Flap your wings for the ‘butterfly revolution’ of learning and change

A simple idea: change yourself and you might see entire systems transform.

Change (Peter Downsbrough, 2011)

Aren’t we all butterflies fluttering our wings somewhere and causing tsunamis on the other side of the world? We are connected, and global change starts with individual change. Or perhaps it doesn’t, but what is certain is that without individual change we won’t see systemic change…

So why do we keep chasing the unicorns of this world in such simplistic ways? We want to achieve scaling up, sustainability, social learning, systemic change…but we don’t ask ourselves the right questions. All these unicorns won’t materialise if organisations are not willing and capable of operating together, and organisations won’t manage that if their own staff – individually – are not capable of learning by themselves, of being intentional about the change they want to see happen, of sharing with and caring for others, of connecting deeply. Exactly like the unit 0 of civilisation is the family, the unit 0 of learning and change is ourselves as individuals.

One of the concepts that has taken me recently is ‘process literacy’: the capacity of people to go beyond ‘what has to be done‘ to also understand the fine processes that happen behind those objectives – what process documentation, systematization and capitalisation are trying to do. Being ‘process literate’ means that you constantly pay attention to the channels that are most appropriate to understand the issue you are contemplating. It means you can talk content (dive deep) and connect it with relevant fields and ideas (go wide).

It is through that process literacy lens that a lot of the questions we are grappling with will actually reveal some useful angles. Someone I just met is trying to unpack ‘knowledge management in value chains‘ and it turns out there is very little at the junction of these two fields, but she is adamant that it is in documenting the process of (not) doing KM in value chains that we will find ways to improve knowledge creation, sharing and use in those value chains. Spot on!

So, while social learning remains great, we need to nurture and cultivate that process literacy within ourselves. Social learning, by the way, is also understood by some as individual learning connected – via social media – to others (see the presentation below in its attempt to manage information through that type of social learning).

But the lesson is the same: learning, sharing, change, better livelihoods lives, they all start with each and everyone of us. So get ready to shed your caterpillar skin for the learning and change revolution to happen: we need all butterlies around to flap their wings.

Related 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 😉

Related blog posts:

Power your communication with ‘KM inside’

Where to nestle knowledge management in the work place?

Is it a field or discipline that deserves a unit in its own right – with its own breed of specialists (the knowledge manager) – or is it a mainstream support function that shoulders every other process? The answer differs in every organisation. In many cases, knowledge management (KM), or knowledge sharing (KS), is hosted within communication (for instance my own function title at ILRI is ‘knowledge sharing and communication specialist’). What are the relations between communication and KM?

How does KM/KS really support communication or even power it?

How knowledge management powers communications

How knowledge management powers both primary (top tier) and secondary (bottom tier) communication functions

The graph here depicts some of the basic outbound or primary functions of communication (on the top half), that is, the front-end activities where communication serves its own purpose and some of the key inbound or secondary support functions of communication, i.e. the activities that make primary communication possible).

Primary communication functions might typically include:

  • Announcing and raising (public) awareness – the typical PR gig,
  • Disseminating information (in various ways and for various audiences, from sending freebies, publications or newsletters to partners and clients to sending press releases to the media),
  • Sharing it both physically (at events) and online or virtually through engaging sporadically with other people around a specific information,
  • Engaging with audiences as a longer term structured process to develop trust and share information more effectively – either as part of an action research programme, a multi-stakeholder process or something else,
  • And ultimately collaborating (assuming that a clear protocol of cooperation and coordination is in place to allow that collaboration to flourish).
These functions are increasingly focused on engagement and co-creation (from announcing where there is no real focus and no or little interaction to collaborating where everything is about collective sense-making and co-creation of content).

Secondary communication functions include:

  • Writing outputs (of all kinds),
  • Documenting (either processes, conversations, work, protocols etc.) which prepares the way for the writing,
  • Publishing and design, which is about getting the written outputs to the next level (design, peer review etc.) and out,
  • Training on a number of communication channels and processes,
  • And finally supporting in any other way (coaching, informing, guaranteeing a helpdesk function etc.).

At the centre of it all, I deliberately put ‘internal communication’ because it is the ‘glue and grease’ that allows all these primary and secondary functions to work in an integrated manner and to create a team spirit and dynamics. It is also what allows information to flow and be used for all these purposes. It is perhaps where KM might operate from.

