups for specific activities but not really keep these groups front and centre involved from the get-go and throughout the initiative.

It is not just action (even though the transformation feeds off the action) because it is about generating new insights for more effective action, learning in effect, but not just any learning.

It is not just learning because it involves more than one party and happens mostly through sustained social interactions. It is a rich kind of learning, the kind that comes with disputing  views, telling each other our truths and complacencies, muddling through hopes and disappointments and finding common ground and mutual respect from the respect that is earned in challenging situations, whether as partners or opponents.

It is thus potentially more than action research, although it’s very similar in the sense that it starts with assumptions and verifies these assumptions along the way, thanks to feedback mechanisms. But social learning puts the emphasis on the social nature of learning and action throughout the process, whereas in action learning there is a risk that the learning itself is limited to the research process itself.

It is not just about bringing diverse views to the mix, even though this is an important step forward. A forum brings together lots of different stakeholders, but it doesn’t necessarily transform them. Social learning happens through sustained interactions that lead to that transformation.

It is not just tossing a few token conceptual ingredients in the stir-fry of jargon-coated fancy fluff. It’s about careful attention to a structured process of opening a space for collective reflection that goes beyond any one entity or group that is part of it. 

Social learning is not controlled, it is operating as a complex adaptive system, it is bound to be richer, deeper and more transformative the longer it takes and the wider it goes (as it harnesses more and deeper perspectives). For that reason, it’s not necessarily easy to instil because it takes a vision; it takes capacities (not least to facilitate such processes – something which incidentally will be partly covered by the December 2013 issue of the knowledge management for development journal about ‘facilitating multi-stakeholder processes’); it takes resources to bring about the critical mass of insights in the quantity and the quality of the actors involved; it also takes patience, determination and the belief that chaos might lead to insights and that an apparent mess can hide an uncanny order; it takes time to build the relations and to let the feedback loops provide their beneficial effect; and it takes balls to decide to go for it or to stop it in the face of justified adversity.

And social learning helps us tackle complex issues and and work around wicked problems like ‘climate change’:

It’s not the easiest way, but it’s surely a useful way to address distant goals. Remember:

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together (Xhosa proverb)

Related blog posts:

Top KM influencer on Twitter? Why and what then?

MindTouch KM influencerThis week I had the very pleasant and slightly shocking surprise of landing as #23 on MindTouch’s top 100 Influencers on KM – see more information about this here (or click on the icon on the right hand side).

Here is the top quartile:

  1. weknowmore
  2. David Gurteen
  3. Dave Snowden
  4. Stan Garfield
  5. Nancy White
  6. VMaryAbraham
  7. Jack Vinson
  8. Euan Semple
  9. Alice MacGillivray
  10. knowledgetank
  11. Ian Thorpe
  12. Richard Hare
  13. Peter West
  14. Gauri Salokhe
  15. Chris Collison
  16. #KMers Chat
  17. Stuart French
  18. KM Australia
  19. John Tropea
  20. KMWorld Magazine
  21. Christian DE NEEF
  22. Mario Soavi
  23. ewenlb
  24. KM Asia
  25. Steve Dale

How did this happen?

I’m still surprised. By no means do I consider myself worthy of making it to this list. If at all I could have featured in the bottom part. So if I try to understand how it happened, I guess  what could have helped the ranking is, randomly: mutual connection to most of these top tweeters, consistent use of hashtags (#KM, #KM4Dev, #KMers), regular updates on this blog which is dedicated to KM from which I channel tweets, re-tweeting – and being retweeted for – interesting KM insights from other influential KM thinkers who are on Twitter or not.

And more importantly… so what then?

A few ideas and comments come to mind:

This rating is only one subjective, biased assessment and it’s only about Twitter. There are countless of KM specialists that should be there, who are very influential but are not presented in this top 100, either because they are not active at all on Twitter or because of the way the MindTouch ranking algorithms work.

