Development is CAPACITY (to move all together through learning loops)

Yes: Global development (#globaldev) is glocal capacity – to move from single to triple loop learning, all together…

It just dawned on me in all its patent obviousness as I was running last weekend. Of course it’s more complicated than that, and global development is made of various distinct components:

  • ensuring safer homes,
  • having sustainable water and sanitation services,
  • good road infrastructures,
  • flourishing agriculture,
  • smart education,
  • ever improving livelihoods etc.

Development actors, at all levels and from all horizons, tend to focus on the deliverables related to each of these components, very often in isolation from one another, because it seems to provide the proof of development work, and of course that is important.

But the red thread of global development is really much more about the last two items in the list above: learning to improve one’s options in life. Capacity to make choices and ensure that these choices progressively lead to better choices.

Proverbially, we know it is better to teach how to fish than to fish for someone. Better still is to actually wonder whether fishing is the best idea, or even (moving from single to double to triple loop learning) wonder if thinking about fish and fishing is the best thing to do. We will know that global development has reached its goal when everyone will have reached that state of consciousness – how ideal and idealistic! Fluffy bunny thinking – though useful as a source of inspiration.

The move from MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) to SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) is a testimony to this shift of ‘increased smartness’ away from single loop learning (how to provide better xyz) to double loop learning (is this really enough, what is the goal we are really seeking to achieve?).

When you think about it, global development is meant to help us humans develop our capacity to run through Maslow’s pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs

Maslow's pyramid of needs

Maslow’s pyramid of needs

It is meant to help us get more adaptive, resilient, learning-focused, smart – and caring!

As one can see in so-called ‘developing countries’, global development is just another sector of economy. In so-called ‘developed countries’, it is not called global development but it is just as present in economy and society, echoed in art by people like Pawel Kuczynsky. In some ways, all sectors of an economy and a society are connected to global development, from architecture to industry, from education to foreign affairs, from waste management to intellectual property management. #GlobalDev is the cornerstone of it all, the spider in the web that connects all the active thinking and learning matter of all other sectors. All that makes it whole and better able to run up the Maslowian stairs.

This is why…

Global development is influenced by all efforts at all levels – all attempts at increasing the smartness of individual nodes and increasing their potential to connect with other nodes to form a whole grid of global capacity. So capacity is local, capacity is global, capacity is individual, present among teams, organisational, societal.

And two things matter in global development, for these two conditions to emerge:

Both are very slow processes, building on the development of expertise, building on social learning to accelerate and connect those learning/adaptive capacities (and become a hero) and on developing trust to ease the social learning process – that’s why, arguably, relationships matter more than results in development, because relationships have long-lasting effects on a very complex and slow-moving set of issues.

Interestingly, #globaldev has a whole scary history of failures, because we keep focusing on the wrong things, the what, instead of the why and how, the results instead of the (process) conditions that favour better results.

But these development-focused relationships are well worth investing in, so that eventually our Maslow pyramid is matched by a collective, human pyramid. And that would be a beautiful development to aspire to, wouldn’t you agree?

Monument to human pyramids (Credits: Susan Renee / FlickR)

Monument to human pyramids (Credits: Susan Renee / FlickR)

Related blog posts:


Learning-blind development (aid) and the missed opportunities for a real difference

Failure's freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

Failure’s freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

The global development sector is a learning universe, a space of experimentation and failures. One can read this positively – as in “a lot of learning is happening in it” – or negatively – as in “a lot has to be learned still and so much effort goes to waste”. Are we blind to learning in development (aid)?

Thing is: this situation is totally systemic. And since we only realise now how all aspects of development are connected (e.g. roads and other infrastructures allow better access to market; access to water allows improvement on agriculture and further down the line education etc.) there has been indeed a lot of wasted resource reinventing the wheel in development (aid) which could have been used differently.

At a moment when the public scrutiny towards spending on development aid is ever more alert and leads to budget cuts (which is a good thing since it forces everyone to cooperate for scarcer resources), the imperative for learning has never been more important than now – something which is fortunately happening, somehow, even between regions (as e.g. between Africa and the Pacific).

But a lot remains to be done still. It is not always obvious how learning can really improve development (aid), and the costs of learning (i.e. the investment in it – and I’ll come back to this in a later post) can seem much steeper than the benefits. But the cost of not learning is quite obvious.

So now, let’s look at a typically bad – and alas too frequent – development (research) project and its missed opportunities for learning; and let’s compare this with an ideal project which pays much attention to learning throughout:

What happens too often with typical / bad development projects

What ideal (learning-focused) development initiatives would look like


It usually has overloaded ambitions in an unreasonably short project period (it’s not realistic and not designed in the light of previous experiences) Upfront, there have been extensive consultations with key parties – current and future partners – to determine the agenda and the ideal duration of the initiative. Literature research and scoping past experiences is also instrumental in building upon the legacy for this new initiative

Initial phases

The new project or program is meant to start delivering almost as it starts – no consideration has been paid for the time it takes to build meaning, trust and abilities The new initiative spends considerable time (a flexible inception period) collecting insights to refine and work further on ownership, capacities relationships and better plans
The project only addresses the ‘what has to be done’ and assumes that the people involved can just get on with it

Initial briefing is only about what the project aims to achieve, its organogram and reporting lines etc. all bureaucratic information

Much consideration goes into ‘Why are we doing this’ as well as ‘how are we going to handle it’ and ‘do we have the right capacities or should we invest in our capacities or in extra capacity?’

