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


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

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scaling, pacing, staging and patterning… Navigating fractal change through space and time


Change, change, change!

Going up the scale of change

Going up the scale of change

So many clichés about change, so much ado about a big thing, so many ways to look at it and so many barriers to it!

And just so it’s clear: I’m talking about social change (see some pictures about this concept), i.e. change that involves humans and their behaviour, as opposed to changes in e.g. engineering or information systems.

The much desired and (our most loathed) change is at the centre of a lot of agile KM and also development work. We want to understand it, track it, make it happen, or stop it. As a formula. In a box. 100% fail-proof.

The bitter deceit…

Perhaps because we may be overlooking one of the most important dimensions of (social) change: it is the bizarre fruit of the dance of time and space along various factors. There is no direct and pure causality between activity A and change X. Complexity theories have helped us understand this intricacy. But not necessarily helped us find ways to address this.

Here’s a shoot post about a change management toolkit of sorts: Using hidden dynamics to realise how to look at and work around change, with four lighthouses on our journey: scaling, pacing, staging and patterning.

Scaling

Social change has both roots and branches across space and time. Understanding scaling is a precondition to achieving change. What other geographic scales are at play in a change dynamics? What could be other beneficiaries or victims of change: other teams? Organisations? Projects? Communities? Districts? Regions? Think upstream-downstream, centre-edges, power groups/marginalised groups What mechanisms are intentionally or involuntarily titillating other scales? What are the tradeoffs and what is the aggregate ‘return on investment’ then?

Similarly, what could be long term as opposed to short term changes or effects? We tend to apply a tunnel vision to the scales we are focusing on, but understanding how a given initiative brings about change that affects people differently over time helps us get a bigger picture of the change we are looking at. This is at the centre of the reflection on time scales in social learning for climate change.

Of course we cannot predict all these changes, but joined-up thinking such as collective visioning exercises give us glimpses of these longer term changes… Don’t consider change without careful attention for scales.

Pacing

Time is of the essence in change, as we’ve seen above. Because behaviour change takes time, all the more so when someone else wants you to change.

Considering longer term effects begs us to examine the speed at which we hope change will happen and the one at which it really happens. As much as a common breathing pace brings people together, pacing activities according to the local context’s normal pace also raises chances for change – remember organic, civic-driven KM?. No need to rush, you might be leading the pack but no one may understand you. Going too slow on the other hand may jeopardise potential for change, time has to be just right. And our pace affects this…

Staging

No ‘intended’ social change happens overnight – unless by some miracle all elements are just ready for it and one extra drop takes care of it (ha! the results of edge effects Alice McGillivray is brilliantly talking about). So no change happens in a fingersnap.

And because of the complex interdependencies, no change is likely to happen at (extended) scale right on. Pacing helps us find the right rhythm of each activity, staging activities helps us align them. It gives us liberty to use effective safe-fail probes (more about that in the video below): We can thus explore how change happens in smaller iterations, using the feedback from each iteration to inform the next loop of activities. Like gardening, this is the key to let change grow and become part of the local fabric’s dynamics. Staging is the drip irrigation of change…

Patterning

Discerning fractal change from any pattern

Discerning fractal change from any pattern

The last but not the least dynamic of the four, and for good reasons: The complexity of social change requires us to sharpen our senses and (ideally collectively) recognise patterns that make up change. Both in the centre of our attention and at the edges… With patterning we can identify the fractals of change, and by continually doing so we can recognise where in the bigger picture of change a certain fractal belongs.

How do you do patterning? Through learning conversations around a theory of change of sorts, and whether formalised or not, continually exploring the ramifications of that change.

In a lot of agile KM projects – and more conspicuously in a majority of development projects – we tend to zero in on specific changes induced by a given initiative. But we are chasing a fish pack and the way the fish pack shapes and shifts, moves and mixes, appears and disappears tells us much about that ever elusive change. Scaling, pacing, staging and patterning are instruments at our disposal to understand the fish better and, occasionally, to fish it better.

Navigating change: better do it with caution

Navigating change: better do it with caution

Since change might look like a shark, we might as well be apprehend it better, don’t you think?

Related blog posts:

How to navigate complexity in M&E and where KM can help


What’s happening in the world of monitoring and evaluation?

How is complexity – the thinking and the reality – affecting it, highlighting gaps and creating opportunities?

What can KM help to do about this?

Here are some of the questions that this Prezi addresses.

I’ll be presenting this in the course of next week at a retreat on M&E.

This is a draft, so please let me know what you think so I can improve this last minute, still before it is uploaded on official channels 😉

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What to put in a KM training, off the random top of my head


I was never trained on KM. I just learned it by doing. Errrr, I am learning it by doing.

But if I was trained in agile KM next week, what would I love to find in such a training? Some people are wondering about exactly that on KM4Dev right now. So, let me think about this a bit…

There’s many ways that one can think of elements to include in a KM training, so I’ll start with my favourite order: random – spur of the moment-like. A first brush to peel this onion, to unravel the little patterns that gild this golden question.

Here’s a series of (perhaps not so) random concepts and keywords that I think should make it into an agile KM training course – focused on development – these days…

Complexity

Networked organisations need to grasp how complex un-oder works (Credits - Verna Allee / Harold Jarche)

Networked organisations need to grasp how complex un-order works (Credits – Verna Allee / Harold Jarche)

That’s step 1. Understand we work with complex networks and agendas and have to realise where we find ourselves. The Cynefin approach that is at the heart of ‘The social imperative‘. Without that basis, no way agile KM can work, because it will become a world of hammers and nails.

Simplicity

Complexity doesn’t mean everything we do is complex or even complicated. It’s not simple either but…

Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler (attributed to Albert Einstein)

People don’t like change; complicated change, even less so… So agile KM might have to start with – or pass by – ‘Go organic, go civic! #KMalreadyHappensAnyways‘. Because a lot is already going on, and we can just build upon this rather than start from scratch. Oh, and don’t forget to forget the labels: Nobody should really care whether they ‘do agile KM’, they should just do it 😉

Taxonomy and folksonomy

However fancy fluff ‘big data‘ might end up being, the key lesson of it is to ensure content can easily be aggregated and processed, and that goes through tagging and meta-tagging. That’s where taxonomy (an ordered collection of tags, usually centrally) and folksonomy (the crowdsourced version of a taxonomy) come in handy. Invest in ways to help data-crunching at a large scale, but also at a human scale through social media keywords, tags and handles.

Facilitation

Facilitation, (a lot) more than just telling people what to do, it's about orchestrating energies and capacities (Credits - James Brauer/FlickR)

Facilitation, (a lot) more than just telling people what to do, it’s about orchestrating energies and capacities (Credits – James Brauer/FlickR)

Agile knowledge management has a lot to do with social processes (of social change) so a good understanding and command of how to facilitate such processes comes in order. That’s why a toolkit like the Knowledge sharing methods & tools: a facilitator’s guide (and the many more that exist out there just to think of a few here).

Learning

Perhaps that’s the essence of it all. How do we bring together all the elements above to conjure up the conversations that help us make sense of the world around us and to act in it? What is learning again? A whole area of work that brings together personal knowledge management, social learning, organisational learning etc. not least through the engagement families. Agile KM has to focus on added effectiveness through learning and other means.

Innovation

Agile KM is no longer about keeping information just in case, it’s about moving collectively towards agile groupings of people, who can proactively anticipate upcoming changes and react promptly to unanticipated changes. It’s about unlocking the potential to innovate, via feedback loops (see this recent ‘How Feedback Loops Can Improve Aid (and Maybe Governance)‘ on this). So how can KM unlock our individual and collective capacity to innovate?

Assessment

A KM training course surely hopes to equip trainees with means to implement (agile) KM in their own setting. But how do you know whether this works? Through assessment, monitoring, evaluation. All that stuff from social media metrics to impact assessment. That’s done through learning, and connecting dots, bringing reflection and analysis closer to action. Feedback loops again. But that’s the only way to get good. That and the proverbial 10,000-hour rule. And luckily, there’s plenty of good references about this – see this stock-taking selection.