As Nancy White mentioned, it’s remarkable that many KM4Dev members are making it to this list, which is great for the community and an incentive to really do something about it as it might change (y)our life. It looks as though it’s not just my biased understanding that assumes this community rocks and is a beacon of CoPs, despite all its ongoing doubts and issues – some of which will be addressed in the annual face-to-face event in Seattle this July.

From my Twitter stream, it seems that a lot of these people are also following each other, which shows that the KM Twitter community is fairly tight-knit and has quickly connected nodes to form this fantastic thinking grid that it is now. The wonderful gathering function of #KMers Chat has possibly been one significant mechanism to interconnect all these people too and to take stock of many of the challenges that KM professionals are facing, whatever their function title is or entails. This is good matter for entertaining such conversations and regularly convening a quorum of the critical KM minds.

As Stuart French noted, this ranking shows the diversity of the KM field and the focus shift from technology to humans and their interaction processes. However, this is likely to change as technology will play an increasingly important role. This is one of the key (and totally plausible) predictions of Steve Wheeler in his wonderful ‘learning futures’ presentation: 

The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself – it just keeps on happening, and the KM world, with its antennas in such diverse arenas as business management, psychology, education, cognitive science, human resource management, coaching, information technology, training, social activism etc. is a good place to map trends, raise questions, shape up conversations that keep on getting our ever-changing job done, and allow us to deal with complex issues and wicked problems. The positive issue of such a ranking is that it helps us all connect to this great thinking pool.

Finally, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s perhaps an example that the knowledge ego-logy sometimes comes with rewards, but also with responsibilities. For me this token of recognition is a call to become ever more helpful in the field of (agile) knowledge management, (social) learning and critical thinking, on Twitter and everywhere else.

At any rate, I’m also happy for this event and I’ll proudly keep the badge on this blog for a while. Thank you if you were involved in compiling this ranking or helped me and other KM thinkers make it to this list!

As the no.1 KM Twitter influencer shows (together) ‘We know more’. 


Related blog posts:

How do I describe my ‘work in KM’?

Might it be another phoenix of the knowledge management world next to assessing KM: the description of our job as knowledge worker?

There are lots of variation to the job of ‘knowledge management specialist’ and lots of related functions. In a recent fragment about knowledge work identities which I collected on my TumblR from a conversation happening in the knowledge brokers’ forum, nearly 50 job titles were offered for knowledge brokers.

Clearly, knowledge work begs for simple explanations that unveil a complex function.

Ewen Le Borgne (ILRI/KMIS) facilitating the CCAFS workshop on climate-smart crop breeding

What do I tell people who inquire what my work is?

I tell them different things: That I hold a mirror to help us all realise what we do, why and how. That I work on making sure that we become more effective in our work dynamically (i.e. continually, over time, not just for a given task or project) through learning, managing the information that matters to us and managing access to and curation from knowledge sources (conversations and the people behind), and that we do this more effectively as collectives rather than alone – hence the need to become social learning heroes.

I tell them that my work in KM is about avoiding reinventing the wheel, getting more perspectives on the same issue to find better, more sustainable solutions, ensuring that our conversations increase in number and improve in quality and help us get better.

Depending on who I’m talking to, I also tell people that I work in communication but not the message-based ‘military’ type of communication (with bullet-like messages targeted at people with hopes for impact), that I work rather on making communication engaging, collective and reflective. I tell people that I work on all of this from the perspective of knowledge management, communication and monitoring/evaluation/learning.

But is this really good enough?

