Learning with a sector

What is your most effective bet if you are trying to stimulate an entire set of institutions to continually share knowledge, learn together, improve decision-making and coordination?

At IRC we have been struggling with this question for a while and the answers are not obvious, their applications yet less so. We are still working on it under an overall banner of ‘sector learning’ (1). It is a rather odd concept since a sector (2) learns arguably as little as an organisation – and what is a sector anyways? Nonetheless this is the fuzzy starting point for our quest towards a better learning sector. And we have found ways to make it more practical.
We have been using mainly two approaches to accomplish sector learning:

  • Resource centre networks (knowledge networks offering independent information products and services to a range of institutions and promoting knowledge sharing and information management);
  • Learning alliances (multi-level multi-stakeholder processes aiming at using social learning to generate and apply innovative solutions for complex issues);

IRC's sector learning brochure - another one to be pimped this year!

2011 is the last year of our current Business Plan and therefore a crucial year to document our work – based on ongoing ‘process documentation’ (or process monitoring). It will be a crucial year to look into these two key approaches and understand better what works and what has not delivered as much as hoped.

A first workshop in December 2010 already helped us look at the resource centre network’s contribution to sector learning. On top of our list of issues came:

  • How to sustain commitment and interest from the institutions that are members of such knowledge networks?
  • How to ensure the sustainability (financially and otherwise) of such networks?
  • How to assess (and measure?) the relevance and outcomes of the work performed by resource centre networks?

These are only three of the various issues that we have to deal with and none takes a simple answer. We have a lot to learn about learning in a sector that is in a permanent crisis mode, whose organisations react too late to too many opportunities, where field staff really is not feeding back their crucial experiences to other levels and where donors and governmental agencies could integrate their frameworks and budgets a lot better.

So keep watching this space for more! And let me know if you’d like to join up thinking…


(1)    A brochure about sector learning – which needs to be updated is available on: http://www.irc.nl/page/53011. Our thematic pages on sector learning are on: http://www.irc.nl/page/50054

(2)    In this case, the water, sanitation and hygiene – WASH – sector, but the challenge would arguably be similar for other fields of development.

Related posts:


What is learning?

Time for new stuff!!! Ah, love the learning!

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

After over three weeks hectic weeks that kept me away from blogging, I’m happy to finally be back on the (WordPress) dashboard to share some recent work. And the biggest item on a long list of ‘to blog’ is this presentation that I just prepared about learning. I will be giving this presentation today for an all-staff meeting at IRC as an introduction to one of our ‘travel free weeks’.

Travel free weeks are given a negative name (about what we don’t do: travel – we’re all supposed to be around) for what is essentially a week of organisational learning. And learning we do and talk about at IRC. A quick search for ‘learning’ gave back 992 hits on our website – on a total of I suspect over 12000 items. This is seriously core to our business. But do we always refer back to the theory and practice of learning, at personal, organisational, collective and even societal level? That I question, and anyway for whoever wishes to work on learning, going back to the white board with the ‘where are we at’ question every so often is just a standard (good) practice. That is the key to becoming a learning organisation. Remember Einstein: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

So here’s the presentation. I made it on Prezi, because it’s a new tool I wanted to (indeed) learn about, also because I think its fresh feel may put the audience in a different seat and engage them in a different way. I got triggered to use Prezi when I first heard @Joitske (Hulsebosch) tweet about it, then when I read this great blog post by Robert @Swanwick about his own experience with Prezi and finally when I saw my first Prezi about designing an academic poster, by Adam Read. But no more talk now, check the presentation:

… or online: What (the heck) is learning?

My learning curve with Prezi?

