Communication for development, KM and blurred boundaries: an interview with Michael Victor


In December 2013, a couple of very interesting workshops took place on the ILRI Ethiopia campus around the topic of knowledge management and communication. On that occasion, I interviewed Michael Victor, communication ‘Comms’ and KM coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF) and for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. 

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Having been involved in the Nile Basin’s share of the CPWF experience with research for development, I had heard of the concept of ‘blurred boundaries’ that seem to be at the heart of comms and KM in that program, and Michael is one of the proponents of this approach. Here he explains what is meant with it, what his interest in KM is all about and how he sees the field evolve…

  • Blurred boundaries between KM, communication etc. what is it all about?

It’s that

It’s with these system-based learning approaches (knowledge sharing, information management, communication, monitoring and evaluation etc.) that you see learning blurring all connections. You have specific disciplines but you no longer have a database manager, a librarian and a writer. Now the IM/Comms field is a lot more blurred. It’s about getting knowledge at the right time to the right people to make the right decisions. I don’t even understand the difference between comms and uptake.

However there’s real resistance to see these fields get interlinked and to see them support programmatic or external change. And you still need specialists but they should all be working together.

  • What trends are you observing in comms/KM in the development world (or any closer arena)?

Moving from service orientation (corporate) to much more outcome-oriented focus. Also moving from a support.administrative function to a strategic one.

With all the social media we’ve been spewing, I think we’ll see more targeted approaches. We’ve lost the whole connection with national systems and with national comms/KM conduits. We forget that our next users will be the national level users which are not using all these online channels all that much.

  • What is your personal interest in the field of KM – now?

My personal interest is communication for development (comms4dev) and policy communication  i.e. finding ways that we use comms/KM approaches, tools, products, processes, networks (informal or formal) to get research into use and people to get engaged in the research process, using the knowledge from the research in a certain way and get research to be more relevant, better informed etc.

The trick is to trap people to get interested in research but there’s another loop to use people to influence the way research is done.

I’m also kinda interested in this innovation systems and learning to make it practical. It’s still very airy fairy but it sounds very powerful – the question is: “how to get it into use”?

  • What are your sources of inspiration in KM/C?

By talking with people, learning. I don’t think I’m an active learner (e.g. on social networks) but I’m engaging with people. The inspiration for me, overall, was my community forestry experience, learning about Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), understanding that what we’re dealing with is not a technological change but a social movement, getting people more involved and to take over, not just “be developed”. There’s a couple of people that really inspired me: Cor Veer, John Raintree..

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My KM year’s insights, top posts… and a Merry Christmas!!!


What reflections and patterns come up in the KM world anno 2013 (Credits - Ekkaia / FlickR)

What reflections and patterns come up in the KM world anno 2013 (Credits – Ekkaia / FlickR)

That time of the year, when we are packing up for holiday and family celebrations. A good reflective time though the festivities can make it harder than summer holidays to find time to reflect.

As I’m just about to also take a few days off, here is what I’ve observed in my KM (for development [research]) world this year.

  • KM is not dead, it is more than alive! And more and more people are joining KM forums, discussion lists, communities of practice (3500 people on KM4Dev!!!). See some of these forums and networks here. It’s booming business.
  • Big data has been all over the place of course and is going to keep going strong as software applications are able to process increasingly fathomless data sets. However the question of who decides how to analyse that data remains most of the time unclear. A slightly similar development as the explosion of ICT applications in ag business which needs to be channelled and solicited by some demand… which is why, for the big data revolution to really offer its fruits…
  • Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is gaining ground (credits - Harold Jarche)

    Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is gaining ground (credits – Harold Jarche)

    …the recognition of knowledge workers is also gaining ground. We need capacity to analyse data, to make sense of it. So we need to be individually stronger at analysing our world. This means that on the one hand PKM (see this presentation by Stephen Dale on personal knowledge management) is gaining ground – with the idea that everyone in the organisation can contribute their energy, capacity, network to solve problems and that…