Initial briefing has therefore taken stock of the capacity gaps among staff and partners and addresses simple things like working with Word/Excel, social media etc. a s well as concepts that matter for the initiative – so the why and how

Who’s driving the project

External parties are driving the whole agenda and exploring new (thematic and geographic) areas Endogenous parties (and perspectives) are in the driving seat and have been selected for their mandate and capacity, network and other assets to sustain the initiative in the context(s) of the initiative- all of this is known because there has been proper reflection and consultation with them at the onset
A small team organises all activities for everybody. Occasionally some ad hoc team meetings are held which help the central team pass on information to everyone else A small team facilitates the implementation by other teams. It puts emphasis on holding regular team meetings where real two-way conversations are held, with proper documentation of key discussion points and jointly agreed decisions

Running activities and events

Activities are implemented by a small team working in isolation from other teams – they’re too busy ‘fire fighting’ to share anything with anyone else Every opportunity is seized to see if there is sense in following a social learning approach, putting the emphasis on ‘genuine’ participation. And the teams take time to find alternative solutions if they see that they end up ‘fire fighting’ all the time.
Activities are following the plans because the plans dictate what has to be done according to donors, when they granted the money. Activities are following the outcome logic and theory of change but they are regularly revised along the way, in line with changes – and that has been agreed with donors as the latter rather focus on a more effective yet deviated initiative than a useless original plan
Events organised during the project are scarce and when they happen they consist in death-by-Powerpoint executions, are ill-documented and quickly forgotten about – everyone sticks back to ‘business as usual’

There is particularly a ‘big bang’ kick-off event with lots of money and the presence of national media, followed sometimes only by a major closing event. Nothing much in between

The initiative is all about learning and engagement therefore it offers many opportunities and contextual events for the people involved to come together, reflect, ask questions, take decisions, follow up with actions, revise activities and plans

Engagement means that there is constant interaction with key influencers and movers, not just at the onset and sunset. All events that take place are properly facilitated to ensure learning is maximised – and well documented in accessible and compelling formats for future reference and action monitoring

Involvement and engagement

Working with partners at this stage means that partners do some activities either on their own but with very close ‘big brother-like’ supervision or totally separated from the rest of the project. The interaction relates to executing a plan and reporting about it – all that matters are the results. Partnership for the project staff means ‘more reports, more work, fewer results’ Working with partners builds upon the trust from the pre-project and early stages. Everyone shares insights, regularly engages in a joint analysis and it means a lot of opportunities to do things differently, to do different things, to learn differently (three learning loops) and to develop everyone’s capacity – a good set of assets for future initiatives too! Partnerships here means more ideas, more capacity, more energy, better quality learning, better results, better relationships: SYNERGY!
When conducting ‘field activities’, local community members are invited to respond to a (sometimes excruciatingly long) predefined questionnaire. They may never see the results of this. But it’s ok, since they’re project beneficiaries, they will benefit in a way or another, won’t they (it’s just not very clear how 😉 ) Field activities are guided by a certain ethics of engagement, are participatory in design and in practice, are developed jointly with the locals involved and results are therefore automatically shared, visions for the future elaborated collectively and plans adjusted together, starting from different world views
High level engagement consists in developing a few outputs at the end of the project and sending them to a mixed group of important decision-makers, hoping they will read and apply these High level engagement – which also contributes to leading to development outcomes – means that cherry-picked decision-makers have been involved in the process from the start, own the process and results (perhaps they have been involved in action-research themselves) and become the best advocates of the initiative’s work themselves
People involved in the project feel isolated and detached from the project and from each other. They don’t look critically at options to improve the situation for themselves and the whole group People in the project feel energised, involved, concerned, motivated. They all apply ‘personal knowledge management’ (PKM) to some extent so they personally improve and they connect their personal sphere and network with the initiative to question and improve it and to sharpen critical thinking. They are encouraged to reflect on their own as well as collectively

Capacity development

After the initial briefing, if there is any capacity development activity it is training, conducted by external trainers, to address general skills, not specific contextual issues that the project people are effectively facing. And that is, again, if there is anything planned to address capacity gaps. Everyone’s capacity is positively monitored (followed) and leads to several activities along the initiative, moving training from the theoretical terrain to the workplace experience and moving from just training to a whole set of capacity development activities (coaching, exchange visits, involving people in communities of practice etc.) focusing generally on improving the institutional capacity for change

Communication and outputs

The website and other communication channels are mostly unidirectional (‘here’s what we have to say to you’) and not well connectedStaff and partners deplore that so little communication is taking place – but they’re not doing much to change this The different communication channels are interrelated, engaging (they feature dialogues, consultations etc.) and although they look slightly messier perhaps, they are echoing and amplifying what the initiative is trying to accomplish, through multiple engagement routes

Everyone contributes to communication efforts

The outputs developed by the project are released at the end of the project and without much passion – more like ‘according to plan’ – and are not really informing other activities. Occasionally they are being promoted on e.g. the website, as standalone ‘results’ A variety of outputs are released throughout the project (away from dotty dotted communication), mirroring the different reflections, conversations and actions that have taken place by different people at different times and locations, about the thematic content focus of the initiative as well as about the process leading to its development. They are connected, refer to each other, and crucially are used (both content and output development process) for further engagement, reflection and action by the parties that are supposed to use them as opportunities and levers of change

