Who is in for triple loop learning?


Learning is hard. Hard to understand, hard to apply, hard to make consistent, hard to apply and change behaviour.

Learning about learning is a lot harder.

So when someone starts talking about ‘double loop learning’, eyes start rolling out. And when ‘triple loop learning’ splashes in a conversation, it ends in a circle of silence baked out of disbelief, compassion and impatience mixed with utter confusion…

Thing is: Are there genuine instances of ‘triple loop learning’ we can point to? There’s enough written about the theory of triple-loop learning but exceedingly little about when (where and how) it happens.

I can however think of a couple of examples:

  • People working hand-in-hand with the people involved in a given initiative to understand and evaluate their learning about what they’re trying to do – like the IKM-Emergent programme evaluation approach perhaps.
  • A community that has managed to work with all stakeholders in and around it to actually self-organise and find its own ways of dealing with its own wicked problems – possibly this was one of the objectives of the Millennium Villages.

Now the question is: can this be funded (by global development actors)? So far, very little chance, it seems. High risk, low certainty, extreme degree of complexity and abstraction (to start with).

But it’s, at the same time, remarkable that we haven’t yet put more attention to this if we want to be more efficient, more effective, more sustainable, scaled up and out and about…

How long before one funding agency, or one collective of people with a strong sense of agency, finds the boldness to just start an initiative that puts triple loop learning front and centre?

How long can we afford to stay at the surface of complex problems? When it’s too late?

Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)

Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)

Use quality face-to-face time for synergy, not for logorrhea


How many meetings (even one on one) are spent to regurgitate something, to present ‘stuff’ of various relevance and quality, to eruct presentation upon presentation as if the audience needed to know everything ever written about the topic at hand…

Logorrhea - and it's only getting worse... (Credits: Scott Adam)

Logorrhea – and it’s only getting worse… (Credits: Scott Adam)

How many events with an avalanche of information, and so little co-creation?

Hey, I’d get it if we were in 1983 and there was no other way to get that information. But in 2015, almost everyone has a phone that can provide all the information we need. Share if you care.

Death by Powerpoint (Credits: Tom Fishburne)

Death by Powerpoint (Credits: Tom Fishburne)

This single-route approach to face-to-face is not only another (often not so) disguised attempt of inducing death by Powerpoint, but it is also: a completely missed opportunity to develop something new, an insult to our intelligence and capacity, a deliberate attempt at stupidly reinventing the wheel again and again and again (remember the reasons why Open Space Technology and World Café were created?), a real barrier to developing trust between people (who will thus not get an opportunity to meet each other) and an utter waste of money –  remember the meeting cost calculator?

Synergy (Credits: MacroMarcie)

Synergy (Credits: MacroMarcie)

How about quality face-to-face time to avoid the logorrhea of information? People coming together should remain the kindling of magic that happens so easily in personal life. It should be about everyone bringing their experience, ideas, emotions, capacities, know-how, know-who… it’s about a communion of souls and conjugation of roles – synergy made out of energies.

So: How about sharing information beforehand, online, because it’s possible but also because it prepares the participants to the purpose of this face-to-face moment. Interactive moments of discovery, exploration, alignment, co-creation, prototyping (see Carl Jackson’s ideas about this), assessment and commitment?

THAT is the mix for real magic.

A few essentials can help further here:

  • The guts to require that people coming together prepare themselves to let go and to co-create on the spot, without invading each other’s space with their pompous excellence;
  • The discipline of preparing ourselves for meetings, however large or small scale – ideally we should always have a clear learning objective for all face-to-face encounters we’re planning – and have read whatever information is necessary to kickstart the conversation;
  • The habit of managing our information (as part of PKM) and of choosing the face-to-face moments we have with others because we can fully invest ourselves;
  • And so, ok, perhaps just the minimum of information to level the playing field here – but just enough to get the substance to make magic happen. No less, and certainly no more.

Open Innovation and Co-Creation

We can no longer afford to use meetings to just ‘share information’. In this year and age that is the equivalent of encouraging online visitors to read scanned faxes posted on a website and to come once a month to a physical office to bring their (printed) comments about it.