  • …On the other hand, more efforts in the KM world are coming up to federate, rally, convene minds and hearts to solve complex interrelated issues. These ‘change conversation’ spaces have to be facilitated – no longer managed. So KM is being stretched on its individual (PKM) and on its holistic frontier, when it used to focus mostly on organisational learning (see the presentation below)
  • Generally networked KM dynamics is taking central stage as everyone is wondering how those dynamics can stimulate innovation, ideation and (inter-) institutional change, including in rural development areas.
  • Assessing KM through e.g. social media metrics is slowly but surely coming of age as testified by this recent article and those reflections from the recent ICT4Ag conference. We are now talking beyond reach into engagement, use, learning, action… Still lots of progress to be made but we are going forward!
  • Closer to development work, the idea of ‘blurred boundaries’ between e.g. KM, communication, monitoring and learning etc. is making headway. Communication is no longer just a support cabinet that can be called upon to polish ‘messages’, it is part and parcel of operations and rebranded under a general ‘engagement’ approach. Because engagement leads communication, learning and action. See some excellent collective reflections about recent workshops I was involved in, on this.

This recent presentation by Nancy Dixon also gives us some additional views over KM in late 2013:

What this suggests is that KM is becoming the art and science of stimulating collective sense-making conversations and integrated actions, while relying on solid individual practices and skills. I expect more will happen at the junction of individual (networks, capacities, passions) and collective (ambitions, agendas and wicked problems) dynamics in 2014 and beyond. Perhaps I’ll even try some predictions early next year…

But back to 2013: Here were the most popular posts (including the ‘top 10 published in 2013’ in bold) on this blog this year:

  1. Managing or facilitating change, not just a question of words
  2. Tinkering with tools: What’s up with Yammer?
  3. Portrait of the modern knowledge worker
  4. Settling the eternal semantic debate: what is knowledge, what is information…
  5. The art of blogging: Taking stock
  6. What is common knowledge about knowledge? A visual tour…
  7. Learning cycle basics and more: Taking stock
  8. What the heck is knowledge anyway: from commodity to capacity and insights
  9. The feast of fools of feedback
  10. Why on earth would you want to be on Twitter?
  11. The lessons I learned about lessons learned
  12. What to put in a KM training, off the random top of my head
  13. We need more / better communication! But not from me…
  14. Assessing, measuring, monitoring knowledge (and KM): Taking stock
  15. Modern musings on a KM evergreen: institutional memory
  16. Engagement and deeper connection in social networks, a dialogue with Jaume Fortuny
  17. What’s really new about social learning?

Now I wish you all Merry Christmas and hope catch up soon, perhaps even before the new year! Thank you very much for all the good work around KM, learning, engagement, empowerment, for following this blog, for sharing thoughts and quality time with me and many.

Keep up the good work in 2014!

Merry Christmas (credits - Ceanandjen:FlickR)

Merry Christmas! (Credits – Ceanandjen:FlickR)

Learning-blind development (aid) and the missed opportunities for a real difference


Failure's freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

Failure’s freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

The global development sector is a learning universe, a space of experimentation and failures. One can read this positively – as in “a lot of learning is happening in it” – or negatively – as in “a lot has to be learned still and so much effort goes to waste”. Are we blind to learning in development (aid)?

Thing is: this situation is totally systemic. And since we only realise now how all aspects of development are connected (e.g. roads and other infrastructures allow better access to market; access to water allows improvement on agriculture and further down the line education etc.) there has been indeed a lot of wasted resource reinventing the wheel in development (aid) which could have been used differently.

At a moment when the public scrutiny towards spending on development aid is ever more alert and leads to budget cuts (which is a good thing since it forces everyone to cooperate for scarcer resources), the imperative for learning has never been more important than now – something which is fortunately happening, somehow, even between regions (as e.g. between Africa and the Pacific).

But a lot remains to be done still. It is not always obvious how learning can really improve development (aid), and the costs of learning (i.e. the investment in it – and I’ll come back to this in a later post) can seem much steeper than the benefits. But the cost of not learning is quite obvious.

