Dedication and determination, in the name of CoP’s

Communities of practice are cool again in my corner of the world.

Determination (Credits: Dana Lookadoo / FlickR)

Determination (Credits: Dana Lookadoo / FlickR)

They were always around, but it seems they really are coming back in a big way. From the recent Knowledge Management for Development Journal issue on the topic of CoPs, to the couple of projects that are instating communities of practice in my ILRI work, to the different posts and topics are that are emerging here and there (it could be a bit of a serendipity glass effect though).

Thing is with communities of practice, as with KM and life, it’s all in the attitude. And that attitude, for whoever is championing or facilitating a community of practice, is one of utter dedication and determination.

There’s a lot of stuff that might happen to your CoP.

And so if you don’t even have the attitude that sets you up for success, you just have to pray that all the other elements in the cosmos are aligned with your plans – and you better be one lucky b@stard!

Because let’s face it, if:

  • You can’t see that conversations in a CoP can take you much further than the typical conversations inside your own organisation
  • You don’t care about what others in your CoP may have to say about the topic that brings you together…
  • You can’t imagine spending any time on a CoP if it’s not just in your working hours
  • You have no inkling towards making your community one of the coolest places there is because you have the latitude to shape it and co-create with other invested people
  • You don’t see the beauty of a nascent community of practice with people turning up as other champions and heroes

…then don’t wonder why your community of practice doesn’t work.

Just get to it, and see it as your personal and yet collective gardening initiative, and draw pleasure out of it as you do from seeing trees grow up, soil sing and flowers blossom…

It’s all about determination…

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The death of nice communities of practice?

Greeks always argue about facts (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

Argument, oiling in respect among friends… but beyond? (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

An interesting conversation is happening in KM4Dev – when is it not the case? – in relation with Dave Snowden‘s recent inputs to the conference on ‘Knowledge for Development (#DIEK4D see and his reflections on this post (full meeting wiki notes are available here).

Oh and close down those communities of practice which are now so hide bound as to be only of use to the avid naval-gazers.  We need more disagreement, more passion, more argument, more engagement which is not conditional on not upsetting people. (Dave Snowden, reflections on #DIEK4D, 9 July 2014)

Two interesting take-homes from this:

a) Let CoPs die!

b) Nice is the new poison

Interesting and provocative statements of course – just wanted to rebound on these, but I highly encourage you to see all strings from that conversation on the KM4Dev mailing list here (link possibly requiring log-in credentials).

Ad a) Let CoPs die!

Not getting Involved (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice, between agreement, argument and indifference? (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice (CoPs) won’t die just now. Even though it seems many of them are not doing well.

The problem is rather the proliferation of these CoPs, and the fact that many of these CoPs might have been set up and labelled from the onset as ‘CoPs’ although they were just groups of invited people in a top-down manner. CoPs need their time to develop over time. The case of KM4Dev is testimony to that slow simmering process.

The proliferation of guidelines for how to set up and use CoPs (just see some of my personal bookmarks on CoPs) seems a fair indication that there is a lot of bad practice going on and that CoPs take time to grow to a mature level. So the problem is not so much with all those navel-gazing CoPs but rather all those that are steered by a navel-gazing base of narrow-minded people setting up the CoP without budging away from their original thinking, and probably inviting people that are too much alike.

The paradox is that even if it’s not forever and even if it’s not in a real community of practice, having a space for people to question their practice can be a really helpful thing – it just takes a lot of time to develop into a real community of practice that generates the critical mass required to make way for constructive disagreement… And it leads thus naturally to point b)

Ad b) Nice is the new poison

That argument really is an interesting one, as it seems to denote a trend that happens at some point to a lot of people studying (and ‘doing’) work on collaboration. The Wageningen UR teams who theorised multi-stakeholder processes have also progressively shifted their interest away from the positive aspects of cooperation to the conflicts and negotiation of these conflicts around setting a collective agenda.

I think the issue here is rather about the conditions of establishing a space for learning and decision-making. Learning is very much steered by the conjunction of ideas coming from people with very different walks of life. Allowing that diversity to flourish means that the people in that space need to be open to wildly different ideas, listen to all and make something of that. And the decision-making process in those spaces should cherish that diversity and not kill any deviation from an ‘orthodox practice’.

This can mean allowing disagreement to revisit the foundations of work as we know it. That is deeply disruptive. And itchy. Not pleasant to most people, and thus the reason why disagreement is somehow snuffed in the bud in some spaces. Now, while I see how sterile conversations can be if everyone agrees to everything, I’ve always been an advocate of the ‘Yes and‘ principle of improvisation theatre, which is not about disagreeing but building upon each other in a creative way.

Every conversation has its dynamics, they need not be all about agreeing, neither about disagreeing… It is all about the space that you entertain and the negotiated outcomes that a group seeks at a given time. And it’s all dynamic, so agreeing to keeping an eye on the diversity of views and possible disagreements is an essential part of the process. Some of the key questions are thus perhaps:

  • To what extent are you paying attention to diversity, curiosity over establishment and creative disruption in your collective learning space?
  • What tells you that a space has become stale? What are the early signs that something needs to be done or that space needs to disappear – or that it needs to go through a massive disruption process?
  • Who are you actually to say that this or that space is not helpful and should disappear, if it allows others to find their own space for personal development? What is your mandate and your stake in that decision?