Anno 2015, synergistic learning is well beyond faxes, prints and single-comms streets. It’s social, it’s alive, it’s enthralling. So whatever your next face-to-face moment is, be there, be together and as Delroy Wilson would say, ‘Get ready’.

Related posts:

Flap your wings for the ‘butterfly revolution’ of learning and change


A simple idea: change yourself and you might see entire systems transform.

Change (Peter Downsbrough, 2011)

Aren’t we all butterflies fluttering our wings somewhere and causing tsunamis on the other side of the world? We are connected, and global change starts with individual change. Or perhaps it doesn’t, but what is certain is that without individual change we won’t see systemic change…

So why do we keep chasing the unicorns of this world in such simplistic ways? We want to achieve scaling up, sustainability, social learning, systemic change…but we don’t ask ourselves the right questions. All these unicorns won’t materialise if organisations are not willing and capable of operating together, and organisations won’t manage that if their own staff – individually – are not capable of learning by themselves, of being intentional about the change they want to see happen, of sharing with and caring for others, of connecting deeply. Exactly like the unit 0 of civilisation is the family, the unit 0 of learning and change is ourselves as individuals.

One of the concepts that has taken me recently is ‘process literacy’: the capacity of people to go beyond ‘what has to be done‘ to also understand the fine processes that happen behind those objectives – what process documentation, systematization and capitalisation are trying to do. Being ‘process literate’ means that you constantly pay attention to the channels that are most appropriate to understand the issue you are contemplating. It means you can talk content (dive deep) and connect it with relevant fields and ideas (go wide).

It is through that process literacy lens that a lot of the questions we are grappling with will actually reveal some useful angles. Someone I just met is trying to unpack ‘knowledge management in value chains‘ and it turns out there is very little at the junction of these two fields, but she is adamant that it is in documenting the process of (not) doing KM in value chains that we will find ways to improve knowledge creation, sharing and use in those value chains. Spot on!

So, while social learning remains great, we need to nurture and cultivate that process literacy within ourselves. Social learning, by the way, is also understood by some as individual learning connected – via social media – to others (see the presentation below in its attempt to manage information through that type of social learning).

But the lesson is the same: learning, sharing, change, better livelihoods lives, they all start with each and everyone of us. So get ready to shed your caterpillar skin for the learning and change revolution to happen: we need all butterlies around to flap their wings.

Related posts:

Women, youth, disabled, minorities… learning and sharing with all that we are


Yesterday was International Women’s Day (8 March) – with the theme ‘Inspiring change‘.

Two years ago, on that date, I celebrated the natural inclination of many women toward sharing and learning (as well as caring to share).

Dealing with minorities... (Credits - Snorkel/FlickR)

Dealing with minorities… (Credits – Snorkel/FlickR)

This year, I want to use this occasion to reflect on all the minorities (hey, gender usually comes with equity), recognised as such or not, whether rightly or wrongly – and their capacity to deeply enrich learning and sharing… We all bring to the table some baggage that has not always been positive, but can be used positively to learn, share and inspire…

My wife is collecting life stories of people that deeply affected or inspired her (to be publicly available soon). One of the common traits of all these people is the deep struggle they had in their life, often as members of minorities or during ‘minority moments’ – when they are going against the main current – something I’m sure we can find in the (visual) shape of stories generally. We bear these life wounds in ourselves.

In my case, although we are not talking of any trauma at all, far from it, I have often felt sidelined in my work, misunderstood (the ills of working in knowledge management ha ha). I felt out of place for a very long time, until I found my professional family in KM4Dev. And then of course I was a minority Breton in France, a minority Frenchman in the Netherlands and now in Ethiopia… We all have these feelings of ‘existing without’… out of the mainstream.

Yet, as much as the gay community has appropriated the insults ‘faggot’ and the likes to disarm the words, we can all use our minority identities, moments and pathways to work to our advantage.

