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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Building a knowledge portal through Open Data

The Open Knowledge Hub (OKHub) is a collaborative initiative led by IDS to make good quality research accessible in an original way.

In its essence the OKHub is a “database of open-licensed metadata (bibliographic data and links) about research documents, organisations, and other materials.” Around 20 knowledge partners such as Eldis and 3iE contribute their content to the platform, including titles, URLs, abstracts and summaries, keywords, etc, of the research publications in their catalogues. To date, the OKHub contains over 20767 documents. You can browse and search this wealth of information by different criteria (e.g. themes, languages, regions and countries, etc.) on the Content Explorer.


But collecting, aggregating and organizing this global content is only half of what the OKHub offers. In fact, the OKHub uses the same open infrastructure and technology to allow you to use its content to set up your own knowledge services. Services such as BRIDGE and the Gender Hub are integrating OKHub contents to expand their online collections.

Earlier this year I supported the development of a prototype website that makes use of the OKHub dataset and functionality to presents selected research on Challenges to Development in the Arab World.

Setting up the prototype 

The OKHub offers functionality for developers and site ‘builders’ to re-use its content. You can use a simple HTML widget to display selected resources from the OKHub catalogue. Alternatively, if your website is built on Wordpress or Drupal, you can use a plugin to seamlessly import selected contents from the Hub into your own site.

For the Challenges to Development prototype, we experimented both with solutions. Eventually, as the site is build on Wordpress, we downloaded and installed the OKHub plugin to import around 140 free Open Licensed content items relevant for the 10 key issues covered by the prototype. These contents are aggregated on the resources page and presented separately on each thematic page. 


Together with this open content imported from the OKHub, the proof of concept also provides two spaces for content creation and curation: a section to present featured publications and a blogging space to share relevant highlights from the MENA region.

This project was rather short and straightforward, but there are three key lessons that I think it’s worth sharing.

A business case for the OKHub initiative and platform 

Actually, two. On the one hand, as knowledge producer or intermediary, you can make use of the OKHub technology and infrastructure to contribute the content of your organization, thus increasing its visibility, availability and accessibility. On the other hand, The WP plugin has huge potential, as it allows non programmers to easily import content and augment their own knowledge service, or create a new one.

The human factor

Open content and automation alone are clearly not enough. If you want to maximise the chance of research uptake, the human factor is key. This means using a moderator with the required regional or thematic knowledge for quality control purposes and to tailor imported content to specific stakeholders. But it also means having resources to create your own original content, to curate and repackage existing content, to build and animate a community around your service, to ensure users are interested and engaged.

Tech for the (non-)techie

The HTML widget and WP plugin enable less technical people, with a basic knowledge of HTML and CMS, to “plug-and-play” and build applications which meet their needs. However, you may still need some programming skills, to be able to fully integrate OKHub content on your own site. In my case, there was a conflict between the WP plugin and the site theme, resulting in individual records not fully displaying, or altering the site layout. Thanks to our colleague Tony Murray for stepping in and getting well beyond where my technical knowledge ends!

Overall, the prototype offers a good proof of concept for the idea that open knowledge and collaborative approaches can help extend outreach and uptake of research knowledge.

Do you know other examples on initiative of knowledge services based on Open Data to sharing and use development research content? Let us know in the comments below!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Audit your Google Apps with GAT

For a couple of years, we’ve been supporting the deployment and adoption of a KM platform for the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA). As the programme has evolved and matured, so has the platform, with almost 500 user accounts, and anecdotal evidence of its usefulness to support knowledge sharing.

But besides counting the user accounts created, what is really happening on the platform? Can we learn more about the users? What are they contributing? Is there any champion emerging? What Apps are most used?

Go beyond Admin Reports 

Google provides its own reporting functionality through the admin panel. If you have a domain admin account, you can access Reports and track Apps usage, security, accounts activity, etc. The reporting features are rather rich and are a perfect fit for ongoing monitoring of the platform. However, Google Reports allows you only to look at data for the previous 6 months period - which is probably not enough if you want a comprehensive picture of how the platform has evolved over time, and what users have been doing with it.

For this purpose, the best solution we could find is the General Audit Tool (GAT).

Launched in 2010, GAT is primarily an auditing and it monitoring tool. It allows you to audit or report on over 250+ separate items for users, documents, email, calendars, sites, groups, etc. Additionally, it counts users’ collaboration activities and calculates a ‘collaboration index’ across your domain, using multiple indicators such as file shares and file visits. Finally, you can set up alerts to get notified if domain policies are not followed - for example, when documents are shared outside the domain. The animated video below provides some more background information on GAT and what it is good for.


GAT comes with a cost, depending on the number of active Google Accounts you have on your domain. However, it also offers a full features trial. If you are using Google Apps, I recommend you test it out and find what it can do for you.

How we used GAT 

GAT helped us to extract a large amount of specific information on users, the frequency they interact with the Apps, and how they work with other users.

We run several daily GAT scans over a period of two weeks and exported several datasets from the Apps and metrics we had decided to include on our analysis. We then loaded this data into Tableau, to be able to aggregate it, segment it, analyze it and make sense of it through charts and tables.

