We are a system, you cannot I-solate yourself, so surf and co-create the wave of our collective grace


This could be one of the fundamentals of this blog: it takes two to tango and we are all part of a (same) system. The ‘I’ has a much lesser role to play to in our WElcoming world than we perhaps like to admit.

According to Eric Weiner’s study about the geography of bliss, happiness in Thailand is not a concept framed around unique individuals but around entire families, lineages. The goal, to be happy is not so much to be the most successful person on earth, but to make sure you add your (stepping) stone to make your whole family’s saga richer and better.

Social Ecosystem Diagram (Credits: Erin Malone / FlickR)

How about creating a social ecosystem, online and offline? (Credits: Erin Malone / FlickR)

And, surely, every step we take impacts others. There is no real I-solation possible…

Which means…

  • We should not just look at our activities but always at the whole system with it. We shouldn’t try to improve just ourselves but the whole ecosystem behind.
  • It does not only make sense to role model behaviours to influence others’ practices, but it also probably happens anyway because we are connected. Role modeling just accelerates the connection and alignment of us all, the nodes, to the mother grid.

Our only hope, our only grace, should be to connect more widely and more deeply to affect the whole system more directly, to actively contribute to creating a social ecosystem… surfing collective waves, and co-creating them.

But one thing is certain: we are not alone, we are a human and earth system… And our success depends on our ability to connect with each other in that system. So much for egoism!

Of successful people, and other people... (Credits: ??)

Of successful people, and other people… (Credits: ??)

Related blog posts:

Interview with Krishan Bheenick (CTA) – KM, systems thinking and the backlash of knowledge sharing


Following the global consultation of CIARD (Coherence in Information about Agricultural Research for Development) in May 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Krishan Bheenick, Senior programme coordinator knowledge management at CTA (Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation) on his take about KM and where it’s headed.

Here is the transcript of that interview.

Krishan Bheenick, Senior programme coordinator knowledge management at CTA (Credits - FARA)

Krishan Bheenick, Senior programme coordinator knowledge management at CTA (Credits – FARA)

What is your personal story with KM?

I am not an expert in KM. My background is in agricultural science and in simulation / modeling. I used to teach at the University of Mauritius. These experiences helped me, forced me to have a holistic approach. I left the world of academia and wanted to get closer to policy-makers to have more influence.

I landed in the field of conceptualizing information systems – following the systems approach which I’m now transposing to information science – at national level. I developed a proposal for a national information system in Mauritius, vetted by FAO’s Investment Centre, but which was never financed. After that I ended up working at SADC (the Southern African Development Community) where I was asked to facilitate capacity strengthening in information management at regional level. What is required at national and at regional level brings up this systems approach: What works at regional level can be adapted at national level. Technology itself is just a way to implement information flows across the scale.

That’s the baggage I came with at CTA. The focus of CTA is to build capacity in information, communication and knowledge management (ICKM). I feel comfortable with that but my position mentions ‘knowledge management’ while I have a lot of questions about KM. I don’t mind this challenge because it forces me to go beyond what I’ve worked with the last years and to differentiate what is KM as opposed to what we used to do in information and communication management.

How is KM conceptualized and implemented in CTA?

KM at CTA is about how ICKM is interrelated. We started using ‘ICKM’ in the SADC region when thinking about developing regional info systems. During one of our regional workshops, we compared what is a communication strategy, an information management (IM) strategy and a knowledge management strategy. We realized that they’re all interrelated and intertwined and there are different entry points to ICKM.

I try and help people define that entry point to the process – even if they don’t know much about it – and to ensure they have some components to help improve the implementation of the communication strategy, strengthen information systems through an information management strategy and ultimately aim at developing a KM strategy focusing on these two elements.

At the same time, it’s important to get policy-makers to realize that even though they don’t call some procedures, processes, policies as KM they are practicing it. One of the motivating factors (and selling points to drive the process) is to get them to realize that they’re already putting KM into practice. That is currently more or less the CTA perspective.

In terms of interventions, our approach at CTA has been to tackle interventions in ICKM at whatever level the request is coming from e.g. groups of policy-makers who would like to have a web space for discussion, developing a simple website including some collaborative networking functions and forums (e.g. as simple as Dgroups). Whatever the request, we respond to it as it’s been put to us, in order to get engagement in the process. Then we follow up with sensitization to the whole spectrum of ICKM.

Some organisations would like to recognize the need to develop a strategy (whether on communication, information or knowledge management). CTA can help. We are running some pilots in ICM strategy development.

My colleague in KM at CTA, Chris Addison, has been working with farmer organisations who wanted platforms for collaboration. We’ve been working with communication officers to help communicate among sub-regional farmer organisations under the umbrella of one regional block.

Chris and I are addressing the needs for KM applying two different approaches, one from a mechanistic perspective back up and the other from the strategic perspective all the way down to technical. In the end we hope to come up with a framework that links strategic with technical aspects of KM. That’s the process we’re interested in and also discovering what KM is all about.

I don’t know enough about KM to say I’m an expert. I’m a learner, I understand some principles and I apply these principles in my job to respond to requests.

Where are your current interests and next steps with KM at CTA?

There’s a lot of talk about knowledge sharing (KS) and when people talk about KM a lot of illustrations come from KS. But is KS by itself sufficient to represent KM? I feel that the community is talking less and less about IM because we’ve started getting interested by the process. Has KS replaced IM?

Are we, while focusing on KS, distracting ourselves away from KM perspectives – where KM is left to a very intra-organisational approach? The very active promotion of KS approaches makes people think that it’s the same as KM.

It’s time to remind ourselves how KM is applied at a larger perspective than organizational e.g. community-wide. It’s my wish to explore that with colleagues in the KM field.

It’s my wish to explore that with colleagues in the KM field.

Where do you think the field of KM is headed and how do you look at it?

My wish would be to see that KM takes a step back for a better overview, revisits what’s been done in the field of KS where a lot of people are equating KS with KM. We should not lose the red thread. It’s important to show how KS is effective for KM but it’s not necessarily addressing management aspects. We’re not able to capture the essence of how KS is operating in KM.

What is the feedback that you get from KS: is that the whole of KM or KS in duplex? How is the duplex KS ending up becoming KM?

The principle of KM about documentation, reflection and sharing reflection and building upon previous reflection is to me a good KM practice. We can’t all keep sharing our thoughts and  we need sometimes to stop, take stock, learn and acknowledge what we’ve learnt and put those out as resources, which is where I appreciate what the KM4Dev community does with the KM4Dev wiki (although if I looked closely at that I might offer a critique of it).

Now that we have a KM scan ready to be applied. We’ll test it at small scale and if it works at that scale we’d like to share it with more people so that we get an instrument that is robust enough to take our snapshots of KM in the organization.

What networks, publications, resources would you recommend discovering to know more about what matters (to you) in KM?

Ark KM published a very expensive book last year ‘KM in organisations’. The Table of Contents was available and when I read that I realized that our thoughts about the state of KM in Agricultural & Rural Development, during a consultation last year, were very well reflected in that book. I would love to see whether CTA could approach publishing houses to come up with a book on KM in development that we could launch as part of their own series, maybe with the KM4Dev community or the agricultural and rural development community. If they see this as corporate social responsibility we’d be fine with it.

There was also an IDRC / SAGE publication (in India) about ‘transforming knowledge’ (2011). It’s a good reader in terms of how all the components fit together, from the perspective of how results of research are being translated out there. I would’ve liked to see something similar but looking at KM more broadly.

Finally, ‘Here comes everybody: the power of organising without organisations’ (by Clay Shirky): I like his analysis and with this you wonder how KM fits in the innovation systems. Personally I’ve followed systems thinking since I have been exposed to it and I’m applying it in my life.

Related blog posts:

Feel complexity, think ‘Tradeoffs’ and follow the flow


No more tradeoff by default, but purposefully (Credits: Open Web Vancouver 2009)

No more tradeoff by default, but purposefully (Credits: Open Web Vancouver 2009)

This is THE shift we all need to accomplish, if we believe we work on complex, highly interdependent agendas:

  • No more black and white, it’s all grey area…
  • No more blanket approach, it never worked anyway…
  • No more push vs. pull, it’s all customised to the very purpose required
  • No more information vs. knowledge, it’s all in the mix, one feeding the other
  • No more now vs. the future, we have to balance the two (early wins and long term gains)
  • No more all win throughout, it’s win-win-lose between here, there, now, then…
Tradeoffs to help us filter Failure (Credits: PlanetArt/FlickR)

Tradeoffs to help us filter Failure (Credits: PlanetArt/FlickR)

At the centre of complexity thinking, at the heart of wicked problems, we find tradeoffs. One thing leads to another but at the bottom of it is the fact that every activity we undertake has consequences in another area of the system. And these consequences of inter-dependencies are mostly difficult to spot, because we are not prepared to look in all directions.

 

Some more KM-related examples:

  • Your success here could be our failure there: Developing a good, strong team spirit takes time and can go to the detriment of the rest of the organisation – the eternal ‘silo problem’ that leads to the swing between matrix and unit-focused organisations. Something I experienced personally (and was documented) last few years in a water and land management project in the Nile Basin.
  • I hear the wings of the butterfly bring the tsunami: The many waves of KM fads (for one-stop-shop portals, for ‘lessons learnt’ databases, and for all kinds of other over-rated KM initiatives such as the DIKW pyramid) have generated enthusiasm well
    The minitel - a great idea whose tradeoff was a long blog for France's productivity

    The minitel – a great idea whose tradeoff was a long blog for France’s productivity

    beyond reason. What perhaps turned out to be a big hit in one case opened a whole sad trail of miserably poorly copied attempts that resulted in major failures.

  • Today’s innovation may be tomorrow’s problem: Even the launch of Minitel – a great (and prided) accomplishment of French telecom engineering in the 80’s – led France to suffer a long-lasting lag time to join the Internet bandwagon… Win today, lose tomorrow.
Bring in your diverse crowd and get at it! (Credits: Deviant Art)

Bring in your diverse crowd and get at it! (Credits: Deviant Art)

So what can we do about these tradeoffs?

First and foremost, just accept that they are there. We can’t solve wicked problems but we can apprehend them best we can. And here are some concrete options:

Keep calm, and assemble a diverse team around you. Much like for the community of practice debate, tradeoffs are one of the very reasons why bringing a diverse crowd together is the best way forward, so you cover as many angles of these possible tradeoffs.

Think in terms of trade offs across space, scale and time – who gains and loses what here? There? In our group and at its edges? Today? Tomorrow? Use approaches that take tradeoffs into account (see for instance Liberating StructuresWicked questions

Accordingly, we can also develop our negotiation skills – tradeoffs tomorrow start with trade-on’s today ;)

And then of course we can keep wondering how to deal with tradeoffs best:

  • How open is our working culture to think in terms of tradeoffs in space, scale and time?
  • What are we doing to make sure that the exchange, learning and negotiation space is genuinely open to all the people that can help us understand tradeoffs?
  • How do we prioritize based on these tradeoffs and what are good examples to take decisions that minimize the problems?
  • What learning and sharing approaches, and what information or knowledge tools can we mobilise to understand and address tradeoffs best?

How do you or your teams deal with tradeoffs?

Related blog posts:

Complexity in aid: An interview (by Ben Ramalingam) with Jaap Pels


Jaap Pels is a former colleague of mine and as he describes himself an ‘idea guru’.

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Pretentious you might think, but Jaap is close to his own mark, as he’s been one of the main sources of inspiration on KM for me and is a very thought-stimulating (and prolific) contributor on KM4Dev. In this interview, he reflects back on how complexity theory/ies contributes to global development (aid). These are very useful responses to a series of questions that Ben Ramalingam (author of the excellent ‘Aid on the edge of chaos‘ and serial blogger) shared with him when assembling thoughts for his book, back in 2010. This interview is shared here again as it never was publicly but Jaap, Ben and the KM for Development Journal senior editor Sarah Cummings (who will publish this interview in one of the journal issues later this year) seemed all happy or ok to see it shared here).

  • What is your understanding of what complexity theory / complexity science means?
  • What in your view, is the potential value of complexity sciences / complexity theory for international aid problems, and for knowledge and learning efforts specifically?
  • What do you see as the practical benefits of new conceptual and theoretical approaches for aid agency knowledge and learning issues? What examples come to mind?
  • What might KM / Organisational learning practitioners need to do differently to realise the value and benefits of new theories and ideas more systematically?
  • What are the toughest challenges to address in bringing new, complexity-oriented, perspective to knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector?
  • What kinds of changes might need to happen in the aid sector more generally?
  • How optimistic are you that the changes described above will take place?

What is your understanding of what complexity theory / complexity science means?

My understanding stems from my background and education. I studied molecular sciences, more specifically genetics, organic chemistry and fundamental physics. Apart from that I took courses in the philosophy of the natural sciences. Alpha still is envious of beta-methods… In that respect it is fun to read on the KM4Dev list about Popper, Kuhn, normal science, Kepler, Newton and Lorentz (the one from the butterfly effect). From oscillating chemical reactions / biological systems (heart rhythms), I learned that feedback loops lead to complex systems like lemming populations and birds flocking or systems tending to increasing entropy.

Also I attended a number of lectures (studium generale) in the nineties (yes, last century) on chaos in organizations, for example to understand when a business can grow etc. Also I read ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Hofstadter and I attended a course in programming for artificial intelligence :-). In organisations I always wondered why managers hired ‘types like themselves’ and found out about self-(re)-production, autopoiesis, self-organisation, emergence etc. as, in biology, viruses that self-assemble from components.

Over a long period I have read a broad spectrum of books related to organisations, how they function, how to lead them, how to improve them etc. All in all also a lot of airport literature (The world is flat, The tipping point, 10 ways to become a strong leader / rat etc.) but also just from the news, papers, Internet. Prigogine, Castells and Gray are my anchors when thinking about complexity and sciences, networks / societies and societies / enlightenment. And of course I must have been one of the first to subscribe to ‘Aid on the edge’ blog :-). Recently ‘Why nations fail’ by  Acemoglu and Robinson colored my picture why aid works or not.

So for me complexity is a phenomenon, something we recognise when one boils water and the pattern suddenly gets chaotic, or as path dependence when that butterfly in Spain invokes a storm in the US (just an example), or as the black swan or as fractal pattern, or as anomaly in our mechanistic deterministic view – or better paradigm – we tend to approach reality and fail of course, just because that reality is not predictable; it is – although it seems sometimes – notSimcity. We measure and model the environment we live in and with just that measurement we interfere, we change reality. We theorized from telos (Gods will), to logos (mechanistic, Newton, Darwin and Weber), to chaos (Foucault, Gray, Lorentz).

Thus complexity science tries to develop understanding, theory (in the real Popper / Kuhn / Lakatos / Feyerabend / Marcuse / Freire and a whole bunch of bright heads, though more traditional), tools, research etc which results in a complexity community, a website, blogs,Cognitive Edge services etc. It is fun.

And that’s where my understanding comes from. Others stem from another habitat, perhaps a school of thinking and they will understand the c-science & theory different. I would be interested to know how North Korean people appreciate complexity. I would like to research if complexity is a Western thing; let us plot complexity-realm-hubs (people, schools, experiments etc.) on Google maps :-)

What in your view, is the potential value of complexity sciences / complexity theory for international aid problems, and for knowledge and learning efforts specifically?

International aid problems are many. And a lot of them will not benefit, rather use complexity as excuse where problems might be complicated. I mentioned paradigm just now and some aid people walk around with ‘pink glasses’ and for example in the water sector it is popular to advocate for a paradigm shift, close to the WASH sector that is done in SWITCH (integrated urban water management – where ‘integrated’ is one step away from complex) looking at a city as system and in Triple-S. Looking at, and thinking in systems relates to complexity; although as I mentioned most is complicated or political.

One international aid problem is purely economical: labour costs are much higher in the West than the to-be-developed world. Thinking along the lines of Thomas Friedman (the world is flat) all UN bodies should have their publications made in India / China etc. Money – country 0.7% GNP contribution to development; UN salaries, corruption, collecting it for disasters and then also processing it (Tsunami), accountability etc etc – is a central problem anyway. The NGO world is being MBA-ed because there is a volume of money to process and that is a problem too, because professionals do not like to be managed and managers give themselves a very nice salary (mimicking the banking world; where money flow spills are to be picked up).

By the way, these UN-ghetto’s, as I call them, the big hotels in Bamako where the aid persons sleep, eat and meet, are owned by Gaddafi’s son so aid money goes to a Swiss bank account.  A bigger problem – and Triple-S does an effort to tackle it – is the ‘project thinking’ in development aid which – at least in the WASH sector – resulted in failure to attain the MDGs in 2015. Triple-S does realize that the context for development aid is complex; reality is nonlinear with all the logical consequences as questioning the value of logframe planning, M&E, and indeed for knowledge and learning. One can lead a manager to information but one cannot make them think, so we have to take them along, create a history, co-create knowledge and learn; all within the human dimension, the human context.

Both knowledge and learning give rise to the object / subject discussion. We just had the KM4Dev discussion on the data-information-knowledge-wisdom continuum; how to get from one to the other is possible anyway given you need knowledge to get from data to information! A typical case of Occams razor (see a great post on Occam’s razor); the law of parsimony.  At KM4Dev we are in the middle of a debate on indigenous knowledge. Global warming, philanthro- capitalism, China’s’ interest in Africa, pressure on the Bretton Woods institutions teaches us change to be the only constant. And we – as humanity – better learn how to go about Change. To me sustainable development is exactly about learning and the human measure; learning does not happen overnight and the AHA-erlebnis is the exception.

So to recap, complexity science / theory teaches us to be modest, refrain from nation building and Desert storm actions. Further it tells me to include attention for knowledge and learning into every development aid effort right from the start because of path dependency …. learning happens on the fly; sorry Chris / Geoff :-)
PS Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell. wrote a book on KM called ‘Learning to fly’.

What do you see as the practical benefits of new conceptual and theoretical approaches for aid agency knowledge and learning issues? What examples come to mind?

I am optimistic about cross fertilisation and multi disciplinary team etc, because I think knowledge is a function of human interaction specifically by discourse and that discourse, discussion, dialogue will benefit from a flurry, a spectrum of views that need to align. And that points me at learning. Learning is far and foremost learning how to go about with each other, again rather in dialogue than battle. We have been suffering from top-down approaches – KM stems from organisational sciences rooted in Taylor-ism I think -, advocating for bottom-up and now perhaps mid-round. I think there is a broad consensus now that development has to emerge from the local habitat. Some people link that strongly to good governance or democracy – here again Popper pops up because he defended it (The Open Society and its Enemies) – but in the agricultural – and rural sectors supported self management seems key.

Here again we have to look closer to the agency we talk about. Complexity can easily become the next excuse for making the same mistakes, run for quick fixes and forget about maintenance, education, training, cooperation – btw, I rather speak of development cooperation than aid. Perhaps it is a simple as attention for learning post project and support emergence and that possibly does not result in the outcomes, outputs and impacts we write down in proposals.

How we run Aid organisations, leadership & management can learn a lot. Although very very scary, the best thing might be to hold on to letting go. Working in development has nothing to do with running a ‘beans in cans’ factory but I see many choose and copy just that model.

What might KM / Organisational learning practitioners need to do differently to realise the value and benefits of new theories and ideas more systematically?

UNESCO talks about life long learning. Google grants staff time for own journeys, non corporate planned activities, the Dutch started a development sector academy. What it all boils down to is to create the circumstances for learning to fly or even better learning to learn on the fly.

‘OL an sich’ is non-sense. People are able to learn and unlearn. Most KM / OL efforts start from ‘the organisation’ and that paradigm leads to administration, both on the primary level – what the organisation is on earth for; it’s raison d’être – and the secondary level – the pure admin stuff like time sheets, tariffs, budgets etc. The latter puts a hell of a burden (complicated, not complex!) on aid but my point is that KM and OL and sector learning etc. all mainly depend on the humans involved.

All UN orgs should realize that those internal CoPs have a high degree of belly button gazing. And I know it is scary to open up discussions because control is a major dimension of an organisation. At IRC we had the same discussion on some 60 Google groups we run. At first staff wanted them to be closed, now some of them open up a bit and non-staff can chip in. At KM4Dev gatherings I learn about UN-internal groups, but I am not allowed in where I – through tax – paid for it in the end: I do not get that.

Another one is knowledge transfer. Forget about it. Look at IKM-Emergent for example to read / learn about why that does not work. From complexity one can learn that leapfrogging is hardly possible because of path dependency. At IRC we work on hand washing programmes through schools; that took 15 to 20 years in my family to make my children wash their hands on appropriate moments. I can imagine children in Bolgatanga schools – which btw serve a ‘UN-meal’ a day – need that period too. And then you should know over there, no running water and / or functional toilet is around, anno 2010!!

An axiom by Stiglitz – scan globally adapt locally – applies here.  Practitioners need to stay on top of new ideas, reflect and demand time for that in their work. I use for example the Cynefin geography to figure out what kind of problem I have at hand, and most are (made) complicated and are not complex. In the simple / complicated realm issues like power, patronage, language, timing, information hoarding, corruption etc are far more prominent than for example strange attractors.

What are the toughest challenges to address in bringing new, complexity-oriented, perspective to knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector?

Definitely the existing Babel tower we have built to process the process. Then the three-month business horizon and other approaches that work for making money but cannot be ‘one-on-one-ed’ to shaping aid. Also popular books and gurus that abstract that complex reality into recipes are seriously damaging. Then trade barriers, brain drain, pigeon holding – selling old technology and old concepts plus coca-colonisation (exporting the West paradigm). Populist politicians with their silver bullets mostly boiling down to exclusion. In short perhaps our own denial of complexity :-) and deterministic linear grasp of our future.

The world has been mapped physically – starting with Columbus and before probably also by the Chinese, Indians, Greeks etc. We mastered traveling almost everywhere up to outside our own planet’s habitat. Some countries are fully wired / networked. I can use mobile Internet in a lot of places in this world. Most – if not all – complexity goodies come from simulation, virtualisation, digital (!) networks – a woman friend told me all relationships are complicated … and not complex :-)

On learning humanity still tends to favour formal learning. That is something outside ourselves resulting in a certificate, an investment in oneself, a PhD. When I come to facilitate a workshop participants invite me to lecture – they even call me a lecturer – where I’d rather embark on a trip together. For years, in a former profession, I advised people in the Netherlands on their buying a health insurance. Most know nothing except the price, but that’s not the value. When teaching / learning people to consume you have to take the learning capacity into account and in due time a more complicated / elaborated / precise advice is possible.

I guess the 80-20 rule of thumb and 90-9-1 (CoP population) rules apply here too. Complexity is for a few; most knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector are down to earth about behaviour like sharing knowledge, informal learning, trial and error (mimicking and learning to ride a bike), capacities, power, language and access. Running an anti-AIDS campaign, set up schools / education, providing basic services, breaking down trade walls is complicated not complex; reality may be complex, the trade-offs of an intervention are complex – only explainable in hindsight, but most development is about continuous effort, about blood, sweat, inspiration and tears. It took the Dutch 400 years to master the water-flows a bit so why do we expect developing countries to master that before 2015?

What kinds of changes might need to happen in the aid sector more generally?

The sector encompasses lots of arenas and the sector is an industry too. Development is big business and I mentioned already the NGO’s being managed by managers not by development people. In itself a very natural process in money economies like we live in. Aid is a commodity. We think in targets (MDGs), clients (children, women, Zimbabwean), revenues (days not sick) etc where the reality is that 1 million fellow earthlings live from meal to meal. We Westerners even call that ‘making the case’! Small local NGO’s have to run as businesses too because of all the monitoring and evaluation and other constraints by donors. Donors should be held accountable for the projects they finance, the trade-offs that come with development.

What’s needed is space for people, communities, neighbourhoods, cities, provinces, nations, regions, continents to develop themselves, to learn, to (re) create knowledge. And we need the understanding that this goes beyond the length of a project, programme, or even a human lifetime. So, modesty, continuous support, long lasting relations (perhaps in networks), family-to-family support, focus on informal learning etc.

In our aid agencies we might need to break down the bureaucracies, turn away from global development goals and align on country scale, get all those NGOs to align. Govern-ability is a function of organisation size. Very black and white we have to smell each other to be able to learn together. BTW As humans we deny smell as means of communication but I do believe it is very very basic. If people do not know each other a bit better they are only able to exchange information. Still one of my hobby horses is of course to wifi countries (although that is difficult: see India / China and Google; Ethiopia on SMS / Skype etc etc) and all kinds of powers do not let information be free. And when connections are established you see development evolve; look at farmers, SMS advice, micro financing etc.

How optimistic are you that the changes described above will take place?

You ask me here to gaze in a Crystal ball. My simple view is ‘we are just too many on this planet’ or at least to much concentrated in wet deltas / cities (look at the disasters in Pakistan, China, Indonesia, USA etc). But now from a complexity perspective: change does not take place but we have to start it time and again; complex systems depend on their history and chaos does not, so if you do not want change to be chaotic, but on the edge of it, start making history :-)

As for priorities I hold on to Maslov; first get the basics right: shelter, health, food, education etc but not atomized. We have to help people with their livelihood. And money is never the solution (rather the source of problems and in fact money is information; what is your lifetime consuming value?). Neither knowledge by the way: look at all those African leaders educated in the West that turn out to become constitution changers robbing their own people. Although sometimes for a period a benevolent dictator is best for development.

On the other hand lots of keys are in the hands of the West: trade, patents, footprints (water, carbon, energy etc.), governance in the global institutions, neo-conservative lobbies, (geo) politics, occidentalism, military-industrial-complex (funny!), tribalism etc are all counterproductive to development.

But optimistic I am when I see the KM4Dev growing over 3500 members and all kinds of knowledge share fairs, cafés, learning events, Q&As, e-lists etc are organised. KM4Dev goes under the organisational radar and countries; it works along the personnel axis; the only way for learning I think. Also these global mega events with wine – dine / pecking order / courtesy shows also have useful side events, smaller workshops where people are given space and knowledge sharing and learning takes place.

Related blog posts:

Scaling, pacing, staging and patterning… Navigating fractal change through space and time


Change, change, change!

Going up the scale of change

Going up the scale of change

So many clichés about change, so much ado about a big thing, so many ways to look at it and so many barriers to it!

And just so it’s clear: I’m talking about social change (see some pictures about this concept), i.e. change that involves humans and their behaviour, as opposed to changes in e.g. engineering or information systems.

The much desired and (our most loathed) change is at the centre of a lot of agile KM and also development work. We want to understand it, track it, make it happen, or stop it. As a formula. In a box. 100% fail-proof.

The bitter deceit…

Perhaps because we may be overlooking one of the most important dimensions of (social) change: it is the bizarre fruit of the dance of time and space along various factors. There is no direct and pure causality between activity A and change X. Complexity theories have helped us understand this intricacy. But not necessarily helped us find ways to address this.

Here’s a shoot post about a change management toolkit of sorts: Using hidden dynamics to realise how to look at and work around change, with four lighthouses on our journey: scaling, pacing, staging and patterning.

Scaling

Social change has both roots and branches across space and time. Understanding scaling is a precondition to achieving change. What other geographic scales are at play in a change dynamics? What could be other beneficiaries or victims of change: other teams? Organisations? Projects? Communities? Districts? Regions? Think upstream-downstream, centre-edges, power groups/marginalised groups What mechanisms are intentionally or involuntarily titillating other scales? What are the tradeoffs and what is the aggregate ‘return on investment’ then?

Similarly, what could be long term as opposed to short term changes or effects? We tend to apply a tunnel vision to the scales we are focusing on, but understanding how a given initiative brings about change that affects people differently over time helps us get a bigger picture of the change we are looking at. This is at the centre of the reflection on time scales in social learning for climate change.

Of course we cannot predict all these changes, but joined-up thinking such as collective visioning exercises give us glimpses of these longer term changes… Don’t consider change without careful attention for scales.

Pacing

Time is of the essence in change, as we’ve seen above. Because behaviour change takes time, all the more so when someone else wants you to change.

Considering longer term effects begs us to examine the speed at which we hope change will happen and the one at which it really happens. As much as a common breathing pace brings people together, pacing activities according to the local context’s normal pace also raises chances for change – remember organic, civic-driven KM?. No need to rush, you might be leading the pack but no one may understand you. Going too slow on the other hand may jeopardise potential for change, time has to be just right. And our pace affects this…

Staging

No ‘intended’ social change happens overnight – unless by some miracle all elements are just ready for it and one extra drop takes care of it (ha! the results of edge effects Alice McGillivray is brilliantly talking about). So no change happens in a fingersnap.

And because of the complex interdependencies, no change is likely to happen at (extended) scale right on. Pacing helps us find the right rhythm of each activity, staging activities helps us align them. It gives us liberty to use effective safe-fail probes (more about that in the video below): We can thus explore how change happens in smaller iterations, using the feedback from each iteration to inform the next loop of activities. Like gardening, this is the key to let change grow and become part of the local fabric’s dynamics. Staging is the drip irrigation of change…

Patterning

Discerning fractal change from any pattern

Discerning fractal change from any pattern

The last but not the least dynamic of the four, and for good reasons: The complexity of social change requires us to sharpen our senses and (ideally collectively) recognise patterns that make up change. Both in the centre of our attention and at the edges… With patterning we can identify the fractals of change, and by continually doing so we can recognise where in the bigger picture of change a certain fractal belongs.

How do you do patterning? Through learning conversations around a theory of change of sorts, and whether formalised or not, continually exploring the ramifications of that change.

In a lot of agile KM projects – and more conspicuously in a majority of development projects – we tend to zero in on specific changes induced by a given initiative. But we are chasing a fish pack and the way the fish pack shapes and shifts, moves and mixes, appears and disappears tells us much about that ever elusive change. Scaling, pacing, staging and patterning are instruments at our disposal to understand the fish better and, occasionally, to fish it better.

Navigating change: better do it with caution

Navigating change: better do it with caution

Since change might look like a shark, we might as well be apprehend it better, don’t you think?

Related blog posts:

How to navigate complexity in M&E and where KM can help


What’s happening in the world of monitoring and evaluation?

How is complexity – the thinking and the reality – affecting it, highlighting gaps and creating opportunities?

What can KM help to do about this?

Here are some of the questions that this Prezi addresses.

I’ll be presenting this in the course of next week at a retreat on M&E.

This is a draft, so please let me know what you think so I can improve this last minute, still before it is uploaded on official channels ;)

Related blog posts:

KM for Development Journal news, zooming in on the facilitation of multi-stakeholder processes


Some news about the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, for which I’m a senior editor: the upcoming issue (May 2013) is just about to be released and will be the first open access issue again after three years of commercial hosting by Taylor and Francis. This is a really welcome move – back to open knowledge – and the issue should be very interesting as it focuses on knowledge management in climate change work.

The September 2013 issue is dedicated to ‘Breaking the boundaries to knowledge integration: society meets science within knowledge management for development.’

Discussing innovation and multi-stakeholder platforms (Credits: WaterandFood / FlickR)

Discussing innovation and multi-stakeholder platforms (Credits: WaterandFood / FlickR)

But here I wanted to focus a bit on the December 2013 issue of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal which will be about ‘Facilitating multi-stakeholder processes: balancing internal dynamics and institutional politics‘.

Multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs) have been a long term interest of mine, as I really appreciate their contribution to dealing with wicked problems, their focus (conscious or not) on social learning, and the intricate aspects of learning, knowledge management, communication, monitoring and capacity development. Multi-stakeholder processes are a mini-world of agile KM and learning in the making – thus offering a fascinating laboratory while focusing on real-life issues and problems.

What is clearly coming out of experiences around MSPs is that facilitation is required to align or conjugate the divergent interests, competing agendas, differing world views, complimentary capacities and abilities, discourses and behaviours.

In particular I am personally interested to hear more about:

  • How homegrown innovation and facilitation can be stimulated and nurtured for more sustainable collective action movements, especially if the MSP was set up as part of a funded aid project.
  • How the adaptive capacity of a set of stakeholders is being stimulated beyond the direct issue at hand (be it education, competing agendas on natural resources, water and sanitation coverage etc.) or not and how it becomes a conscious objective of these processes.
  • What facilitation methods seem to have worked out and to what extent this was formalised or not.
  • How the facilitation of such complex multi-stakeholder processes was shared among various actors or borne by one actor and with what insights.
  • How individuals and institutions find their role to play and how their orchestration is organised in such complex processes (i.e. is there a place for individual players, how does this address or raise issues of capacities, turnover, ownership, energy, collective action, trust etc.).
  • To what extent – and how – was the facilitation of these processes formally or informally reflected upon as part of monitoring, learning and evaluation or as part of softer process documentation.

This special issue, which is very promising with almost 25 abstracts received in total, should explore these issues in more depth and bring up more fodder for this blog and for exciting work on using social learning to improve research / development. The issue will come out in December 2013 as mentioned. In the meantime, a couple of upcoming events in my work will also touch upon some specific forms of multi-stakeholder processes: innovation platforms.

What else is boiling around this blog? A lot!

Coming up soon: Another couple of KM interviews, some reflections on open knowledge and related topics and perhaps getting to a Prezi as I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of working with it after three years of interruption. Only even more is boiling outside this blog – as this turns out to be the most hectic season at the office these days. More when I get to it the week after next.

Read the December 2013 issue’s call for papers.

Related blog posts:

Reducing complexity to a workshop? Wake & step up!


Workshops are just like stepping stones on our sense-making and trust-building pathways (Credits - Xeeliz / FlickR)

Workshops are just like stepping stones on our sense-making and trust-building pathways (Credits – Xeeliz / FlickR)

A short shoot post today. The white screen syndrome is kinda hitting me at the moment. But one thing is coming to mind: the delusion of packing the complexity of multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder, multi-perspective programs into planning activities in a planning workshop of one, two or even three days.

I have recently facilitated a number of workshops (some of them listed here) for initiatives that integrate very different disciplines and arguably worldviews: social science, biophysical science, economics, mixing different fields of expertise in one same agricultural stream.

Almost every time we schedule such planning workshops, the commissioners’ expectations are that we will be able to come up with a neat action plan. This is where the delusion starts.

We can achieve a neat action plan in one workshop:

  • When we have a very good idea of where we want to be
  • When participants know each other very well: their strengths and weaknesses and their capacity to work together
  • When participants share the same language (jargon, concepts and approaches)
  • When the program relating to the workshop is straightforward and not a complex multi-stakeholder program
  • When the group of participants is small (ideally 5 to 10)

If these conditions are not gathered, I doubt that one workshop can really go beyond great conversations – sometimes tense but certainly clarifying discussions – and some very draft ideas of wide streams of activities. We should tone down our expectations.

Workshops are just stepping stones towards a more coherent plan and future; they’re also bridges among worldviews; and they are wonderful opportunities to network or gel teams. That is already extraordinary and certainly most helpful in complex initiatives.

Small is beautiful. Expecting less quantity but more quality should be our guiding aspiration  in (planning) workshops. Spread the word!

Related blog posts:

Complexity in multi-stakeholder processes – how to manage, facilitate or navigate around it?


After almost five weeks without any blogging, I’m definitely coming to terms with the blank page/blank mind syndrome. A very useful experience – this drought of ideas – as it just reveals how daily mental discipline and a conscious effort of connecting thoughts is the ignition I need to let inspiration flow. Holiday had been particularly effective at unwinding me entirely this year I guess…

Complexity (Credits - Michael Heiss / FlickR)

Complexity (Credits – Michael Heiss / FlickR)

As I started working again, I facilitated a training workshop for facilitators of multi-stakeholder processes in a project named ‘EAU4Food‘. This workshop had a strong connection with complexity. Global development is a highly complex field – as recently and brilliantly demonstrated by Owen Barder in this presentation. Within this field, any multi-stakeholder process deals with a high(er) degree of complexity, given the amount of actors (institutional and individual) involved in an ‘n-gagement‘ process and the impossibility to predict the outcomes of their interaction. The training workshop put the emphasis on this aspect as a starting ‘mindset’ to better prepare the facilitators for their job. I gave the presentation below to set the tone.

After the workshop, in the evaluation, one of the participants mentioned that the session on complexity “added to the complexity”. Perhaps he meant the perplexity (his)… and I can understand that. We, human beings, are perhaps not well wired to deal with complexity, as we tend to put everything in a neat box that isn’t connected with other boxes, because it makes it simpler to comprehend – but not more truthful. We love to zoom in on specific aspects rather than dealing with wide, contextualised, integrated sets of issues. Our repulsion for complex and contextual solutions is what leads us to be so keen on ‘silver bullets’ and blanket solutions that we think will be universally helpful And yet, as with silver bullets, we could not be more ill-informed than to seek to avoid and ignore complexity.

There are however a few things we can try…

Managing complexity

After ignoring complexity, this is the worst strategy we can adopt. The very lesson of complexity is that we cannot manage it. Command and control, certainty of planning and of the outcomes we desire simply do not work in complex environments such as multi-stakeholder processes. The first lesson is thus to shed our old power-clinging tendencies and preferences and to accept that, while we can manage projects, deadlines, outputs etc. – how they relate to and interact with other stakeholders in the process is far from being manageable. This point, and many other excellent ones have been highlighted in this wonderful presentation which I came across in this blog post by Harold Jarche.

Perhaps we would therefore be better advised to focus on…

Facilitating complexity

This is essentially what the facilitators of EAU4Food learning and practice alliances (and the local communities of practice) are supposed to do. Managing emphasises control and certainty. Facilitating shifts focus towards the orchestration of other actors – in an attempt to let them find their ‘space and place’ in the process, and perhaps to make them coalesce around a common agenda or understanding of the priorities. A lot of the workshop sessions focused on this, from meetings (the iconic and emerging part of facilitating multi-stakeholder processes) to the wider engagement process. Yet facilitating can take various courses. Some of them are dangerously close to managing complexity. The danger of ‘facipulation’ is that, if well done, that sort of facilitation can give the illusion of being participatory but in reality is self-serving and just another way of getting endorsement for pre-conceived ideas. To avoid this, a further step is to seek…

Navigating around ‘co-mplexity’

The presentation above stresses the ideal of embracing the group of stakeholders as a ‘complex adaptive system’, where each part of the network becomes an essential node in a grid and plays an essential role of connector and amplifier that improves the feedback loops inherent to such complex processes.

So how to navigate complexity?

First of all, by creating conditions to effectively co-create that complexity. For any multi-stakeholder process, the essence of its success (and possible survival beyond the funded initiative that saw to its birth) is the genuine authenticity of co-creation processes. If the agenda is set together, activities decided collectively and adapted according to the challenges and opportunities that the whole set of stakeholders have identified, then complexity becomes an ally that leads the way to ‘highlighting new paths’ that were not previously possible or visible. A true case of co-mplexity, a joint act of navigation around complexity and of developing a pathway together.

Secondly, and this is where agile KM comes into play, the complexity of the process will be all the easier to navigate depending on the reflexivity of the group: the more the group focuses on joint reflection, social learning and ensuing collective action, the more productive and the richer the experience will be for all.

Finally, navigating around complexity does not mean that the whole process is about complexity. There are tasks and areas that are not complex and should not become more complex than they have to be. It is the responsibility of the process facilitator to adapt to circumstances and identify what needs management, what needs facilitation, what needs co-creation.

The position of multi-stakeholder process facilitator is still relatively new and the rising complexity and the trend of acknowledging it also are in their infancy, so one can be hopeful that these multi-stakeholder process facilitators are only the exploring navigators of a world to be. The gems of their voyages will tell us more about the mysterious lands of complexity…

Related blog posts:

Through the blissful darkness of ignorance, with concepts-lights at my side


Ignorance is bliss

So they say, and truly I can relate to this saying. Knowing all the details of sordid stories, knowing all the issues that await us when tackling a problem is not always the best guarantee for action. Sometimes it causes the paralysis of fear or concern…

Ignorance is also the mother of curiosity, which gives the greatest push towards learning. So it’s not all that bad to ignore a few things…

The Johari window (from Peter Dorrington's article about "unknown unknowns and risk")

The Johari window (from Peter Dorrington’s article about “unknown unknowns and risk”)

…that is, if you know that you ignore them, and want to do something about them. In the proverbial Johari window, there are a few things that caution tells us we don’t know – the real key to learning evoked above.

But there are also things we don’t know that we don’t know and those are the things that through experimentation, individual and social learning, we will hopefully find out that we don’t know. It’s that little extra information that gives us the depth of details we were not yet aware of – which makes also the difference between the caution of an experienced person and the over-confidence of a lay person.

There are gazillions of things that I do not know of course, but there are also a few concepts that are currently my guiding lights in my own learning experience around the fascinating ‘knowledge realm’ and moving around my own Johari window – hoping I will never end up in a real bad case of amnesia ;)

A few concepts as lights in the knowledge realm

What follows here is a rather mixed bag but these concepts definitely relate to one another and sometimes originate from the same authors or sources…

Knowledge work

To start, ‘knowledge work’ is the mother of all other concepts here, as it relates to the overall umbrella of concepts that relate to learning, knowledge management and communication (in its engaging side, not its messaging tradition – see the happy families of engagement). Knowledge work is quite vague but simultaneously it stresses the importance of knowledge in all its relations. Knowledge work is not (just) about information, it’s not just about management (like some takes on KM), it’s not just about learning, it’s about all these areas of work that contribute to this ‘knowledge era’ we are in, where knowledge, its development, sharing, exploitation and ongoing transformation are seen as assets to give us an edge. This, by the way, is just an observation, not necessarily my opinion: I think the next frontier will be about harnessing the power of feelings and intuition, not just cognition.

Working out loud

I came across this concept only a few months ago in John Stepper’s post ‘Working out loud: your personal content strategy‘ and it has taken my mental world by storm. Working out loud is quite simple: journalling your work and sharing it – but the three words contain a lot of challenges and opportunities of (agile) knowledge management and learning. The simplicity of this concept and its appeal to working in a smarter way are nothing short of genius for us all knowledge workers, seeking ways to get our perspective acknowledged and valued. Working out loud also resonates with my blogging practice and all the great things it has given me – which are echoed and amplified in another author’s blogging experience (see which author in the para below).

Personal knowledge management

This topic is closely related to the former. Working out loud fuels personal knowledge management. But personal knowledge management (PKM) goes also into the personal use of information management: it’s not just about journaling but also about organising our knowledge and learning work. I first became acquainted with this concept on Harold Jarche’s blog.

Personal knowledge management or PKM (credits: Jane Hart)

Personal knowledge management or PKM (credits: Jane Hart)

What I like about this concept is that it is about using structure to free yourself from structure: Personal structure and discipline to use and learn from social networks to subvert hierarchies and other structures imposed from outside. And even if you work for an organisation, PKM is something that your firm should be paying attention to, as a foundation to improve organisational KM and learning… No organisation can hope to thrive at ‘organisational learning’ if its individual employees do not see the value of applying it to their personal needs and aspirations. Long live the age of individualism where it reinforces collective dynamics…

Retrospective and inquisitive coherence

This is a lesser concept perhaps but it is relevant to think about learning and what we think about when looking back at the things we didn’t know before. Analysing a complex chain of events and how they led to a certain result -ex-post- makes so much sense all of a sudden: it is retrospectively coherent. Yet, when first confronted with a complex issue at hand, we often have no idea about the way forward. What is useful here is first and foremost to keep some modesty as to what we know or not; it’s also about embracing complexity to look at the bigger picture – the best bet to pave the ways toward inquisitive (forward-looking) coherence. Retrospective coherence was, I believe, developed by the Welshman Dave Snowden.

Positive deviants

Positive deviance was brought to my knowledge via the excellent IKM-Emergent project (closed now) and the work around disruption of systems. Positive deviants are people who follow a successful – albeit uncommon – behaviour, with usually the result of disrupting the foundations of the environment which they challenge with their atypical approach. In knowledge work, where so much relates to behaviour change, incentives and the systemic dynamics that plays around knowledge initiatives (i.e. the enabling or disabling environment and organisation or set of organisations involved), positive deviance is an enlightening concept to explore new pathways of change through the actions of single agents. Local agents affecting the global system: a true characteristic of a complex adaptive system, which will be one of the objects of my next blog post.

Disruptive technology

Not only people (individual positive deviants) can have a profound ‘change’ effect, technology can also play that role. And indeed social media, smartphones, the internet generally and soon cyborg-type implants and other smart devices are or will be totally transforming our lives. But let’s park the sci-fi fantasy for now and focus on the here and now of. When cynics doubt about the value of social media without having really tried them out, it strikes me that this is a typical Johari window example of not knowing what you don’t know, or perhaps not knowing what you might need next. Ditto with a smartphone: until you have it, you cannot imagine what it can do for you. And to you.  We live in a highly techno-driven world of perpetual evolution. Understanding technology is essential: it allows us to understand how it could give new possibilities for our behaviour, but also to know  how we might or should keep control over that technology. A fine balance… and an illustration of how important this concept of disruptive technology has become.

Cynefin framework

Another invention of Dave Snowden, the Cynefin framework is a five-slot framework to understand in what kind of environment we are – or are facing an issue. It could be either simple, complicated, complex, chaotic or unordered.

The Cynefin Framework - where complexity is but one possibility

The Cynefin Framework – where complexity is but one possibility

This framework has been referred to many times and for good reasons, as it is quite intuitive and has been declined in various renditions. Like any framework it doesn’t hold all the truth and it has been criticised in the past, but this framework makes us think about the interactions and types of learning and action approaches best suited to deal with any issue. I also my reservations about the framework but find it a fascinating tool to keep thinking about complexity in a rather simple way but with wide-reaching and sometimes very complex implications.

Empowered listener

We are part of various online and offline communities. Increasingly so. And we cannot invest as much time as we would like in being active in each of them. But we nonetheless choose to be present in those communities. We decide actively what we are listening to because we think we might gain from it. So we all are lurkers in some communities, or as I recently suggested, ‘empowered listeners’. And I believe this is not a trend that will wane all too quickly.

Agility

This is the last but not the least on this list, as it led me to rebaptise my blog ‘Agile KM for me and you’. Jennifer Sertl recently shared with me her definition of what agility means (see image above). In reaction, Dave Snowden (him again) recently put some words of caution to the agile crowd to avoid the past mistakes of the KM clique – and most likely rightly so. However I like the emphasis of this approach towards a more dynamic approach to learning and knowledge work, which is not just about innovation or just about managing assets or solving today’s problems. It reflects the dynamism of the world we live in and the added imperative to think and act increasingly proactively and reflexively.

With such guiding lights, I surely should be able to quickly highlight many other areas of my own ignorance. Phew! To learning there is really no end – but learning also is bliss…

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