  • It’s funny how it actually feels like Prezi has been around and we do Prezi-type presentations all the time, whereas the logic of the presentation is very different to Powerpoints and it really has the advantage of focusing on one point at a time, which gives the audience a better chance to relate what you’re saying with what they’re seeing. Oh sure you can (and should) do it with Powerpoint but we all know our tendency to use as much of a white space we can with text, text and more text, especially when we’ve been trained to keep Powerpoints to an average of 10-15 slides – something we are un-learning at the moment, but it takes time to un-learn!
  • The development logic takes a while to master, not least because it involves a lot of zooming in and out to write text in small enough a display to keep it invisible when scrolling from one bit of text to another in the presentation.
  • I really like the canvas logic, the liberty and reduced linearity that you enjoy when developing and showing the presentation.
  • Framing the elements of your presentation in consistent blocks is helpful but perhaps the last thing to do in the presentation because any edit on the presentation requires you to zoom in on the element you need to edit and the overlay frame tends to be the element you pick up when you try to edit a smaller element.
  • I haven’t yet explored the possibility to embed video and audio bits and I hope it is possible or there is a (Power)point to keep using PPTs (which can do that). There is anyway as Prezi should just complement the current offer of presentation tools and find what works for you, and most importantly what because matters in the presentation, with Prezi or else, is what YOU are saying, not what’s on display.
  • I found the set of backgrounds rather limited too and hope it is easy to use new/other backgrounds.
  • Finally, for future presentations I will think further about the way I wish to use because there is a lot of learning (and effectiveness) potential there, but even with a simple – read: no-surprise – presentation like mine the surprise effect is there yet – I reckon!

Let’s see how my colleagues react to it! This, in itself, would deserve a reply blog post, don’t you think?

Related blog posts:

KM4D journal issue on learning, KM and collaboration in the water sector

The call for papers for this issue of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal is closed since 11 May. Thank you for your understanding and feel free to contact the editors’ team to explore other avenues to publish your paper.

The December issue of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal is dedicated to effective (and potential) contribution of approaches to learning, collaboration and knowledge management (KM) to the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, and the integrated water resource management (IWRM) sector.

This issue will be edited by three IRC staff members (Jaap Pels, Russell Kerkhoven and myself) and Nadia Manning from IWMI but we will ensure a balanced and non-biased selection of articles.

The Dec 09 issue of the KM4D journal is about learning in the water sector

The Dec 09 issue of the KM4D journal is about learning in the water sector

Although we recognise the limitations of thinking in terms of sectors when we are trying to address problems of fragmentation across actors and sectors, it is the first time that the KM4D journal focuses on issues within one sector and this in itself is interesting to not only focus on learning approaches and tools but especially on how they are applied and addressed in one particular context (the water sector here) and also to focus on the wider issue of  how the sector operates as a whole and how can learning, knowledge management and cooperation help it work more effectively.

If I relate this issue to the disappointing results of the World Water Forum (disappointing in terms of the little effort in bridging the various initiatives that are going on), I think this issue will be a very interesting opportunity to take stock of what is working in the water sector, the wider challenges of the sector, the interesting initiatives that some actors have launched etc.

This journal issue will relate very well also to the upcoming annual KM4DEV event which is likely to focus on cooperation within development sub-sectors, and again between them. Some ideas for that annual event are available on the KM4DEV wiki: http://www.km4dev.org/wiki/index.php/KM4Dev_2009_Gathering.

The bottom line is: if you are working in the water sector, are interested in learning, KM and collaboration, or know people that may be in that position, please spread the word! Feel free to ask me (leborgne[at]irc.nl) for more information on the call for papers which was published on the KM4DEV mailing list.

Check out the full call for papers.

Communicating inside to learn outside?

In justifying a proposal we submitted to a donor supporting learning at IRC, I came to revisit my ideas of internal communication and its link with the learning activities that we carry out or promote as an organisation.

In the proposal we submitted, we focus on three levels: internal communication capacities and channels, experiences and insights in supporting local governance for WASH services and supporting sector learning initiatives as in the resource centre network and learning allliance processes we are promoting through our regional and externally funded programmes.

The three learning areas of work of IRC in this proposal

The three learning areas of work of IRC in this proposal

The figures above and below show our logic of intervention: focusing on IRC (learning within, which IRC controls entirely), focusing on the sector (learning with our partners, which we can influence a bit – as they can), and focusing on our partners’ interactions with the sector in sector learning initiatives (learning for the sector, where we are interested in playing a role but are acting through our partners and therefore have no influence on).

IRC's learning priorities in the proposal: internally, on the sector, on sector learning initiatives

IRC's learning priorities in the proposal: internally, on the sector, on sector learning initiatives

The interesting thing is that so far our learning and sharing has been reallyfocused on our external work, not as much on our internal processes. This is perhaps not extraordinary in itself in the sense that many organisations in the development sector seem to be better at preaching around than brooming and grooming their own ground, and sometimes with good reason too: the ultimate beneficiaries are not in our own organisations, they are in the countries where we carry out ‘external’ work.

