Technology and community: don’t get mistaken about the real deal


Most people who are approaching knowledge management -for the first time- from the standpoint of building a community end up focusing on technology.

Technology just enhances communities. It expands the opportunities that communities bring but it doesn’t create communities, and it can also worsen communities if the technology is not user-friendly or if the community faciltator(s) does not know how to use it properly.

Community and technology (Credits: Nancy White)

A bit of history on community and technology (Credits: Nancy White)

So why this focus on technology?

Because it’s hard to build a system, to have a functional tool, to provide ‘office-approved’ technology. A rutilating toy coming out of the shelves.

The technology feels to most of these people building KM community systems like the 80% of the work. And yet the 20% that remains – community building and development – is what really takes 80% of the time.

Technology creating platforms for communities to flourish (Credits: OCLC.org)

Technology creating platforms for communities to flourish (Credits: OCLC.org)

This is why it is very important to invest in cultivating healthy human systems before anything else…

That’s why soft skills are more important than hard systems; that’s why facilitation matters more than engineering (for these communities); that’s why listening is more important than programming; that’s why patience beats quick development…

Technology is and may always be only a proxy, an enabler, not the actual deal.

Funny, I drafted this 2 weeks ago, and this topic is what Bevery Trayner just wrote about on her blog. Go check it, it’s quality! Funny serendipity at work… technology enabling a community of ideas…

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:

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:

Research, KM and multi-stakeholder processes: cross interview with Cees Leeuwis and Mark Lundy


Cees Leeuwis (Credits: C.  Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Cees Leeuwis (Credits: C. Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting with two people I’ve been following with interest over the past few years:

  • Cees Leeuwis, Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies at Wageningen University and a lead thinker on multi-stakeholder processes and social learning processes involving research.
  • Mark Lundy, senior researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and one of the forefront CGIAR thinkers and leaders on multi-stakeholder processes such as learning alliances (which later inspired my former employer IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre to a.o. develop this publication).
Mark Lundy (Credits: C.  Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Mark Lundy (Credits: C. Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

They kindly accepted to answer a couple of questions about their current sources of (research) interest, knowledge management and multi-stakeholder processes.

What are you currently working on or interested in?

(Cees) I’m interested in so many things! The overarching theme in my work is around the relationships between technology and society, looking at innovation; it is about saying that innovation is more than technology alone, that it combines hard- soft- and org-ware and about thinking through the implications of that combination. This focus is very important and helps us explain why a lot of things go well or wrong and to rethink the role of science in the innovation process, how one can stimulate, organize and contribute to innovation.

(Mark) Two major things: (a) business models for sustainable trading relationships between small farmers and buyers (see: http://ciat-library.ciat.cgiar.org:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/6593/1/LINK_Methodology.pdf); and, (b) Research in development platforms building on CIAT’s experience with Learning Alliances and Innovation Platforms. I find these two topics fascinating and would happily give up my role in other programs I’m involved to dedicate myself to them.

What role do you see for knowledge management (if any) in the work you are doing and more broadly?

(Cees) KM is a problematic term. My real work on KM is related to how to embed research in society. I think that should be the role of KM: to help make people wait for research before it’s even finished. The idea is that you manage the production of research in such a way that there is some guarantee that people are waiting for it.

(Mark) KM is critical for nearly everything we do. My personal focus is on KM in the form of feedback loops for improved decision-making in business models and KM at the level of Research in Development platforms. I also see a critical role in regards to policy incidence which, historically, has not been the forte of the CGIAR.

Where do you see research on social learning and multi-actor initiatives go in the coming years?

(Cees) I think there will be more attention the dynamics of tension and conflict in these kinds of processes and the implications this has for facilitating such processes. In the end, change is about altering the status quo and usually many stakeholders are not very interested in that. And at the same time there may be competing initiatives for change. So tension and conflict are inherent to multi-actor initiatives, and I think we need to get better at dealing with this. There is a lot we can learn from studies in conflict management!

(Mark) From a CGIAR perspective, these topics need to be recognized as legitimate research topics in their own right. The CG can do brilliant upstream research but if we don’t find ways to effectively connect this to development demand in ways that add value to both research and development we will have negligible impact.

Related blog posts:

Profile of the social learning hero


Social learning is back on the menu.

It’s always been around but somehow the social media age and the increasing recognition of the complexity we have to put up with all point forcibly to the social nature of learning.

And social learning is no easy task. It means grappling with others, getting hands dirty in negotiations and in collective problem-solving. It is about investing in future good, not immediate return on investment, even though early wins are a plus.