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation boils down to the bare minimum reporting. It is centralised but requires partners and outputs to provide a lot (random?) facts without background information as to why that matters. No one knows what happens to those M&E reports anyway. Probably they’re never read M&E organically addresses accountability, in an ongoing dialogue with the donor, but it also addresses learning needs to identify and address systemic gaps around the initiative’s objectives (and inform future initiatives). Everyone contributes to M&E although in practice M&E and project requirements are often the same because they have been integrated at the onset. Reports are just the (process) documentation of the conversations that happen in the initiative

What happens at the end of the project

The final project report is a sort of ‘annual report’ with some results but little passion and curiosity. It is only shared with the donor (Annual reports are an excellent measure of learning in organisations by the way)

Too bad, the website will never be updated – some people might think the project is still going on (luckily that horrible project is finally over though!)

The final project output is an interactive set of multimedia resources addressing different audiences, providing practical tools and guidance on approaches, in a variety of formats, distributed to all parties involved in the initiative, backed by an interactive event that looks forward and builds on previous conversations about this. All communication channels are also geared for that ‘post-initiative’ stage.
At the end of the project, it remains unclear what will happen with the people involved (staff, partners, beneficiaries), with the outputs (where will they be made accessible) and with the lessons that were gathered from the project – but at that stage, is there anything that should be saved from that horrible project, if not lessons about doing things differently next time? At the end of the initiative, a lot of options are on the table because there has been a thorough conversation throughout about sustainability, exit strategies etc. so everyone knows what they can do and have activated their networks to make it happen.

The initiative’s outputs are all openly accessible in a sustainable database and the many many lessons from this initiative have informed activities by many parties involved for future work – institutional memory across projects is taken care of.

Learning and sharing - the essence of smart development work

Learning and sharing – the essence of smart development work

It’s always dangerous to use such caricatures as it lends to think that it might refer to reality. It does not, of course, and a lot of development initiatives are somewhere on a continuum between situation A (the horrible project) and situation B (the ideal learning initiative), but clearly there are many opportunities for learning in development, so let’s focus on what’s being learned and use it to learn even more, rather than despair at all that is there to learn yet while ignoring the legacy from the past… 

Echoing, here, the man of the month (year, decade, century?):

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again (Nelson Mandela).

Does this assessment ring a bell? Does it resonate with your experience of what is happening with development aid or not? What other options do you see?

Related blog posts:

Believe in empowerment? Then just do it!

A little rant/shoot here.

Empowerment - too perilous and futile? (credits: yohan1960/FlickR - sculpture by Stephen Broadbent)

Empowerment – too perilous and futile? (credits: yohan1960/FlickR – sculpture by Stephen Broadbent)

Development work is (IMHO) all about empowerment: finding ways to become fully aware of one’s choices in one’s own livelihood, to become capable to make these choices and to proactively develop this liberty of choice and action so as to continually adapt to ever changing challenges – through learning.

Development cooperation work is all about empowerment too, it is about supporting the empowerment mentioned previously and to help connect choices and actions on livelihood, dignity and liberty.

Yet development (cooperation) work surprisingly slips back to habits, bad habits, and known bad habits at that – much like we tend to be continually over planning. We – at least some of us – talk about empowerment but we don’t champion it in practice quite as adamantly.

Here is a review of typical known bad habits that hamper empowerment:

  1. Do it, don’t delegate! Do not bother delegating anything since you do it better than others, you know the end result will never be quite as good as if you do it. Especially if you never give others a chance to become masters and perhaps even improve on you.
  2. Buy/hire capacities, don’t develop them! Why invest in capacities you have at hand? There will always be better experts abroad than in-house. You need a specialist in strategic communication? Recruit a new staff member. Need specialist know-how for your M&E? Hire a consultant! Yeah it takes time to bring them on the same page but they are better to start with and come with a new mindset which can probably be moulded more easily, especially if they are not too old. Who needs the long sweaty road of grappling with capacity development?
  3. Despair and swear, dont’ trust and be patient! People around you are not doing things well, they just don’t get it and never will, why would you be patient and trust that they will bring the best of their intentions and capacities to perform a task? Sadly you can just despair at their misunderstanding and swear at their incapacity to do things like you (see point 1).
  4. Tell, don’t show! It takes too much time to show people how to do something so just tell them and hope that they get it. They probably don’t and then you have a good reason to follow point 3 and ultimately 1.
  5. Hush now, don’t explain! Just diss what people have to say, don’t bother explaining what is going on. So in fact, don’t even bother telling people (let alone showing them) – so ignore point 4 and just ignore people altogether and leave them in their sea of ignorance. Ignorance is bliss they say and you are kind enough to grant them this privilege.
  6. Criticize, don’t praise! People around you might be doing their best, and actually improve, but there’s always so much more that needs improving! Let them understand all these things they don’t get and that there is a long way before they get it right. A good lesson of what’s going wrong helps to learn, right? Besides, surely praising will make them lazy and self-complacent, so put them on the right track again and give them a right rinsing of criticism – preferably publicly so next time they think twice before saying something stupid!
  7. Impose your view, don’t help others find theirs! Since they have a very poor understanding of the situation, you should just show THE right perspective and way: yours. All those ideas about multiple perspectives and complementary viewpoint is just another reason to get soft, not take hard decision and remain ignorant. Luckily one person stands out to correct the ways development is being done – you are the messiah that they should have been expecting because you never fail to see what needs to be done. And there is certainly no point helping people find their own authenticity and purpose; instead they should support your approach, the only right one.
  8. Hide the truth, don’t criticize! In fact, even better, don’t even criticize, not even in private, just say nothing. They will never get it and will never change so just don’t invest any energy in feedback – they are not worth your attention, time and prestigious expertise.