Nick Milton rightly prompts us all to be able to “sell” our knowledge work in a compelling, powerful and short ‘sales pitch’. So here’s a revised elevator pitch that speaks to the three points that seem imperative to address in conveying our KM message:

  • What’s my point – what do I do for a job? I help people think critically about the information and expertise they need (by themselves or through others) to develop better and more sustainable solutions for the problems they face and connect with or trigger the conversations they need to do that; in the process I make them more likely to proactively seek these solutions in the future, both online through social media and offline through engaging meetings and events.
  • What’s in it for you? I can help you use the potential of knowledge work and social learning to be more effective now and continually, more connected to your field(s) of interest and expertise, more innovative and happier by helping and being helped by others.
  • What do I want you to do? I hope you can point me to the areas you would like to improve to become more effective and better connected and to see how social media and other means can get you there, “standing on the shoulders of giants“.

Of course this pitch needs to be adapted to the very people I engage with, but as a global pitch, tell me if you think that sells it enough and what you would change otherwise 🙂

Related blog posts:

Open knowledge, working out loud, sharing ideas and our mind at large

A simple and small shoot: to open our mind out large…

Opening our mind, such a simple complicated thing... (Credits - Tanyew Wei)

Opening our mind, such a simple complicated thing… (Credits – Tanyew Wei)

I always wanted (and still do) to try the experiment of accepting with one or more persons – for a given limited time – to give each other the option to check at absolutely any time what the other is thinking about and to accept sharing it. A risky experiment, I agree, but what a fabulous shortcut to each other’s mind and ideas this would be too. The power of Open, in all its terror.

Another experiment I always wanted to do is to share what we are working on as we are working on it: opening Pandora’s box of our half-baked thinking, our weak reflections, our incomplete search for evidence, our half-started/half-aborted attempt at revisiting good sources from the past and combining new ideas. Now that is not too risky an experiment, and it’s a direct contribution to ‘working out loud‘, with perhaps even wider implications for the audience we might influence at large.

My colleague Peter Ballantyne recently wrote this excellent blog piece from a recent trip he did to Michigan State University to attend an ‘Open Knowledge for Agricultural Development Convening’ and he’s also sharing views about the importance of collective work using e.g. wikis. Have a peek at the presentation, it’s really worth it!

Even before we reach that collective stage, we can open up our working cabinet to let others in on our thinking, on the ideas that are crossing our mind. Blogging is a way to do this of course; yet, however draft-like our thought pieces become, they are already polished one level further compared with the moment when we get struck by an idea…

Tweets are another point in case. We can reveal what’s crossing our mind on a tweet – but rarely do we end up exploring this with our Twitter crowd much further than another tweet or two.

One piece is missing thus. John Tropea has got it: with his ‘snippets’ TumblR, he’s keeping track of some useful fragments of text that strike a cord with him and that he might want to come back to.

I have just decided to start my own TumblR as an experiment – as an antechamber and experimental springboard to this blog. On that TumblR I plan to keep fragments of writing that I find interesting and want to come back to later. I will also share simple ideas that I may come back to on this blog for (slightly) more elaborate thoughts. I might start by pasting the list of blogging ideas I have on the side (about 50 or so ideas for possible blog posts).

The idea is simple: the earlier we share our ideas, the earlier others can use those ideas, reflect and comment on them, and the more likely we are all better off with enriched ideas, good conversations and stronger relations. And better suggestions for the next blog posts…

Let’s see where this leads me…  and you!

Related blog posts:

We need more / better communication! But not from me…

When it comes to communication, everyone points the finger elsewhere (credits: Evalottchen/FlickR)

When it comes to communication, everyone points the finger elsewhere (credits: Evalottchen/FlickR)

I hear that a lot, in many organisations: communication is not good enough or there isn’t enough of it.

What does it really mean though? We are quick at pointing the finger to the problem, but not so keen on explaining what we really mean and what this implies.

Unfortunately also, too often we assume that the communication officer or team will solve all these problems, because ‘communication is their field, not mine’.

The reality is once again less black-and-white than it seems.

What they (might) mean What is really happening (and what we can do about it)
They don’t know enough about other people and departments’ work  Not enough is documented about: ongoing projects, movements (calendaring), meetings and events, outputs published.♣ Contribute to these records: share your travel plans, schedule your meetings publicly, channel your outputs to the official repository. 