So how does KM power these functions?
KM is basically a strong enabler of communication for a number of these functions.

First off, though, we need to agree on a working definition of what KM is and does. Without going into very lengthy and cumbersome discussions, let us say that KM encompasses knowledge sharing (interactions between people to use information and making sense together), information management (processes geared at managing, storing, rendering information findable and usable) and critical thinking (where learning helps to keep sharpening knowledge sharing and information management and the wider purpose of achieving one’s set agenda).

Working with this definition, KM supports communication in the following ways:

  • The knowledge sharing element stimulates all interactions in a more effective way – ensuring frequency and good “quality of conversations that get your job done” (borrowed from the definition of knowledge management that Euan Semple and others have provided in the past), which leads to more effective sharing, engagement and collaboration – the top right tier of the graph.
  • The information management element ensures that information a) is there in the first place (generated through writing) but particularly that it b) can be traced and found at all times c) is easily and accessibly organised to raise awareness, be disseminated and/or shared, and d) is systematically channelled back from knowledge sharing, engagement and collaboration activities. It supports directly the left hand side of the graph and indirectly the knowledge sharing processes (offering information that can be used for knowledge sharing, engagement and coordination).
  • The critical thinking / learning element particularly strengthens the documentation (of processes) but also enables all other functions by ensuring stronger questions, stronger ideas, stronger ownership (thinking makes people more involved), stronger content altogether, stronger engagement by grappling together with ideas, chances for survival of the work and stronger embedding in a given context (because the very process of embedding is supposedly questioned then). Subsequently it supports the full spectrum of communication.

Communication, without knowledge management, might fall back to a series of messages that do not inform learning and adaptation, may end up as a series of sporadic and disconnected activities and does not link information with personal interactions and learning strongly enough, leaving a ‘back office’ messy and useless, like a ghost ship adrift.

Does that resonate with your experience?

Related blog posts:

Dotty dotted communication – can we avoid this please?

Sometimes, the best example one can offer is a counter-example. My colleague and boss Peter Ballantyne recently proved this point when sharing a presentation, and later a blog post, about what communication in a (research) project could and should look like – and what NOT.
The presentation depicted the general direction of communication and engagement efforts in a research project, as a curve which displayed both what is hoped for and what should be avoided in terms of communication activities and results.

Communicating agri-water research over time

The counter example – here the red line of course – shows that all too often, communication efforts, if at all undertaken, mean:
  1. A big bang project introduction (usually with project leaflet, kick-off workshop, poster, press release etc.) – the moment of glory of public relations and marketing – and spending of course.
  2. Then a long curve of nothingness – perhaps the result of a weak (or absent) engagement strategy?
  3. And then at the very end of the project, another series of activities related to the release of information and communication products – when the project closing / output delivering fever is kicking in.
This is a dotted communication approach: no continuous line, no constant progression. This dotted approach becomes downright dotty if one thinks that this type of interrupted engagement will lead to a wide uptake and impact. Unfortunately, all too often that is what happens in projects for lack of strategic communication thinking and lack of attention for endowing communications with proper resources.
What should change in practice is to ensure that the communication dots get much closer to one another to form an almost continuous line of communication (probably interlaced with all kinds of other lines going up and down but following the general progression trend). This means regular engagement with a wide range of actors, documentation of processes throughout, meshing together people, issues and insights that play out in the initiative, getting our hands dirty to ensure that people reflect, talk, write and work together.
That alternative approach takes courage and yes, resources too, but it brings back the investment manifold. If communication is to play a role, let it be even a modest one but a continuous one. Dotty dotted communication has long lived. Check Peter’s ideas for how we can ensure continuous engagement…
Related blog posts:

Putting learning loops and cycles in practice

On this blog, among the (by far) most successful posts are two posts about a) learning loops and cycles and b) a stock-taking post on learning cycles. This success might not even be founded as much on the quality of the posts as on the relative interest of many people for single-, double- and triple-learning loops.
Take action, reflect and reflect and reflect (Credits: Echo9er / FlickR)

Take action, reflect and reflect and reflect (Credits: Echo9er / FlickR)

So going beyond the theory, here is an attempt at making learning loops a practical reality.
What can we do to put these loops in practice?

First off, here’s an over-simplified refresher on the learning loops:

  • Single loop learning: the quest for efficiency. Doing the same but doing it better, cutting down useless practices and speeding up;
  • Double loop learning: the quest for effectiveness. Doing different things, whatever else that gives a better result because the original thinking (theory) is not conducive to success.
  • Triple loop learning: the quest for dynamically relevant effectiveness. Doing whatever to always being able to assess whether we can identify what we need to do differently – applying double loop learning to double loop learning itself.

Various activities apply to all three loops:

  • Putting an action plan in writing – laying down the steps hoped for is the first step towards quality improvement. Documentation of intentions helps generate a vision of the result (or change) expected.
  • Documenting the process: based on the theory of action (or change), documenting what happens in the action and how the environment (people, organisations, physical environment) reacts provides the feedback that helps to improve learning loops – and decide what level of loops needs to be considered. In development work, this publication might help: Documenting change – an introduction to process documentation.
  • After action review: related to process documentation, it helps to regularly assess what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, why there was a difference and what can be done differently next time. This is effectively one’s own way of introducing feedback loops and stimulate critical thinking.
  • Seeking feedback – this is the more regular way to effectively introduce feedback loops. It’s no easy task and it is all the more effective as it follows certain ‘rules’ (I just found out there’s even a book ‘giving constructive feedback – for dummies’).
  • When seeking feedback, keeping open to the feedback and new insights, humble as to one’s own knowledge (the more we think we know the more we shut ourselves down to learning) and keeping curious to other options and solutions.
  • Identifying in which kind of context we are evolving for the action at hand – following the Cynefin framework here can be quite helpful as it places emphasis on single- (simple domain), double- (complicated and complex domains) or triple-loop learning (complex and chaotic domains). There is no direct relation between the domains and the appropriate learning loops in the framework but what I suggest here goes somewhere along its lines.

Then again, there are also some other activities that might be more specific to each learning loop.

Single loop learning in practice:

  • Having an action or process map – which explains step by step what is supposed to happen. This allows to map all the different elements that might need to go under the efficiency magnifier.
  • Look at other case studies, stories and examples for carrying out the same task – it might reveal hidden aspects that prevent further efficiency.

Double loop learning in practice:

  • Identifying the ‘theory of change that informs our actions: what is the vision that we have, what are our assumptions about the chain of elements that supposedly lead to the results we hope to achieve? What are the principles that guide us? In practice, all these aspects are very difficult to single out. A theory of change is a sort of complex process map in constant questioning.
  • Identifying all other theories put together by others to inform similar activities. Perhaps they have found cracks in their own theory of change and perhaps also very solid evidence about other ways to go about. Perhaps even carry out your own research on the most effective approaches. e.g. to inform policy, should you build an individual rapport with a policy-maker and have informal talks? Should you lobby their office? Should you provide evidence at conferences? Throw an advocacy campaign?
  • Mapping out all other possible ways to do the same task and perhaps using preps to think differently about it. This can be triggered by… lateral thinking – there are many exercises that stimulate lateral thinking. Paul Sloane has made a great job at profiling himself as a very active lateral thinking and innovation specialist. Using cards with pictures is another option: you get a picture and try to relate it to the topic. Each picture is very different and gives hints at other aspects that might have been overlooked.
  • Using metaphors, which is a more virtual way of using cards, basically.
  • Bringing different people around the table or using exercises such as DeBono’s six-thinking hat. The range of perspectives by itself brings about different suggestions for solutions. This is perhaps why so many complex interventions are nowadays addressed via multi-stakeholder processes.

Triple loop learning in practice:

  • Identifying one’s default learning mode (or style) and what triggers that learning style to kick in. There is much debate about the validity of learning styles and I share some of them – as I think we constantly co-evolve with and adapt to our direct environment – but we all tend to fall back to some preferred pathways for action. Being aware of this and challenging our comfort zones is a good way to engage in triple-loop learning;
  • Thinking about the evidence base that informs our decisions. Valerie Brown came up with a very helpful presentation about multiple knowledges explaining the evidence base of different types of identities. It was also used in the paper we wrote for IKM-Emergent on monitoring and evaluating development as a knowledge ecology: ideas for new collective practices.
  • Going through enlightening experiences such as deep meditation, sabbaticals etc. could arguably also be a way of revisiting one’s profound beliefs about truth, purpose and the learning logic that follows.