You can read below here some highlights from our analysis:

  • The growth of and demand for new accounts has been steady and well beyond the initial expectations. 
  • The majority of users are active, with 75% of them that logged onto the platform at least once in the past 6 months, and over half of them in the first quarter of this year.
    Date last login
  • The use of the platform has been increasing over time. However, this use is unevenly distributed, with some users clearly emerging as platform champions
  • Google Drive is by far the largest app is terms of usage and the most frequently accessed by users, followed by Calendars and Hangouts. Drive currently hosts over 23K files and folders. The primary function of Drive appears to be to store and archive documents; the creation of new content is secondary. About 50% of all files on shared Drive have been created elsewhere and then uploaded onto Drive. 
  • An increasing number of users are viewing and editing documents on Drive, confirming the adoption of the tool. However, collaboration appears to be limited to a small number of documents, while the great majority see a small number of ‘actions’ (views or edits) performed by an equally small number of users.
    Docs overview: number of users, edits and visits per quarter 
  • In several instances, users are contributing to the CARIAA platform with their personal Google account instead of their CARIAA account. This has potential negative implications in terms of sharing settings, document management and overall platform M&E. 
This is very much a work in progress, we’re learning as we go and constantly testing out new options. What’s good about our progress so far is that we’re generating the kind of longer-term, trend data that really helps us provide support and the client to adapt to evidence about pattern use. And once it has been set-up it is not too time-consuming.

Of course a lot of these features are available in those expensive all-in-one packages used by commercial organisations and the deeper-pocketed big NGOs. But it’s hard work keeping up with trends and providing accurate, useful, timely data on a smaller budget, one more typical of the mass of Development players. So help us - what tools and approaches have you found useful and can share? And are your clients or service users listening to you and the data and changing how they work?

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Making change happen - KM in a WSH team

It is cheaper and easier to change information flows than it is to change structure.
Donella Meadows




Identifying what causes change in organizations and attempting to identify the impact of specific projects is the kind of conundrum that keeps consultants and academics in profitable and engaging work. To borrow from Outcome Mapping language, it’s a major step to be able to identify whether those people or organizations directly connected to a project, within its’ potential sphere of influence, change their behavior and work differently in ways that could at least be linked to the activities in the project.

Donella Meadows’ seminal work, “Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System”, in particular her description of the role of information and feedback loops, was one of the framing ideas for a review workshop of the KM project in the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) portfolio. Meadows’ work explores systems, their complexity, and the enormous effort and time required to achieve lasting change. Meadows’ work highlights the importance of power and paradigms, reinforcing the central importance of leadership, a point we’ve made consistently in this series of blogs.

The WSH team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation organized the two-day workshop in September 2015. Its’ purpose was to review 18 months of KM initiatives by the BDS team, as well as Foundation-wide KM experiences, and consider activities for the WSH team as a whole that would lead to stronger networks among foundation and grantees, improve availability and access to specific knowledge, and strengthen the organizational culture, improving the flow of knowledge.

The whole WSH team was involved in the workshop. The BDS KM team shared summary findings from a grantee survey, giving responses on elements of the BDS KM program they valued and whether or how it had affected their work. This graphic below illustrates the relative valued add of program activities, according to grantees.

(click on the graphic for a larger view)

And although 18 months is a short time in which to achieve the more fundamental changes in behavior that are the basis of sustainable change, there were clear indications that grantees believed the BDS KM activities were helping them integrate more effective KM into their work. For example, from the pre-program survey in 2014 we identified grantee KM priorities and in general, in the concluding survey, grantees rated the project’s impact positively. 

(click on the graphic for a larger view)

Mainstreaming KM into the Rhythm of Business

Everyone in the WSH team had ideas and experiences to share, so much so that when it came to prioritize proposals, a senior member of the team responded that he felt almost promiscuous because there was so much that turned him on. It’s hard to summarize such a free-flowing, well-informed and thoughtful conversation but the remarkable graphic facilitation of Nancy White at least conveys some of the richness.




The main theme that emerged was the necessity of integrating KM in the normal ‘Rhythm of Business’ (RoB). There was a consensus that KM has to be ‘mainstreamed’, not seen as something discrete, made up of specific periodic activities. The most fundamental recommendation was that the WSH Director would ask WSH team members to put KM activities into individual goals on basis of common team goals to be developed by management, based on a menu of Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to choose from. This would be supported by including KM in the job description for the then-about-to-be-appointed Deputy Director for Strategy, Planning and Management.

The team agreed also to determine how best to incorporate KM into the grant management cycle, and include it as a standard item on regular ‘Feedback to Action’ meetings. For example, two members of the team planned a pilot of a peer-assist format for part of an upcoming meeting, and they agreed to communicate lessons learned back at the next meeting. Finally, the team planned to institute regular meta-analysis of grant results, one or two times per year, which would feed into the planning process.

Active curation of information and widening access to resources behind paywalls was another theme. The team agreed to put resources towards a service or function that replicated the ‘Curated Updates’ experiment run throughout the BDS KM project. There was also a commitment to exploring how grantees could benefit from Foundation access to publications.