If social learning is the important paradigm of the day, what are the important characteristics of a social learning hero? An extension of the modern knowledge worker?

What does the social learning hero look like? (Photo - Mac3 / FlickR)

What does the social learning hero look like? (Photo – Mac3 / FlickR)

Here’s what I think a social learning hero should gather, in terms of gifts/skills and of attitude. And by social learning hero I don’t mean to describe the function of the facilitator of a social learning process which requires a very specific set of attributes. I’m interested in looking at how various people could engage successfully in social learning if they gather the right skills and attitude – and I’m not bothered with the knowledge and experience of a specific field here. You will see that there is some overlap with a knowledge worker.

Gifts and skills:

  • A capacity for strategic visioning, looking at the big picture in the longer term, to be able to map the different agendas and factors that may play out…
  • An ability to understand different accents, perspectives, and to reformulate what s/he heard to ensure s/he has understood what others meant;
  • A synthetic mind to summarise the various perspectives, identify patterns in those and possible win-win solutions;
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution skills (following the simple lessons of books like ‘Getting to Yes‘) which help avoid dead ends when interacting with others and offer solutions in case real confrontations happen;
  • An open heart giving the emotional capacity to connect with others at a deeper level and build real trust authentically;
  • Outstanding interpersonal communication skills to express oneself articulately so as to share knowledge more effectively and have the possibility to get in touch with a variety of people (see point 1);
  • Good ears and eyes to pick up the signals around (and question them);
  • A solid understanding of the learning process and all its dimensions to shape a strong social learning process;
  • Ideally, good facilitation skills to be able to contribute to organising the process of collective sense-making and problem-solving, with simple methods such as planning the purpose, harvest, actions and invitations.
  • Another bonus would be the ability to work with social tools, as this strengthens face-to-face interactions (more about this in the Social Media Guide for African climate change practitioners).

Attitude:

  • Empathy and openness to others, in the sense of welcoming others (including going out of our comfort zone) wanting to understand other perspectives and inquiring about the values, advantages, challenges of those perspectives;
  • A true curiosity to try new things out and add them to an array of experiences;
  • Humility to accept that one’s perspective is thus not better than another one’s or at least that other perspectives have potentially something to teach ourselves too;
  • Flexibility to keep a sustainable negotiation standpoint – and accepting that not everyone is and can be equally flexible all the time;
  • Clarity about what one expects from the social learning process while keeping attention for the balance with others’ needs and wills – perhaps mixed, as with the modern knowledge worker, with a vision of one’s own development pathway and next priorities;
  • Reflecting in single, double and triple-loop learning, in practice;
  • Intellectual and moral integrity and respect for oneself and for others, preserving the trust of others and perhaps stimulating inspiration from others.
  • Generally, and this is perhaps the most important, a true will to find one’s goal in a collective adventure – a genuine balance between individual and collective good.
  • A bonus might be to be optimistic (but not naive), positive (though not frantically) and  funny, to let humour grease the wheels of social learning…

A lot of these characteristics are also a must for multi-stakeholder and other social learning processes but they also need to possess additional traits. More about this in the future? Once again this is another ideal picture, not a typical profile that is easy to find around the world. But social learning we must be doing, and we might as well work on it from now on.

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:

Paving the way for communication and knowledge management in the CGIAR research programs


The CGIAR organises a communication & KM workshop for its research programme

The CGIAR organises a communication & KM workshop for its research programme

The CGIAR network of agricultural research centres has set up 15 ambitious research programmes (CGIAR research programs).

This week, with a group of about 45 people staff from those programs will be working on various aspects of knowledge management and communication for those research programs. This (repeat after me…) kmc4CRPs workshop will have participants focus on five main themes:

  • Internal communication
  • Knowledge sharing and learning
  • Co-creating knowledge locally (and getting research into local use)
  • Communicating for policy impact
  • Scaling up and out of research

Under these main themes, various ‘building block’ sessions will zoom in on specific aspects of the work. And hands-on tool sessions will get some practical guidance for how to go about the tools to support our building block activities.

At the end of the week the group hopes to have various useful insights and recommendations which can be applie in a somewhat better coordinated/more consistent way across those research programs.

This week promises to be rich so there might be quite a few blog posts coming out of this workshop (which I’m partly facilitating), including interviews from interesting people…

Keep watching this space, and feel free to channel your questions here too!

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:

Social learning in climate change – Of buckets, loops and social LSD?


Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Last week, I had to facilitate one of the most challenging and interesting workshops in a long time: A very diverse group of researchers, practitioners and donors came together for the workshop organised by the CGIAR program Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The workshop focused on ‘communication and social learning: supporting local decision making on climate change, agriculture and food security‘.

The main topic was thus social learning and how it can be mobilised for more effective engagement strategies in the climate change sphere – a highly volatile and complex sphere.

Although I was facilitating and thus not really joining the rich conversations that braided the workshop, I heard the insightful gems from this fascinating collective of people in plenary feedback sessions.

Hereby, my selection of insights from the conversation:

  • There is still very little evidence of the value of social learning – how does it compare with other approaches to carry out research and implement development work, why do we tend to believe and sense this is so effective but fail to justify our intuition?
  • Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Cynefin framework                             (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Because we may not know much about the value of social learning and perhaps even what it means, it might be better to just throw ourselves in the battle – as we would do in the ‘chaos’ block of the Cynefin framework (see graph on the right). This means we would be well informed to just throw many approaches and initiatives in a bucket (or basket) and then see how the bucket itself reacts;

  • The cost of social learning remains very high: face-to-face interactions with multiple actors is time-consuming and pricy. This puts all the more pressure on assessing the value of social learning;
  • Social learning brings us back to the single, double and triple learning loops. Another reason to put them into practice. What was interesting here was that applied to communication it was introduced as a) simple dissemination of information (single loop), b) reflection about what activities allow us to be more effective (double loop) and c) real transformative change through social learning among multiple stakeholders (triple loop);
  • Social learning in itself is not really worth pursuing on its own if not for action. For this to happen, there must also be an agenda of action, of social change, that actors negotiate among them and keep in mind at all times. Social learning for the sake of it is a useless academic exercise for development issues;
  • Social learning is also a philosophy, at least an approach that can only thrive in an environment that properly supports it. Institutionalising social learning remains a difficult agenda – this has a ‘deja-vu’ feel of the organisational learning era though, doesn’t it?
  • The case for civic-driven initiatives (actually referred to as ‘endogenous social learning’ initiatives here) was made again: don’t build up from scratch, embed where the soil is fertile, where the energy and capacity is already mobilised;
  • Social learning has a twisted relation with power dynamics as it invites people to join decision-making but bears with it the devils of hidden power (who instils the social learning dynamics?), token representation (who is credibly sent to represent a given group?) and of false transparency (how clear is the decision-making process for those involved in the social learning activity and outside it?).
  • Particularly when applied to complex problems such as climate change, social learning thrives on the participation of very diverse groups of people. This, combined with the issue of power dynamics, means we need to consciously make room for social differentiation – accepting the diversity of perspectives, languages and seeing to an inviting process that creates room for groups of people (ostracised indigenous groups, women, youths etc.) to engage in the conversation and decision-making process. That social learning and social differentiation makes a perfect ‘social LSD’ combination that can get us very high (errrr, far);
  • The importance of ‘process facilitators’ is recognised: we need process guidance, a knack for and wits to convene and catalyze social learning;

We need many, many more creative participatory facilitators. Without them, much of what we hope for will not happen. Who, where, in what ways, needs to do what to generate and support them? What needs to change?” (Chambers, personal communication March 2012)

  • That engagement process should be indeed very interactive, continuous or at least iterative, if it is to reflect genuine social learning. Otherwise it risks falling on the side of ‘token participation’ again;
  • Social learning processes need to address the diverse time frames that motivate different people: farmers look at the next harvest, policy-makers at the next election, a community at the next 25 years, climate change scientists at the next 100 years. Incentives and engagement depend on the time frame of reference for each group – as beautifully explained in this post.
  • As ever, trust is the cement of all success. Particularly in large interactive processes such as wide scale social learning initiatives. This is one of the underlying themes in a recent and excellent (but long) post from Nancy Dixon, when pondering why knowledge management didn’t save General Motors.
  • The documentation of the very process of social learning is equally adamant to the success of our social learning enterprises – one of the external reviewers from the final presentation in the workshop mentioned: “the best pilots cannot be scaled up because they are the best (i.e. they are the result of a symbiotic set of factors related to one particular context), scale up the process not the pilots”. Hear hear!!


Social learning is indeed one of the talks of town – and for good reason – so this workshop was very timely, and could be only the beginning of a much longer engagement process, starting with this emerging community of interest.

This also tells me that it’s time I resumed my blogging on multi-stakeholder processes.

Related blog posts:

External blog posts written about this workshop: