Interview with Ann Waters-Bayer: of KM, social learning and rural innovation


Innovative farming practices in the Sahel (Credits: CGIAR Climate / FlickR)

Innovative farming practices in the Sahel (Credits: CGIAR Climate / FlickR)

Following the interview with Carl Jackson in March this year, I also had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Waters-Bayer on the same occasion, whom I just came across some weeks ago again around the workshop on Agricultural Innovation Systems in Africa.

Ann is agricultural sociologist with the ETC Foundation in the Netherlands and a well-respected author, academic and practitioner in the field of agriculture and rural development. Ann has been particularly closely involved with PROLINNOVA (promoting local innovation in ecologically-oriented agriculture and natural resource management, for which Ann wrote several publications) and with JOLISAA (Joint Learning in Innovation Systems in African Agriculture) which testifies the attachment of Dr. Waters-Bayer to move away from traditional research-led approaches to innovation towards farmer-led innovation enhanced by formal research spheres.

“We’re not involved in scaling up local innovations, we’re involved in trying to scale up the process of farmer participatory innovation which continues to adapt, to changing in circumstances.” (Ann Waters-Bayer)

As with Carl, I was interested to find out how Ann Waters-Bayer conjugated (or not) social learning and knowledge management.

The following terribly unprofessional video (additionally spoiled by some hotel staff passing by and working with dishes in the background) is redeemed by the quality and freshness of Ann’s reflections.

The transcript follows below.

What is knowledge management to you and how does it relate to social learning (if at all)?

Knowledge management is capturing, understanding, analysing and sharing experiences and insights. It could be within a project, an organisation, a network, a community of practice. How would that relate to social learning: In knowledge management we talk a lot about the sharing aspects but not the way in which the sharing would be done and the techniques and media you might use to bring about a change in the way that people reflect on the way they’re doing things, although it’s true that capitalisation of experiences (which is what we often called it) was forcing you to reflect on your experiences and to understand them in a different way than if you had not done it. There was an aspect of at least individual learning and, to the extent that if you were doing it with other people and stakeholders in that experience, then there was more of an aspect of social learning in that.

In a way you could say that the social learning label is something I have been involved in for a few decades.

Where do you think knowledge management or social learning is going and where could be their place in international development?

I think there’s a growing awareness, consciousness of different sources of knowledge. It used to be that about citizens’ knowledge, farmers’ knowledge and farmers experiencing innovation was not so much incorporated as these days. I think it’s partly because of that movement towards innovation systems thinking where you’re looking not at this linear point from research to extension to farmers but you’re seeing that there are various sources of knowledge and ideas cropping up everywhere and people interacting with each other and making things happen and making things better. It doesn’t necessarily come from conventional research. That innovation thinking is much stronger and I hope that’s the way things are going in development.

What are your current interests in knowledge management and/or social learning?

My biggest interest of course is starting with farmers and rural people and natural resource users and how they are themselves interacting with others outside the formal research sphere in order to experiment, try out new things, innovate, improve the ways they’re doing things – and how that can be linked with the formal spheres. There are people trying to do research with farmers and trying to make that linkage in such a way that people are reflecting on it and then people in different organisations are also reflecting on how do we need to do things differently in our organisations in order to support that ongoing innovation process which is happening out there, all the time and which doesn’t depend on research to make that happen, but research could actually support, enhance it, speed things up. This idea of creating that capacity within a group or a community, where they have better linkages with other sources of knowledge and of ideas. If those linkages can be improved then that adaptive capacity can be improved and a lot of the social learning is going to come about through doing things together with different stakeholders, reflecting on  how they’re doing things and how they can improve that. That is the process that I’m hoping we can scale up. We’re not involved in scaling up local innovations, we’re involved in trying to scale up the process of farmer participatory innovation which continues to adapt to changing circumstances.

What would you recommend reading, who would you recommend getting in touch with to hear more about your current fields of interest?