As ever, the longer-term impact of the workshop, and the KM project more generally, will probably be more influenced by the ‘normalization‘ of the concepts through the commitment of so much time to discussion, and the personal engagement of staff in the issue, very much led from the top. The WSH team have committed to reviewing their progress on improving KM, so expect some more blogs in due course.

Meanwhile, what about long-term behavior change in organizations that has demonstrably improved knowledge flows, learning and information management: do you have any examples or ideas?

Friday, June 03, 2016

Learning about Learning - KM in a Gates Foundation WASH portfolio

'O this learning, what a thing it is! '
(William Shakespeare, the Taming of the Shrew) 

It all seems so obvious

Pippa Scott blogged about a conversation with IRC’s Erick Baetings who was convinced he had learnt a lot during the week-long 2015 convening of the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) portfolio of grants. But when, with a colleague, he tried to write down what they had learnt – it all seemed rather obvious: ‘we need to think about smarter subsidies‘; ‘we need to work outside our silos.’ Erick said that it took them some time to really work through some of the statements to filter out the real-take home messages (which form an excellent blog here).

Nancy White has played a ‘critical friend’ role with us on the BDS Knowledge Management (KM) project. Nancy and I have worked in KM for more years than we care to (or can) remember. So when we spent some time reflecting what we have learned about learning during the 18 months, a lot of what came up seemed so obvious. But then, we too rarely write down what we know we know, which often means that learning isn’t passed on. That insight came from a shocking moment at the Hanoi convening when it became clear that the same organization had repeated the same errors in different countries over several years, a story told in a previous blog.




The challenges that KM is trying to address don’t change, which is one of the reasons why suggested solutions often sound so obvious: they have probably been tried before, with varying degrees of success. So in this blog we are reflecting on what we have learnt from BDS KM around three themes, identifying what stands out as things that might help improve KM in all our work.

Listening not hearing, observing not seeing

What shakes us out of our comfort zones, makes us challenge our assumptions, makes us recognize that what is in front of us isn’t explained by our current intellectual frameworks? In other words, when and how do we learn?

There are endless quotes on the importance of failure to learning – because failure publicly demonstrates that our assumptions and plans were wrong or inaccurate, and the bigger the failure the harder it is to learn and adjust. Disasters and emergencies have similar, distressing impact on our learning. Merizow suggests transformational learning only happens because of such ‘disorienting dilemmas’.

We can’t wait for failures or disasters to trigger our learning yet often busyness means we miss the obvious and important. The story of how Menstrual Hygiene Management was taken up as an issue by WaterAid GB provides a stark illustration. MHM has emerged as a key concern on WASH agendas in the last 10 years, as the scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems attendant on inadequate menstrual hygiene became clear. Mahon and Fernandes in their seminal 2010 paper, “Menstrual hygiene in South Asia” recount how it started:
“In January 2007, during a project visit to a village in Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh State, an adolescent girl told WaterAid staff that her mother did not allow her to use the household’s toilet during menstruation, because she is impure. During another visit to a village in Sheopur district, a woman casually mentioned in discussion that during menstruation she has used the same set of cloths for the last four years. These two small incidents brought to light another dimension of hygiene, and WaterAid realised that this is an area which has to be addressed”
Enormous kudos to WaterAid for picking up the issue and building momentum in the sector. But what is striking to me as a newcomer to the WASH sector, a man with a daughter, is that such a serious issue emerged so recently. Had the stories told by the two women to WaterAid project officers never been told before, or was it simply that the implications and impact of similar stories hadn’t been noticed? What must we do to ensure we hear and see what is in front of us? And the challenge is greater within projects and organizations, which quickly develop a way of seeing and doing that tends to be reinforced by internal processes driven by the need to meet deadlines, targets or budgets.

Of course sanitation as a sector has the powerful model of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) illustrating how people can be brought to a different way of seeing. And although far less dramatic, consultants, reviewers and evaluators can similarly hold up a mirror to an organisation or project. A similar engagement with outsiders comes from exchange and field visits too, as we discussed in an earlier blog. Both the visitors and the ‘subjects’ challenge each other, stimulate reflection and discussion. Visits to new places and contexts also caters for the random, chaotic, free flowing, emergent nature of many learning processes. Visits trigger experiences and memories that can take participants conceptually to a different point, and are especially powerful if groups or teams are involved.

What have we learnt about learning inside organisations?

But what about internal processes? Somehow teams and projects have to bring the outsider, the ‘other’ into their conversations and reviews, whether literally or through how they approach learning. Someone has to take on the outsider role, be a ‘critical friend’, challenge norms, assumptions and, ‘the way we do things around here’.

It’s obvious that leaders play a crucial role. For example, in the MHM case, the two WaterAid field workers were listened to by their manager, who agreed to take the issue up and invest. In the same way, other managers championed and invested in MHM research and programing within the organization. In the same way, managers and leaders have can profile and model learning, as Jan Willem Rosenboom has done in BDS KM and as did the Directors of the WSH team in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in setting up a two day discussion in Seattle to consider how the BDS KM experiment could inform their plans (the outcome of which we’ll be describing in the next, and final, blog in this series).

Part of that modeling is being open about not knowing, admitting ignorance. By asking genuine questions and sharing their own mistakes and failures leaders can help other people unfreeze, as this great example from a USAID project illustrates.

Nancy described this as “othering.” She suggested that an element of othering is the experience and power closeness or distance between the person sharing a learning and the listener. The closer people are in experience and/or power, the easier it is to share those daily, little things that often matter. The risk is low. Trust is probably high. Reputation is not an issue. Sharing with someone with more power or experience (like a boss, expert or funder), while requiring more courage (or trust), may shine a broader light on an issue that the practitioner may have thought was unremarkable, but the expert discerned its larger importance. So this idea that we need to share knowledge with different kinds of others emerged in our observations. It can also affect mentoring, another knowledge sharing vector.

We also observed it is essential to be explicit and intentional about reflective, learning processes. There are myriad formal processes, for example, evaluations and donor reviews. But in many cases a simpler, basic approach is required in standard meetings, mirroring what happens when disorienting dilemmas or emergencies cause us to stop; to think, “what did I actually learn”; “what’s new”; “what do I know more about now” or “how can I apply this new knowledge”? We have to watch for and catch ourselves and each other in our learning, and be mindful of the larger learning journey of which such smaller exchanges and events are a part. It’s that process we included in the learning exchange program, through our skype calls and email- learning-journals.

But to make that happen, space needs to be set aside. Anywhere we have worked people have complained about not having enough time to stop, think and record their learning.



Of course people do make time informally: we have almost as many stories of the informal ways that people make time to talk, and hence to share and learn – whether it’s the Friday afternoon kick-back, with beer or strong, sweet tea; the long, dusty drive back in the land-cruiser; or the small hours overnight on planes; or the bars or clubs in most CGIAR centers that serve the same crucial social and knowledge exchange function as, for example, the livestock fairs in Zimbabwe that Charles Dhewa and his team are recording. But to take that learning from individual and small group up to the level of teams, projects and organizations requires planning and commitment of resources to regular, formal Learning Reviews, which focus on observation and reflection, adaptation and change.

However, as a respondent noted during a recent organizational KM review, being asked to identify what has been learned at the end of a period tends to generate disconnected, random items, that hover between the operationally detailed and the strategic. Some organizations or program units are addressing this by requiring strategic units to develop learning plans or agendas. Catholic Relief Services, for example, as part of their rich learning program, recently instituted procedures requiring country programs to identify annual learning agendas. The aim is to develop a light-touch frame for the year, areas where the teams expect to know more about, questions that are being explored. 

Learning how to learn, learning how to connect.

Pippa Scott highlighted this issue in her blogs for the KM project post the 2015 BDS convening, asking:
  • “Do people know how to learn in their daily work? 
  • Is it part of their commonly used skills set? 
  • Is there a need to build capacity around learning and sharing within the community? 
  • And do projects and teams take account of people’s learning preferences and styles? 
Learning how to learn can mean on a very practical level, ensuring and supporting community members to know how to use webinar/blog or other online technology. On a more conceptual level, learning how to learn can be to ensure community members know how to slow down and take the time to observe, reflect and learn, as in the 'focused conversation' examples from the 2015 BDS convening. This can also be incorporated into learning events, such as reviews and workshops, where organizers schedule a time at the start of the session to set some ground rules and even learn or practice communication skills, before jumping into the content. For example, during the 2015 convening one group realized that participants needed to tell stories rather than simply throw out all their information at each other. It came to light that one of the participants (Joep Verhagen, WSP) had followed storytelling training. The facilitation team liked this and tweaked a session the next day to include the skill of telling stories rather than simply talking at to each other.

Once we had introduced storytelling as a communication technique, and throughout the rest of the workshop, Pippa Scott noticed that participants would prompt each other into better communication, by asking ‘what is the punchline (of your story)?‘ ‘What do I need to learn from this?’ It was fascinating and especially useful in teasing the golden nuggets of learning from the sheer volume of information. It is often also a more pleasurable experience and people may listen better. "

What works for you? What’s your best example of a project, team or organization that took learning seriously, tracked it, and ensured it fed through into program adaptation and development?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What did we learn about connecting people more closely into a global community of practice?

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” 
(Albert Enstein)

So think of any large, fun event you’ve ever been part of organizing. You know the ingredients: a good mix of people; good things to eat and drink; some activities – often but not always based around music; a space to gather, preferably one that has lots of different areas, and corners; and you – the hosts, the MC, the facilitators, who watch what’s going on, connecting people who have something in common, who start things moving, mark time and schedule events. And you know when it’s working by the buzz, a mix of different conversations, and the way that people are mixing fluidly.

For managing online communication replace the food and drink with content that people want to consume and the metaphor transfers almost completely.

The ‘connect’ work-stream was central to the Knowledge Management (KM) project we ran during 2014 and 2015 for the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) portfolio of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation WSH grants. The aims were to:
  • strengthen grantees sense of collective identity, of belonging to a group who could provide support and inspiration; 
  • provide ‘safe’ places to encourage conversation and experiments; 
  • deepen conversations, encouraging double or triple loop learning.  
We’ll use in this blog the components listed above that contribute to successful parties and events as a frame for describing our experiments in strengthening connections between grantees.

Hosting, curating and facilitating – content focused community building

The best party hosts combine social skills with insider knowledge, and enjoy a laugh!. They know who and, often more importantly, who not to introduce to each other. We were lucky to engage Pippa Scott to lead the Connect work-stream, for one day per week over one year. Pippa is a WASH specialist with experience and expertise in facilitating online communities of practice – a rare combination - and has all the social skills of a party host. So Pippa was able to add the role of curator to that of facilitator. As well as seeding and nurturing conversations and connecting different conversation spaces Pippa was able to identify and comment on key content areas, know who to engage on any particular subject, and generate meaningful, specialist content for members of the portfolio to share and discuss. Much of the material in this blog comes from Pippa’s reflective pieces about BDS KM published internally during the project.

Gathering conversations

Targeted and deliberate curation and facilitation contributed significantly to improving peer-to-peer connections within the grantees and fostering a community spirit to enable better knowledge sharing and learning. An indicator is how conversations evolved over time, with face to face meetings spinning off exchanges, which in turn were picked up at the following convening. The BDS community collected a number of conversations, notably:
  1. The Demand-Supply-Finance triangle
  2. Behaviour change, community norms and habit formation
  3. Working at scale – crossing the valley of death from ‘pilot’ to ‘scale’
  4. Learning about learning
  5. The (changing) role of the Gates Foundation
We’ve already blogged about the importance of leadership in modelling effective KM. In the context of BDS KM connect activities, a crucial success factor was having both management and thought leaders prepared to spark the conversations, maintain a strategic perspective and frame ‘knotty problems’ in ways that engage others. Leadership of that kind sets the tone, affirms that not knowing and failing are pre-requisites for learning.

Multiple spaces and interfaces for exchanges

There is no one size fits all when it comes to learning. Everybody learns in different ways and has different learning styles and skills. Some relish a written debate (on email or a forum for example) where others will need more direct or personal engagement. Some are happy to debate in a public space whereas others are not. So it’s crucial to ensure the conversations take place across a number of platforms where each conversation creates an interface or opportunity for the community’s connections to be reinforced.

As described in an earlier blog, face to face, voice and email are the communication preferences for BDS grantees –which our experience elsewhere confirms is typical of the Development sector. Our challenge was to link and build connections between the face-to-face events, such as the the BDS annual convenings and the round of WASH conferences, workshops and events in which grantees otherwise crossed over. So we used a mix of online platforms, illustrated below:
  • An email list as the primary communication channel (using Dgroups.org); 
  • A private blogging space (using wordpress.com) to help the community protect their learning space, and where we shared other information about projects and grantees
  • Social media, particularly Twitter.com, to link with the small but growing band of digitally-active grantees 
  • Webinars, both private to the portfolio and public, via Susana.org.
BDSKM.net

Unsurprisingly, the email list was the most heavily used. But there was also moderate and growing use of the private space, particularly the blogs, as the conversations described above rippled across the platforms. A key web indicator is average length of time users spend on a page. The vast majority of web pages score under 10 or 20 seconds, so the two-minute average for the BDS sites was encouraging. The blogs also had a lower bounce rate (people who leave the site after visiting only one page).

Activities and Learning events

The currency of online communication is content and events. So we planned a series of activities including targeted questions, reflections and reports from exchange visits, and webinars following up from the face-to-face events. We anticipated that each would attract overlapping but different audiences. We maintained deliberately a low-level of regular communication, with the curated updates service as a steady drip of targeted content to maintain and grow interest.

We wanted to identify the hottest topics for grantees, what people are grappling with daily, what issues had the greatest potential for exchange. The open agenda calls initiated by Jan Willem Rosenboom, the BDS portfolio lead, were described in the second blog in this series. Their purpose was to provide a forum to connect outside of the annual face to face meetings and share sector updates, not just issues relating directly to the BDS portfolio. The evolution of conversations within and around those calls illustrates the role of small connect investments. The first round of calls was rather functional, where several organizations voiced an area of interest where they could offer or would appreciated some peer support or insights from others experience. The calls were evidently beneficial to grantees and sparked several one-to-one offline conversations for peer-to-peer exchange immediately after.

The topics raised during this first round of calls (financing vs. demand, learning about learning and monitoring platforms) informed the early conversations within the BDS KM activities and these broad themes have since flourished (having been nurtured with support of a series of KM learning events and activities) into an informed and quality discourse. The content of the second round call was more focused on sharing learning, with grantees identifying possible synergies of their work (as opposed to general assistance requests) with a deeper quality dialogue than the first round of calls 7 months earlier. In general, the conversations amongst BDS grantees became much more focused and nuanced in their discourse over the program year. Pippa Scott’s view is that it is through allowing these conversations to flow, through the community, picking up different aspects but maintaining a steady and focused flow through different platforms and gaining insights from different people (professionals, practitioners, academics) that such a rich “collection of conversations” emerged within the BDS network in a relatively short space of time.

Consumable content

Following the 2015 face to face Sanitation Partners meeting in Hanoi, the reflections of Gates Foundation staff and the BDS KM team were that the annual BDS face-to-face convenings really do provide a forum for state of the art discourse to be voiced and shared. Where others in the sector may be waking up to potential synergies of programs, the BDS Sanitation Partners forum actively brought partners working at the forefront of rural sanitation together to exchange and learn from each other.

The challenge for the BDS KM team was to try and maintain some focus and quality to these conversations outside the face-to-face events. As such, the BDS KM team, responding to the feedback of participants, attempted to channel and foster the conversations through a series of online learning events and resources. The most notable of which were: blogs following up from Hanoi, thematic webinars on issues raised by BDS grantees (recorded and shared within BDSKM.net), the learning exchange visits described in the previous blog (shared with grantees on email and in summary blogs on BDSKM.net) and in certain cases one to one exchanges of BDS KM staff with BDS grantees.

The right people

Samoan Circle discussion at 2015 BDS Convening
The potential for useful exchange and learning within such a diverse group as BDS grantees was a key driver for the program, especially since our surveys showed that grantees under-valued themselves as a source of knowledge and learning, even though the portfolio brings together many of the leading organizations in Sanitation, including acknowledged thought leaders. 

Does the BDS buzz represent a positive return on investment?

Too much communication becomes noise, too little and the level of communication between face-to-face events drops to near zero, as was the case in BDS before the KM project. As we’ve described above, we aimed to provide just-enough communication, initiate activities that would attract grantees because they were interesting and relevant, while weaving content and conversation between different channels and face-to-face meetings. And, within the narrow bounds of this 18 month experimental project, our review showed that there was indeed some change in behavior, as illustrated below.

Fig 1 How grantees communicate between annual meetings 
The overall level of investment in the connect activities, including both Pippa Scott’s one day per week and contributions from other BDS KM team members, was approx. 30% of an FTE. We would argue the level of engagement and changes in behavior among grantees represents a positive return.

Do you have other examples of similar targeted KM investments in programs bringing a range of organizations together in a relatively loose association such as in the BDS?



Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Learning exchanges and journeys in BDS KM


“Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted
We only know what we know when we need to know it
The way we know things is not the way we report we know things
We always know more than we can say, and we always say more than we can write down”


‘The essence of the Knowledge Management (KM) proposition was that better outputs in terms of products and learning are generated by strengthening learning and knowledge sharing amongst grantees, which can be influenced by low level investment in:
  • Strengthening links, and increasing conversations between grantees 
  • Focusing on learning and reflection processes 
  • Making specialist content more accessible
In the next two blogs in this series on the Knowledge Management (KM) activities developed in support of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation WSH portfolio of grants we focus on ‘connections’ and ‘learning’ activities. This blog describes how we integrated reflection and communication into a series of learning exchange visits between grantees. Dave Snowden is an academic and KM practitioner (not to be confused with Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor!). The quotes above from Snowden, the KM practitioner, frame well the complexity of the learning process and why exchange visits have a special place in the KM toolkit.

Investing in what works

Like a well-used family recipe, exchange visits keep on delivering. From farmer field schools to government level exchanges, Development organisations continue to invest in exchanges because they work. “I’d had emails about the new products but it was only when I visited the site that I recognised the significance of what they were doing”, reported an experienced grantee. And “staff visiting … ask questions and force us to think”, said a project team member.

Learning is emergent, chaotic, subversive, individual as well as social, and people learn what they want and need to learn, which is (only) sometimes what the designer of the process would like them to be learning. Face to face conversations at meetings, convenings, exchange visits and study tours provide that necessarily random stimulus, the wide spectrum of experience that encourages reflection and fresh thinking. To paraphrase Snowden, we learn when we arrive at a point where our current models don’t match what we are seeing and we are required to investigate and reflect. And whatever digital enthusiasts like me say about the value, fun and power of social media and online conversations, people consistently rate face-to-face exchanges much more positively. For example, to choose just one from the constantly refreshed, rich collection of documented experience, the Challenge Program for Water and Food implemented a very wide range of KM style learning and Research for Development tools throughout the 10 year-long project. In their end of project surveying, “the three tools that received a positive rating of over 80%, i.e. rated as useful learning mechanism or very effective mechanism, were Study Tours, E-mails, and Annual Reflection meetings”

Development Tourism or learning journeys?


