Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes

Wearing my 'Suspend your judgment' suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

Wearing my ‘Suspend your judgment’ suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

I can gladly say I am now one of the 4500 or so people that have been privileged to be formally trained by Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of Community at work on ‘Group facilitation skills – Putting participatory values into practice’. And it was a hell of an experience!

So what a fantastic opportunity for me to interview them on what they see as ‘facilitation’ and how they see it evolve, as well as the connections they see with knowledge management. 

No more word from me now, just enjoy… 

Do you see some fundamental trends in facilitation practice over the recent past?

Sam Kaner (SK) When “group facilitation” originated, it was one component in a deeper insight about the powerful role of face-to-face groups as a transformative medium for changing the culture of the organization or community.  The skills of facilitation were aimed at strengthening the individuals in a group, by helping everyone participate more fully, and by helping people pay more attention to alternative points of view and become capable of understanding one another.  These strengthened capabilities, in turn, allow the individuals to operate as a high-functioning group, or team, that can share responsibility, develop inclusive solutions, and reach sustainable agreements that accrue large benefits over time. Thus, group facilitation was part of a larger, deeper system — the operational aspect of a philosophy of empowerment.

When these ideas were introduced to mainstream organizations from the late 1960s through 1980s, the skills of facilitation were impressively effective but entirely mysterious, and the arrival of a neutral third party into a work context was perceived as somewhat magical, not as a learnable discipline.

Then, as participatory groups, with facilitators, became clearly more productive than non-facilitated groups, interest in the role itself became steadily greater.  More and more people have wanted to be trained in the tools and techniques of facilitation, even as the role has been to some extent divorced from the core philosophy.   Thus, in the past 15 years or so, many training programs have developed to cater to people who believe that tools and techniques are the essence of facilitation, and its goal is “effective meetings.”

This trend bothers me quite a bit. I would be excited if these two currents — the original focus on philosophy, and the more recent focus on method — were being integrated, in teaching and in practice. But over the past several years, I have been witnessing the emergence of a rather slavish adherence to tools and technique aimed at “getting things done,” while the goals of participatory values, which aim at building stronger people, stronger groups, and stronger thinking, have been to some extent eclipsed. In our own workshops, (and in our writing) we go out of our way to address this predicament. Not by preaching about it (as I’m doing in this interview) but by linking the many facilitation skills we teach to the inclusive, “both/and” principles on which collaborative aspirations are grounded.

Nelli Noakes (NN) I’ve observed other trends in other parts of the world. I agree with Sam on the way training is packaged, and often the very practice of facilitation follows this same scheme.  We have all seen facilitators flown into organizations, especially located in developing countries, arriving with a bag of tricks but not actually focused on supporting long-term change.  Even so, there are also many thinkers and practitioners reaching for progressive new ideas, both in North America and in the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) around the world.  My own observation, as a past regional director of IAF Oceania, is that other regions outside of North America are not yet so commodified.  Among practitioners internationally, there’s more optimism that the involvement of facilitation can be a lever — both for culture change in specific organizations and for social change more broadly Thus, in my view this more aspirational perspective — that facilitation is a vehicle to help people to work together for serious gains — rubs up against, and co-exists with, the commodified, ‘packaged’ approach to facilitation that Sam has mentioned.

Do you have any idea where it is headed (as a field of practice) and where is your personal interest (your ‘next frontier’) when it comes to facilitation?

(SK) Yes, and this is where my own thinking overlaps with what Nelli just said.

In my observation, there is still plenty of genuine new thinking about the power of collaboration, but this thinking no longer appears in books with titles that focus on facilitation per se.  For example, Roger Schwatz’s current book is titled, Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams.  For new insight now, I follow the work of such organizations as the “National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation” (NCDD), the “Collective Impact Forum” and the “Stanford Social Innovation Review.”  To be sure, the new thinking and applications such as cross-sector collaboration, participatory budgeting, innovation platforms, etc. all respect the need to employ good facilitation skills as a necessary element for productive outcomes.  But these thinkers perceive  facilitation not as a field but as a skill-set and a value-set for social change.  If we consider the possibility that the real field of work, the real body of thought, is social change (or as we have been calling it since the 1990s “supporting and promoting healthy human systems”) then the skills of facilitation, take their place alongside those of coaching, project management mediation, virtual communication, negotiation, problem-solving and other important third party, process-oriented skill-sets that are necessary to enable diverse collections of people to collaborate effectively.

Incidentally, to round out your question, there is another trend that has been increasing exponentially in the past 15 years or so:  Facilitative leadership.