I think it would be good – in discussing social learning – to go back to some of the earlier literature that is of social learning e.g. the RAAKS approach (rapid appraisal on agricultural knowledge systems), AKIS (agricultural knowledge and information/innovation systems, among others mentioned in this fragment of the book ‘Wheelbarrows full of frogs: social learning in rural resource management (2002)’) with Niels Roling and all that’s come out of that in agricultural innovation systems. I think it would enrich a lot of the discussions that are going on now about social learning.

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Interview with Carl Jackson: of KM, social learning and creative design


I recently had the chance to co-facilitate an event dedicated to social learning together with Carl Jackson of Westhill Knowledge Group. Carl is a very good KM4Dev friend and a very knowledgeable person on knowledge management for development generally. He was front and centre in the organising team of the first ever annual KM4Dev event I had the chance to attend, in Brighton in 2006.

Carl kindly accepted to be interviewed about his views on the following:

  • What is KM to you and how does it relate to social learning (if at all)?
  • Where do you think KM is going (what fields is it moving towards) and where is its place in international development?
  • What are your current interests in KM and/or social learning (to do what?)
  • What do you recommend reading or who to get in touch to know more about all of this?

The video interview (3’37”) is totally not professional but the content is totally worth listening to.

The transcript follows below:

What is KM to you and how does it relate to social learning (if at all)?

For me knowledge management is really about how people come to realise the value of knowledge, irrespective of their position or of their level of authority. I think often it is about how organisations get to harness and value the knowledge assets in all kinds of places in the organisation or outside the organisation and in networks.

What’s interesting about social learning and how it relates to KM is it’s really pushing us out of this idea that KM is about looking at an individual organisation and the management of its own knowledge assets and thinking much more about knowledge is held within society more broadly and how people who come in with their professional hats also have knowledge from lots of other spheres of their life and other networks they can be bringing in to help us solve challenges that we’re facing in organisations so it’s making KM much more democratic and much more cultural.

Where do you think KM is going (what fields is it moving towards) and where is its place in international development?

I’ve seen KM become something which is now considered incredibly mainstream. It’s no longer considered to be an innovative thing that people are doing it’s like ‘hey well yeah we all do kinda knowledge management. There’s no particular cachet to be associated with it so now I think it’s much more around people trying to show how practically this is supporting the bread and butter that the organisations are doing.

Within international development I think one of the things where it’s most helpful is that a lot of organisations are working at national, regional and international scales whereas there is no particularly one place where you can go to access all the knowledge that you need. So KM within international development is about being very agile, accessing networks, building alliances and discovering knowledge in unexpected places.

What are your current interests in KM and/or social learning (to do what?)

At the moment, last kinda year I’ve been very excited around how we can start to use some of these ideas from ‘human-centred design’ or ‘collaborative design’ where it’s getting away from thinking of knowledge being primarily a textual or analytical thing and starting to invest in processes that are much hands-on, drawing on disciplines from architecture and design, to create spaces and processes which are creative hands-on innovations that unlock people’s potential to ex-temporise, to do things ‘ad lib’.

What do you recommend reading or who to get in touch to know more about all of this?

I’m not one for reading research papers, what I tend to do is to always rely on my colleagues from the KM4Dev community so seeing the blogs that are associated with KM4Dev and also any opportunity that I can get to work with or attend events that my friends in KM4Dev are part of in because they’re really cutting edge.

Carl Jackson: www.linkedin.com/in/carlwkg 

Westhill Knowledge Group: www.wkg.uk.net

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Research, KM and multi-stakeholder processes: cross interview with Cees Leeuwis and Mark Lundy


Cees Leeuwis (Credits: C.  Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Cees Leeuwis (Credits: C. Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting with two people I’ve been following with interest over the past few years:

  • Cees Leeuwis, Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies at Wageningen University and a lead thinker on multi-stakeholder processes and social learning processes involving research.
  • Mark Lundy, senior researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and one of the forefront CGIAR thinkers and leaders on multi-stakeholder processes such as learning alliances (which later inspired my former employer IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre to a.o. develop this publication).
Mark Lundy (Credits: C.  Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Mark Lundy (Credits: C. Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

They kindly accepted to answer a couple of questions about their current sources of (research) interest, knowledge management and multi-stakeholder processes.