Collective action and social change

Ok this one is for the development & cooperation knowledge workers, not necessarily those working for private businesses. But what point is there in agile KM if not to improve the world or prevent further damage to it. So that goes through understanding what makes up identity and the formation of collectives on that basis i.e. what brings people together, the kind of stuff that Dave Pollard recently blogged about in his excellent blog ‘How to save the world‘. At the heart of it, the concepts of empathy and trust become prerequisites to joint action and social change.

A model of identity (and community) formation (Credits: Williamson & Pollard)

A model of identity (and community) formation (Credits: Williamson & Pollard)

So as mentioned in prelude to this post, this is only one take about what to include in a KM training. I could also do it from the perspective of modules, of disciplines that come into play, of scales that matter, of approaches and tools that make this work… Perhaps a whole series of blog posts is just emerging here, shaping an ever-changing repurposing of training materials. That is also what Agile KM is all about: reuse past stuff, but do it in new and ever more meaningful ways.

More on the KM4Dev mailing list soon…

Related blog posts:

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…

Related blog posts:

Through the blissful darkness of ignorance, with concepts-lights at my side


Ignorance is bliss

So they say, and truly I can relate to this saying. Knowing all the details of sordid stories, knowing all the issues that await us when tackling a problem is not always the best guarantee for action. Sometimes it causes the paralysis of fear or concern…

Ignorance is also the mother of curiosity, which gives the greatest push towards learning. So it’s not all that bad to ignore a few things…

The Johari window (from Peter Dorrington's article about "unknown unknowns and risk")

The Johari window (from Peter Dorrington’s article about “unknown unknowns and risk”)

…that is, if you know that you ignore them, and want to do something about them. In the proverbial Johari window, there are a few things that caution tells us we don’t know – the real key to learning evoked above.

But there are also things we don’t know that we don’t know and those are the things that through experimentation, individual and social learning, we will hopefully find out that we don’t know. It’s that little extra information that gives us the depth of details we were not yet aware of – which makes also the difference between the caution of an experienced person and the over-confidence of a lay person.

There are gazillions of things that I do not know of course, but there are also a few concepts that are currently my guiding lights in my own learning experience around the fascinating ‘knowledge realm’ and moving around my own Johari window – hoping I will never end up in a real bad case of amnesia 😉

A few concepts as lights in the knowledge realm

What follows here is a rather mixed bag but these concepts definitely relate to one another and sometimes originate from the same authors or sources…

Knowledge work

To start, ‘knowledge work’ is the mother of all other concepts here, as it relates to the overall umbrella of concepts that relate to learning, knowledge management and communication (in its engaging side, not its messaging tradition – see the happy families of engagement). Knowledge work is quite vague but simultaneously it stresses the importance of knowledge in all its relations. Knowledge work is not (just) about information, it’s not just about management (like some takes on KM), it’s not just about learning, it’s about all these areas of work that contribute to this ‘knowledge era’ we are in, where knowledge, its development, sharing, exploitation and ongoing transformation are seen as assets to give us an edge. This, by the way, is just an observation, not necessarily my opinion: I think the next frontier will be about harnessing the power of feelings and intuition, not just cognition.

Working out loud

I came across this concept only a few months ago in John Stepper’s post ‘Working out loud: your personal content strategy‘ and it has taken my mental world by storm. Working out loud is quite simple: journalling your work and sharing it – but the three words contain a lot of challenges and opportunities of (agile) knowledge management and learning. The simplicity of this concept and its appeal to working in a smarter way are nothing short of genius for us all knowledge workers, seeking ways to get our perspective acknowledged and valued. Working out loud also resonates with my blogging practice and all the great things it has given me – which are echoed and amplified in another author’s blogging experience (see which author in the para below).

Personal knowledge management

This topic is closely related to the former. Working out loud fuels personal knowledge management. But personal knowledge management (PKM) goes also into the personal use of information management: it’s not just about journaling but also about organising our knowledge and learning work. I first became acquainted with this concept on Harold Jarche’s blog.

