The lessons I learned about lessons learned


Another one of these fascinating KM4Dev conversations that flares up without notice – or perhaps prompted indeed by this great title ‘Lessons Learned – The Loch Ness monster of of KM‘.

When will we know what to do with our lessons? (Credits - Notionscapital/FlickR)

When will we know what to do with our lessons? (Credits – Notionscapital/FlickR)

The conversation initiated by Johannes Schunter from UNDP elicited a great many fascinating responses about another one of KM evergreens (along institutional memory) – some of these came after I drafted this post.

Johannes’s original question was:

Would you know of any good paper, research article or other evidence that looks at this in a comprehensive way and supports the conclusion that collecting lessons learned documents in a database might not be smart KM?

Fair enough a question… Here is a selection of my personal favorite replies about lessons learnt (LL) databases // and my personal reactions to these:

Our problem owner is alluding to the traps of LL databases. The essential problems with such databases is that:

  • On the one hand, they are still seen by some as an end (the typical first generation KM trap)…
  • On the other hand, they relate to an essential behavioural problem that our species faces:

Getting people to actually use knowledge that is already available is a behavioural challenge in general (I. Thorpe)

Now, assuming learning lessons is still a valuable thing to pursue and codify in some way, what really makes a lesson learnt? A lesson is only learnt if it is applied. “Knowledge needs action and effective use to realise it’s potential” (N. von Holzen) // though sometimes the proof of the learning is not only in the action but in the discourse, the attitude, the thinking and guiding principles that command our actions, before there is any opportunity for action.

But what makes a lesson learnt really interesting? “replicability, evidence, and context” states D. Piga as, he continues “there is no lesson learned that is worth reading if the experience described in it isn’t replicable.” To which Stephen Bounds responds that, on the other hand, “understanding the bias and prejudices of the person or people reporting gives readers a much more powerful sense of the thinking process involved. This provides a much stronger context for critical evaluation of the material presented, as well as a stronger narrative involvement in the actual course of events.” // So a yes to qualifying who came up with the story, in what context, but striving for the universal lessons at the same time? I tend to stick to the personal angle, as universal tends to mean ‘lowest common denominator’, like a bad Hollywood remake of an excellent national film. 

Ian Thorpe argues that LL databases are just one element in a broader KM strategy including events, communities or practice etc. The database lessons are then more of a prelude to a deeper conversation. Interestingly he also points to other uses: as field examples for advocacy publications, as thematic analysis and planning resources, as ‘evidence’ that something is happening, as case studies for internal advocacy, to push a new way of working. // Excellent reflections – the question is ‘how much effort do you want to put into this database as opposed to other KM approaches and tools, and for what purpose really? Those hard questions help find a better fit.

Ok, so what can be done specifically about lessons learnt databases?

Eric Mullerbeck suggests adding “‘push’ features like RSS linked to specific and well-defined topics, that will automatically push the LL documents to the persons who have interest in those topics, without them having to do anything more than sign up to get the updates.” Pete Cranston adds: “perhaps we need a collection of personal stories on success and failure”. This echoes Robin van Kippersluis’s plea to process lessons at different levels in an integrated way – as a “true learning organisation” would do – and with a view to track evidence // Indeed compelling ideas that might enhance the effectiveness of such databases, or certainly the drive to structure them better, with a clearer view to satisfying donors.

What you do with the lessons again affects the chances of success of using the database. Thiendou Niang summarises the steps he and his team took to make best use of lessons learnt in a project in West Africa:

  1. We took time to reflect on past experience, formulate development theories and share initial thinking with a peer group
  2. …wrote the lessons learned and debated on the issues
  3. …produced a booklet with the lessons learned and disseminated the outputs including , in some cases through national TV
  4. …used the lessons learned in debate, policy influence and resource mobilization. // To me that sounds about right, perhaps not perfect but here’s a good example of knowledge ‘just in time’ (not just in case) with a purpose to using the lessons, not just to storing them. Rinko Kinoshita also shared his example of linking the LL database with a newsletter to garner more momentum and interest around the lessons.