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

Oh, an are you gonna say something about your silence these past few weeks? On another note, I’m coming to terms with some of the feedback – that I invited and – that I received a while back: This blog is indeed probably not the #1 most innovative of all blogs around. Yet it is my blog and that blog reflects who I am. I may not be Harold Jarche, but I think I do have some innovative ideas…Yet whether that’s true or not, I can’t really pretend to be someone else, so I reckon it will keep on reacting on the signals that I find interesting, because this is my mode of processing a lot of that information, and actually innovation happens at the edge, in transforming and combining bits of information such as these… that does not prevent me from taking into account a lot of the other comments I received. But I prefer to keep blogging with my limitations rather than be stopped by the blank page syndrome because I should be someone else…

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Complexity in multi-stakeholder processes – how to manage, facilitate or navigate around it?

After almost five weeks without any blogging, I’m definitely coming to terms with the blank page/blank mind syndrome. A very useful experience – this drought of ideas – as it just reveals how daily mental discipline and a conscious effort of connecting thoughts is the ignition I need to let inspiration flow. Holiday had been particularly effective at unwinding me entirely this year I guess…

Complexity (Credits - Michael Heiss / FlickR)

Complexity (Credits – Michael Heiss / FlickR)

As I started working again, I facilitated a training workshop for facilitators of multi-stakeholder processes in a project named ‘EAU4Food‘. This workshop had a strong connection with complexity. Global development is a highly complex field – as recently and brilliantly demonstrated by Owen Barder in this presentation. Within this field, any multi-stakeholder process deals with a high(er) degree of complexity, given the amount of actors (institutional and individual) involved in an ‘n-gagement‘ process and the impossibility to predict the outcomes of their interaction. The training workshop put the emphasis on this aspect as a starting ‘mindset’ to better prepare the facilitators for their job. I gave the presentation below to set the tone.

After the workshop, in the evaluation, one of the participants mentioned that the session on complexity “added to the complexity”. Perhaps he meant the perplexity (his)… and I can understand that. We, human beings, are perhaps not well wired to deal with complexity, as we tend to put everything in a neat box that isn’t connected with other boxes, because it makes it simpler to comprehend – but not more truthful. We love to zoom in on specific aspects rather than dealing with wide, contextualised, integrated sets of issues. Our repulsion for complex and contextual solutions is what leads us to be so keen on ‘silver bullets’ and blanket solutions that we think will be universally helpful And yet, as with silver bullets, we could not be more ill-informed than to seek to avoid and ignore complexity.

There are however a few things we can try…

Managing complexity

After ignoring complexity, this is the worst strategy we can adopt. The very lesson of complexity is that we cannot manage it. Command and control, certainty of planning and of the outcomes we desire simply do not work in complex environments such as multi-stakeholder processes. The first lesson is thus to shed our old power-clinging tendencies and preferences and to accept that, while we can manage projects, deadlines, outputs etc. – how they relate to and interact with other stakeholders in the process is far from being manageable. This point, and many other excellent ones have been highlighted in this wonderful presentation which I came across in this blog post by Harold Jarche.

Perhaps we would therefore be better advised to focus on…

Facilitating complexity

This is essentially what the facilitators of EAU4Food learning and practice alliances (and the local communities of practice) are supposed to do. Managing emphasises control and certainty. Facilitating shifts focus towards the orchestration of other actors – in an attempt to let them find their ‘space and place’ in the process, and perhaps to make them coalesce around a common agenda or understanding of the priorities. A lot of the workshop sessions focused on this, from meetings (the iconic and emerging part of facilitating multi-stakeholder processes) to the wider engagement process. Yet facilitating can take various courses. Some of them are dangerously close to managing complexity. The danger of ‘facipulation’ is that, if well done, that sort of facilitation can give the illusion of being participatory but in reality is self-serving and just another way of getting endorsement for pre-conceived ideas. To avoid this, a further step is to seek…

Navigating around ‘co-mplexity’

The presentation above stresses the ideal of embracing the group of stakeholders as a ‘complex adaptive system’, where each part of the network becomes an essential node in a grid and plays an essential role of connector and amplifier that improves the feedback loops inherent to such complex processes.

So how to navigate complexity?

First of all, by creating conditions to effectively co-create that complexity. For any multi-stakeholder process, the essence of its success (and possible survival beyond the funded initiative that saw to its birth) is the genuine authenticity of co-creation processes. If the agenda is set together, activities decided collectively and adapted according to the challenges and opportunities that the whole set of stakeholders have identified, then complexity becomes an ally that leads the way to ‘highlighting new paths’ that were not previously possible or visible. A true case of co-mplexity, a joint act of navigation around complexity and of developing a pathway together.

Secondly, and this is where agile KM comes into play, the complexity of the process will be all the easier to navigate depending on the reflexivity of the group: the more the group focuses on joint reflection, social learning and ensuing collective action, the more productive and the richer the experience will be for all.

Finally, navigating around complexity does not mean that the whole process is about complexity. There are tasks and areas that are not complex and should not become more complex than they have to be. It is the responsibility of the process facilitator to adapt to circumstances and identify what needs management, what needs facilitation, what needs co-creation.

The position of multi-stakeholder process facilitator is still relatively new and the rising complexity and the trend of acknowledging it also are in their infancy, so one can be hopeful that these multi-stakeholder process facilitators are only the exploring navigators of a world to be. The gems of their voyages will tell us more about the mysterious lands of complexity…

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