Personal knowledge management or PKM (credits: Jane Hart)

Personal knowledge management or PKM (credits: Jane Hart)

What I like about this concept is that it is about using structure to free yourself from structure: Personal structure and discipline to use and learn from social networks to subvert hierarchies and other structures imposed from outside. And even if you work for an organisation, PKM is something that your firm should be paying attention to, as a foundation to improve organisational KM and learning… No organisation can hope to thrive at ‘organisational learning’ if its individual employees do not see the value of applying it to their personal needs and aspirations. Long live the age of individualism where it reinforces collective dynamics…

Retrospective and inquisitive coherence

This is a lesser concept perhaps but it is relevant to think about learning and what we think about when looking back at the things we didn’t know before. Analysing a complex chain of events and how they led to a certain result -ex-post- makes so much sense all of a sudden: it is retrospectively coherent. Yet, when first confronted with a complex issue at hand, we often have no idea about the way forward. What is useful here is first and foremost to keep some modesty as to what we know or not; it’s also about embracing complexity to look at the bigger picture – the best bet to pave the ways toward inquisitive (forward-looking) coherence. Retrospective coherence was, I believe, developed by the Welshman Dave Snowden.

Positive deviants

Positive deviance was brought to my knowledge via the excellent IKM-Emergent project (closed now) and the work around disruption of systems. Positive deviants are people who follow a successful – albeit uncommon – behaviour, with usually the result of disrupting the foundations of the environment which they challenge with their atypical approach. In knowledge work, where so much relates to behaviour change, incentives and the systemic dynamics that plays around knowledge initiatives (i.e. the enabling or disabling environment and organisation or set of organisations involved), positive deviance is an enlightening concept to explore new pathways of change through the actions of single agents. Local agents affecting the global system: a true characteristic of a complex adaptive system, which will be one of the objects of my next blog post.

Disruptive technology

Not only people (individual positive deviants) can have a profound ‘change’ effect, technology can also play that role. And indeed social media, smartphones, the internet generally and soon cyborg-type implants and other smart devices are or will be totally transforming our lives. But let’s park the sci-fi fantasy for now and focus on the here and now of. When cynics doubt about the value of social media without having really tried them out, it strikes me that this is a typical Johari window example of not knowing what you don’t know, or perhaps not knowing what you might need next. Ditto with a smartphone: until you have it, you cannot imagine what it can do for you. And to you.  We live in a highly techno-driven world of perpetual evolution. Understanding technology is essential: it allows us to understand how it could give new possibilities for our behaviour, but also to know  how we might or should keep control over that technology. A fine balance… and an illustration of how important this concept of disruptive technology has become.

Cynefin framework

Another invention of Dave Snowden, the Cynefin framework is a five-slot framework to understand in what kind of environment we are – or are facing an issue. It could be either simple, complicated, complex, chaotic or unordered.

The Cynefin Framework - where complexity is but one possibility

The Cynefin Framework – where complexity is but one possibility

This framework has been referred to many times and for good reasons, as it is quite intuitive and has been declined in various renditions. Like any framework it doesn’t hold all the truth and it has been criticised in the past, but this framework makes us think about the interactions and types of learning and action approaches best suited to deal with any issue. I also my reservations about the framework but find it a fascinating tool to keep thinking about complexity in a rather simple way but with wide-reaching and sometimes very complex implications.

Empowered listener

We are part of various online and offline communities. Increasingly so. And we cannot invest as much time as we would like in being active in each of them. But we nonetheless choose to be present in those communities. We decide actively what we are listening to because we think we might gain from it. So we all are lurkers in some communities, or as I recently suggested, ’empowered listeners’. And I believe this is not a trend that will wane all too quickly.

Agility

This is the last but not the least on this list, as it led me to rebaptise my blog ‘Agile KM for me and you’. Jennifer Sertl recently shared with me her definition of what agility means (see image above). In reaction, Dave Snowden (him again) recently put some words of caution to the agile crowd to avoid the past mistakes of the KM clique – and most likely rightly so. However I like the emphasis of this approach towards a more dynamic approach to learning and knowledge work, which is not just about innovation or just about managing assets or solving today’s problems. It reflects the dynamism of the world we live in and the added imperative to think and act increasingly proactively and reflexively.

With such guiding lights, I surely should be able to quickly highlight many other areas of my own ignorance. Phew! To learning there is really no end – but learning also is bliss…

Related blog 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: http://delicious.com/ewenirc/capacity_development.

Related posts:

Emergence through energy?


Chaos can be such an incredibly ordered state of things. These days, on the professional front, I am running from a workshop in Benin to a working group meeting for the project ‘IKM Emergent’ (http://ikmemergent.wordpress.com), from the organisation of a symposium on sector learning in the WASH sector to initial discussions around an IRC internal working group on innovative communication. And professionally, running from a stag night (and mine at that!) in Amsterdam to a catch up in London with a friend I met recently, punctuated by discussions for the wedding preparation with my ‘better half’ and good times with friends…

An incredible mix of emotions and of reflections. And the more mixed, the more related it seems… of the obscure workings of chaos. A sense of connectedness to this world and a sense of realising the unity of all my interactions with other human beings, of my emotions with theirs, and of interactions of each other’s thoughts…

What is it about chaos, complexity, patterns, emergence that make it sound so real while we are still at a stage of poorly characterising it, let alone making deep sense of it? I believe it is that deep feeling of whole interconnectedness that really gives weight to chaos theory and to emergent issues. Feeling that all small talks and actions, larger initiatives and projects, philosophy of life and epistemological framework actually reverberate the same patterns… the fractal of my life HERE and NOW.

A Persian rug (courtesy of VISTA on FlickR), perhaps one of the oldest forms of fractals

Connecting energies and emerging together

Connecting energies and emerging together

In all these activities, I have also come to think that the liquid or flow that perhaps provokes transition phases (a physical term which, applied to development work would mean that it instigates social change) is the energy that one absorbs  from others and reverberates back to them.

In sharing knowledge, emotions, thoughts, we seem to all connect to the same grid and let a kind of human electricity pass on through the grid. Perhaps the emergent patterns that we observe are a product of these social transactions.

Now that leads me to a discussion I started (and unfortunately ended too early) with a colleague on how we approach our work and interactions with others. His stance is to engage with people that are least likely to respond and engage because they are part of the ‘issue’ that one is trying to change and they perceive your action as a threat. My stance is rather to rapidly identify existing energies (geared towards similar goals as mine), to connect with them and to try to effect and expand to others through them. Where does that lead, what are relative merits of one or the other approach, how could it possibly link with complexity and chaos… the investigation has just started…

Where to start with chaos and order?


Will I ever get more certain about anything ? Just as I thought I started gathering quite some ideas on sector learning, resource centres, learning alliances, learning and knowledge management in general, my hopes to make sense of this world are crushed again – or my hopes of making sense of it the way I did are crushed.

The reason for the onslaught on my vision of the world? I’m just finishing to read Margaret Wheatley’s seminal ‘leadership and the new science’.Margaret Wheatley\'s excellent book \"Leadership and the New Science\"

This has been written a while back – this second edition is from 1999.

However, the book remains spot on on a number of ideas I think. What I take from this book is essentially a confirmation from the feeling I had that we should abide by Nature’s laws a lot more. Not go with the human flow but just go with the natural flow that we all feel in spite of cerebrally follow the forms, functions, roles and rules that we have assigned ourselves as human beings, and that we have ingrained in ourselves for too long.

Another thing that I take from this book: there is absolutely no need to focus on critical mass and on having reached a certain level. The slightest tickle in the system can provoke a gigantic reaction. Of course, this reaction will probably reach that effect through feedback loops afterwards or because it is a feedback loop of similar little ripples in the past.

But the bottomline is: go local, go for one-on-one and make the change happen there. Champions are more important than systems, or rather champions work with systems and the other way around.

Now there’s a leap before more people are ready to dive in the dark and just accept to put their deeply entrenched beliefs and old reactions aside. One doesn’t change humans like this, and the preparation of the workshop I am going to partly facilitate reminds me of this. How to change? How to become the change that we seek to achieve?

I can’t really tell but all I know is, the dynamic of change that my learning management movement is trying to achieve is very much in line with the teachings of this book, and the beautiful lattice-like shape of the KM4DEV core group trying to organise a workshop at thousands of miles’ distances in a very organic but effective way is only another testimony that indeed we need to change in order to survive, and changing and dancing with chaos is not only beautiful, it feels extremely good!!!

Confusiasm way back on the spot!!!