I have yet to go on such a path… In the meantime your sparks of  reflection are also more than welcome!
Related blog posts:

Communication, KM, monitoring, learning – The happy families of engagement

Many people seem to be struggling to understand the differences between communication, knowledge management, monitoring, learning etc.

Finding the happy families (Photo: 1st art gallery)

Finding the happy families (Photo: 1st art gallery)

Let’s consider that all of them are part of a vast family – the ‘engagement’ family. Oh, let’s be clear, engagement can happen in many other ways but for the  sake of simplicity, let’s focus on these four and say that all of these family members have in common the desire – or necessity – to engage people with one another, to socialise, for a reason or another. And let’s try to unpack this complex family tree, to discover the happy families of engagement.

The engagement family is big, it contains different branches and various members in each of these. The main branches are roughly the Communication (Comms), Knowledge management (KM) and Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E).



The comms branch is large and old. Among the many siblings, the most prominent ones are perhaps Public Relations and Marketing. They used to be the only ones around in that branch, for a time that seems endless. All members of this branch like to talk about messages, though their horizon has been expanding to other concepts and approaches, of late.

  • Public relations has always made the point that it’s all about how you come across to other folks and enjoys very much the sheen and the idea of looking smart. But some accuse him of being quite superficial and a little too self-centred.
  • His old sibling marketing has adopted a more subtle approach. Marketing loves to drag people in a friendly conversation, make them feel at ease and get them to do things that perhaps they didn’t want in the first place. Marketing impresses everyone in the family by its results, but he has also upset quite some people in the past. He doesn’t always care for all that, as he thinks he can always find new friends, or victims.
  • Another of their sibling has been around for a while too: Advocacy is very vocal and always comes up with a serious message. Some of his family members would like him to adopt a less aggressive approach. Advocacy’s not silly though, so he’s been observing how his brother marketing operates and he’s getting increasingly subtle, but his image is very much attached to that of an ‘angry and hungry revolutionary loudmouth’.
  • Their sister communication is just as chatty but she is a bit behind the scene. Communication doesn’t care about promoting her family, selling its treasures or claiming a message, she just wants people to engage with one another, in and out of the family. She is everywhere. In a way she might be the mother of this branch.
  • Their youngest sister, internal communication, has been increasingly present over the past few years and she really cares for what happens among all members of her family. She wants people to know about each other and to work together better. She has been getting closer and closer to the second main branch of the engagement family tree: knowledge management, but she differs from that branch in focusing on the internal side of things only.
Knowledge management

Knowledge management

The Knowledge management branch also comprises many different members and in some way is very heterogeneous. This branch doesn’t care so much for messages as for (strategic) information and conversations. For them it’s all about how you can use information and communication to improve your approach.

  • The old uncle is information management. He has been around for a while and he still is a pillar of the family. He collects and organises all kinds of documents, publications, reports and puts them neatly on shelves and online in ways that help people find information. His brothers and sisters mock up his focus on information. Without people engaging with it, information does little.
  • His younger sister knowledge sharing was long overshadowed in the KM branch but she’s been sticking her head out a lot more, taking credit for the more human face of the KM branch. She wants people to share, share and share, engage and engage. She’s very close to her cousin Communication from the Comms branch, but what she really wants is to get people to get their knowledge out and about, to mingle with one another. She has close ties with her colourful cousins facilitation, storytelling and a few more.
  • They have another brother called ‘organisational learning’, who was very active for a while. He wanted everyone to follow him and his principles but he has lost a lot of visibility and momentum over the years when many people found out that the way he showed was not so straightforward as he claimed;
  • The little brother PKM (personal knowledge management) was not taken seriously for a long time but he is really a whiz kid and has given a lot of people confidence that perhaps his branch of the family is better off betting on him, at least partly. He says that everyone of us can do much to improve the way we keep our expertise sharp and connect with akin spirits. To persuade his peeps, PKM often calls upon on his friends from social media and social networks (though these fellas are in demand by most family members mentioned above).
  • A very smart cousin of the KM branch, innovation, is marching up to the limelight. She’s drop-dead gorgeous and keeps changing, never settling with one facet of her identity. Her beauty, class and obvious commonsense strike everyone when they see her, but she disappears quickly if she’s not entertained. In fact, many in the KM family would like to get her on their side but she’s alluding. Perhaps if many family members got together they would manage to keep her at their side.


