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:; 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:


Back on monitoring learning, from social media to impact

Second attempt to review some of the work done recently in the communication and knowledge management workshop (for CGIAR research programmes).

Another building block session was about the monitoring and evaluation of KM and communication. The group of participants was very interesting: a mix of researchers who are interested in monitoring participatory work, monitoring & evaluation (M&E) folks who know that impact assessment is the part that leads M&E and interests donors and organisations most, and finally comms/KM folks who usually monitor web stats and social media measures of influence, if anything at all.

Monitoring learning is about connecting knowledge dots, from social media 'signals' to evidence of impact (Credits - Dkuropatwa)

Monitoring learning is about connecting knowledge dots, from social media ‘signals’ to evidence of impact (Credits – Dkuropatwa)

Usually these three categories of people do not mingle (so) much with one another – each evolving in their comfortable silo. As a result, M&E is usually not integrated and serves only the interests of either of these communities. So this session was another interesting attempt at bringing together the learning/monitoring brothers.

Here are a few reflections that came up in our conversations:

  • Monitoring communication and knowledge work is essential in complex initiatives where both documentation and engagement are necessary. How we can best do this? By ensuring that comms and knowledge are at the heart of impact/outcome assessment and M&E, looking at where information management (availability of scientific information, high standards of data and information), knowledge sharing (engagement, dissemination) and learning (personal KM and social learning etc.) can contribute to better impact.
  • There are a series of interesting monitoring areas that comms and knowledge work partly cover, which can be of help for wider impact assessment:
    • Reach (how information reaches intended or unintended beneficiaries)
    • Appreciation of the information sent (or appreciation for the fact of being kept updated)
    • Influence of that information on thinking, discourse, actions
    • Results of these influences: changes in policy, practice etc.
  • All these aspects both work internally and externally: We try to reach, influence etc. both inside our programs and organisations and outside.
  • While impact assessment on the one hand and social media monitoring on the other hand are approaching evaluation questions in a very different way, a simple bridge between comms and impact crowds is a major step forward: after conducting social media monitoring, getting back to the audience with a couple of deeper questions could reap useful deeper reflections. Similarly, when developing impact assessment baselines etc., paying attention to the contribution of simple communication activities, tools and approaches can also help reveal more of these crucial connections.
  • The approach of bringing multiple stakeholders together to negotiate intended outcomes (as we suggested in one of the IKM-Emergent research program papers on this topic) might be one step too far at this stage but I feel it will come back on the menu sooner than we think…

The CGIAR Aquatic agricultural systems research program is trying to move towards the recognition of the importance of a knowledge sharing and learning culture – as a separate research strand, which is innovative in the CGIAR system – as a whole approach that federates KM, communication and monitoring and evaluation.

I will be working with some people from that program, from the recent workshop and from colleagues at my former organisation IRC as they are also looking into monitoring knowledge work. After the conceptual time of IKM-Emergent looking at these issues, I feel this might follow a rather pragmatic approach.

Yeeha! And here I come back on one of my favourite pet KM topics…

Related blog posts:

Researching… good questions from wrong ideas

Communication, KM, best practices, knowledge transfer... too many dead ends are still followed in research (Credits - FreeFotoUK/FlickR)

Communication, KM, best practices, knowledge transfer… too many dead ends are still followed in research (Credits – FreeFotoUK/FlickR)

(A little caveat here: obviously not all researchers fall in the traps described below, and those are not just traps for scientists but also for many other types of people).

It’s been a little under a year that I’ve landed in the fascinating world of research and its even more fascinating appetite for questions. However it’s time for a shoot post about some of the wrong ideas that researchers seem to be asking themselves – around my fields of interest. Here are but a few, I might add more in the future as and when I come across other fallacies…

Best practices

Many people are still talking about best practices in the (CGIAR/agricultural) research world. Perhaps it’s the subconsciously natural connection with ‘best bet’ (to talk about specific agricultural technologies or methods) which leads people to use this phrase, but best practices do not exist. At least they don’t exist outside the spatial and temporal context where they have been assessed as best practices. The reason is simple: best means it is the absolute number one. But there is no absolute number one that can be used anywhere else with the same result. No silver bullet. Rub it in!

Good practices are a much safer alternative.

Knowledge transfer

Same ‘silver bullet’ mentality: you need to know better, I can give you that and transfer to you my superior understanding, experience and all. Why are some scientists (and others) deluding themselves about this? At the age of – finally – revaluing indigenous knowledge, not only do we not rely on just expert knowledge but we cannot transfer it magically from a person to the next. And you know why already: knowledge is not a thing. It cannot be UPS’d, it cannot be downloaded, it cannot be given. Check your knowledge basics if this doesn’t make sense to you (yet).