What are you currently working on or interested in?

(Cees) I’m interested in so many things! The overarching theme in my work is around the relationships between technology and society, looking at innovation; it is about saying that innovation is more than technology alone, that it combines hard- soft- and org-ware and about thinking through the implications of that combination. This focus is very important and helps us explain why a lot of things go well or wrong and to rethink the role of science in the innovation process, how one can stimulate, organize and contribute to innovation.

(Mark) Two major things: (a) business models for sustainable trading relationships between small farmers and buyers (see: http://ciat-library.ciat.cgiar.org:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/6593/1/LINK_Methodology.pdf); and, (b) Research in development platforms building on CIAT’s experience with Learning Alliances and Innovation Platforms. I find these two topics fascinating and would happily give up my role in other programs I’m involved to dedicate myself to them.

What role do you see for knowledge management (if any) in the work you are doing and more broadly?

(Cees) KM is a problematic term. My real work on KM is related to how to embed research in society. I think that should be the role of KM: to help make people wait for research before it’s even finished. The idea is that you manage the production of research in such a way that there is some guarantee that people are waiting for it.

(Mark) KM is critical for nearly everything we do. My personal focus is on KM in the form of feedback loops for improved decision-making in business models and KM at the level of Research in Development platforms. I also see a critical role in regards to policy incidence which, historically, has not been the forte of the CGIAR.

Where do you see research on social learning and multi-actor initiatives go in the coming years?

(Cees) I think there will be more attention the dynamics of tension and conflict in these kinds of processes and the implications this has for facilitating such processes. In the end, change is about altering the status quo and usually many stakeholders are not very interested in that. And at the same time there may be competing initiatives for change. So tension and conflict are inherent to multi-actor initiatives, and I think we need to get better at dealing with this. There is a lot we can learn from studies in conflict management!

(Mark) From a CGIAR perspective, these topics need to be recognized as legitimate research topics in their own right. The CG can do brilliant upstream research but if we don’t find ways to effectively connect this to development demand in ways that add value to both research and development we will have negligible impact.

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Profile of the social learning hero


Social learning is back on the menu.

It’s always been around but somehow the social media age and the increasing recognition of the complexity we have to put up with all point forcibly to the social nature of learning.

And social learning is no easy task. It means grappling with others, getting hands dirty in negotiations and in collective problem-solving. It is about investing in future good, not immediate return on investment, even though early wins are a plus.

If social learning is the important paradigm of the day, what are the important characteristics of a social learning hero? An extension of the modern knowledge worker?

What does the social learning hero look like? (Photo - Mac3 / FlickR)

What does the social learning hero look like? (Photo – Mac3 / FlickR)

Here’s what I think a social learning hero should gather, in terms of gifts/skills and of attitude. And by social learning hero I don’t mean to describe the function of the facilitator of a social learning process which requires a very specific set of attributes. I’m interested in looking at how various people could engage successfully in social learning if they gather the right skills and attitude – and I’m not bothered with the knowledge and experience of a specific field here. You will see that there is some overlap with a knowledge worker.

Gifts and skills:

  • A capacity for strategic visioning, looking at the big picture in the longer term, to be able to map the different agendas and factors that may play out…
  • An ability to understand different accents, perspectives, and to reformulate what s/he heard to ensure s/he has understood what others meant;
  • A synthetic mind to summarise the various perspectives, identify patterns in those and possible win-win solutions;
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution skills (following the simple lessons of books like ‘Getting to Yes‘) which help avoid dead ends when interacting with others and offer solutions in case real confrontations happen;
  • An open heart giving the emotional capacity to connect with others at a deeper level and build real trust authentically;
  • Outstanding interpersonal communication skills to express oneself articulately so as to share knowledge more effectively and have the possibility to get in touch with a variety of people (see point 1);
  • Good ears and eyes to pick up the signals around (and question them);
  • A solid understanding of the learning process and all its dimensions to shape a strong social learning process;
  • Ideally, good facilitation skills to be able to contribute to organising the process of collective sense-making and problem-solving, with simple methods such as planning the purpose, harvest, actions and invitations.
  • Another bonus would be the ability to work with social tools, as this strengthens face-to-face interactions (more about this in the Social Media Guide for African climate change practitioners).

Attitude:

  • Empathy and openness to others, in the sense of welcoming others (including going out of our comfort zone) wanting to understand other perspectives and inquiring about the values, advantages, challenges of those perspectives;
  • A true curiosity to try new things out and add them to an array of experiences;
  • Humility to accept that one’s perspective is thus not better than another one’s or at least that other perspectives have potentially something to teach ourselves too;
  • Flexibility to keep a sustainable negotiation standpoint – and accepting that not everyone is and can be equally flexible all the time;
  • Clarity about what one expects from the social learning process while keeping attention for the balance with others’ needs and wills – perhaps mixed, as with the modern knowledge worker, with a vision of one’s own development pathway and next priorities;
  • Reflecting in single, double and triple-loop learning, in practice;
  • Intellectual and moral integrity and respect for oneself and for others, preserving the trust of others and perhaps stimulating inspiration from others.
  • Generally, and this is perhaps the most important, a true will to find one’s goal in a collective adventure – a genuine balance between individual and collective good.
  • A bonus might be to be optimistic (but not naive), positive (though not frantically) and  funny, to let humour grease the wheels of social learning…

A lot of these characteristics are also a must for multi-stakeholder and other social learning processes but they also need to possess additional traits. More about this in the future? Once again this is another ideal picture, not a typical profile that is easy to find around the world. But social learning we must be doing, and we might as well work on it from now on.

Related blog posts:

Social learning in climate change – Of buckets, loops and social LSD?


Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Last week, I had to facilitate one of the most challenging and interesting workshops in a long time: A very diverse group of researchers, practitioners and donors came together for the workshop organised by the CGIAR program Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The workshop focused on ‘communication and social learning: supporting local decision making on climate change, agriculture and food security‘.

The main topic was thus social learning and how it can be mobilised for more effective engagement strategies in the climate change sphere – a highly volatile and complex sphere.

Although I was facilitating and thus not really joining the rich conversations that braided the workshop, I heard the insightful gems from this fascinating collective of people in plenary feedback sessions.

Hereby, my selection of insights from the conversation:

  • There is still very little evidence of the value of social learning – how does it compare with other approaches to carry out research and implement development work, why do we tend to believe and sense this is so effective but fail to justify our intuition?
  • Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Cynefin framework                             (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Because we may not know much about the value of social learning and perhaps even what it means, it might be better to just throw ourselves in the battle – as we would do in the ‘chaos’ block of the Cynefin framework (see graph on the right). This means we would be well informed to just throw many approaches and initiatives in a bucket (or basket) and then see how the bucket itself reacts;

  • The cost of social learning remains very high: face-to-face interactions with multiple actors is time-consuming and pricy. This puts all the more pressure on assessing the value of social learning;
  • Social learning brings us back to the single, double and triple learning loops. Another reason to put them into practice. What was interesting here was that applied to communication it was introduced as a) simple dissemination of information (single loop), b) reflection about what activities allow us to be more effective (double loop) and c) real transformative change through social learning among multiple stakeholders (triple loop);
  • Social learning in itself is not really worth pursuing on its own if not for action. For this to happen, there must also be an agenda of action, of social change, that actors negotiate among them and keep in mind at all times. Social learning for the sake of it is a useless academic exercise for development issues;
  • Social learning is also a philosophy, at least an approach that can only thrive in an environment that properly supports it. Institutionalising social learning remains a difficult agenda – this has a ‘deja-vu’ feel of the organisational learning era though, doesn’t it?
  • The case for civic-driven initiatives (actually referred to as ‘endogenous social learning’ initiatives here) was made again: don’t build up from scratch, embed where the soil is fertile, where the energy and capacity is already mobilised;
  • Social learning has a twisted relation with power dynamics as it invites people to join decision-making but bears with it the devils of hidden power (who instils the social learning dynamics?), token representation (who is credibly sent to represent a given group?) and of false transparency (how clear is the decision-making process for those involved in the social learning activity and outside it?).
  • Particularly when applied to complex problems such as climate change, social learning thrives on the participation of very diverse groups of people. This, combined with the issue of power dynamics, means we need to consciously make room for social differentiation – accepting the diversity of perspectives, languages and seeing to an inviting process that creates room for groups of people (ostracised indigenous groups, women, youths etc.) to engage in the conversation and decision-making process. That social learning and social differentiation makes a perfect ‘social LSD’ combination that can get us very high (errrr, far);
  • The importance of ‘process facilitators’ is recognised: we need process guidance, a knack for and wits to convene and catalyze social learning;