There’s lots of common-sensical advice within the literature on how to maximise the benefit from the investment in exchange visits. So our process for the Building Demand for Sanitation portfolio (BDS) of the Gates Foundation emphasised the importance of clear learning aims, at both a personal, team and WSH grant portfolio level - one of our selection criteria was the likely relevance of the content to other grantees. Our particular interest was in combining the connecting and learning aims listed above, intensifying reflection, learning and sharing. So we borrowed from reflective journaling and action learning processes as we constructed the format for the exchanges. We therefore required applicants to choose how they would communicate and engage with us in the KM team and the wider portfolio before, during and after the visits. The BDS KM mailing list (constructed on Dgroups.org) and the BDS blog were the two main communication channels, while any grantee who already used other channels like Twitter or Facebook were encouraged to comment as the visits progressed. As well as generating shareable content we hoped that the reflective journaling would help participants consolidate their learning, as summarising and communicating with others often does.

We ring-fenced finance for the learning exchange visits, waiting until the latter part of the project until connections strengthened between grantees and opportunities for mutual learning became clearer. We advertised the opportunity among grantees, stressing the two-tier nature of the exchanges:
  • A content exchange, where specialists would engage with other specialists on specific WSH issues and challenges. This is the meat and drink of most exchange visits. And although our specific interest was in learning and communication we recognised that most learning would take place internally to the participants, and much would surface much later, as people realised ‘what they knew when they needed to know it’. Participants were required to produce short outputs, visual or written, to share insights and reflections about the specialist content with other grantees.
  • A learning journey, where the participants would be reflecting as they travelled – and we all know the best ideas often come when staring through windows on a trip – having the kind of conversations based on direct observation and contact stakeholders that are the backbone of adaptive project management. And they would be recording those processes in some kind of learning journal. For example, one exchange participant tweeted regularly, another emailed us daily, another group agreed to a Skype conversation mid-visit. Pippa Scott, leading the 'connecting' strand of the BDS KM project, used the content to construct blogs and emails for sharing with the portfolio. We also followed up with participants at the end of the exchange, discussing reactions, identifying specific pieces of learning and how that might impact the program.




Figure 2 East Meets West Skype with KM team during their visit to India

The communication in turn triggered some responses from grantees, some in the public spaces and some directly to the participants. Final products included a report, Local Women Centered Institution for Sustainable Rural Sanitation and Hygiene? A Learning Discussion’; a reflective paper on, Developing Markets for Sanitation and a video narrative of a visit focusing on low – cost sanitation product manufacture.

Taking it wider

Maintaining the two levels of exchanges, content and learning, captured in a variety of communication products, of course, opens possibilities for the learning to ripple out beyond the narrow context from which it originates. For example, in Tanzania, Ghana and Burkina Faso the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Programme (CCAFS) ran a project called ‘Farms of the Future’. CCAFS wanted to explore study exchanges between farmers organized around climate modelling (a climate analogue tool). Participatory video was used in the process to support farmer (and wider stakeholder) learning – the participants filmed the visit themselves and fed back to their wider community on return. The CCAFS teams were already working on participatory action research in the host communities so there were opportunities to support follow up after the visitors returned home. They videos and supporting documentation are publicly available

Other helpful resources:

  • The World Bank’s, ‘The Art of Knowledge Exchange is a particularly useful resource (http://wbi.worldbank.org/sske/art-knowledge-exchange). 
  • John Roux wrote a couple of handbooks on Learning Journeys for the Water Information Network in South Africa (WINSA) in 2007 – one for organisers and facilitators and a summary version for sponsors, hosts and participants – the latter is on the WINSA website www.win-sa.org.za

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Bigger databases or personal, curated collections - Mendeley and BDS KM


Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?1

That quote used to be trotted out a lot in the early days of computers, as people worried about the impact of digital technology on learning and collaboration. It seems more relevant now as we struggle to keep our heads above water in the swollen rivers of information and communication swirling around us. We’ve moved very quickly from a situation where information was scarce to one where we have a surplus, a glut of information.

Part of the original brief for the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) Knowledge Management (K)M project was to, ‘improve knowledge and information management of, and access to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s WSH information (by)
planning and designing a system to organize and annotate WSH resources and to make these resources readily available to grantees as well as to the public”. However, two key changes were made to the proposal following consultations with the grantees:
  1. Grantees were clear they didn’t need or want another mega-depository: the key issue for them was overload, an insupportable signal to noise ratio. They wanted to be able to know about new stuff (which led to the Curated Updates work described in the previous post) and be able to access the most useful as and when they needed it.
  2. While the Gates Foundation WSH material is important, grantees also wanted material from elsewhere to be included.
So the task was refined to, “provide a working prototype of a curated database of core WSH digital content, comprising both Gates Foundation and other information”, with the audience as Gates Foundation staff and grantees who would like easier and more organized access to useful information. In our research we drew on the deep WASH experience of Peter Feldman, whose notes and comment inform much of this blog, and Jaap Pels, a KM specialist with 11 years WASH experience in IRC.

On and offline – Agriknowledge and TEEAL lead the field

The first task was to review other information management libraries to assess their range of content and capabilities. Internally, the Gates Foundation’s Agriculture program emerged as a leader in this area. Agriculture has established two library systems – an online digital library (“Agriknowledge”), and an offline library designed for use in developing country contexts (The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library or TEEAL). The online Agriknowledge library, built and managed by Cornell University, is primarily devoted to Gates Foundation-generated content, though they have recently started acquiring documents from Gates Foundation partners’ libraries as well. Agriknowledge can be searched by theme, country, language, and type of document. Currently there are about 600 documents in the repository. It is still evolving, and its managers anticipate instituting major platform changes in the future in terms of its administrative interface and other features.

