KM for Development Journal news, zooming in on the facilitation of multi-stakeholder processes


Some news about the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, for which I’m a senior editor: the upcoming issue (May 2013) is just about to be released and will be the first open access issue again after three years of commercial hosting by Taylor and Francis. This is a really welcome move – back to open knowledge – and the issue should be very interesting as it focuses on knowledge management in climate change work.

The September 2013 issue is dedicated to ‘Breaking the boundaries to knowledge integration: society meets science within knowledge management for development.’

Discussing innovation and multi-stakeholder platforms (Credits: WaterandFood / FlickR)

Discussing innovation and multi-stakeholder platforms (Credits: WaterandFood / FlickR)

But here I wanted to focus a bit on the December 2013 issue of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal which will be about ‘Facilitating multi-stakeholder processes: balancing internal dynamics and institutional politics‘.

Multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs) have been a long term interest of mine, as I really appreciate their contribution to dealing with wicked problems, their focus (conscious or not) on social learning, and the intricate aspects of learning, knowledge management, communication, monitoring and capacity development. Multi-stakeholder processes are a mini-world of agile KM and learning in the making – thus offering a fascinating laboratory while focusing on real-life issues and problems.

What is clearly coming out of experiences around MSPs is that facilitation is required to align or conjugate the divergent interests, competing agendas, differing world views, complimentary capacities and abilities, discourses and behaviours.

In particular I am personally interested to hear more about:

  • How homegrown innovation and facilitation can be stimulated and nurtured for more sustainable collective action movements, especially if the MSP was set up as part of a funded aid project.
  • How the adaptive capacity of a set of stakeholders is being stimulated beyond the direct issue at hand (be it education, competing agendas on natural resources, water and sanitation coverage etc.) or not and how it becomes a conscious objective of these processes.
  • What facilitation methods seem to have worked out and to what extent this was formalised or not.
  • How the facilitation of such complex multi-stakeholder processes was shared among various actors or borne by one actor and with what insights.
  • How individuals and institutions find their role to play and how their orchestration is organised in such complex processes (i.e. is there a place for individual players, how does this address or raise issues of capacities, turnover, ownership, energy, collective action, trust etc.).
  • To what extent – and how – was the facilitation of these processes formally or informally reflected upon as part of monitoring, learning and evaluation or as part of softer process documentation.

This special issue, which is very promising with almost 25 abstracts received in total, should explore these issues in more depth and bring up more fodder for this blog and for exciting work on using social learning to improve research / development. The issue will come out in December 2013 as mentioned. In the meantime, a couple of upcoming events in my work will also touch upon some specific forms of multi-stakeholder processes: innovation platforms.

What else is boiling around this blog? A lot!

Coming up soon: Another couple of KM interviews, some reflections on open knowledge and related topics and perhaps getting to a Prezi as I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of working with it after three years of interruption. Only even more is boiling outside this blog – as this turns out to be the most hectic season at the office these days. More when I get to it the week after next.

Read the December 2013 issue’s call for papers.

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A journey through five years of blogging


On this day, exactly five years ago, I started blogging. On this very blog. My first time ever. Not a particularly great post actually. Nor many posts that followed that primal scream on the web.

Five years of blogging and much more coming (Credits: Stephen Mitchell)

Five years of blogging on KM & co. and much more coming (Credits: Stephen Mitchell)

But like for many others before (Leo Babauta, Harold Jarche, Irving Wladawsky-Berger and most recently Jeff Bullas in the corporate world), blogging has become a central part of my practice. A hobby. A habit. A drug. A source of comfort and peace. A source of intuition and emotions. A passion – shared… And many more useful things

So for this five-year anniversary I’d like to offer a journey through these five years of blogging, selecting some posts that may have gone unnoticed (or not) but really matter to me and characterise the various phases I went through in this blogging journey…

The genesis: confusion of a confusiast

That first post was by a confusiast, but it was also quite confused. I knew I wanted to blog about knowledge management (my main field [of interest]), about communication (my main activity), about monitoring and evaluation (my extended hobby, to focus on learning), about complexity (my main source of confusion and fascination) and other things that popped up in my brain along the way. And I did a bit of all that.

Perhaps the most important posts of that period were:

Back in that period, there was not much quality in my blogging generally (not to say I don’t have my bad blogging days now either): I hadn’t clarified my thoughts, sources of information (sites) and knowledge (people and networks) and had not yet found my writing style, I didn’t link, I didn’t have anyone to converse with… But most importantly I had started blogging and that hugely helped make sense of information over time…

Another asset was my connection with KM4Dev. It is perhaps the main reason that pushed me to blog, but also to tweet, to use Slideshare, Del.icio.us, FlickR, to facilitate workshops in a different way etc. So in a way that genesis period of blogging owes much to this great community which has always been an extraordinary source of inspiration.

The IRC period

My previous employer – the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) is a marvellous organisation, full of learning, innovation, critical thinking, autonomy and fun… so much so that I almost worked for 10 years there. IRC’s cutting edge work really gave me lots of inspiration for blogging before I really moved on to focusing on my own ‘pet topics’. So back in those days I blogged a lot about multi-stakeholder processes (such as learning alliances), process documentation, resource centre networks, sector learning generally.

This is a period during which I focused a lot on monitoring and evaluation (M&E), as I got more and more involved in that type of work. At any rate, most of my posts from that period related to the work I was doing at IRC.

Some blog posts I enjoyed writing, from that period:

My learning take at IRC

Progressively I defined my own route on the blogging seas and took more and more liberty to use my IRC work to reflect on broader topics of discussion. In that period I started to be involved in various initiatives that went beyond IRC: SA-GE the francophone KM4Dev network, the IKM-Emergent research programme, my work in the core group of KM4Dev and as KM4Dev journal editor, my involvement in the KMers group of Tweeters (backed by a much more thorough and consistent use of Twitter) etc.

This is where I also put more and more emphasis on learning in all my KM, comms and M&E work – realising that knowledge management was meant to serve that learning objective to improve, more than anything else – and that comms with learning (and sharing) was in my eyes a lot more valuable than comms with messages.

The blog posts from that period reflect that shift:

An escapist route?

As working at IRC became more of a burden – or fatigue – towards the end, I also shifted my focus even more on other topics and external networks that mattered to me: IKM-Emergent once again, but also the AgShare Fair group (which eventually led me to work for ILRI). During that period I also had a long blogging holiday as I went through a difficult period… only to come back with a renewed and firm commitment to blogging regularly, as I also realised I really enjoyed and needed it.

During the last 15 months of my time at IRC I therefore moved on from focusing on the IRC work to look more broadly at e.g. development work more generally, education, conditions for effectiveness etc.

Some of the blog posts from that period:

Working for ILRI

And then in November last year I started working for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in a fantastic team of really dedicated and good knowledge and information professionals. The bulk of my work when I started off working at ILRI revolved around facilitation (as you can see on this overview of events we supported, there were many workshops since November 2011). So it’s only normal that quite a few of my posts in this new phase have been around event and meeting facilitation.

But there have also been a few posts about the connection between communication and knowledge work / learning. Although my workload increased, paradoxically I have never been as active on this blog as since I joined ILRI, posting up to 3-4 posts some weeks. The work environment in our team and around its projects is stimulating enough that I find lots of matter to think and blog about.

Some blog posts from this period:

The work at ILRI is changing little by little and this means I might end up blogging about different matters…

(Agile) KM for me... and you? as a word cloud

(Agile) KM for me… and you? as a word cloud

The next fork on the road?

Now I’m still working for ILRI (for almost a year day for day, as I started on November 1, 2011) but also broadening my scope to other areas that reflect some of the relevant topics for ILRI and for me: information management, monitoring of knowledge work (re-delving into the IKM work I did on that but with an emphasis on practical routine indicators and ways to assess the use of our ‘knowledge work’), training people on information and knowledge management, complexity theories in the field of agriculture innovation systems, change management, agile KM and the importance of mobilising all people towards ongoing change…

I can’t see further than that, but perhaps you have ideas as to where I should focus my blogging and our conversations next?

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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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?

Notes:

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

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