Within many organizations, there is a great deal of interest by managers around the world who engaged in cross-functional planning and problem-solving. It has definitely become a focus of much training, and our consulting firm has defined our own approach, through training and coaching, to support people who are not neutral third parties to develop a collaborative mindset and acquire skills that can enable their effectiveness. That said, it’s hard to predict how long this trend will endure. Our experience is that the participants in our facilitative leadership programs are intrigued by the new skills and happy when they leave a workshop after a few days, but very few of them are gung-ho participatory philosophers. Most are agnostic on the issue of whether or not collaboration is worthy; it comes down to a question of whether the skill set is suitable for meeting a particular objective. So we think it remains to be seen whether the introduction of facilitation skills into corporate culture, government culture, university culture, NGO culture, will change management theory and practice over time, or whether it will become one more trendy fad, like sensitivity training, that lasts for several years and then runs its course.

To be a facilitator... (Credits: Unclear)

To be a facilitator… (Credits: Unclear)

Do you see any connection between facilitation and knowledge management and if so, where/how?

(NN) Effective knowledge management comes from being able to see a whole system, being able to actively engage players at all levels in that system, and making sense of the data that one can draw from throughout the system. I see two key areas where skilled facilitators can support organisations in this.

The first is through encouraging full participation – giving voice to the knowledge present at all levels of an organization, not just that which comes from the most powerful, or most vocal, or most confident in a system. And as that supports people to become more confident about speaking up, the pool of available data to contribute to organizational knowledge grows.

The second is through supporting people with diverse perspectives in an organisation to better understand each other – to be open and curious about the way information transforms into knowledge differently as it filters through people’s different lenses of experience. By this I mean that people don’t just hear other people’s points of view and think “Oh, that’s nice, Jim has a different thought about that than I do because we have different history and experience”. Rather, that they take it to another level of analysis and go “Oh, so Jim sees it like this and Mary sees it like that and I see it this other way – so what does it mean when I put those pieces together? How do those things connect in a way that tells me something meaningful about our organization?”.

In my ten years working in government agencies, I saw several knowledge management efforts that involve one or two people sending out surveys, logging the results and storing them in an online repository that functions like a data base if anyone wants to go look up something. This seems like such a lost opportunity to me. In a facilitated environment, people develop the thinking skills to put the pieces together themselves, so that knowledge management becomes accessible to, and the responsibility of, all players in a system. This makes it more likely that people will want to use the stored data later, and it also makes it vastly more likely that people will want to update their information as knowledge changes and grows.

Are you involved in virtual facilitation and what do you see as challenges and opportunities with facilitating virtually?

(SK) My colleague and co-author Lenny Lind was one the pioneers in the development of virtual facilitation skills.  Beginning in the early 1990’s he and his team at CoVision developed a platform called Council, built for huge face-to-face meetings where 100 to 10,000 participants came together to communicate in real time, using laptops to promote interaction.  So for example, an executive might stand up in front of the group and give a talk, using slides to emphasize certain points, and everyone would listen just as in a normal large meeting.  But then, as soon as the talking points are covered, the participants talk briefly to their colleagues at their tables and then start typing in their thoughts, reactions, questions, etc, into their laptops.  Then using any one of a number of methods the comments are sorted into themes, some of which are immediately focused on and some of which are deferred. The activity then continues, back and forth between face to face conversation in small groups, and large group inputting and responding. The meeting can last anywhere from an hour or two hours to an entire day or two, all depending on the agenda and its objectives.

Here is the important point: Even though the activity was done in the same room at the same time, much of the information was transmitted virtually and the meeting facilitator had to develop a lot of the skills that virtual facilitators take for granted nowadays. In fact, the software that runs Council was rewritten in the early 2000’s so that it could be used entirely by people who communicated virtually, not necessarily in the same room at the same time. So the virtual facilitation skills became even more central at that point.

I was privileged to facilitate about a dozen Council meetings over a period of ten years, so I learned at first hand the realities of what happens when a virtual-meeting facilitator makes good moves and not-so-good moves in the management of people who are writing comments to people who cannot see the faces or in some cases hear the voices of each other.

This leads to my core point: Lenny learned early that virtual communication is good for certain things but that it augments, not replaces, face to face communication. For example, people can express certain points that are controversial when they do so anonymously. But it is well known that quite often a person’s first pass at expressing something emotional is transformed through the process of discussing it in the context of a genuine, caring relationship. Virtual meetings are great for brainstorming, great for gathering and sorting and getting reactions to information, and they are truly amazing for increasing the number of people who can become engaged in an issue. A phenomenon like this very blog, not to mention the gigantically influential forms of communication such as YouTube and Facebook, are clear evidence of the power of virtual communication to make change in the world. At the same time, the transformative potential of face-to-face struggle — where people develop authentic empathy and compassion not just intellectually broadened perspective — still remains as a substantial component of lasting change. Lenny and his co-author Karl Danskin develop their own views on this in their brand new book, Virtuous Meetings (2104) available from Wiley & Sons.