The M&E branch has always been the odd group out. They are collectors and reporters. Through their history they have mostly focused on indicators, reportspromises made, results and lessons learnt. Other family members consider this branch to be little fun and very procedural, even though of late they have bended their approach – but not everyone around seems to have realised that.

  • Planning is not the oldest but perhaps the most responsible one of this branch. He tries to coordinate his family in a concerted manner. But he is also quite idealistic and sometimes he tends to ignore his siblings and stick to his own ideas, for better (or usually for worse). Still, he should be praised for his efforts to give some direction and he does so very well when he brings people to work with him;
  • Reporting, the formal oldest brother, is perhaps the least likely to change soon. He takes his job very seriously and indeed he talks to all kinds of important people. He really expects everyone to work with him, as requested by those important contacts of his. He doesn’t always realise that pretty much everyone consider him rather stuffy and old-fashioned, but he knows – and they sometimes forget – that he does matter a lot as a connector between this whole funky family and the wider world.
  • Data collection is the next sister who tends to wander everywhere; she lacks the sense of prioritisation, which is why planning really has to keep an eye on her. She’s very good at collecting indeed a lot of stuff but she doesn’t always help her siblings make sense of it. Everyone in the family agrees she has an important role to play but they don’t quite know how.
  • Therefore her other sister reflection is always behind to absorb what data collection brought forward and make sense of it. She is supposedly very astute but occasionally she does her job too quickly and misses crucial lessons or patterns. Or perhaps she’s overwhelmed by what data collection brought to her and she settles for comfort. But she usually has great ideas.
  • They have a young sister called process documentation. She’s a bit obscure to her own kin but she seems to have built a nice rapport with the other branches of the wider family and seems more agile than her own brothers and sisters. She goes around and observes what’s going on, picking up the bizarre and unexpected, the details of how people do things and how it helps for their wider work.
Learning is patient

Learning is patient

The wise godmother (1) of them all is learning. Learning generously brings her good advices to all her family, for them to improve over time. She wants her Comms branch offspring to engage in ways that benefit everyone; she encourages their KM siblings to nurture more genuine and deeper conversations that lead to some more profound insights and more effective activities; she invites the sidetracked M&E branch to find their place, not be obtuse and use their sharp wits to bring common benefits and help understand what is going well or not and why. More than anything, she encourages all her godchildren to get along with one another because she sees a lot of potential for them to join hands and play together.

Learning could do it all on her own but she prefers to socialise, she loves socialising in fact, and that’s how she keeps on top of the game, and keeps bringing the light over to other parts of the family. It’s not an easy game for her to bring all her flock to play together. There’s a lot of strong egos in there, but she is patient and versatile, and she knows that eventually people will come to seek her wisdom…

Do you recognise your work in those happy families? Who am I missing and where in the tree should they fit?

Related posts:

A simple KM and communication strategy… with double focus on the context

A lot of KM strategies end up in the dustbin. Or in the cemetery of good ideas that never took off. There are many reasons for that, explored and explained ad infinitum in the KM world.

I’d like to zoom in on two of them though:

West Africa Water Initiative

The West Africa Water Initiative

  1. From the inside, the KM strategy may be disconnected from the organisational context, either because it does not follow the overall objectives of the organisation/initiative or because it is formulated in a complex technical jargon, making it sound like an (unjustified) import. There’s nothing worse for employees than to feel someone that doesn’t understand them is trying to shove a strategy, a procedure or a system down their throat.
  2. From the outside it may be disconnected from the local context in which the initiative or organisation is operating. In this case, the initiative may be well thought-through but it will slide on the surface and fall as quickly as someone wearing normal trainers on an indoors soccer field.

This is why, for an assignment on behalf of the West Africa Water Initiative (WAWI) supported by USAid, a colleague and I proposed a KM and communication strategy that is rather practical and really takes into account the context of the initiative itself and crucially the local context and practices at play in that environment.

The strategy we propose basically looks into two main sets of activities and support activities: the main activities are information management (generating, managing and versioning information) and knowledge sharing (face-to-face and virtually, process documenting dialogues, aggregating content). Support activities include: raising visibility for the initiative; working on improving internal KM and communication; developing capacities for all of these activities; linking meaningfully with monitoring and evaluation.

Have a look at this strategy there and let me/us know what you think: http://www.community-of-knowledge.de/beitrag/knowledge-management-and-communication-strategy/ (this is the link to the strategy as it will be published in a journal soon. You can also find the strategy on IRC’s website: http://www.irc.nl/page/62673).

Related posts:

What is good in a project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blogposts:

What is learning?

Time for new stuff!!! Ah, love the learning!

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

After over three weeks hectic weeks that kept me away from blogging, I’m happy to finally be back on the (WordPress) dashboard to share some recent work. And the biggest item on a long list of ‘to blog’ is this presentation that I just prepared about learning. I will be giving this presentation today for an all-staff meeting at IRC as an introduction to one of our ‘travel free weeks’.

Travel free weeks are given a negative name (about what we don’t do: travel – we’re all supposed to be around) for what is essentially a week of organisational learning. And learning we do and talk about at IRC. A quick search for ‘learning’ gave back 992 hits on our website – on a total of I suspect over 12000 items. This is seriously core to our business. But do we always refer back to the theory and practice of learning, at personal, organisational, collective and even societal level? That I question, and anyway for whoever wishes to work on learning, going back to the white board with the ‘where are we at’ question every so often is just a standard (good) practice. That is the key to becoming a learning organisation. Remember Einstein: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

So here’s the presentation. I made it on Prezi, because it’s a new tool I wanted to (indeed) learn about, also because I think its fresh feel may put the audience in a different seat and engage them in a different way. I got triggered to use Prezi when I first heard @Joitske (Hulsebosch) tweet about it, then when I read this great blog post by Robert @Swanwick about his own experience with Prezi and finally when I saw my first Prezi about designing an academic poster, by Adam Read. But no more talk now, check the presentation:

… or online: What (the heck) is learning?

My learning curve with Prezi?

  • It’s funny how it actually feels like Prezi has been around and we do Prezi-type presentations all the time, whereas the logic of the presentation is very different to Powerpoints and it really has the advantage of focusing on one point at a time, which gives the audience a better chance to relate what you’re saying with what they’re seeing. Oh sure you can (and should) do it with Powerpoint but we all know our tendency to use as much of a white space we can with text, text and more text, especially when we’ve been trained to keep Powerpoints to an average of 10-15 slides – something we are un-learning at the moment, but it takes time to un-learn!
  • The development logic takes a while to master, not least because it involves a lot of zooming in and out to write text in small enough a display to keep it invisible when scrolling from one bit of text to another in the presentation.
  • I really like the canvas logic, the liberty and reduced linearity that you enjoy when developing and showing the presentation.
  • Framing the elements of your presentation in consistent blocks is helpful but perhaps the last thing to do in the presentation because any edit on the presentation requires you to zoom in on the element you need to edit and the overlay frame tends to be the element you pick up when you try to edit a smaller element.
  • I haven’t yet explored the possibility to embed video and audio bits and I hope it is possible or there is a (Power)point to keep using PPTs (which can do that). There is anyway as Prezi should just complement the current offer of presentation tools and find what works for you, and most importantly what because matters in the presentation, with Prezi or else, is what YOU are saying, not what’s on display.
  • I found the set of backgrounds rather limited too and hope it is easy to use new/other backgrounds.
  • Finally, for future presentations I will think further about the way I wish to use because there is a lot of learning (and effectiveness) potential there, but even with a simple – read: no-surprise – presentation like mine the surprise effect is there yet – I reckon!

Let’s see how my colleagues react to it! This, in itself, would deserve a reply blog post, don’t you think?

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The power of three learning approaches and their combination? Capitalising, systematising, documenting processes and experiences

Working with partners in Francophone West Africa always feels to me as a refreshing experience – except perhaps in a meteorological sense. It puts the concepts, approaches and tools we play with from my IRC base in the Netherlands in stark contrast with the local reality on the technological, conceptual and linguistic side of things. As such it invites me to explore my own mental models again and to ponder about different linguistic traditions of learning and knowledge management (1).

In one work session in Burkina Faso a few days ago two colleagues from CREPA Burkina Faso and I discussed the difference between ‘capitalisation’ (a learning approach almost exclusively referred to in French) and ‘process documentation’ (2). This blog post is an opportunity to compare these two concepts coming and in the process, to tackle the concept of systematisation (‘sistematización’) dear to many KM heads in Latin America.

Can we see more clearly when combining three learning approaches?

Can we see more clearly when combining three learning approaches?

What’s in the book?

So first off, here’s a short series of definitions from the best sources I could find (please enlighten me!):

  • Process documentation: Following the definition provided in the recent WASHCost process documentation workshop, process documentation is “an approach that helps track meaningful events, discern reasons for happenings and highlight project (or intervention) issues that need advocacy and action to create and improve impact of the project”.
  • Capitalisation: Often specifically refers to experiences (capitalisation des expériences). SDC’s excellent ‘guide sur la capitalisation thématique des expériences’ provides the following definition: “La capitalisation des expériences est un mode de traitement des expériences visant à produire du savoir. Il s’agit d’un processus d’apprentissage permettant d’amener des changements en s’appuyant sur des expériences disponibles encore inexplorées”. (3)
  • Systematisation: on the online SIWA discussion group (dedicated to knowledge management and learning in Spanish and primarily in Latin America), Margarita Salas recently shared a useful paper by Oscar Jara Holliday stating the following definition to systematisation: “se atribuye a la Sistematización la misión de recuperar y reflexionar sobre las experiencias como fuente de conocimiento de lo social para la transformación de la realidad, objetivo inherente a la naturaleza del trabajo social tal como era definido en ese período”. (4)

Nuances and differences

What do these definitions say?

  • Process documentation is more closely related to learning-focused monitoring and evaluation as well as communication and it emphasises observation and analysis;
  • Capitalisation is more closely related to (knowledge) management and specifically the task of supporting an improved practice and developing the institutional memory;
  • Systematisation is very close to capitalisation but it is more inherently related to the Latin American context and is particularly attuned to social work, its main objective perhaps being to bring about social change and empowerment.

So what distinguishes these terms?

I put together this table to try and outline differences between approaches but of course this is just a model. Each particular case of using capitalisation, systematisation and/or process documentation implies to adapt the approach to the context. This table shows some patterns, no more, no less.

An attempt at comparing the three approaches

An attempt at comparing the three approaches

Integrating approaches

Beyond differences, it is valuable to look at the synergies between approaches:

The key value of process documentation is its ongoing nature (it goes along other intervention activities), its creative use of media and its focus on continually informing implementation. The added value of capitalisation is to synthesise findings from experiences to inform change in future interventions. In turn, systematisation proves its worth in its social nature and the fact that it helps address issues of power relations and empowerment during an intervention.

If the context allows or commands it the three learning approaches could be integrated to offer a strong combination of documentation, learning, synthesis and application for social and other types of changes.

A combined approach would help make an intervention more effective now and in the future and it would also address power relations and negotiations between individuals and groups. It might offer a fertile ground for a deeply transformative learning experience, for the benefit of the people involved in and benefitting from the intervention (and from similar interventions in the future).

So far, I don’t know of such combinations and perhaps this idea is just a naive illusion but it seems certainly worth a more thorough analysis.

In the meantime, at the very least, I hope this post will offer a good basis to further discuss with my colleagues from CREPA and hopefully to trigger more reactions beyond…


(1)    This is all the more timely as we are in the process of setting up a francophone KM4DEV community of practice (see here the starting Ning group page and feel free to join!).

(2)    See more posts related to process documentation: Process documentation – Sandbox to influence donors?That PD thing againCapitalising on process documentation – and changing names please!

(3) Approximate translation: Capitalisation of experiences is a manner to processs experiences aiming at generating knowledge. It is a learning process that brings about changes based on available yet untapped experiences.

(4) Approximate translation: The mission of systematisation is to recover experiences and reflect on them as a source of knowledge about social phenomena with a view to transform reality, an objective which is inherent to the nature of social work as defined in this context.

Note: Thank you Nick Milton for pointing out to the need for translations. I hereby offer my own translations but would welcome any finer interpretation! Any translation implies a certain loss of meaning, which could be high in this case, particularly for the Spanish translation!