Perhaps indeed lessons learnt databases will never satisfy our needs and so be it – because learning and knowledge are and remain transient, fluid,  Behind all of this, Eva Schiffer ponders:

How can you codify the time people need to spend in the shower each day to have good ideas, how can you standardize, make controllable, create and attribute the culture change you need for a vibrant knowledge sharing organization?

Or perhaps as Ian Thorpe enquires, we might settle for a mixed solution of high-end, rather expensive LL databases combined with cheap but rich self-reflection, using the “personal insights of those people managing the project about how it works on the ground, interpreted through their experience.” Self reflection is at the heart of Rinko Kinoshita’s final comment, that:

We cannot neglect the effects on the LL producers’ side (…) the process of documenting enabled them analyse and self reflect on their own experiences- there is a key learning here.

// Now that’s a compelling idea. Perhaps pushing this even further, the lessons learnt database could be indeed combined with ongoing conversations leading back to the database, adding new insights as conversations go along. In a way the KM4Dev wiki is a very good example of a lessons learnt database that kinda works: a conversation happens, it gets documented (including the lessons and cases), it is stored there, someone else later comes back to the topic and updates the wiki entry or adds another one in relation…

What I learnt about lessons learnt is that we have much to learn about them still, that they work in combination with other means – information and knowledge, tacit and explicit, people and technology – that they are a beginning, a process and an end result, that they can serve various purposes other than learning, that they affect the storyteller and the reader, and that we will be trying to fetch these lessons for a long time still, but the solution lies with the learner and his/her (collective) learning, not with the lesson itself… We might want to talk about (continually) ‘learning our lessons’ rather than what to do with our lessons learnt’…

The crux of the matter is in the learning, not in the lesson... (credits - Pocket full of perspective / FlickR)

The crux of the matter is in the learning, not in the lesson… (Credits – Pocket full of perspective / FlickR)

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Spur of the moment or long term purpose: when pinballs meet bulldozers


In working environments, one of the conundrums in personal and organisational knowledge management is the balance between following one’s ‘spur of the moment’ intuition and pursuing one’s longer term intent and purpose.

Balancing plans and opportunities is finding a balance between the pinball effect and the bulldozer drive

Balancing plans and opportunities is finding a balance between the pinball effect and the bulldozer drive

Planning and executing work then becomes a game of pinballs and bulldozers, where pinballs are projected in all directions, attracted by signals and rebounding on opportunities that arise, and bulldozers moving forward with a plan and avoiding derailing from their plan, no matter what.

Of course, we are neither pinballs nor bulldozers: we all evolve along that continuum and tend to mesh the two ends as we see fit.

At a personal level that is entirely ok. But when a complex situation requires different people to align their operating mode, complications arise. Here are a few instances of these that I or others I know have faced at work in the past 10 years:

  • Feeling hopeless and prey to everyone else’s agenda and actions – literally like a pinball sent in all directions, trying to cope with travel, backlog, email piles and the rest of it;
  • Planning work without keeping any open slot and feeling defeated at the end of the week for not having been able to do it all because the plan did not leave enough room for imponderables… ;
  • Spending the entire week meeting people and having conversations, only to find it a struggle to actually write stuff or do things, and perhaps – over time – slightly losing interest or ability to do that;
  • Being a victim to one’s email inbox and social media and responding to all of these on the spot;
  • Being under pressure to deliver and having to adjust one’s schedule to high level demands or encounters with moral pressure to execute, even if this means working systematically in the weekends or evenings and you promised yourself to keep a healthy work-private life balance;
  • Dealing with colleagues who find it natural to work every night, every weekend – as it is their way to cope with work pressure – as they expect you to do the same;
  • Being accused of being inflexible and not open to meeting people because you’re working on some deadline and are focusing on what you planned to deliver rather than what comes up;
  • Continuing on your trajectory (business as usual) without realising it’s not what you should be doing…

“When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging” (Will Rogers)

This post is as much therapeutic as it is reflexive. Time to look at how we collectively deal with our ability and inclination towards planning and seizing opportunities…

On a personal level…

Personal effectiveness survey gurus like Stephen Covey (and his habits of highly effective people) or Leo Babauta and his zen techniques to keep a balance, both insist on intent, purpose, planning and carving time out for quality work.

This is at the heart of my own approach to personal effectiveness. Work just goes on and on like a treadmill and if you don’t step back and look around once in a while, you might miss your purpose, forget what really gives you energy and what little steps you should be putting together to achieve a greater goal.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should just focus on that path and never step out of it. The keys to finding a balance might lie in:

  • Carpe Diem now or later?

    Carpe Diem now or later?

    Enjoying the moments as they come. Carpe diem (seize the day). It is probably the most important balancing mechanism to appreciate what you are doing at every step of your way – where mindfulness becomes the guiding path…

  • Reflecting regularly (every day? every week? after every important happening or event?) to see what works or not, what gives you energy or not, where you might change your approach regarding tiny details of your every day life, work, planning and enjoying – simple after action reviews can be a powerful mechanism for that;
  • Reflecting deeply (and particularly applying third loop learning in practice) to inquire about your own sense of purpose (and for those who wish, destiny) and what might be the next wave we ride;
  • Planning accordingly but knowing at heart that we don’t have all answers, that we don’t have the gift of foresight and that we have to remain open to what comes along the way, as signals that might take us for a better turn on our life path, and definitely keeping open slots for serendipity, creativity, seemingly unproductive time…
  • Avoiding – if we mind the pinball effect – to fall prey to every notification, signal, email, social media message or else that keeps popping up visually, aurally and kinesthetically (through the vibrating effect of a message popping on our phone)… Every sign of distraction like this might keep us away from finding more meaningful answers and questions that lie in longer term focus and discipline.

Collectively…

How do our operating wheels fit with one another? (credits Pbase.com)

How do our operating wheels fit with one another? (credits Pbase.com)

 

Collective effectiveness is a lot about how everyone’s operating wheels fit into one another and finding solutions for it has a lot to do with negotiating collective conventions. Some pointers here might be…

To agree on the long-term objectives and the short-term necessities of the team and organise work accordingly – following a broad main line – not the route that will be followed step by step but the map that connects starting point and final destination, with an idea of some stop-overs. This requires regular communication and is harder done than said…

Similarly to personal efforts, to regularly reflect on the objectives and operating mode of the collective and to assess what needs to happen to make this collective work and bring the best of its abilities to the fore. If unwanted/unexpected/unplanned signals drive too much attention away from the main added value of that collective, it might be good to reduce these opportunities.

To embrace ideas that stem from the collective’s individual practices, and to allow some time to sift through the experience and assess what might be the collective value of that individual practice. This is typically the case with one person trying a new social network and inviting their colleagues to reflect upon the potential for the whole team to use it (when, why, for what purpose, how etc.)? There is much value in exploration, it just needs to be assessed collectively at some point.

To gauge, as a team or organisation, the need for focus or exploration. This is to ask to what extent the collective needs to remain open to opportunities that come along the way (because it really needs to bring in a whiff of external perspectives) or needs to focus on its current pipeline because it already has well enough logical and useful work underway.

To discuss collectively how to deal with over work, work-life balance and what colleagues can expect from each other when it comes to weekend and evening work requests or attending to unexpected conversations when there are expectations to deliver outputs.

To agree on planned outputs and collective responsibilities to deliver these. Once that agreement is made it becomes easier to dedicate additional time and efforts to unexpected and spontaneous happenings. So long as it remains each individual’s workload the collective remains trapped in entropy and if it remains solely the management’s prerogative, commitment to deliver might be limited.

To reflect collectively on what (and sometimes who) distracts the collective’s plans and brings along opportunities that might indeed be very helpful or simply noise that reduces the collective’s productivity and purpose. And discussing what would be the practical implications of adapting the collective schedule to respond to opportunities and how it would be received in the wider ecosystem of which that collective is part (e.g. a team within a broader organisation).

There will likely never be a full balance between various individuals’ approaches and the needs of the collective when it comes to planning and opening to unexpected magic, but we might do much worse than talking, reflecting about it and acting upon collective conventions.

One thing’s for sure: conventions and cultures evolve and we should remain alert to these changes that affect our strategies. Together, we might see the hole we’re digging before it gets too deep…

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Interview with Ann Waters-Bayer: of KM, social learning and rural innovation


Innovative farming practices in the Sahel (Credits: CGIAR Climate / FlickR)

Innovative farming practices in the Sahel (Credits: CGIAR Climate / FlickR)

Following the interview with Carl Jackson in March this year, I also had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Waters-Bayer on the same occasion, whom I just came across some weeks ago again around the workshop on Agricultural Innovation Systems in Africa.

Ann is agricultural sociologist with the ETC Foundation in the Netherlands and a well-respected author, academic and practitioner in the field of agriculture and rural development. Ann has been particularly closely involved with PROLINNOVA (promoting local innovation in ecologically-oriented agriculture and natural resource management, for which Ann wrote several publications) and with JOLISAA (Joint Learning in Innovation Systems in African Agriculture) which testifies the attachment of Dr. Waters-Bayer to move away from traditional research-led approaches to innovation towards farmer-led innovation enhanced by formal research spheres.

“We’re not involved in scaling up local innovations, we’re involved in trying to scale up the process of farmer participatory innovation which continues to adapt, to changing in circumstances.” (Ann Waters-Bayer)

As with Carl, I was interested to find out how Ann Waters-Bayer conjugated (or not) social learning and knowledge management.

The following terribly unprofessional video (additionally spoiled by some hotel staff passing by and working with dishes in the background) is redeemed by the quality and freshness of Ann’s reflections.

The transcript follows below.

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

Knowledge management is capturing, understanding, analysing and sharing experiences and insights. It could be within a project, an organisation, a network, a community of practice. How would that relate to social learning: In knowledge management we talk a lot about the sharing aspects but not the way in which the sharing would be done and the techniques and media you might use to bring about a change in the way that people reflect on the way they’re doing things, although it’s true that capitalisation of experiences (which is what we often called it) was forcing you to reflect on your experiences and to understand them in a different way than if you had not done it. There was an aspect of at least individual learning and, to the extent that if you were doing it with other people and stakeholders in that experience, then there was more of an aspect of social learning in that.

In a way you could say that the social learning label is something I have been involved in for a few decades.

Where do you think knowledge management or social learning is going and where could be their place in international development?

I think there’s a growing awareness, consciousness of different sources of knowledge. It used to be that about citizens’ knowledge, farmers’ knowledge and farmers experiencing innovation was not so much incorporated as these days. I think it’s partly because of that movement towards innovation systems thinking where you’re looking not at this linear point from research to extension to farmers but you’re seeing that there are various sources of knowledge and ideas cropping up everywhere and people interacting with each other and making things happen and making things better. It doesn’t necessarily come from conventional research. That innovation thinking is much stronger and I hope that’s the way things are going in development.

What are your current interests in knowledge management and/or social learning?

My biggest interest of course is starting with farmers and rural people and natural resource users and how they are themselves interacting with others outside the formal research sphere in order to experiment, try out new things, innovate, improve the ways they’re doing things – and how that can be linked with the formal spheres. There are people trying to do research with farmers and trying to make that linkage in such a way that people are reflecting on it and then people in different organisations are also reflecting on how do we need to do things differently in our organisations in order to support that ongoing innovation process which is happening out there, all the time and which doesn’t depend on research to make that happen, but research could actually support, enhance it, speed things up. This idea of creating that capacity within a group or a community, where they have better linkages with other sources of knowledge and of ideas. If those linkages can be improved then that adaptive capacity can be improved and a lot of the social learning is going to come about through doing things together with different stakeholders, reflecting on  how they’re doing things and how they can improve that. That is the process that I’m hoping we can scale up. We’re not involved in scaling up local innovations, we’re involved in trying to scale up the process of farmer participatory innovation which continues to adapt to changing circumstances.

What would you recommend reading, who would you recommend getting in touch with to hear more about your current fields of interest?

I think it would be good – in discussing social learning – to go back to some of the earlier literature that is of social learning e.g. the RAAKS approach (rapid appraisal on agricultural knowledge systems), AKIS (agricultural knowledge and information/innovation systems, among others mentioned in this fragment of the book ‘Wheelbarrows full of frogs: social learning in rural resource management (2002)’) with Niels Roling and all that’s come out of that in agricultural innovation systems. I think it would enrich a lot of the discussions that are going on now about social learning.

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