Obviously this is a caricature but we do find a lot of watered down versions of these terrible attitudes in development work. I also don’t deny that in certain situations there might be a teeny tiny grain of truth in some of the statements above but by and large they all miss the point of empowerment and bring a shameful (post-?)colonial twist to development (cooperation) work.

Let’s all face our own bad habits and see how many of these we can trade for true empowerment in our thinking, discourse and actions… Time to be honest about our own limitations and about the great potential of all other people around us. Empowerment: stop talking about it – just do it!

Related blog posts:

Capacity development, organisational development, institutional change – The extended happy families of engagement

Encouraged by your comments on the post ‘Communication, KM, monitoring, learning – The happy families of engagement’, here is a follow up post attempting to complete the picture of the families of engagement. And despite my immediately previous post, this is the real final blog post for 2011.

So, the three main branches of the family have been mapped out (1): communication, knowledge management and monitoring. But as in any fascinating family, the engagement family has lots of extended branches that enrich the colourful engagement family tree. Here are just a few more that are worth considering:

Capacity development (image: AmuDarya basin)

Capacity development (image: AmuDarya basin)

The Capacity development branch. This branch aims at beefing up the potential of people to do their job better. And since work is better done together, it also focuses on engagement to get more people in its network. This part of the family kept changing names through history. It was originally known as training but its members said it was too restrictive a name for what the whole family does – so the first son kept that name but the whole family itself was re-baptised capacity building, but then it was accused of suggesting that capacity had to be built from scratch. So it became capacity development.

  • Training remains the most prominent son. Under pressure, however, it changed its approach. Where it used to bring people together intensively for two to three weeks, it now invites people for a couple or more days but repeats this exercise across a more extensive period and with more sustained interactions in and between training sessions. It seems to work out better for him now: Engagement around a process rather than just an event. Despite those more recent changes, it is still challenged by other branch members.
  • A sister in the lot is coaching. She has been around for a long time, in fact a much longer time than training although in the old age she was rather known as mentoring and apprenticeship. Her objective is to follow the practice of people over much longer time, to assess that practice in situ, identify good practices and provide a safe space to make mistakes and improve; her approach thus aims at giving better advice, going more deeply in the perspective of excelling at a function and of benefitting from others’ experience. Coaching is thus all about deep, not wide engagement.
  • Quite a few even younger siblings are coming to light: exchange visits, job rotation etc. For this branch of the family, learning is also essential. And it has become increasingly virtual in the past few years. The capacity development branch has been in touch with the distance learning relatives and this is really bringing engagement across various means of communication. Some are jealous of the booming business of this branch – certainly in the development/cooperation arena.
Organisational Development - too top down to fare well today?

Organisational Development

In contrast, the organisational development branch is not enjoying much wind in its sails these days. It is very close to the organisational learning brother in the KM family and it is basically concerned with all the ways that an organisation can perform more effectively. In fact, some argue that this is not really a branch in its own but rather a clan bringing different relatives together from the KM, communication, capacity development and monitoring branches.

  • The one person that rallies all of them under this banner however is the ambitious organisational leadership. Driven by entrepreneurship, this cocky lad is quite happy to shine brightly and show its managerial capacities. But it does so with a purpose: to bring the organisation to the next level. So it’s not pure flash and tack. He knows that without having a sincere goal that transcends self interest, it will never manage to bring the people that form organisation to that next level – so engagement has to be its mantra.
  • To ease this job, he is backed by his more distant cousin group dynamics, who knows how to get teams to work together and contribute to the bigger organisation. It is easier to rely on well-functioning teams than high individual performers only. Yet it’s still not enough.
  • Organisational learning is thus part of this family enterprise to make sure that group dynamics works in accordance with the goal and perceives the value of its successful efforts and the lessons of its not so successful ventures.
  • Change management also joins the club sometimes, to give advice from a system perspective, because the branch realises that it’s not possible to develop an organisation without adopting a broader perspective of systemic change. He is however much more related to the next branch of the family, the institutional change.

Some views on this branch even relate it to action research. It’s unclear where exactly this branch fits… and it is handing over to…

Institutional development

Institutional development

The Institutional change branch: close to the ‘organisational development’ branch, this family has a slightly broader look. It really aims at having a wider effect than the organisational clan. This branch believes in large scale engagement and logically talks a lot about systems thinking, change management and complexity. Subsequently, it is sometimes accused of being delusional (‘how can you achieve change at such a large scale?’) or too intellectual (‘you and your systems!‘). But for all this, it is enjoying a great wave of popularity at the moment.