Here is a tour of the benefits of these minority moments to learn, share, inspire:

  • Going through such ‘minority experiences’ is the best way to rebound, to find the guts to look at life the way it really is, to reflect deeply on who we are, how different we are from ‘the mainstream’, on where and how we live – according to what principles;
  • It’s also the best way to realise who we live around with and who really matters to us – so it’s a powerful way to deeply engage, make lifelong friendships and relationships of all kinds. So, paradoxically, our minority pathways make us more unique and simultaneously more together, perhaps;
  • Reflecting through our minority pathways helps us gain self-assurance and thus deliver the most of ourselves on our good moments… Richer sharing, stronger learning, better inspiration…
  • The complex environments in which we work require a diversity of perspectives, with generalists as well as specialists, with men as well as women, with youth as well as elderly, with disabled or not disabled people… the more minorities in the mix, the better;
  • All these groups and minorities tend to work in isolation from one another, with their network that is by and large equally disconnected from one another. Bringing up our networks into a social learning approach of sorts helps connect learning communities and conversations;
  • At the same time, it is not only about perspectives and networks but also about skills and capacities that everyone brings to the mix. We all have special powers – combined, we manage to work much more effectively and synergistically;
  • The state of seclusion of the minorities we belong to is a good indication of the progress still to make in a given space – if we want to achieve universal sense-making we have to genuinely include all minorities, all secluded groups.
  • If people with quite a difficult pathway in life manage to make it through life – as is the case in the life stories my wife tells me about – there is all the more case for inspiration, and in many cases these people have managed to make it by learning and sharing with others… so it is inspiration to follow their principles of life… 

And I’m sure many more reasons come into play… the point is: let’s not just celebrate women on 8 March, let’s celebrate diversity and minorities all the time, everywhere, for true transformational social learning is all about bringing people together to learn, share, inspire and kindle change…

I leave you with a quote from Louis CK about minority thinking… which shows there is much left to desire when it comes to thinking, sharing, learning along with all minorities and majorities…

Minority thinking via Louis CK (Credits I.Imgur)

Minority thinking via Louis CK (Credits I.Imgur)

Related blog posts:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The transcript follows below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog posts:

Of partnerships, DEEP and wide


Partnership, an anchor and harpoon forged over time (Credits - Rob Young)

Partnership, an anchor and harpoon forged over time (Credits – Rob Young)

PARTNERSHIPS!

The holy grail of development!

Well, when you bother about collaborative approach that is. And some prefer to use partners for results rather than relationships. But for any development organisation with the right frame of mind, partnerships are central. Only it tends to be a lot of discourse and perhaps not enough action.

Let me offer, in this shoot post, a few ideas to work practically with partners:

  • Partners are not a category of actors. They’re not NGOs, they’re not governmental agencies, they’re not donors. They can be all of them. Partners are all the actors we care enough to listen to, to work with, to deliver together with, to enrich mutually, to develop each other’s capacities… They go way beyond the vague and slightly demeaning term of ‘stakeholders’. As was said in this week’s annual programme meeting of my employer:

Let’s turn ‘stakeholders’ into partners

 

 

  • Partners are not just for our own benefit, they should be mutually enriching. Otherwise we’re not talking about partners but about parties that we benefit from, like  fat sheep that we prey on. Is it the vision of development you wish to spread around? It most certainly isn’t mine.
  • Partners are not obscure organisations hidden behind generic terms of reference. They are groups of people that we know and that rely on individual relationships, hopefully formally or informally institutionalised enough that they don’t depend on just one person. But let’s not underestimate the deeply human nature of any meaningful (even institutional) ‘partnership’.
  • Building partnerships is hard work. It takes time to find the people that coalesce around some ideas; it takes patience to understand each other’s language, to accept each other’s vision and agenda, to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses frankly; it takes courage to want to bridge the gap, to invest in the partnership beyond the inevitable bust-ups and possible breaches of confidence; it takes resources to bring our organisational apparatus behind those partnerships. It takes years to achieve meaningful partnerships.
  • Maintaining partnerships is also hard work. It implies having genuine discussions about the end of funding for a given initiative, exploring other options together, but also keeping regular visits and holding ongoing conversations – even chit chat – throughout, as two old friends do, without always having an interest in mind.
  • Investing in partnerships is not about multiplying the amount of organisations that are mentioned in our initiatives and projects, it’s about deepening the relationships we have with them, the only way to build the trust out of which authentically well grounded, relevant, jointly owned, sustainable work can emerge. In this sense…

Partnerships are not necessarily about ‘widening’ the list of our institutional friends, they’re about ‘deepening‘ the relationship we have with them, increasingly bringing to the light the difficult questions that one day might threaten those very partnerships and finding ways to address them, together, with maturity.

  • Finally, for genuinely helpful partnerships to emerge, mutual capacity development and a collective eye for critical thinking and adaptive management are key. That is what helps partners understand how the situation evolves and take decisions in a better informed way.

Some of these messages are strongly echoed in the synthesis reflections about the ILRI annual programme meeting:

Partnerships are perhaps key, but they’re not a word to throw around so as to tick boxes, they’re a long term investment, philosophy and care for people of blood and flesh, of ideas and ideals, for development that makes sense and makes us more empowered, honourable and human every day.

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:

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


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

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

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

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

The transcript follows below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Jackson: www.linkedin.com/in/carlwkg 

Westhill Knowledge Group: www.wkg.uk.net

Related blog posts:

What’s really new about social learning?


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

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

Social learning is...

Social learning is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog posts:

Musings about learning about action about change in an Exchange


Last week I was on the premises of the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) in the UK co-facilitating an interesting Knowledge Exchange about ‘Acting on what we know and how we learn for climate and development policy‘.

Together with fellow co-facilitators Pete Cranston and Carl Jackson and with the benediction of the CGIAR research program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS – with respect to the work we are doing together around the social learning sandbox) we embarked on a triple-loop learning journey…

Social change, mixing learning and action (credits - APC Women)

Social change, mixing learning and action (credits – APC Women)

The design of the event was ambitious in as far as we hoped to induce all participants into a triple loop social learning journey that would reveal and challenge our assumptions out in the open and map the way to action and change – in this case for climate change.

Our plan was simple: look at what we have learnt so far (single loop social learning), what we could do to change this (double loop) and how we might go beyond our current perceptions and unearth new jointly defined solutions to some of our problems (triple loop). Pete already shared his views about the event and what answers, questions and insights it brought forward. Some more posts may be coming and will be shared here. Here are mine, as they relate to the focus of this blog on learning for social change.

Of learning…

We all said it and all felt it: triple loop learning didn’t (really) happen. The kind of transformation that is alluded to in triple loop learning can only really take place with most, if not all, of these ingredients:

  • A full cycle of moving from learning to action and back to learning and back to action and… More about action below, but the point is: working together over time induces triple loop learning because it stimulates…
  • Trust, which leads to understanding each other’s perspectives and the assumptions below. We just surfaced some of these assumptions in the event but did not really went beyond. There was initial mutual exchange and interest but the deeper the trust  the more profound the learning as we can explore rougher edges and less comfortable areas.
  • Multiple and complementary – not similar – perspectives and ‘knowledges’. This was perhaps crucially missing in our event since the majority of participants were Northern academics (a really nice group at that!). All very different of course but with a broadly common socio-cultural and professional background.
  • More time for individual and collective reflection – across three stretches of 1.5 hours  of group work, we hardly had the time to elicit that collective reflection leading to the generation of properly new insights.
  • A collective agenda (not necessarily a common one but one that brings each agenda into a collage) that pushes all to stay on course and go through the ups and downs of engaging with different visions, languages, capacities…

It was only naive of us to hope to achieve any of this in a workshop, even though a good deal of single loop and double loop learning did take place and helped us understand what we have done in the past and what we could do in the near future.

Ha, the near future…

…leading to action…

Is there much purpose for learning that does not lead to action? Knowledge to do what? We did have a marketplace of actions, insights and commitments towards the end of the workshop but I have to confess I am quite skeptical about the intention and capacity (time and attention!) of participants to keep true to their words.