Then again, it is really remarkable that we are not paying enough attention to our internal communication and knowledge sharing processes. In a ‘walk the talk’ perspective we should also be able to fluidify our communication to allow useful experiences and insights to inspire our products and services and to interest, influence and involve partner organisations and the wider WASH sector in the longer run.

Internally, we have a number of processes to improve, even though I maintain we have a learning organisation approach and we have indeed achieved a certain degree of coherence.

So what can we do about those internal processes, which are essentially focused on improving communication? First off, I guess the overall purpose is to achieve a greater degree of coherence. Coherence means a certain degree of integration between activities to ensure that we work as one unit, not as a chaotic collection of individuals with disconnected visions, capacities and activities.

What matters, I think, is to promote the following:

  • Greater coherence in the vision we have: articulating our vision, mission, objectives and priorities, principles and strategies on the basis of a shared analysis and understanding. On this level we have finally seriously considered developing an IRC-wide communication and knowledge-sharing strategy, we have also identified specific communication challenges in a two-tier communication summit highlighting priority areas. The consolidation work we are carrying out around learning alliances, process documentation etc. comes to feed this effort very nicely. And for having shared a number of papers to define concepts in the context of the WASHCost project, I can personally confirm another time how essential it is to ensure that we understand each other and are working in the same direction. Too often it is assumed that we all agree and work together.
  • Greater coherence in the capacities and skills we have to achieve the broad vision mentioned above. This for us will mean more emphasis on the induction programme of new IRC staff, to adapt it a lot more to their own needs and to ensure a coaching process that allows deeper learning and faster preparation. But we are also finally working on an ongoing training cycle for our staff on the concepts, tools and approaches that various individual staff members have mastered but have not systematically shared with the rest of the organisation. How to move from individual skills to organisational capacities in other words.
  • Greater coherence in the communication environment to allow us to communicate effectively internally. This means for us a better adapted info-structure (information infrastructure) by means of rediscovering and adapting the communication channels we have against our working needs, and identifying new promising channels (Twitter, Facebook, wikis, but also virtual conferencing facilities) that would ease up our work. This would particularly help us to a) share knowledge, ideas, insights quickly with staff – taking advantage of the lively matter at IRC and b) document and share information products and services with external audiences.

Further down the line, this also contributes to our work on supporting local governance processes and sector learning initiatives, and there are other activities planned to support these two other objectives in the proposal. Still, internal communication primarily increases our collective capacity to develop and promote innovations, disseminate it and support our in-country partners with coherent and relevant ideas, approaches, products and services. It prepares learning with partners and other sector stakeholders.

As we are amidst a change process – arguably we never cease to be anyway – I hope that this surging focus on internal processes will indeed push us to accept with humility our areas for improvement and to embrace joint initiatives ever more generously, as learning never works as well as with others, and internal communication is only the fuel that feeds the fire. How to combine fire and water? That is another question…

[Just to make sure that this is not understood wrongly – this reflects my own personal view on our work. In no way does it represent the official perspective of IRC].

Related posts:

A frame to work with learning alliances?

In the week of 20-24 April, IRC will be organising an internal workshop (including a few external participants) on the learning alliance approach. The aim of the workshop is to develop a framework to set up and facilitate a learning alliance process, looking at practical tools and taking into account all the lessons that IRC and partners have learnt in the various projects where we have been using a learning alliance approach.

This is the first significant step to document, across projects, our general understanding and experience with learning alliances. What are learning alliances? Check this presentation for some ideas:

…and feel free to ask for more on this blog.

Anyways, following the recent session on learning alliances which we organised for the fifth World Water Forum – for which I’m still synthesising the results and waiting for some fishbowl and marketplace results – this is indeed an ideal moment to try and synthesise how we approach learning alliances.

So far we have a mixture of ideas, key areas, steps and tools available:

  • Assessment of the situation;
  • Analysis of stakeholders, their needs, demands and expectations;
  • Visioning to rally stakeholders behind a common issue;
  • Communication activities to raise interest, inform and share with, influence;
  • Monitoring activities including a mix of qualitative/quantitative methods;
  • Process and event facilitation;
  • Process documentation;
  • (action) Research activities as the core focus;
  • Implementation of basic services;
  • Social inclusion to invite the marginalised voices around the table;
Fill that learning alliance framework please!

Fill that learning alliance framework please!

But this doesn’t make for a very useful framework to apply in a new setting/project, particularly if you haven’t been involved in a learning alliance process before.