Where do you go fetch interesting new resources and ideas for your own facilitation practice?

(NN) One of the things I love about working in the field of human systems is that the learning never stops! I have three main areas where I go to develop my own facilitation skills.

  1. The first, and most narrowly specific to my own work, is working with feedback from my clients. We have a strong continuous improvement philosophy at Community At Work, so listening to my clients about what’s working and what’s not working for them gives me ideas about how to strengthen my approach.
  2. Second is having a network of peers to debrief with and learn from. Working with Sam and the rest of our team provides a endless reservoir and insight and experience from which to draw learning, as well as thinking partners with whom to test new ideas. I also have a lot of friends who work in the same field as I so, so an evening or weekend walk, or a quiet drink on a Friday night often doubles as a knowledge-sharing experience!
  3. Third, I read stuff! But not usually books or articles specifically on facilitation. I’m more interested these days in material on organizational development, collaborative practices, knowledge management and board governance.

And I’m hoping I’ll soon have a fourth main area to add to this list. We’ve recently started a Community At Work Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CommunityAtWorkSF?ref=aymt_homepage_panel for members of our community to share their thinking and ideas. We’re hoping that will soon grow into a vibrant resource for us and others involved in this field.

(SK) Earlier in our conversation, I mentioned NCDD; Collective Impact Forum; Stanford Social Innovation Review. Another really excellent one is Skoll World Forum http://skollworldforum.org. These four have such terrific reach that they point me to other, different sources of ideas all the time.  For those wanting a mainstream professional organization that tries to stay current, I would recommend Organization Development Network (founded in the 1950’s).

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

What would be your advice for starting facilitators?

(NN) When I first fell into facilitating, I had very limited knowledge or practice, and knew almost no-one else who worked in the field.

So the first thing I did was read as many books on the subject as I could find, and then attended some training courses. Then I started persuading groups to let me facilitate their meetings for free. Fortunately, the groups I volunteered with knew even less about it than I did, so they appreciated the order I brought to their previous chaos more than they saw the many errors I made! And I was able to start to get some real experience in seeing what worked and didn’t.

The next thing I did was start to build a network of people who also worked in the field, so we could start to learn from each other. I joined the International Association of Facilitators and the International Association of Public Participation (both of which have a much more active presence in Australia than in North America) and started attending their events, all of which exposed me to many different perspectives.

Those two elements – volunteering and building a network – proved to be invaluable many years later when I started my own consulting firm. I had a lot of people who were willing to vouch for me. To this day, most of my business comes from word-of-mouth recommendations.

My most important piece of advice for starting facilitators (apart from attending our Group Facilitation Skills workshop, of course!), is to become not just comfortable with receiving feedback, but to actively seek it at every possibility. Learn to value it as the most important factor in your own continuous improvement process. (A good place to start exploring how to receive feedback well is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen)

(SK) Over the decades I have had a lot of chance to watch people get started, and I have come to believe that two ways are especially powerful:

1.    Volunteer.  For example, volunteer to facilitate a meeting at a small nonprofit organization, or at your church, or at your child’s school. In these situations you can’t lose — these community contexts places are so funky that anything you can do will be an improvement. You can see changes happen. Often, if you are secure in your own workplace, a staff meeting or the meeting to start a new project is equally good. Whichever context you choose, just be sure to make this deal at the beginning, before you start: you are willing to volunteer your time for no financial remuneration, but you would like to be “paid” with 5 minutes (or more) of good feedback on your strengths and ‘improvables’ at the end of the meeting.

2.    Find a peer support group.  Having a face-to-face group touching base every two weeks or so is a priceless experience. I have personally witnessed the results, over the years, when people who were raw rookies in facilitation went on to be successful consultants who then built their own long-term independent consulting firms, because they built so much confidence in the early years. In the ILAC years before the creation of the consortium, CGIAR as an entity attempted to maintain a network of people who had earned judgment suspenders. It became an online ‘D-group’. At that point, it became an information-sharing group which ultimately did not have the same dynamism as a face to face support group.

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

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

Here is the transcript of that interview.

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

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

What is your personal story with KM?

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

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

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

How is KM conceptualized and implemented in CTA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog posts:

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

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

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog posts:

Getting KM and comms accepted, valued and right – An interview for APQC

Interview (Credits - Eelco Kruidenier - Smiling_Da_Vinci - FlickR)

Interview (Credits – Eelco Kruidenier – Smiling_Da_Vinci – FlickR)

Of late, I’ve taken up a habit of interviewing people I find interesting for this blog:

  • Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaore on pioneering KM in Burkina Faso;
  • Carl Jackson on new trends of facilitation and collective meaning-making;
  • Ann Waters-Bayer on social learning and farmer-led innovation;
  • Michael Victor on the blurred boundaries between communication, knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation etc.
  • Krishan Bheenick (upcoming) on finding a balance between information vs. knowledge management.

But this time I am the one interviewed. It’s interesting to see how someone approaches you with a specific angle and interest, which may be very different to your own hobby horses and headlights – a useful experience to keep in mind and relate better to my own interviewees in the future.

In this brand new APQC interview, I was asked to answer a few questions related to knowledge transfer and the difficulties of the neglected field of communication. A couple of points I’d like to emphasise here:

  • Although the title mentions ‘knowledge transfer’, I already explained before that I don’t think ‘knowledge transfer’ is possible – based on a certain definition of knowledge.
  • The interview relates to the wider field of KM, not necessarily the sub-domain of KM ‘for development’, with its long history of failures (but also all the opportunities that come with that), which probably explains why a lot of the KM projects I am referring to may not have such clear-cut goals and objectives.

Anyways… Hereby the text of the interview – though you can find it on the APQC website following this link. Thank you APQC for approaching me and for allowing this re-posting 🙂


APQC recently chatted with Ewen Le Borgne, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, about why communication is a key part of transferring and applying critical knowledge.

Ewen Le Borgne is knowledge sharing and communication specialist at the International Livestock Reseearch Institute, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, and core group member of the global Knowledge Management for Development community of practice. You can read his blog Agile KM for me..and you or follow him on Twitter at@ewenlb.

If you would like to learn more about transferring and applying critical knowledge, you can listen to our free webinar: 12 Best Practices to Transfer and Apply Critical Knowledge.

In a great blog post you said: “Communication and KM are ‘secondary processes,’ which means they are not central operations. As a result they are sometimes underestimated, understaffed and under-budgeted.” In our study, the best-practice organizations structure systematic knowledge elicitation as a time-bound event with clear goals, milestones, responsibilities, and outcomes. It seems so simple but why don’t all organizations lay out clear goals and objectives from the start of some KM projects?

Because KM had its chance a while back, failed because of the passion for tools, and is now finding it difficult to gain ground again. A lot of organizations don’t understand KM well enough and thus “shoot in the dark,” oversell it, and further down the line under-deliver. They are not seeing KM as part and parcel of normal operations but as either a) a special unit that will solve all their problems or b) a “mainstream” thing that doesn’t get accounted for anyway and thus leaves it up to anyone (aka no one) to do it right.

What is the main reason some organizations don’t have a clear line of communication for transferring knowledge?

The No. 1 reason might be that learning and reflecting take time to become an embedded practice. Most people go through their (professional) lives without paying so much attention to that practice. As a result, they don’t learn to look around and use existing stuff. I think the whole trick is really to encourage that personal KM and collective KM through regular reflection, reviews, etc.

Can you elaborate on your point that engaging trusted colleagues around the idea that communication/KM is a slow process that feeds off “little successes” and cooperation at all levels?

In some ways, (most) critical knowledge tends to make its way naturally to the people who need it, because they need it badly and find that knowledge wherever it is. The culture of spreading little successes and cooperation at all levels takes a lot more time, always. But if it works in certain teams—where management shows true leadership and people find a good, conducive peer support atmosphere for their work—it can more easily trickle down into wider units of the organization.

What I mean is that there are people who will “get” KM (whatever it’s portrayed as) and others who won’t. You can more easily create a culture that is conducive to it without the latter group involved, and you need to build on early wins that you socialize so that others see the value of your (KM) work. You build on these small successes for the culture. As for the critical knowledge that needs to be handled properly, the best option is to quickly identify it (knowledge needs) and to run mini-projects that focus specifically on addressing those key knowledge needs. The problems surge when an organization embarks on an ambitious KM program that requires a significant change of culture to be successful.

You mention that KM can be easy prey for budget cutters because the results aren’t clear.  Do you have an example or experience where “little successes” helped save a KM program from the ax?

Not really in that way, because I never worked on KM programs that focused just on KM. I’ve always included KM in broader activities, and whenever I focused more specifically on KM I linked it back to the rest of the organization or program in some way. However, rather than examples of KM programs being saved from the ax, I have examples of where KM activities led to much bigger programs (i.e., scaling up KM)—for example, from an initial KM assessment of a previous initiative on water projects in West Africa (by USAID) to a large program with a significant component on KM, or from the modest design and facilitation of some workshops at the onset of another USAID-funded program (on agriculture in Africa) to carving out extra resources to make sure that communication/KM/facilitation of events and processes would support the entire program because the donors loved the inputs we provided in designing/facilitating/documenting/acting upon the workshops.

Finally, our best-practice organizations make sure stakeholders are explicitly accountable for contributing and applying knowledge. What is the best way to communicate and implement this in a positive way?

LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Start it from the management—if, and only if, they lead by example themselves. This means that in many organizations it’s just not going to fly because management is too ensconced in the old ways and doesn’t grab the opportunities of this era to empower employees to take hold of key business conversations, positively influence them, and do something with the outcomes of these conversations.

CONNECT CONVERSATIONS AND KEEP SHARING: I believe in personal knowledge management (PKM) also, and part of PKM suggests that we use our social networks (our personal learning networks) to expand the circle of our conversations. I think smart organizations can encourage a knowledge sharing/applying culture by allowing their employees to use their networks and connect them to their work conversations. That encourages sharing more and more, outside but eventually also inside the company.

DEVELOP A LEARNING CULTURE: Ensuring the “apply knowledge” aspect is more difficult because there are strong drivers working against it. Most people don’t like to look back at what others have done (e.g., applying existing insights from past experiences), and some make a point not to do so, so as to reinvent the wheel and leave their own stamp on the work. The (long-term) way to ensure that past knowledge is applied is to develop a learning culture by multiplying spaces and ways for people to engage, share, and reflect: brown bag seminars, learning retreats, online conversations and consultations, mentoring and peer-support, peer assists, after action reviews and the like, interactive workshops and meetings that focus on engagement/participation and learning. All the while, the trick is to exercise good practice—looking back at past experiences, systematic documentation, and proper facilitation—to ensure all voices are invited, etc. And back to PKM: Encourage personal reflection, blogging, diary-keeping, personal content curation, etc. This helps everyone get into the habit of processing the information they need to stay on top of their field, and they can use some of that personal routine for collective work too.

INDUCT NEW STAFF PROPERLY AND PAIR STAFF TO WORK TOGETHER. Perhaps that’s just part of the previous point but induction programs, joint work, and buddy-systems or mentoring programs are excellent ways to ensure the application of knowledge. Having knowledge sharing explicitly mentioned in the Terms of Reference for a given position may help, but norms are always less effective than practices (such as getting a mentor and mentee together to reflect on work).


I love interviews, so let me know if you want to be interviewed (or perhaps interview me?) 😉

Communication for development, KM and blurred boundaries: an interview with Michael Victor

In December 2013, a couple of very interesting workshops took place on the ILRI Ethiopia campus around the topic of knowledge management and communication. On that occasion, I interviewed Michael Victor, communication ‘Comms’ and KM coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF) and for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. 

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Having been involved in the Nile Basin’s share of the CPWF experience with research for development, I had heard of the concept of ‘blurred boundaries’ that seem to be at the heart of comms and KM in that program, and Michael is one of the proponents of this approach. Here he explains what is meant with it, what his interest in KM is all about and how he sees the field evolve…

  • Blurred boundaries between KM, communication etc. what is it all about?

It’s that

It’s with these system-based learning approaches (knowledge sharing, information management, communication, monitoring and evaluation etc.) that you see learning blurring all connections. You have specific disciplines but you no longer have a database manager, a librarian and a writer. Now the IM/Comms field is a lot more blurred. It’s about getting knowledge at the right time to the right people to make the right decisions. I don’t even understand the difference between comms and uptake.

However there’s real resistance to see these fields get interlinked and to see them support programmatic or external change. And you still need specialists but they should all be working together.

  • What trends are you observing in comms/KM in the development world (or any closer arena)?

Moving from service orientation (corporate) to much more outcome-oriented focus. Also moving from a support.administrative function to a strategic one.

With all the social media we’ve been spewing, I think we’ll see more targeted approaches. We’ve lost the whole connection with national systems and with national comms/KM conduits. We forget that our next users will be the national level users which are not using all these online channels all that much.

  • What is your personal interest in the field of KM – now?

My personal interest is communication for development (comms4dev) and policy communication  i.e. finding ways that we use comms/KM approaches, tools, products, processes, networks (informal or formal) to get research into use and people to get engaged in the research process, using the knowledge from the research in a certain way and get research to be more relevant, better informed etc.

The trick is to trap people to get interested in research but there’s another loop to use people to influence the way research is done.

I’m also kinda interested in this innovation systems and learning to make it practical. It’s still very airy fairy but it sounds very powerful – the question is: “how to get it into use”?

  • What are your sources of inspiration in KM/C?

By talking with people, learning. I don’t think I’m an active learner (e.g. on social networks) but I’m engaging with people. The inspiration for me, overall, was my community forestry experience, learning about Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), understanding that what we’re dealing with is not a technological change but a social movement, getting people more involved and to take over, not just “be developed”. There’s a couple of people that really inspired me: Cor Veer, John Raintree..

La gestion des connaissances au Burkina Faso, interview avec une pionnière : Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaoré

(English version at the bottom)

Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaore, KM pioneer (Credits: Performances)

Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaore, KM pioneer (Credits: Performances)

De passage à Ouagadougou en septembre dernier j’ai visité mon amie et consœur de KM4Dev et SA-GE, Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaoré, directrice fondatrice de l’atelier Performances. Pionnière de la gestion des connaissances dans le « pays des hommes intègres » (Burkina Faso), Yennenga a accepté cette interview dans laquelle elle revient sur son choix de ce domaine, les tendances qu’elle observe et ce qu’elle conseillerait à d’autres entrepreneurs emboitant ses pas.

Ewen Le Borgne (ELB) : Yennenga, comment définirais-tu la gestion des connaissances ?

Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaoré (JYK) : Gérer les connaissances c’est avoir un certain nombre de réflexes, c’est aussi mettre en place une certaine organisation en interne afin de ne pas éparpiller, gaspiller, perdre les connaissances que l’on acquiert soit par l’expérience, soit par des échanges avec d’autres personne ou tout autre mode d’acquisition du savoir. La gestion des connaissances, c’est un ensemble de décision et d’actions que l’on peut prendre et entreprendre une fois que l’on a répondu à ces deux questions : (1) de quelles connaissances ai-je besoin dans le cadre de mon travail ? (2) Qu’est-ce que j’ai appris par mon expérience que je peux transmettre, partager avec d’autres personnes ?

(ELB) : Pourquoi as-tu choisi le domaine de la gestion des connaissances et comment as-tu démarré dans ce domaine ?

(JYK) : Le terme ‘gestion des connaissances’ m’est venu après la rencontre KM4Dev de Bruxelles en 2009. Je menais déjà des activités de prestation dans ce domaine et j’inventais puis testais des méthodologies et différents process sans pouvoir mettre un nom à mes prestations. En fait, c’était assez embarrassant, car je me sentais à part. Dans mon environnement, on avait tendance à m’associer aux agences de communication, ce que Performances n’est pas. C’est donc pendant la rencontre KM4DEV que j’ai découvert l’expression gestion des connaissances et je me suis presque exclamée : voilà ! C’est ce que je fais !

Mes premiers pas dans la gestion des connaissances remontent à 2000.  J’ai été recrutée dans une ONG dans l’est du pays, où j’ai travaillé pendant trois ans pour capitaliser les expériences d’organisations paysannes ; je travaillais avec les leaders de ces organisations pour retranscrire ces expériences et voir comment on pouvait l’écrire de manière optimale. Mon travail consistait en grande partie à faire des interviews, à les retranscrire, à analyser ces retranscriptions pour en extraire ce que je pouvais et les ré écrire de façon attrayante afin de les partager avec le maximum d’organisations paysannes. On part avec un mot, un thème, et on atterrit avec un livre, une vidéo, une émission radio. C’est un processus concret de fabrication de produits transmissibles.

Mon premier thème de travail c’était la gestion dans les organisations paysannes. Très surprenant pour quelqu’un (moi) qui ne s’y connaissais pas spécialement en gestion. Mais à la fin du processus, mon évolution dans la connaissance de ce thème était spectaculaire. Au-delà des produits, les méthodologies sont très importantes.

(ELB) : Observes-tu des tendances dans la gestion des connaissances au Burkina Faso ?

(JYK) : Aujourd’hui l’expression gestion des connaissances commencent à faire son entrée dans le vocabulaire des organisations. Même si on ne voit que certains aspects, comme la capitalisation d’expérience, concept beaucoup plus courant par ici et qui a quelque peu détrôné celui de « suivi-évaluation ». Mais c’est déjà une grande évolution qui montre que l’on commence à accorder de l’importance au savoir local. L’impact étant que de plus en plus d’organisation prévoient une rubrique « capitalisation » dans leur budget. Je pense avoir contribué à cet état de fait, juste par le fait de l’existence de l’atelier Performances et la sensibilisation que j’ai faite auprès des organisations paysannes et de leurs leaders. Je leur dis : « vous pouvez introduire la capitalisations de vos expériences dans vos programmes. Là au moins, vous pouvez démarrer sans partenaires financiers ! Commencer par dresser une carte de vos savoirs et prioriser les thèmes sur lesquels vous estimer que vous avez quelque chose à partager. Je peux vous y aider ».