  • The patriarch of this branch is institutional development. He is a reformed organisational development relative who has decided to branch out and look outside the organisational box. He quickly perceived the importance of the context surrounding the organisation if change is the overall objective. Engagement was in his DNA and he first looked at the edges of the organisation: the networks and personal relations that evolve as conscious or unconscious satellites of the organisation. He moved into networks and foundations, collective units of organisation, including legal aspects (statutes) etc. He has now brothers and sisters that adequately complement his ambitions technically and ethically.
  • Multi-stakeholder processes are the twin brothers and sisters that want to bring all kinds of people together to connect, learn and act together. They are very demanding, they eat a lot of resources (time and money) and they really need someone to help facilitating their interactions. But they offer a relatively practical solution for this branch’s objectives of wide scale engagement. Next to institutional development’s approach of changing organisations, they propose to combine forces between organisations; and that just fits the family ethos.
  • Social change is the turbulent little sister. She cries for social justice, she craves freedom, empowerment and engagement in favour of the (more) socially-deprived. Engagement is her main strategy and she wants to mobilise all her family members to help in this. She’s not considered very serious by some family members, but she knows that some extraordinary figures from the past are on her side, the likes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. And she also knows that focusing on changing people one by one is a long but right track to flip institutions over too.

A family in transition?

It’s worth noting a few trends affecting the main families of engagement:

In the main communication branch, two trends are moving things around. Every family evolves over time to espouse the zeitgeist and practical arrangements that come with it:

  • On the one hand, the communication branch is going ‘strategic’. This is the new motto to bring all family members in the same car for a journey to visit their contacts (their audiences) and have them come together as one, to align their methods and skills. In practice, having all members onboard does not mean that they play a melodious tune together. And the journey can be quite chaotic. But you have to praise the comms family for its intention to have one whole family experience. There’s chances that if they keep doing such journeys, one day they will play a beautiful tune together.
  • On the other hand when the family goes on a journey to developing countries, and perhaps as a result of going ‘strategic’, the communication family is really moving away from their original ‘messages’ approach. It was too uni–directional. They have all realised to some extent the value of genuine bilateral engagement.
  • Some elements of the family are coming back in the picture. It’s the case with coaching but also with the wild cousin storytelling mentioned in the previous ‘happy families’ post. is actually an age-old family member who’s been passing through the history of his engagement relatives time and time again to tell his tales and disappear again. He is celebrated again these days – is it yet another hype or is storytelling going to stick around this time?

Finally, much could be said about all the other clans evolving next to the engagement family. Some commenters mentioned artistic expression, psychology, I would add humour and jokes and all kinds of other related groups that gravitate around the engagement family and other families too.

At the end of the day, regardless of the specific portrait of each family, and regardless of their current and possible future transitions, what matters is that all these families contribute to more engagement across the board and in a networked way. In this sense, the elephant in the room that Harold Jarche mentioned in a post about managing engagement is perhaps indeed the networked approach that all engagement family branches are trying to follow, consciously or not. But perhaps the real elephant in the room is the collective sense-making and mobilisation of energies directed at a wider goal – in this sense social change is perhaps leading the pack.

But we’re not quite there yet, neither in the networked ways nor in the networked social change. Now we’re still at the stage of nurturing engagement, and such a family seems on the right path. For what good and what worth offers a family if not a place to develop deep relationships, trust in each other and trust in life, starting with the most basic steps of engagement?


  1. Again, this family tree does not pretend to be exhaustive nor the way to look at engagement.

Related blog posts:

What is good in a project?

Where to start again on this blog after such a long interruption? Not with a digression (*) straight away!

Anyways, I’ll start again with a question that has been tickling me for a long time:

What are the good parts of a project to keep and use?

Development, oops rather aid (i.e. donor-driven development) is largely structured around projects. This is how many of us out there work. We end up cooperating for three, four, five years in a given place, with a group of people and institutions, following semi-random streams of activities sometimes called ‘work packages’. And throughout the project years we come up with ideas, principles plans, activities, approaches, tools, reports, templates, lessons, publications to do what we think we have to do. And then one day the party is over, alliances fade, activities stop, the flow of knowledge and information dries out. And then comes the question: what really makes sense to keep track of at the end of the day, other than the great moments spent together and the nuggets that have pleased project beneficiaries, staff and/or donors?

Much like there are various beef cuts that can be used in a cow (sorry for any vegetarian or vegan reader out there), what are the parts of the project that we can use (in this case, again) because they could be useful?

Beef cuts and project nu(gge)ts - what should we keep? (Photo credits: global wildlife warriors)

Beef cuts and project nuggets - what should we keep? (Photo credits: global wildlife warriors)

What is there to ‘capitalise’ on afterwards? This question is becoming crucial for me as I’m involved in a soon ending project and am puzzled as to what to do with all the process information we have collected through the years.

We have of course, like many projects, the official documents – the emerged side of the iceberg: the papers, newsletters, websites and the upcoming book we’re writing… the flashy documents we have happily commit to produce as agreed in the contract.

But hidden all around, are the guidelines, templates, checklists, information sheets, how-to’s, process reports etc. that we have developed in the past five years.

Usually these documents do not make it to the official ‘documentation’ of any given project. And yet perhaps what might be precisely most useful to others, more than the results of the project even is that process information describing how a project has looked at certain activities and proposed to go about them. This is what can be re-used, learned from, integrated. So that next time a team starts similar work, they focus on slightly better sets of questions and issues…

What do you think? What is good to keep? Does it make sense to keep track of all the ‘process’ outputs of a project? Is it worth investing time to polish them so they can be understood by an external audience? How shareable are they compared to the project outputs?

I hope you can shed your light on this, as this may be an important KM question for development projects… And that specific project I mentioned is about to be cooked up so it might as well be useful and inspire others…

(*) It probably doesn’t matter much where I start blogging again, since I suspect only few people are checking this page after several very quiet months. Besides, those that do visit this blog sometimes tell me they don’t always understand what I am saying. So, for you puzzled reader, read my profile. And by the way, and I always welcome questions, so share your puzzles!

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Harvesting insights (1): back to (KM) basics

As mentioned in my previous blog post, I have set out to distil some of the key insights that are in my view at the crux of the success (or failure) of many KM and learning initiatives. What are the most essential insights I have gathered over the last few years working on knowledge and learning? This is a modest attempt at making some of my experience available to others but also to synthesise those years of work into insights that are easier to absorb.

Summer harvesting works also for insights (Photo credits: ToniVC)

Many of these insights or messages seem trivial, yet overlooking them results in no trivial consequence. And the reality offers contradictions which are as just as trivial as my insights. As anything on this blog, this is a try-out and if you think there is a point in working on this ‘harvesting insights’ series, I will work on a handful of posts – there will surely be a sequel to this one anyway. If I’m totally missing the point, please be kind enough to tell me too!


For this initial post, let’s zoom in on some insights about the basics of knowledge management and learning:

  • Managing knowledge is impossible. The very term of knowledge management emphasises the possibility to manage knowledge but knowledge is not manageable because it is not explicit and will never be concrete like a newspaper. It is in my view more of a capacity to turn information into insights and ideas, sometimes leading to new initiatives or actions. It is possible to stimulate the conditions in which knowledge emerges – by e.g. helping people meet and discuss. Managing what comes out of those interactions between a person and another one (conversations) or a reading (reflection) is simply a dangerous fallacy. Ditto with transferring knowledge, an even scarier concept: since when can one’s experience be passed on in one block to another person, in the fashion of The Matrix training courses? Dave Snowden’s ‘knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted’ principle is a reference in case here.
  • KM as a discipline is most effective when tailored to specific issues. The orchard of KM initiatives that try to make information (called knowledge) available and usable for anyone anywhere is immense. But it’s an orchard of wilting trees and rotting fruits, and those trees and fruits are the KM strategies, best practice lists and lessons learnt databases that focused on the ‘just in case’ and ‘just in time’. They focus on general examples. But KM and learning is useful only tailored to specific issues. Understanding and addressing the context behind the issue is what makes or breaks KM initiatives. Hence the importance of developing many ‘points of conversation’ in KM initiatives to allow that context to surface and become visible, And that context is difficult to create with just written documents. From information we’ve moved on to sharing knowledge and ultimately paying attention to the context: KM ‘just in use’, echoing the history of three KM generations (see IKM-Emergent’s meta-review and scoping study about this).

  • KM and learning require time and dedicated effort, its rewards should be clear and within grasp. Making time for structured reflection, for talking with others, for collecting information and packaging it in different versions can be a daunting challenge, and it definitely takes time. Whether individuals wish to improve their work practices or organisations set out to develop wider KM initiatives, there is no hope to see learning thrive and KM work in the long run if the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) is absent in the proposition. We – lone workers and employees – are ready to dedicate time and sweat to KM and learning, but that dedication comes only if our knowledge work creates energy in return (see this post on channelling energy). The effort we invest has to connect to our personal aspirations. Are you sure that what you are proposing is of value to me, or even to yourself? Already by tomorrow or in a year? Many KMers’ chat events refer to the power of WIIFM and the rewards that should stimulate individual dedication.

  • KM is all about questions and pointers that come from meaningful engagement (and useful information resources). The loop between conversations and information is the playground where KM finds its value. If we want to learn and use our knowledge to improve what we are doing, if we want to develop our energy, we have to connect to others who have faced similar questions or may (should?) face them in the future. These questions arise with meaningful engagement – preferably conversations based on trust or constructive criticism. In the absence of a physical counterpart, information that stimulates these questions and points to paradoxes can be a great alternative. And here are the two arms of KM: knowledge sharing and information management. The application (tailoring) of knowledge to a specific issue delivers the full value to improve what we are doing – which is about posing even greater questions in our endless quest for improvement. This great document about the art of powerful questions (PDF) offers useful avenues here.

  • Knowledge is latent and innovation craves connections of all kinds. Not everything we talk or read about is directly put to use. A lot of latent associations are formed by the information we absorb. The use of this latent ‘knowledge’ happens when connections are made with a particular context or question. The more bridges we establish between all the latent knowledge zones we develop in our brain (what could seem like disconnected zones), the more chances we create to use this knowledge and reinvent it in ever different shapes and flavours. This is what lateral thinking is about and why bringing barriers between professional and personal life down probably makes sense to realise our full potential. Thinking in our own mental silos wilts our creativity and our potential to develop solutions. The more diverse experiences we go through and relate to other experiences, the more likely we are to always find a way up and out. On this topic, the work of Paul Sloane on innovation and lateral thinking, and the work on multiple knowledges by Valerie Brown (PPT) come to mind.

Does this reflect your experience and insights? Where am I missing the point?

Related blog posts:

Gardening in organisations: how to cultivate expertise and make it blossom

It’s almost summer and the nature is at its most luxuriant, even in Holland – so famous for its Dutch summer (rain, rain and more rain). The case of Holland (and by Holland I actually mean what it is: the Western provinces of the Netherlands) is quite interesting because it is an area that has been very much claimed from the sea through the ages (see the maps). One of the consequences is that Holland cultivates its landscapes and this engineering leaves mixed feelings of dismay (for such an artificial result) and awe (for the masterful work of organising one’s own land).

The Netherlands around 1000 AD

The Netherlands around 1000 AD

The Netherlands now (and their underwater lands)

The Netherlands now (and their underwater lands)

When it comes to organisational capabilities, is the Dutch example good to follow? Should we also cultivate those capabilities or let them grow wildly in the confidence that mother nature and father open space will anyway bring the best out of everyone – or the best purpose anyhow – ?

I’m rather pro-nature and open space, but on the other hand, learning doesn’t come by itself, and in order to boost organisational capabilities (let’s say the business processes and thematic expertise that an organisation possesses through its staff), a tad of capacity gardening could really turn a wild bush into a beautiful self and cross-fertilising garden…

In an organisation like IRC, where chaos is at times a matter of pride because it allows the best ideas to come naturally to the fore, a wee bit of cultivating expertise could also be a welcome move. With a high emphasis on innovation and a low staff base (50 people!), it is difficult to avoid relying on one person pooling some expertise around one theme. And I bet the case of IRC is not isolated…

So what can our organisational learning gardeners propose to make us and our organisations blossom?

  • How about coming up with a good encyclopaedia of the plants or at least an idea of what plants you want in your garden? Having a sense of the capabilities and being able to define these areas of expertise would be a good first step. The framework provided by ECDPM and Peter Morgan (see my stock-taking post on capacity development) offers some avenues.
  • Once you know what you want in your garden, you can read some more on the specifics of each plant to let them grow the best way: knowing who you work with, realising their added value to the organisation and the specific touch that they bring. A good recruitment policy looks carefully at a) the competencies that a person brings and b) the kind of working environment that could allow those competencies to come to the fore and flourish.
  • Then how about planting those flowers and trees that you want in your garden and watering them on a regular basis? ‘Planting’ workers (inviting them to the organisational environment when they start working) requires a dedicated and adapted introduction programme that helps their own roots find their ways through the organisation. The watering comes with shared vision, communication, reassurance, giving feedback (see this interesting post on giving feedback) etc.
  • And while at that, how about looking at the natural alliances between certain plants and trees: some like the shadow, others the warmth, others the protection from the wind, so pair them and get the most out of it. This is where you can organise teams according to the individual styles. I don’t have a final answer on this one, but I believe that recognising team roles such as Belbin’s is not necessarily bad; we all have our hunches, we all have our styles and putting up teams of clones doesn’t help (even though it makes it easier) – a nice link to the forthcoming post on dissent as a driver.
  • Every now and then, they may need a bit of pruning and trimming to make sure they keep beautiful and can reach out to the sun without having to fight for it with one another: a good personal development strategy and regular training or other capacity development activities would help to keep your staff interested and able to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • But the real deal is to get the cross-pollination to multiply your plants, grow taller trees, stronger bushes and more beautiful flowers. There are lots of examples of approaches and tools enabling cross-pollination from exchange visits to peer coaches, to communities of practice, joint missions, on-site training, job rotation etc. just find what your bees and butterflies enjoy most, where they thrive, and keep experimenting…
The real proof of the blossoming is in the pollinating

The real proof of the pollinating is in the blossoming

So while the Spring and Summer months are exhibiting the lush nature of nature itself, let’s see what we can do to keep our gardens beautiful and strong, self-regenerating and yes, also wild – because a French style garden is prone to wither and die when the only entitled gardener goes away.

And you know what? Having green fingers comes with touching earth, so come down from that cloud and meddle through the dirt and mud… mother nature knows how to gratify its children.

Related posts:

Capacity development: Taking stock

(This is potentially the first of a series of stock-taking posts about inspiring literature on topics I blog about – the series will start if you find this interesting, so plmk).

Recently I met all staff of the Water Integrity Network (WIN) which stands for more integrity and transparency and preventing more corruption in the WASH sector by organising coalitions of institutions and individuals to cooperate and share useful ideas, resources and tools and to join hands in this fight.

The starting point: a capacity development workshop by WIN (26-27 May)

The starting point: a capacity development workshop by WIN (26-27 May)

On 26 and 27 May, WIN will be organising a workshop on capacity building in order to define its priorities for the years to come and to develop a strategy in line with those priorities. As I met the person in charge of organising this workshop and we exchanged some ideas by mails and face-to-face, it gave me a nice opportunity to take stock of some good articles and papers I have read about this concept.

The following list represents an attempt at mentioning and briefly describing the contents of some of the reads I found most inspiring on the topic of capacity development. This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources on the topic so feel free to suggest your inspired reads.

Many of these articles have been written by or inspired after Peter Morgan (private consultant as far as I can see but in a brief search I wasn’t able to find the right Peter Morgan out of 40 Peter Morgan’s (on LinkedIn alone).

Capacity and capacity development – some strategies

(Peter Morgan – 1998)

The oldest reference of all papers, this article is interesting because a) it provides some pointers to define capacity development (the processes and strategies), capacity (organisational and technical abilities, relationships and values) and impact (developmental benefits and results) and b) it considers various ‘capacity development’ strategies that have been employed, namely:

  • supplying additional and physical resources;
  • helping to improve the organisational and technical capabilities of the organisation;
  • helping to settle a clear strategic direction;
  • protecting innovation and providing opportunities for experimentation and learning;
  • helping to strengthen the bigger organisational system;
  • helping to shape an enabling environment;
  • creating more performance incentives and pressures;

The article ends with a series of questions to address the strategic value of capacity development and the operational recommendations to make it work.

What is capacity?

(Peter Morgan, 2006) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

This paper is firstly valuable for pointing at the lack of a clear and agreed definition on capacity development – that ‘missing link’ in development according to the World Bank – and particularly its common confusion with (individual) training. As a result, capacity development becomes an umbrella concept devoid of any useful meaning. The second contribution of this paper is to single out five central characteristics of capacity development: 1) it’s about empowerment and identity, 2) it has to do with collective ability, 3) it is a systems phenomenon, 4) it is a potential state and 5) it’s about creating public value. A third pointer is the definition of individual competencies, organisational capabilities and institutional / systemic capacity. Then Peter Morgan focuses on the meso level (organisations and their capabilities) to extract five core capabilities:

  1. The capability to act: having a collective ability to define a vision and an agenda and implement it (related to leadership, human resources etc.);

    The 5 capabilities' framework (Credits: ECDPM)

    The 5 capabilities’ framework (Credits: ECDPM)

  2. The capability to generate development results: the thematic and technical capabilities that lead to results (outputs, outcomes), which is usually the central attention of capacity development – though the author argues it is in the combination of the five that capacity development becomes meaningful and effective.
  3. The capability to relate: connecting to other actors relevant in the field where an organisation is evolving; this relates to working on the exhausted (or rather over-used) concept of ‘enabling environment’ but also on power struggles and political intrigue in a sometimes seemingly uncompetitive sector (how wrong!).
  4. The capability to adapt and self-renew: learning, innovating, adapting to changing environments or pre-empting changes;
  5. The capability to achieve coherence: maintaining a focus while using all separate resources to the fullest of their abilities. This is a major challenge with the growing recognition of complex and intricate relations among development actors

Finally, the author opens the debate as to capacity being a means to an end or an end in itself.

A balanced approach to monitoring and evaluating capacity and performance

(Paul Engel, Tony Land, Niels Keijzer – 2006) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

This paper is very much in line with the previous one but it lists a number of useful questions to assess capacity and performance and provides a five-step approach to develop the assessment framework. These five steps are: 1) Situational reconnaissance and stakeholder analysis 2) Calibration of the assessment framework 3) Implementation 4) Review of the draft results with key stakeholders and 5) Sharing the assessment report with the full range of stakeholders.

Capacity for a change

(Peter Taylor, Peter Clarke – 2008).

The report from a workshop that IDS organised in 2007, this excellent resource is probably the reason why I’ve been thinking a lot more about capacity development (CD) recently. The 26 participants provided outstanding matter for reflection which led the authors to analyse the current situation of capacity development interventions, re-imagine CD processes and suggest ways forward.

The paper is a useful resource for its facts (e.g. figures on public expenditures on CD), its evidence from study: about the importance of knowledge and learning, power relations, having good theories of social change, the relations between intervention agents rather than just results and perhaps above all else the importance of the local context – here we go again! and finally it is useful for the recommendations to address capacity development systemically.

In the forward-looking part, the authors recommend considering five useful pointers for CD interventions:

  • Empowering relationships – having that empowerment perspective at the core;
  • Rallying ideas – favouring a clear language that comes from joint reflection;
  • Dynamic agents – recognising the importance of local champions to take things forward;
  • Framing and shaping context – favouring a flexible design through interaction with the local context;
  • Grounding enabling knowledge / skills – working on abilities to understand and interact with one another;

The report ends with some suggestions for donors, research institutes, service providers and practitioners at large to take their own share and improve CD interventions. Last but not least, the bibliography provides actually enough references for me to write another blog post…

Capacity development: between planned interventions and emergent processes. Implications for development cooperation

(Tony Land, Volker Hauck and Heather Baser – 2009) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

The most recent resource of the list, this policy management brief by ECDPM poses that complexity theories and particularly aspects of emergence and ‘complex adaptive systems’ provide a welcome contribution to unpacking capacity development. The authors consider capacity as an emergent property that cannot be ‘engineered’ by organisations (even less so by external agencies, often Northern-based I would argue). Their assessment is that the forces around organisations and capacities are sometimes far greater than the former and it is therefore important to map them to understand better what may play a role in the success of an intervention (hence the importance of carrying out a kind of ‘forcefield analysis‘ perhaps I would add). The brief continues with a comparison between ‘conventional’ (engineering, pre-determined, risk-averse) approaches to capacity development and approaches inspired by emergence and complex adaptive systems.

Emergence and iteration: two key factors of capacity?

Emergence and iteration: two key factors of capacity?

One interesting aspect of this brief is also the identification of 12 pointers that may help in organising capacity development interventions. The authors are cautious enough to warn against the chase for a silver bullet (in this case ‘complex adaptive systems’) but advise to consider the pointers to develop incremental approaches that reconcile intervention engineering (the current practice nowadays) with emergence.

As mentioned above, this is no exhaustive list, so what did you find useful references on the topic?

If you think it’s useful to publish such ‘stock-taking’ blog posts in the future, on capacity development or other topics, let me know (and about what topic).

To find all these resources in one place check my online bookmarks on capacity development:

Related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the full call for papers.

Communicating inside to learn outside?

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

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

The three learning areas of work of IRC in this proposal

The three learning areas of work of IRC in this proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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