So how could we conceive of it in a better way? The external people attending the workshop will be presenting their own ideas, but in the meantime let me share mine, based on the observation of the learning alliance (LA) process in the SWITCH, RiPPLE and WASHCost projects:

  1. Principles – the learning alliance starts with a few principles: demand-driven and locally owned research/implementation; social inclusion, better results (innovation, scaling up) through concerted action and reflection; action research as a way to instil reflective research; structured learning and two-way communication to ensure a dynamic flow of insights etc. This is the basis to create a fertile soil for a learning alliance process.
  2. Preparation towards a going-in issue: in spite of advocating for demand-driven research, learning alliances are still often initiated as part of a project and come up with a given agenda. To be fair, people starting LA approaches usually have been observing the situation beforehand and come up with an issue that has some degree of local relevance. This is where the situation analysis, stakeholder analysis and the likes comes in. A good trick is to have flexible enough a project design to be able to integrate demands as early on as possible in the process and to re-focus the going in position to where the demand is. And in a true sense, learning alliances should start from a locally owned situation analysis – perhaps facilitated.
  3. Participation: The next step is to bring stakeholders around the table. This means inviting influential stakeholders (the ones that can make or break your learning alliance if they’re in or out of it) but also guaranteeing that other relevant and usually marginalised groups take part to the discussions. This part requires intensive communication efforts to raise interest, inform stakeholders, invite them to join the dialogue and express themselves; further down the line, this is where advocacy (including policy engagement / support) comes in to influence certain stakeholders about the value of the work coming out of the process.
  4. Production: The core activities (research, implementation) that are supposed to address the issue at hand. And with an action-research approach, there is a guarantee that ideas are tested out, reflected upon and refined in the next round (see next point).
  5. Proving and improving: Where monitoring (and evaluation), process documentation and the reflective activities of action research lead to showing that the approach is delivering on intended outcomes, and to refine the approach for the next cycle.
  6. Pulling it all together: this is the management part of the project, everything that has to do with the internal project team (planning, implementing, monitoring etc.).
  7. People and capacities: Throughout the project, information and communication activities raise the awareness (knowledge if you prefer) of the parties involved. But their know-how, skills, capacities to play their role best is essential. Learning alliances are approaches geared towards social change; social change means behaviour change and behaviour change comes among others from capacity development activities, in the broader sense (from creating a learning space to training, to coaching, organising learning and sharing activities with peers or different parties).

This is only a half-baked model and perhaps more than anything else an input for the forthcoming discussion. Hopefully the rest will follow in the workshop… more very soon, and hopefully more documentation very soon too!

Managing “le savoir”

The date is set: 5 October 2009, in back to back with the annual KM4DEV event, the first cobbles on the road to a francophone community of practice on learning for development will be paved, in Brussels the modern Babel tower!

The objectives are two-fold:
– to introduce the IKM Emergent discourse in the francophone arena;
– to explore the possibilities of developing a community of practice on learning for development.

There are a few very interesting aspects around this double bill:
– a francophone community of practice could potentially emerge out of the discussion, even though the ever shardy question of funding remains unclear so far;
– it will be an excellent opportunity to explore the discourse around learning and KM among francophones and finding out how the francophone and anglophone communities could complement each other – discussing different topics in different ways – and establish bridges between them;
– the meetings will take place around the km4dev event which will likely explore the issues of learning and collaboration in various sectors (water, health, agriculture etc.) when a recent water sector learning discussion group was set up recently, including various francophones, and after a fifth World Water Forum where IRC had many contacts with particularly French water sector organisations concerned with learning and knowledge management, particularly OIEau and ONEMA.

The question for me a) what is really driving the francophone learning agenda (if there is such a thing in the first place) and b) whether francophones and anglophones can indeed have meaningful group discussions. I obviously think it’s important and necessary but our work in West Africa shows that it is a real challenge to stimulate learning and sharing across languages – perhaps for other reasons in that region though. As for the first question, it comes from a lot of doubts I have had regarding the way quite a few francophones seem to frame the concepts of learning and knowledge management. A discussion that took place in 2007 about this on the KM4DEV mailing list is briefly referred to in Julie Ferguson et. al.’s meta review and scoping study of knowledge management for development (See pp. 28 and beyond).

Multiple knowledges, multiple languages: cacophony or symphony?

Multiple knowledges, multiple languages: cacophony or symphony?

At any rate, I cannot wait to start this and hope that the results will exceed my expectations. With a Spanish-speaking community of practice in shaping in the KM4DEV community too, the ‘multiple knowledges’ that form the red thread of the IKM emergent programme are all coming to the fore: symphony or cacophony?

If you want to join the reflection about setting up a francophone community of practice or wish to join the discussions in October, simply let me know or register and leave your details on: http://www.km4dev.org/wiki/index.php/Francophone_KM4DEV

Sector learning – scouting in the dark

After several discussions internally at IRC, the decision was taken to set up a new discussion group to build upon the recently held ‘sector learning’ workshop (Delft, November 2008 ) where a lot of our partners came to present their resource centre initiative, national information systems or learning alliance approaches.

As usual with (nice) workshops, participants were quite happy to be there and to share. To share what? To share why? In a way this is one othe most interesting paradoxes of knowledge sharing: everyone is keen on doing it but not everyone is clear on what to share. In this case, it was all the less clear as the overarching topic of the workshop – sector learning – was also not very clear.

After two days, quite a few presentations, many discussions, a mini open space, still no consensus came up as to the term ‘sector learning’. An external editor is in charge of turning those discussions into a briefing note that sets the scene for ‘sector learning’. But this work will not see the light before April. And in the meantime, we would be well advised to take advantage of the momentum.

Scouting in the dark

Scouting in the dark

In the momentum meantime, indeed, a lot of the parties that took part to the sector learning workshop – spanning an interesting mix of Southern and international NGOs – confessed they would like to stick with this group and exchange more about their initiatives.

One of the direct outcomes is this decision to go ahead with a discussion group. Before we used that Google group for the resource centre development partners. Now this platform should replace the former and invite more organisations and individuals to share their practical experiences, issues, challenges and solutions around sector learning.

We are aware that there is no consensus on the ‘domain’ of sector learning. Not a very good start before launching what we would like to see evolve as a CoP, but our experience with partners and with the RCD discussion group is that a lot of active lurkers find something useful in such discussion platforms, to share information face-to-face with colleagues, if not on the virtual discussion group.

So we are there with this upcoming discussion group and the need to define what ‘sector learning’ is – or run the risk of seeing that momentum end in a momentomb.

My take on sector learning?

This will all be clarified by the briefing note mentioned above, and perhaps by initial discussions on this new discussion group, but rather than spelling out the components of ‘sector learning’, I would rather stress some factors that may have helped create that momentum:

  • Since the World Bank’s call to reorient itself towards a knowledge bank in 1996, many development organisations are understanding the value of knowledge and, though grappling with their learning initiatives (an upcoming paper from the IKM-Emergent programme will cover this), there is a lot of momentum for knowledge-intensive processes and for learning in general;
  • Governments, donors, NGOs are all realising that there is a huge overlap between their activities, and sometimes some dreadful gaps, simply because they are not cooperating more. Hence donor harmonisation, basket funding and sector-wide approaches;
  • This trend upwards – in the global arena – calls for visible and wide-ranging networks, constellations that can act as counterparts for donor agencies (having funding but no mandate) and for governmental agencies (having a mandate but usually well under-resourced);
  • All actors are realising that the WASH sector is very complex, because it involves many different kinds of stakeholders (central and local government with different functions – legislators, regulators, monitors etc. – civil society organisations of various kinds (NGOs, CBOs), large private companies and small private businesses and donor agencies). They are realising that a complex sector requires a complex approach, based on uniting forces and resources – hence the sector learning facilitators such as resource centre networks;
  • The project approach is increasingly acknowledged as a non sustainable solution, and therefore the idea of sector learning comes as a promising factor for sustainable learning;
  • Perhaps with a (primarily Northern) development discourse that has reoriented itself from setting up services, and  ‘transferring knowledge’ to enabling Southern organisations to realise themselves and decide how they would like to take their destiny in hands, a lot of international or Northern organisations are increasingly focusing on learning, advocacy, communication as their new niche. Sector learning is a next step on that road;
  • And last but not least, in spite of the obvious need to go beyond sectoral borders (after all, at the scale of a poor person in Africa, development is a mixed bag of education, health, water, energy and many other factors contributing to a sustainable livelihood), working on cross-organisational learning within more contained borders (the ‘sector’) is not as much of a daunting task;

The first few weeks of this new discussion group to be will tell whether this ‘sector learning’ buzzword can lead to actual improvements and whether it finds a niche attractive enough to make it grow.