Une autre tendance – et c’est peut-être dommage – c’est que la capitalisation a tendance à avoir lieu à la fin des projets. Je conseille de ne pas attendre la fin et de s’y mettre dès le démarrage pour pouvoir conserver le maximum du cheminement.

(ELB) : Qu’est-ce-que tu aimerais vraiment faire si ça ne tenait qu’à toi ?

(JYK) : Je voudrais développer l’édition, la diffusion. Quand on arrive au document, souvent les finances ne suivent plus. Je voudrais mettre en place un système de diffusion et de production. Par ailleurs, la transmission est essentielle pour moi car je suis consciente, que toute seule ma capacité de production restera faible quel que soit mon expertise. Je ne serai satisfaite que quand j’aurais réussis à former une « masse » importante de ressources humaines locales dans la sous-région. La mise en place d’un système efficace de formation est un de mes grands chantiers du moment.


(ELB) : Que conseillerais-tu à d’autres entrepreneurs qui veulent se lancer dans la gestion des connaissances au Burkina Faso ou dans la sous-région ?

(JYK) : Ne pas être trop ambitieux et perfectionniste ! Avoir le courage de commencer car l’apprentissage se fait sur la route et s’inspirer un peu de l’expérience de ceux qui ont de l’expérience en la matière. Je suis toujours très disposée à partager mon expérience avec ceux qui la respectent, qui lui accordent de la valeur et donc un prix. J’ai aussi développé un concept que j’appelle “STRATE-JYK”. Dans ce cadre j’ai rédigé des “fiches stratejyk” où je raconte mon expérience en création et gestion d’une petite entreprise.

(ELB) : Quelles sont tes sources d’inspiration dans ton travail et dans ta vie ?

(JYK) :  KM4Dev est une source d’inspiration très riche.

Je suis moins mystifiée par la connaissance des autres qu’avant. Je travaille à valoriser ma propre connaissance. Ça décomplexe, ça libère. On n’est plus éternel demandeur, on peut aussi proposer son offre.

J’essaie d’avoir des moments de bureau et des moments de terrain. Je réfléchis beaucoup aux méthodologies. Je peux passer plusieurs années à réfléchir et à tester pour pouvoir en fin de compte, standardiser. Je travaille comme un artisan mais j’ai des ambitions d’industriels. J’ai besoin d’expérimenter avant de mettre « sur le marché ». J’aime travailler de façon professionnelle. Je me paye le luxe de prendre le temps pour faire les choses ; quand c’est possible !

Certaines personnes me reprochent de ne pas être assez visible. J’assume cette politique de discrétion, qui du reste n’est que le reflet de ma personnalité. Et puis, le fait est que mon action, bien qu’étant encore à petite échelle est quand même connue et reconnue. Comme quoi, la meilleure communication n’est pas toujours celle que l’on fait soi-même ! Je ne suis pas un « réseaux sociaux  addict ». Les effets de mode en matière de NTIC, sont certes une grande opportunité, mais je suis très sélective et je ne prends que ce dont j’ai besoin au moment où je me sens prête. Je recherche un impact consistant et durable sur le long terme. Le challenge c’est de pouvoir vivre correctement au jour le jour, et là, on est bien sur du très court terme ! Sourire.

Bref, faire comme les autres, de façon systématique, non. Etre moi-même et ne pas perdre de vue mon objectif, c’est ce qui inspire mes décisions et mes actes, au risque parfois de ne pas être comprise.

Pour moi, la connaissance c’est ce qui nous rend autonomes. Tout ce qui me permet d’être autonome dans la vie c’est de la connaissance. Le reste, c’est du blabla.

(English version – translation by myself so not quite as the original version in French)

JYK, moving for development (Credits: Performances)

JYK, moving for development (Credits: Performances)

While in Ouagadougou last September I visited my friend and KM4Dev/SA-GE peer Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaoré, founder and director of consultancy firm Performances and an Ashoka fellow. A knowledge management pioneer in Burkina Faso, Yennenga accepted to give this interview where she explains how she ended up choosing this field of activity, the trends she has witnessed and what she would advise other KM entrepreneurs wishing to follow her footsteps. 

Ewen Le Borgne (ELB) : Yennenga, how would you define ‘knowledge management’?

Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaoré (JYK) : Knowledge management is about a set of reflexes, about organising things internally to avoid scattering, wasting and losing knowledge that we acquire through experience or exchange with other people. It is about the decisions and actions that one can take and undertake after addressing the questions: (1) What knowledge do I need for my work? (2) What have I learned from experience that I can share with other people?