So now, let’s look at a typically bad – and alas too frequent – development (research) project and its missed opportunities for learning; and let’s compare this with an ideal project which pays much attention to learning throughout:

What happens too often with typical / bad development projects

What ideal (learning-focused) development initiatives would look like

Preparation

It usually has overloaded ambitions in an unreasonably short project period (it’s not realistic and not designed in the light of previous experiences) Upfront, there have been extensive consultations with key parties – current and future partners – to determine the agenda and the ideal duration of the initiative. Literature research and scoping past experiences is also instrumental in building upon the legacy for this new initiative

Initial phases

The new project or program is meant to start delivering almost as it starts – no consideration has been paid for the time it takes to build meaning, trust and abilities The new initiative spends considerable time (a flexible inception period) collecting insights to refine and work further on ownership, capacities relationships and better plans
The project only addresses the ‘what has to be done’ and assumes that the people involved can just get on with it

Initial briefing is only about what the project aims to achieve, its organogram and reporting lines etc. all bureaucratic information

Much consideration goes into ‘Why are we doing this’ as well as ‘how are we going to handle it’ and ‘do we have the right capacities or should we invest in our capacities or in extra capacity?’

Initial briefing has therefore taken stock of the capacity gaps among staff and partners and addresses simple things like working with Word/Excel, social media etc. a s well as concepts that matter for the initiative – so the why and how

Who’s driving the project

External parties are driving the whole agenda and exploring new (thematic and geographic) areas Endogenous parties (and perspectives) are in the driving seat and have been selected for their mandate and capacity, network and other assets to sustain the initiative in the context(s) of the initiative- all of this is known because there has been proper reflection and consultation with them at the onset
A small team organises all activities for everybody. Occasionally some ad hoc team meetings are held which help the central team pass on information to everyone else A small team facilitates the implementation by other teams. It puts emphasis on holding regular team meetings where real two-way conversations are held, with proper documentation of key discussion points and jointly agreed decisions

Running activities and events

Activities are implemented by a small team working in isolation from other teams – they’re too busy ‘fire fighting’ to share anything with anyone else Every opportunity is seized to see if there is sense in following a social learning approach, putting the emphasis on ‘genuine’ participation. And the teams take time to find alternative solutions if they see that they end up ‘fire fighting’ all the time.
Activities are following the plans because the plans dictate what has to be done according to donors, when they granted the money. Activities are following the outcome logic and theory of change but they are regularly revised along the way, in line with changes – and that has been agreed with donors as the latter rather focus on a more effective yet deviated initiative than a useless original plan
Events organised during the project are scarce and when they happen they consist in death-by-Powerpoint executions, are ill-documented and quickly forgotten about – everyone sticks back to ‘business as usual’

There is particularly a ‘big bang’ kick-off event with lots of money and the presence of national media, followed sometimes only by a major closing event. Nothing much in between

The initiative is all about learning and engagement therefore it offers many opportunities and contextual events for the people involved to come together, reflect, ask questions, take decisions, follow up with actions, revise activities and plans

Engagement means that there is constant interaction with key influencers and movers, not just at the onset and sunset. All events that take place are properly facilitated to ensure learning is maximised – and well documented in accessible and compelling formats for future reference and action monitoring