We need many, many more creative participatory facilitators. Without them, much of what we hope for will not happen. Who, where, in what ways, needs to do what to generate and support them? What needs to change?” (Chambers, personal communication March 2012)

  • That engagement process should be indeed very interactive, continuous or at least iterative, if it is to reflect genuine social learning. Otherwise it risks falling on the side of ‘token participation’ again;
  • Social learning processes need to address the diverse time frames that motivate different people: farmers look at the next harvest, policy-makers at the next election, a community at the next 25 years, climate change scientists at the next 100 years. Incentives and engagement depend on the time frame of reference for each group – as beautifully explained in this post.
  • As ever, trust is the cement of all success. Particularly in large interactive processes such as wide scale social learning initiatives. This is one of the underlying themes in a recent and excellent (but long) post from Nancy Dixon, when pondering why knowledge management didn’t save General Motors.
  • The documentation of the very process of social learning is equally adamant to the success of our social learning enterprises – one of the external reviewers from the final presentation in the workshop mentioned: “the best pilots cannot be scaled up because they are the best (i.e. they are the result of a symbiotic set of factors related to one particular context), scale up the process not the pilots”. Hear hear!!


Social learning is indeed one of the talks of town – and for good reason – so this workshop was very timely, and could be only the beginning of a much longer engagement process, starting with this emerging community of interest.

This also tells me that it’s time I resumed my blogging on multi-stakeholder processes.

Related blog posts:

External blog posts written about this workshop:

Portrait of the modern knowledge worker


The brain of a knowledge worker - and that is just the beginning (Credits: unclear)

The brain of a knowledge worker – and that is just the beginning

The concept of ‘knowledge worker’ which Peter Drucker coined in 1959, is perhaps not so clear (as shown again in a recent LinkedIn discussion – access potentially limited) and can be understood at least in two different ways: dedicated and other knowledge workers.

Dedicated knowledge workers are the persons whose job it is to organise ‘knowledge work’, in relation with the processes that their colleagues are working on – a sort of knowledge work maestro, as is the case with a knowledge manager.

Other knowledge workers are people who ‘do’ knowledge work: their job strongly involves using information and engaging in knowledge interactions (identifying knowledge needs, sharing knowledge, applying it, evaluating it etc.).

Our entrance to the knowledge era means that nowadays most people in a service-providing company are knowledge workers. Now, let’s forget about the dedicated knowledge workers and ponder: what is the portrait of a modern day knowledge worker? We’re talking about pretty much us all here in the blogosphere…

Let’s really focus on the specific know-how (not the specific knowledge) that s/he should possess and the attitude that supports their work. Let’s also assume that for us knowledge workers, the main objectives of combining those characteristics are a) to become ever more relevant and effective in our field of expertise, by deepening it or expanding it on its edges (i.e. making new connections with related fields to create a bigger picture and to be more likely to follow ever innovative approaches) and b) to help others become ever more relevant and effective in their own field through our interactions with them.

What is the profile of a balanced knowledge worker anno 2012? (Credits: fr.123rf.com)

What is the profile of a balanced knowledge worker anno 2012? (Credits: fr.123rf.com)

I can think of a few traits and characteristics that relate to the desired gifts, skills and attitudes of such a modern day knowledge worker.

Gifts and skills:

  • A synthetic mind that can ingest a lot of information and summarise it in clear and concise ways, perhaps using mnemonics.
  • A pair of intently listening ears and eagerly observing eyes to pick up the signals around (and question them);
  • Outstanding interpersonal communication skills helping to get in touch with a variety of people (in the same field of expertise and beyond);
  • An open heart giving the emotional capacity to connect with others at a deeper level and build trust authentically;
  • Good speaking and writing skills allowing to express oneself articulately so as to share knowledge more effectively – both with other people verbally and in writing;
  • The capacity to read quickly and to remember things well;
  • Typing blindly to write more quickly;
  • Ideally, good facilitation skills to be able to tease out knowledge and information from other people and apply/combine them – but that is just an extra.

Attitude:

  • An open, curious, humble mind that keeps inquiring about everything, and does not settle for finished, definitive answers – the way a child would do rather than a self-engrossed expert – to keep on learning;
  • A true curiosity to try new things out and add them to an array of experiences;
  • A vision of one’s own development pathway and next priorities;
  • Reflecting continually: every day, week or after every significant event, taking the time to ponder what just happened and what could have been done better, perhaps following the after action review principles;
  • Reflecting in single, double and triple-loop learning, in practice;
  • An attitude of ‘documenting on the spot’ (typing as people speak, live blogging, taking pictures and videos as things happen etc.);
  • A strong self-discipline to systematically act upon all the above and reflect to improve again.
Good all-round knowledge of information tools and information management processes also helps keep track of one’s own field of expertise, sharpen reflection and engage in more extensive social learning with others than just face-to-face.

This is an ideal picture, not easy to find in any one real person of flesh… But it sums up a number of characteristics many of us knowledge workers have to focus and improve on to remain relevant and adapt as we cruise through ever more complex paths in the knowledge era.

Related blog posts:

Walking my talk: “quick and dirty”… on the edge of knowledge


I have been an advocate of producing “quick and dirty” information for a while (see this post and that post). Offering that info, insight, experience out for the public scrutiny seems to me the best way to get good feedback from others and from the reality to refine it and come up with answers or better questions – it’s aligned with the idea that Dave Snowden has about building resilience.

Speedy Gonzales - an iconic messenger?

Speedy Gonzales - an iconic messenger? (Photo Credits Jeremy Brooks, FlickR)

In this respect, now seems like a good moment to also follow suit on this blog by trying and blogging on a more regular basis, for shorter posts. I’m still intending to write longer posts every now and then, particularly from the stock-taking and harvesting insights series. But all in all it may be a better idea for me to get my ideas out and about and to engage with you about them on a more regular basis. And at the moment there is ample matter to draw inspiration from with the couple of IKM-Emergent papers on M&E of KM which should be coming out any day now (the summaries are already available on the IKM website, under ‘what’s new’), the article I’m co-writing on learning alliances in Ethiopia, the study we are conducting about information and knowledge management practices in the water and sanitation sector in Burkina Faso, the personal effectiveness survey which I introduced here and will be discussed shortly (and hopefully approved) by the management of my organisation…

But a first quick and dirty insight for now, though, is a reflection from the series of dialogues about knowledge management that a colleague of mine and I have been having with our Director. When reflecting together upon the added value of our organisation, it struck me that our value actually lied in the combination of the subject matter expertise we have in the WASH sector, combined with the network we possess (in the sector and at its edges, to combine various perspectives) but more crucially even perhaps, is the last aspect of the triangle: the expertise we have in facilitating social learning processes, online and offline. This is an essential way to collectively leverage other peoples’ knowledge, combine it, innovate, learn and learn to learn and ultimately to achieve change on a wider scale and on a longer time span…

If we are living in the age of knowledge, we are also living on the edge of what we know, and increasingly, I think, we will draw from other sources of inspiration than knowledge: feelings and emotions, intuition. Facilitating the expression and combination of these sources will be a critical skill for people and organisations to redefine themselves, their place and value in society. That, and quick and dirty reflection… You reckon?

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