Dealing with elephants in the room like 'power', a prerequisite for learning to ACT! (Credits - Michelle Mockbee)

Dealing with elephants in the room like ‘power’, a prerequisite for learning to ACT! (Credits – Michelle Mockbee)

One of the groups was candid enough to mention that the ideal picture they had developed over the event was not going to happen because of the general inertia of the (policy) system to do anything about our findings. They were probably right. But frankly, shouldn’t we worry about having (great!) conversations that lead to no action? Perhaps we need to turn our reflection up side down and gear ourselves up to action from the start.

I did find a few useful elements in the Knowledge Exchange to think about the linkage between learning and action in such settings:

  • Address the elephants in the room. Power is one of them. Ignoring these big drivers is  unrealistic, yet ending our reflections with them leads to that powerless feeling that none of this matters and nothing will ever change anyway because we’re facing a big challenge. Instead, one group really addressed such issues from the start and got to a very good start in identifying smaller but useful steps to act upon our learning. 
  • Thinking again about the commitments of our participants, we seem to be onto re-evaluating what happened after the workshop in 3, 6, 12, perhaps 18 months… this would be great to help everyone realise that we have to challenge our assumptions about action also.
  • Related to that light evaluation, there is perhaps something to say about facilitating learning for change. Without a finger on the pulse, a (group of) guardian(s) of the action temple, words remain up the air and action has difficulty following learning. This is one of the lessons of that CCSL sandbox mentioned above: the active presence and intervention of knowledge gardeners increases the fertilisation of beautiful knowledge trees.
  • Action finds a fertile ground in tighter-knit groups. Where social capital has been built, the lessons unearthed in an event find a more hopeful pathway to be a seed for something else which might be…

…leading to change…?

Change, like wisdom, is not only difficult to reach – and easy to be reluctant about – but it’s also quite elusive. In a typically complex manner, it is the subtle result of many inter-connections, inter-weavings and interactions, on a long temporal scale and often a multi-layered geographic scale. Even if action happens, and even if it builds on learning, it may not be the guarantee that change itself comes about.

The Knowledge Exchange helped relate change to action and learning:

  • Don’t we just need – as individuals and collectives – to do something about change, genuinely, in a militant sort of way? That’s what I read through Dave Pollard’s writings too. In that sense, realising we may not be able to change the system is – in my humble opinion – simply not acceptable if we care about purposeful learning. 
  • Don’t we yet also need precisely a purpose – and a good timing – for learning and change? In his post, Pete relayed this impression from a participant that we may only act upon our learning and effect change within ourselves much after an event – like dormant sentinels of change ready to be activated when the occasion presents itself?
  • As civic-driven initiatives teach us and some ideas about embarking on an agile KM enterprise, we have to work with the existing ground – the ‘enabling environment’. That is where the large institutional picture comes in, and where social learning is a really promising avenue for social change. Work with what is there already, rather than with (only) an aspirational ideal that ignores the current situation.
  • Real change happens when individuals and collectives coalesce. All the work we have done in groups, as one plenary group and as individuals in this event, to challenge our assumptions and think about what we have learned and what we can do about it is a set of inputs that sooner or later may contribute to a general direction of change. We may not be able to evaluate it, to attribute it or to learn deeply enough about it, but change happens this way anyhow.

So what then?

If I consider that we had fun as facilitators, and that most participants seem to have learned something and to have enjoyed themselves, the Exchange was – despite all shortcomings – quite successful. And as facilitators we always have a slightly different take from an event.

As for triple loop social learning, well, the Knowledge Exchange was a sort of mini-lab to think about it. If anything, we’ve understood that the required scales of time, space and engagement depth are simply not going to happen in such a short setting. Yet, some seeds are planted and, who knows: if social learning is not affected by climate change too badly, we might see new knowledge gardens flourish over time, pollinated thanks to the distant breeze of a Knowledge Exchange.

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