Knowledge and information sharing, social learning and capacity development are much sounder alternatives to knowledge transfer for the same objectives.

Capacity building

Talking about capacity… this is a minor point but everyone in the agric research world seems to be talking about capacity building, not capacity development. Petty semantic debate you might think. But words are loaded with assumptions. And the word building to me sounds like ‘building from scratch’, while development or strengthening give me the idea that we are building upon what is already there.

And while at that, capacity building/development is not just training: Coaching, exchange visits, study tours, personal study, feedback sessions, e-learning, reflexive work are all other forms of own or social capacity development…

Knowledge management

Two problems here:

  • Same as with knowledge transfer, knowledge cannot be managed (see the knowledge basics here again).
  • But also – and this is the main issue in the agric research world perhaps – people seem to think that KM is the same as IM (information management). Knowledge management is not just dealing with data / databases and information (a librarian function), although in my definition of KM it encompasses that too.

Please folks, DO realise that knowledge and information are very different, and KM is not just a little tick on a research proposal to think about data management. Well, if it’s that for you, fair enough but you’re missing out on the immersed part of the iceberg, the magical and fascinating part of human interactions and learning individually and together…


Ha! Many problems with communication too. Logical, because at least communication is, on paper, a given element in most agricultural research projects (whereas KM isn’t). But in general practice, communication is understood as a military exercise (‘military communication’) of crafting messages (weapons of mass attention) that are fired at target audiences with the intention of hitting them, err, enlightening them with information that supposedly makes them act and react in a different way.

Instead, why don’t we focus on ‘diplomatic’ communication, the kind of communication that is two-way all the way, that is based on dialogue and understanding, on engagement and building a rapport. That is much more effective than military communication, as much as diplomacy is usually a better resort than war.

Ha, and I can think of another fallacy, ‘scaling up’, but I already dealt with this one in the past.

So this is a plea to call upon researchers’ scientific curiosity and thirst for better questions, to start from a better hypothesis than what some of them at times too quickly assume should be a starting point. I have yet to write for the scientists too, about the blindness of comms and KM folks for their perspective, but this is the start of a dialogue, right?


Related blog posts:

IKM-convergent? Annual programme meeting, Wageningen, day 1

A while back I blogged about the IKM-Emergent programme and its tendency to dispersion.

The programme has evolved since then and a number of things are coalescing on this first day of the all-peeps IKM-Emergent  workshop (which brings together the three working groups, but also a number of new guests that are working on issues related to IKM-E and/or that will be working for the programme from now on).

IKM participants getting their heads around common issues

IKM participants getting their heads around common issues

A lot of very interesting ideas and insights came out from the wide variety of participants but what stroke me as key converging points are the following:

  • Dynamics of change: A lot of us were wondering how to bring about change? Should we have a very upfront / head-on approach to change or should we rather follow more subversive ways of tilting the development system?
  • Related to this, we seem to agree on the concept of intention as the driving force behind a lot of development work. In a change process, our words (i.e. lip service or love declarations to change) matter much less than our real intention to stimulate change.
  • A lot of IKM-Emergent work seems to be concerned with raising awareness about development dynamics and biases at large and about specific lenses or approaches in particular: multiple knowledges, traducture (more on this later but I would describe this as the socio-cultural translation of concepts and approaches, not just the loss of meaning that is usually part of the linguistic transaction of translation), emergence etc.
  • As in the launch event of the Change Alliance (read this blog post about it), the key difference between agency-driven and civic-driven movements. We need to support civic-driven movements – going beyond the faddism of just supporting them as part of the latest craze. Instead, what do we do to implicitly or explicitly to support these movements?
  • The importance of critical analysis and questioning which can be the only focus area we provide as ‘agency’: we need to move from setting up water pumps and delivering food onto helping all development actors equip themselves with critical reflexivity as part of the survival toolkit that stimulates self-empowerment and (less biased) development. It is this reflexivity that helps us challenge ourselves, our discourse, our practices, our being.
  • Accountability as a central practice that goes way beyond upward accountability towards donors. We need to be aware that we are (or should be) accountable to one another in all our development transactions and it is that accountability that generates the trust necessary to engage in development relationships and to open up a space for joint critical inquiry.

There was actually a lot more content in the discussion but these items stick out as pointers that came back time and again in the presentations and conversations.

This was day one of the workshop and the rest of the workshop sounds very promising! On the menu on day 2: looking back at the legacy of IKM-Emergent, limitations of the programme and the possible foundations of an IKM-Emergent 2. Keep watching this space!