Involvement and engagement

Working with partners at this stage means that partners do some activities either on their own but with very close ‘big brother-like’ supervision or totally separated from the rest of the project. The interaction relates to executing a plan and reporting about it – all that matters are the results. Partnership for the project staff means ‘more reports, more work, fewer results’ Working with partners builds upon the trust from the pre-project and early stages. Everyone shares insights, regularly engages in a joint analysis and it means a lot of opportunities to do things differently, to do different things, to learn differently (three learning loops) and to develop everyone’s capacity – a good set of assets for future initiatives too! Partnerships here means more ideas, more capacity, more energy, better quality learning, better results, better relationships: SYNERGY!
When conducting ‘field activities’, local community members are invited to respond to a (sometimes excruciatingly long) predefined questionnaire. They may never see the results of this. But it’s ok, since they’re project beneficiaries, they will benefit in a way or another, won’t they (it’s just not very clear how 😉 ) Field activities are guided by a certain ethics of engagement, are participatory in design and in practice, are developed jointly with the locals involved and results are therefore automatically shared, visions for the future elaborated collectively and plans adjusted together, starting from different world views
High level engagement consists in developing a few outputs at the end of the project and sending them to a mixed group of important decision-makers, hoping they will read and apply these High level engagement – which also contributes to leading to development outcomes – means that cherry-picked decision-makers have been involved in the process from the start, own the process and results (perhaps they have been involved in action-research themselves) and become the best advocates of the initiative’s work themselves
People involved in the project feel isolated and detached from the project and from each other. They don’t look critically at options to improve the situation for themselves and the whole group People in the project feel energised, involved, concerned, motivated. They all apply ‘personal knowledge management’ (PKM) to some extent so they personally improve and they connect their personal sphere and network with the initiative to question and improve it and to sharpen critical thinking. They are encouraged to reflect on their own as well as collectively

Capacity development

After the initial briefing, if there is any capacity development activity it is training, conducted by external trainers, to address general skills, not specific contextual issues that the project people are effectively facing. And that is, again, if there is anything planned to address capacity gaps. Everyone’s capacity is positively monitored (followed) and leads to several activities along the initiative, moving training from the theoretical terrain to the workplace experience and moving from just training to a whole set of capacity development activities (coaching, exchange visits, involving people in communities of practice etc.) focusing generally on improving the institutional capacity for change

Communication and outputs

The website and other communication channels are mostly unidirectional (‘here’s what we have to say to you’) and not well connectedStaff and partners deplore that so little communication is taking place – but they’re not doing much to change this The different communication channels are interrelated, engaging (they feature dialogues, consultations etc.) and although they look slightly messier perhaps, they are echoing and amplifying what the initiative is trying to accomplish, through multiple engagement routes

Everyone contributes to communication efforts

The outputs developed by the project are released at the end of the project and without much passion – more like ‘according to plan’ – and are not really informing other activities. Occasionally they are being promoted on e.g. the website, as standalone ‘results’ A variety of outputs are released throughout the project (away from dotty dotted communication), mirroring the different reflections, conversations and actions that have taken place by different people at different times and locations, about the thematic content focus of the initiative as well as about the process leading to its development. They are connected, refer to each other, and crucially are used (both content and output development process) for further engagement, reflection and action by the parties that are supposed to use them as opportunities and levers of change

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation boils down to the bare minimum reporting. It is centralised but requires partners and outputs to provide a lot (random?) facts without background information as to why that matters. No one knows what happens to those M&E reports anyway. Probably they’re never read M&E organically addresses accountability, in an ongoing dialogue with the donor, but it also addresses learning needs to identify and address systemic gaps around the initiative’s objectives (and inform future initiatives). Everyone contributes to M&E although in practice M&E and project requirements are often the same because they have been integrated at the onset. Reports are just the (process) documentation of the conversations that happen in the initiative

What happens at the end of the project

The final project report is a sort of ‘annual report’ with some results but little passion and curiosity. It is only shared with the donor (Annual reports are an excellent measure of learning in organisations by the way)

Too bad, the website will never be updated – some people might think the project is still going on (luckily that horrible project is finally over though!)

The final project output is an interactive set of multimedia resources addressing different audiences, providing practical tools and guidance on approaches, in a variety of formats, distributed to all parties involved in the initiative, backed by an interactive event that looks forward and builds on previous conversations about this. All communication channels are also geared for that ‘post-initiative’ stage.
At the end of the project, it remains unclear what will happen with the people involved (staff, partners, beneficiaries), with the outputs (where will they be made accessible) and with the lessons that were gathered from the project – but at that stage, is there anything that should be saved from that horrible project, if not lessons about doing things differently next time? At the end of the initiative, a lot of options are on the table because there has been a thorough conversation throughout about sustainability, exit strategies etc. so everyone knows what they can do and have activated their networks to make it happen.