Crucially, use a public (working out loud) channel to share information about what they’re doing, their questions, finds and ideas – be it on Yammer, a corporate Facebook group, Sharepoint or the organisation’s Intranet.

♣ Do this individually and in your teams. And stimulate others to do just the same. 

♣ If the above is impossible (e.g. because channels don’t exist), contact the communication team to help make it happen.

They don’t find relevant information through the formal communication channels and experience little connection and relation between the informal (bilateral chats) and formal channels They may not know how to look for information and where, there might not be any information for lack of content ‘fuel’; they receive little information as compared with corridor talks and chatting with people at events♣ Look for an overview of communication channels and procedures. 

♣ Contribute to these channels to enrich them – otherwise there will always be a disbalance between formal and informal channels.

They experience lack of coordination The different relevant entities of the organisation have few structural channels and processes to share relevant knowledge and information among themselves and rely on ad-hoc encounters to share strategic information♣ Use conversation channels and wikis that help people get in touch with each other despite distances, leaves documentation traces for themselves and others, and allow collaboration on joint projects.

♣ Use meta tags to ensure all relevant resources are tagged according to the taxonomy or folksonomy in use.

They feel they are reinventing the wheel There isn’t enough documentation going on during and after projects to share useful insights. Perhaps not enough attention is paid to the process of conducting projects and the specific approaches followed, as opposed to just carrying out stated objectives♣ Very similar to the previous point, this relates to the lack of records or their disorganisation (e.g. for lack of metadata). The agile organisation will ensure resources are easily findable and the persons related to these resources easy to locate. A social network analysis/mapping of sorts might be helpful here. 
They feel the organisation is not well equipped to face up and coming challenges that require more complex cooperation They feel the limitations of the above in doing their job and know they need to connect to other sources of knowledge but are perhaps not so sure as to how to proceed♣ This is where an engagement-focused communication team could really provide high added value support by helping design, facilitate and manage engagement processes with other parties and stakeholders, inside and outside. 

♣ What could also help is to organise more conversations (brown bag seminars, conferences, discussions) that bring together different parts of the organisation and external parties, to shape up a big picture that matters to the organisation’s agenda.

They don’t enjoy enough communication support They may have some genuine capacity needs in terms of communication and knowledge management/sharing but may not be aware of these, and perhaps there isn’t any (adequate) offering to fill these gap or perhaps these are not well known♣ See below. The task of the communication team is to connect the dots and to ensure that people use existing channels and processes to their advantage, without burdening them.
They hear “we ought to do more about communication” There is just external pressure (from donors, partners etc.) to communicate, reach out to and engage with other parties… Either way there is a problem of externally felt need, not a self-recognised weakness♣ This is not an ideal situation, but better realise it than remain ignorant. In this case, all the above applies, and perhaps it would be good to connect with other people, networks, communities of practice and organisations that seem better prepared to 21st century engagement, to get some ideas about what could work or not in this organisation. 

Of course the communication officer or team does have a role to play, that is to:

  • Set up the channels (public calendaring system, output repository, chat/knowledge sharing platform to share simple updates)
  • Set up recommended processes to use these systems
  • Provide training initially to help staff members make use of these systems and processes/procedures, at various levels (from simple users to power users and administrators), with particular emphasis on meta-standards which help organise information more systematically and retrieve it more easily
  • Coach staff and answer their question (seek their feedback on what works or not) to adjust the work
  • Monitor how these channels and processes are performing over time and contributing to accomplishing the organisation’s objectives
  • Over time, contribute to stimulating a culture of knowledge sharing and open enquiry that is conducive to adaptive management and proactive leadership cultivation

So, next time you wonder why communication in your (team, organisation, network) is so bad, ask yourself what you can do to improve it, and how your communication team can help you help yourself 😉

Related blog posts: