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)

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What the heck is knowledge anyway: from commodity to capacity and insights

Ten years into KM and this is perhaps the most frequent question I’ve heard or come across to date in the knowledge management field: What is knowledge? Time to shoot at it, or better: time to plant a shoot…
Currently again, there is a KM4Dev discussion about ‘knowledge banks’ (see word cloud below) and on the side, the ‘what is knowledge’ phoenix (1) is reappearing. At the bottom of this question lies another crucial question: do you see knowledge as a thing, i.e. a commodity, or not? This has a profound implication on the KM language you use, the assumptions around KM that you nurture and the KM activities that you might wish to undertake.
The 'Knowledge bank' discussion wordle

The ‘Knowledge bank’ discussion wordle which inspired this post

For me, it’s quite simple: knowledge is not tangible and is certainly not a commodity. And the noun ‘knowledge’ itself sometimes leads to delusional assumptions about what knowledge is. I find it more fruitful to think of knowledge as two different things:

  • Knowledge is a latent capacity that we call upon to combine information available with various insights we have from past experiences, and use it in a given context.
  • Knowledge is also the collection of insights that we have in ourselves, based on information, emotions and intuitions we have. It is in that collection of insights that we tap to use our ‘knowledge capacity’ or our ‘capacity to know’.
At any point, we can tap into the knowledge we have, but we can never give it as is to anyone else. Because it is our very own unique combination and our very own unique capacity, the fruit of our personal development path. So, when we say ‘what do we know about xyz’, we are referring to the combined (abstract) mass of fuzzy insights that we collectively possess about xyz and the potential use we might make from that combined, collective, capacity.
Now, for the sake of stretching our minds a bit, let’s compare a typical (and voluntarily caricaturing) perspective of knowledge as a commodity and one of knowledge as a capacity. It might reveal some of the assumptions and expectations we have about knowledge.
Knowledge as a commodity Knowledge as a capacity
Knowledge is the embodied result of ‘knowing’ (possessing the knowledge) Knowledge is the emerging property of learning (developing new insights / knowledge)
Knowledge is universal – it has generic properties, it is ‘self contained’; it exists as is Knowledge is personal – it is the result of a combination of personal factors. It becomes itself when mixed with insights from experience.
Knowledge is rather static – it represents the ‘knowledge’ we have and changes only every so often, when it is ‘updated’ by some people, experts (e.g. peer-reviewed academic publications) or not (as on Wikipedia) Knowledge is dynamic – it keeps changing whenever it is invoked by anyone, anywhere – it is multi-faceted and ubiquitous
Knowledge can be transferred (one on one) Knowledge can be shared (but it gets necessarily recombined – it is not shared one on one either)
Knowledge can be stored (in a knowledge bank or base?) Knowledge cannot be stored – but insights shared can be codified, turned into information and stored (in an information bank, database or else)
Knowledge can be developed in writing Knowledge can be developed, stimulated / augmented (the capacity of using information can be increased) through social learning, thus not in writing. Information, however, can be put in writing, based on available knowledge (expertise)
Knowledge can be assessed – e.g. by theoretical ‘knowledge’ tests (how much do you know about x, y, z) – in a rather clear, straightforward 1/0 way Knowledge can be assessed by practical knowledge and know-how tests (how can you respond to challenge x, y, z) but it remains a fuzzy process
Knowledge can be managed Knowledge cannot be managed but its development and sharing can be stimulated and elicited – the environment that stimulates knowledge, however, can be managed (working on processes, tools, cultural values etc. to enable the development and sharing of knowledge)
Knowledge management is essentially information management: collecting knowledge and getting it to the right person at the right time to deal with challenges at hand Knowledge management is essentially knowledge sharing and it is about learning conversations that stimulate everyone’s ability to respond better to their own challenges
Of course the table suggests that the dynamic conception of knowledge, as a capacity, is more relevant, and in my eyes to a large extent it really is. I have made this starkly contrasted comparison to emphasise this point. But, for instance, information management is also a very important part of a sound and more complete conception of knowledge management.
This is all about emphasising the dynamic nature of knowledge, rather than the skewed commodity perspective and the dangerous expectations it sometimes generates.
That said, there must be major blind spots in this comparison, I put my knowledge to the learning test here – so what would you say?
(1) The phoenix is a mythological animal that ignites, disappears into ashes and arises in its new avatar. I like this as a metaphor for discussions that keep reappearing. In the KM world, typically the ‘what is knowledge’ question is a phoenix. Monitoring/assessing KM is another one.
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Look beyond WHAT to do: WHY and HOW lead to WHO

This is a blog post that I have long postponed but its core is – I think – really important: we tend to focus too much on the job we need to get done. In the process, we tend to overlook  why we need to get it done and how we mean to do it. But most importantly, we do not pay enough attention to who we are working with.

In development work, we end up working with a lot of other people and organisations. These partners have potentially a vastly different approach to life due to their family, ethnic, organisational, functional, spiritual and personal background. Their way of perceiving the world is not necessarily ours. That same ‘baggage’ means they potentially have a vastly different experience and skillset. They may not have followed a similar form of education and carried out a similar set of tasks. They may think and do things just differently.

Why is it then, that in development work – and perhaps otherwise too – we are led to think that we should focus on just doing the job, regardless of who we are and who we are with? How come the WHAT (we have to do) takes precedence over anything else? If development were to be more effective, I think it could benefit from paying at least as much attention to other aspects: WHY, HOW and ultimately WHO.

Typically, a development project will be led by an agency that has a specific way to work and a specific set of concepts they like to work with. But they often fail to share their deep assumptions about these concepts and thereby to forget about the WHY.

Under WHY, we should indeed chart the assumptions we have about a specific initiative and the central approaches and concepts that we think are helpful. We should revisit the project proposal and question our logic, at least properly together with the partners, so that we know what we are doing this for. When I did some DIY with my father when I was 7 or 8 and he would just tell me to ‘bring this wooden panel’ or ‘hold that piece of metal’, I wouldn’t really get it and I generally found the experience frustrating and really boring. When he would explain me why we were assembling the pieces together in this way to improve thermal isolation or to have a better tool cabinet, all of a sudden the picture would emerge in my mind and I would be keen on seeing our work come to life!

Tree & forest (Amandabhslater)

Are we not mistaking the tree for the forest? (Photo credits: Amandabhslater on FlickR)

At work also, by focusing on the activities we have to undertake and outputs we have to deliver, we miss the passion and energy of the bigger picture. And we also miss an essential opportunity to appreciate the world view of our partners, how their concepts hang together, why they think the initiative matters and why they are part of it. But also what they think about our concepts and assumptions. In the process a lot of essential insights may also emerge that prevent later failures.

But it doesn’t stop here. In focusing on the WHAT, we also often fail to address HOW we work. Of course project proposals specify how activities should be carried out and how they lead to the results, but we do not question enough the capacities and specific ways to undertake these activities: Does everyone involved know how to use Excel’s main and more advanced functions? Is everyone clear on what it takes to give a presentation? What type, scope, length of reports are we favouring and why? Can everyone speak English at the same level? Is everyone comfortable with using a wiki? What would it take to have everyone share their stories of change on a bi-yearly basis? Is the connectivity as expected in all partner offices? How often should we get in contact to share management updates, using what channel and why?

If capacities are assumed, we run the risk of not understanding why delays may occur, some of them just due to the necessary trial-and-error process that a less experienced person has to make do with. If capacities are assumed, it may become more difficult to reveal to each other where our weaknesses are and to recognise that we have a golden opportunity to bridge those gaps and to help each other, building the team. So behind the HOW comes a big WHO question…

Now, that looks like a bleak picture. In reality, work usually gets done. Despite not having jointly explored our (and our partners’) deep assumptions, respective fields of experience and skillsets, we cope and we deliver. But in the process we may misunderstand each other, get upset, get hurt. And more often than not we don’t have enough time to reflect and find better solutions on the spot. for the issues and for ailing relationships. In the meantime, underlying assumptions remain wrong and some partners just play the game of delivering, as sub-contractors, not as partners, without having bought into the rationale behind some activities – because that rationale was never made explicit enough. They disengage, when instead they could have built a stronger tie, through the real team effort of explorin g our world together.

In the end, there are two types of people: those that categorise people and those that don’t (lol)! But there are also people that focus on the results and people that focus on relationships. We probably need to focus on both, but over time, while work wanes, relationships remain. WHO is with you in this? And why do you want to do something with them? Isn’t this a key to development?

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