The initiative’s outputs are all openly accessible in a sustainable database and the many many lessons from this initiative have informed activities by many parties involved for future work – institutional memory across projects is taken care of.

Learning and sharing - the essence of smart development work

Learning and sharing – the essence of smart development work

It’s always dangerous to use such caricatures as it lends to think that it might refer to reality. It does not, of course, and a lot of development initiatives are somewhere on a continuum between situation A (the horrible project) and situation B (the ideal learning initiative), but clearly there are many opportunities for learning in development, so let’s focus on what’s being learned and use it to learn even more, rather than despair at all that is there to learn yet while ignoring the legacy from the past… 

Echoing, here, the man of the month (year, decade, century?):

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again (Nelson Mandela).

Does this assessment ring a bell? Does it resonate with your experience of what is happening with development aid or not? What other options do you see?

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Why on earth would you want to be on Twitter?


Given the cutting-edge experience of my personal learning network (yes, you, who follow this blog and whom I’m following on various social media generally) this question seems strange, but there are many Twitter skeptics out there. It’s great! Long live the skeptics! Long live their ability to raise important questions… that is, so long as it leads to open-ended conversations… Because as much can be said in favour of Twitter as can be said against it.

So, for my skeptical friends, here’s what I have to say about Twitter:

Why you might be skeptical:

  • You haven’t tried Twitter for yourself yet – perhaps you’ve created a Twitter account but never really used it – so it doesn’t bring anything interesting in return (obviously)!
  • None of your friend or family is on it – so none of the people you trust seem to perceive any value from it, quite logically.
Twitter - sometimes unfiltered for the worst of all (credits: CarrotCreative / FlickR)

Twitter – sometimes unfiltered for the worst of all (credits: CarrotCreative / FlickR)

  • The only people you know who might be on it are the IT crew, communication specialists and a few other ‘looneys’ – people you don’t necessarily identify with.
  • You hear a lot of caution in the (traditional) media about Twitter and social media in general – this is common in France but I suspect in many other places too.
  • Most examples of Twitter use you hear about are from silly people tweeting about enjoying their tomato-mozzarella sandwich, half-brained adolescents sharing all details of their private life without any measure of decency, or celebrities glossing over their latest celeb-do’s…

Well… I can’t blame you for being skeptical. If that’s the picture you have, I share your despair for the human race.

Except that…

I personally know about the power of Twitter. I see it around me everyday (in my Twitter stream of news), I experience it every week, I’ve experienced it in various Twitter chats too. So let’s also have a look at this side of things, but first…

The basics: what you need to understand about Twitter

  • A lot of people don’t understand that social media can be used for your private life and/or your professional life. They are not one and the same, even though some half-brainers might mix the two – The Social Media Guide for Africa tried to inform readers about this.
  • Actually, I would argue that a medium like Twitter is much more adapted to professional uses (or at least to topics that might interest more than a small in-crowd), because it has a great ability to rally people around topics (as opposed to already formed social relationships).
  • The whole secret about Twitter is about following the RIGHT people. The right people to YOU. No strings attached with Twitter, no need to feel any sense of obligation towards anyone. It’s not your family email list, it’s not your University mates’ network. It’s your personal learning network. At least part of it, since other parts of your community might be in other social networks. And that personal learning network needs care, for engagement to genuinely happen.
Twitter vs. Facebook (credits: cambodia4kidsorg / FlickR)

Twitter vs. Facebook (credits: cambodia4kidsorg / FlickR)

  • So Twitter can be used to make contact with people that are interested in the similar topics as you are. It is actually described as the social network where you meet people online that you’d love to encounter face-to-face, while Facebook is the social network that allows you to get in touch face-to-face connections you’d rather have forgotten 😉
  • Like any social media, it takes time to get a handle on Twitter – and it takes practice, dedication, purpose. It’s not going to take a week, not a month but probably closer to a year of (some kind of) practice before you see REAL return on investment with more interaction, a highly relevant network, a good handle of all options, using some related Twitter tools. And in the meantime it will be a good ride still, because you’ll get a lot of relevant information.
  • You can be passive or you can be active. The latter is even better and will bring you even more benefits, but simply reading tweets can be immensely rewarding. As you can see below, a minority of Twitter users are active anyhow. It doesn’t mean they’re passive, they’re just choosing to listen.