(ELB) : Why have you chosen to work on knowledge management and how did you get started in that field?

(JYK) : The term ‘knowledge management became familiar to me after the KM4Dev annual meeting of 2009 in Brussels. I was already providing services in that domain before, and I was inventing and testing different methodologies and processes but I didn’t know what to call my domain of work. Actually it was embarrassing because I felt I didn’t fit anywhere. In my environment, people tended to associate me with communication agencies, which Performances is not. During the KM4Dev gathering I discovered knowledge management and it dawned on me that ‘This is what I do!’

My first steps in knowledge management go back to 2000. I was then recruited by an NGO based in Eastern Burkina Faso where I worked for three years to capitalise on the experiences of farmer organisations. I was working with the leaders of those organisations leaders to document these experiences and see how we could write about them most effectively. My work consisted in conducting interviews, transcribing them, analysing those transcriptions and extracting what I could to rewrite them in a compelling way so as to share these experiences with as many farmer organisations as possible. This kind of work starts with a word, a theme and eventually you land a book, a video, a radio broadcast. It’s a very concrete process of creating products that can be shared.

The first theme I worked on was the management of farmer organisations, which was quite surprising, considering I was not really a specialist in management. At the end of the process though, my understanding of it had changed spectacularly. Beyond products, methodologies are very important indeed.

(ELB) : Do you witness certain trends in knowledge management in Burkina Faso?

(JYK) : Today knowledge management (‘Gestion des connaissances’) is slowly becoming part of organisations’ discourse, even though we only see certain aspects of it, such as ‘capitalisation des expériences’ – a concept which is familiar to many more people here and has overtaken ‘monitoring and evaluation’. This is a major shift which shows that people increasingly recognise of the importance of local knowledge. The impact of this is that more and more organisations are considering ‘capitalisation’ activities in their budget. I think I have contributed to this with Performances and the sensitisation work I’ve carried out among farmer organisations and their leaders. I tell them: “You can introduce the capitalisation of your experiences in your programs. There, at least you don’t need financial partners! Start by mapping out your knowledge and prioritising the themes around which you think you have something valuable to share. I can help you with that”.

Another trend, and it’s perhaps a pity, is that capitalisation tends to happen at the end of projects. I always advise not to wait until the end of a project and rather get it going from the onset to be able to capitalise experiences optimally along the way.


(ELB) : What would you like to be doing, ideally?

(JYK) : I would like to focus on publishing and diffusion/dissemination. When it comes to developing outputs, funding is often scarce. I would like to set up a production and dissemination system. Sharing is essential for me as I am fully aware that my production capacity remains weak whatever my expertise is. I will be happy when I reach a critical mass of human resources in the region (West Africa). Setting up an effective capacity development system is one of the main endeavours I see ahead of me.


(ELB) : What would you advise other entrepreneurs wishing to start working on knowledge management in Burkina Faso and the region?

(JYK) : Not to be too ambitious or perfectionist! Just dare beginning because learning happens along the way and follow inspiration from those who are a little more experienced. I am always keen on sharing my experience with those who respect and value it. I have developed a concept I call ‘STRATE-JYK’, around which I have written ‘stratejyk lists’ (‘fiches stratejyk’) telling my experience in creating and managing a small company.

(ELB) : What/who are your sources of inspiration in your work and your life?

(JYK) :  KM4Dev is a very rich source of inspiration.

I am somewhat less mystified by other peoples’ knowledge than I used to be. I am working on my own knowledge and it is liberating: I am no longer just asking for support, I can also offer some.

I try to mix office and field. I reflect a lot about methodologies. I can spend many years thinking and testing so as to, eventually, move on to standardisation. I work as a craftsman though I have industrial ambitions. I need to experiment, test and try out before bringing something to the market. I like to work in a professional manner. I enjoy the luxury of taking some time to try things out – whenever I can!

Some people tell me I am not visible enough but I have no problem with that level of discretion, which actually reflects my personality. Anyway my work is – however small scale – known and recognised. The best kind of promotion doesn’t always come from oneself after all! I am no ‘social network addict’. ICT fads certainly offer great opportunities but I am very selective and only borrow what I need at a given moment and when I feel ready for it. I seek sustainable impact. The challenge lies in living well day in day out and here we’re obviously in the short term! 🙂

So… I’m not one to follow what others are doing, systematically. Being myself and not losing my objective is what inspires my decisions and actions, sometimes bearing the risk of being misunderstood.

Knowledge is what makes us autonomous. Everything and anything that allows us to be autonomous in life is knowledge. The rest is hot air.

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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.

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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

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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.

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