The advantages: How can Twitter *really* help you

  • The main advantage of Twitter is that it’s a great overall filter – to sift through tons of information – because if your network is good, it brings up good, relevant stuff up to the top.

“It’s not about information overload, it’s about filter failure” (Clay Shirky)

  • Twitter is a great live reporting channel. News often breaks out more quickly there than it does on mainstream media – because it relies on mobile inputs from web-enabled knowledge workers using their phone, tablet, PC etc. to share what is happening.
  • It takes no time to go through your feed. Since every tweet is only 140 characters, every message is quickly digested. Even a flow of 100 tweets missed in the space of a few hours can be quickly scanned and ignored at will. And then it may also reveal some gems.
  • Because it’s all based on the network and it is a social network, you can really engage with the people you are following or who are following you; you can mention them, message them, have private conversations with them. You can strike partnerships, friendships or simply trusted relationships with people you have never met in real life.
  • As it has a very viral nature, it can be an excellent relay for information you come across, that you produce, that you curate etc. – so that more people can benefit from this information and experience too.
  • Against the problem of dealing with intense email flows, Twitter also allows diverting some of the traffic away from your inbox. A Twitter contact of mine shared this example of using Twitter to replace collective email lists.
  • It’s a personal record of interesting thoughts, links, information etc. which can be tracked again later (through Twitter tools like TwimeMachine and many others)… As a thought repository, it is also useful to help reflection and analysis.
  • And from my colleagues, here are a few other personal benefits:
    • “I can do a much better job of assembling high-quality people to listen to/stay in contact with (via social media such as Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, blogs, etc.) than can traditional media, who mediate that process for me”
    • “I continue to read article published in traditional media (e.g. Guardian, Atlantic, New Yorker, New York Times), but I increasingly find these great article NOT on those websites but rather by referral (aka curation) by those I follow on social media.”
    • “Serendipitous discovery in high-quality social media (where the quality is determined by the reader and who that reader follows) is infinitely higher in quality that similar discoveries available in traditional media. Where some editor is trying to put together materials for the masses. Just saying.”

And yet more from Twitter contacts:

Oh, and it must be serendipitous zeitgeist because Harold Jarche just beat me to this topic by blogging about ‘the value of Twitter‘.

The challenges: what are some of the possible limitations of Twitter

  • As any other social media, it can be overwhelming to work with Twitter at first – and it is a challenge to ‘trim’ your social network. But it’s essential because your Twitter news stream will be as good (or as bad) as your Twitter network’s relevance.
  • Finding the balance between what’s ‘tweetable’ and what’s not remains a bit of a learning exercise for all of us – and so is learning how to tweet, how to make use of the technical options of Twitter (to tweet, send direct messages etc.) – this is why it takes quite a few months to really benefit greatly from it.
  • And perhaps a question mark – I wonder if Twitter doesn’t work better for information and knowledge professionals simply because we are more likely to try it out and reach the critical mass that allows you to have good conversations. So it may be more difficult for some to use the potential of the no.2 social network.

Now what then?

Despite this post, I certainly don’t want to encourage you to use Twitter cost what cost. Really!

But on the other hand: can you afford to ignore Twitter just out of principle, without having tried it for yourself? Can you afford to ignore what could possibly be a much smarter way of working, of navigating this world of information we live in? Are you going to be the last skeptic on Earth about Twitter? Go on then, play around, reflect, inform your decision and contribute to the twittering choir about Twitter. Then, and only then are you allowed to remain skeptical – and to sharpen my mind with your challenging questions 🙂

PS. Twitter is only one of the social media channels that you might want to consider. See this presentation to give you an idea about the options with the social learning landscape anno 2013/2014…

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