TEEAL, in contrast, was developed to bring a wide range of agricultural and related science information to users who lack fast and reliable internet access. The library itself is a sealed hard drive unit which can be accessed from a subscriber’s computer. The ‘basic collection’ includes content from more than 275 research journals from 1993 to the present, and is updated (by flash drive) every year.

Mutiplying repositories

The Gates Foundation WSH program’s Transformative Technologies portfolio is currently using the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA.org) website as a place to store and share its' own and partner research outputs. Currently there appear to be around 100 documents in this online platform, which is searchable by key words and sortable by title, publication year, and partner organization. These documents also can be accessed from the main SuSanA library, and it is possible to link to related discussions in the SuSanA forums area. In 2014 the main SuSanA library had over 1,700 documents. SuSanA continues to update various parts of its website, with funding support from the Gates Foundation.

Other prominent WASH sector organizations maintain online libraries, generally accessed through navigation from their home page. Examples include those of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), UNICEF, WHO, the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC), Akvopedia, the Community Led Total Sanitation Knowledge Hub, the CLTS Foundation, the USAID-supported WASHplus project, and others (mainly regionally or country-focused).

Each of these existing resource libraries has strengths and weaknesses. WSP’s site offers only content from its own projects (though it has over 1000 documents). WSSCC’s library has a wide range of content, and it is relatively easy to search its 1,800+ documents. SuSanA and CLTS Knowledge Hub have ‘deep’ content focused on a narrower range of subjects. Finding information in the WSH sector therefore may require visiting a number of sites and dealing with a range of different search platforms (summarized in the table below).

WASH Resource
Location
Resource Type
Principal Subject Categories
Curated?
Akvopedia Sanitation Portal
Wiki articles and links to references.
Sanitation technologies. Note that this is a Wiki, and not a library of published documents.
Yes[1]
CLTS Know-ledge Hub
Mainly grey literature on CLTS, plus journal articles. >700 items.
CLTS is main focus, plus hand washing and some health-related topics. No sorted category on evaluations, notably.
Yes. There also is an automatic function that brings up ‘more like this’.
SuSanA
Mainly GIZ and SEI documents focused on sanitation technology.
-       Case Studies;
-       Research;
-       Training Materials;
-       Conference Materials
Yes (material is selected & organized by Susana managers)
UNICEF
UNICEF publications
Water, sanitation & hygiene. Can also access the “Evaluation and Research Database” and search by country, region, theme, or date. “Theme” only goes to WASH level.
No
WHO - IRIS[2]
Wide range of WHO and other UN body documents
Very detailed, covering over 5000 topics in the library (all of health sector).
No
WSP
WSP and WB documents only
-       Financing the Sector
-       Rural water supply and sanitation
-       Sanitation and hygiene
-       Strategic communications
-       Urban water supply and sanitation
-       Rural sanitation and hygiene
-       Domestic private sector participation
-       Poor-inclusive sector reform
-       Urban poor and small towns
-       Climate change impacts
-       Fragile states
No
WSSCC
Wide range of resource types; >1800 items.
3-level Sorting:
-       By resource type: E.g., Publications, Networks, Advocacy, People’s stories, etc.
-       Within these, by Language, Year, Region, Country, and Topic.
-       Within Topics (>30) are CLTS, San. Financing, Hand washing, and various others.
Yes (to some extent)


A searchable Dropbox

Grantees had strongly urged that WSH resource databases should
  1. Provide offline access to WSH resources, for two reasons:
    • There are still large areas and numbers of people who work in development who do not have reliable, affordable Internet access, both at home and at work.
    • Development people travel, go to workshops and visit projects: having access to a portable, searchable offline repository of relevant material is a key resource. Dropbox is a widely used solution but its contents can only be searched by filename.
  2. Build on an existing platform
Feldman’s work had shown the importance of classifying or tagging the material to enable rapid searching and sorting. We wanted to find ways to make the repository a living document, one with which grantees could interact, able to rate, edit, tag (classify) and add to the collection.

Mendeley.com

Jaap Pels led the investigation into platforms suitable for the trial information repository. Based on this research and input from our Advisory Group members, the Mendeley reference manager/social network rose to the top of the list.

Mendeley is a desktop and web program for collaborating online, managing and sharing research papers. It combines

  • Mendeley Desktop, a PDF and a reference management application (cross-platform on personal computers as well as phones and tablets)
  • Mendeley Web, an online social network for researchers.

Though aimed at a research audience and requiring a subscription, the platform showed good promise for several reasons:

  • It can be used online or offline (desktop version can automatically synch with the online library);
  • It's accessible from pads and smart phones;
  • It has Public or Private Groups. This feature means that a specific sub-set of ‘high value materials’ can uploaded and shared with a group of users, either public or only for an invited set of users, such as BDS grantees, as shown below. In practice this then becomes a shared library, as well as a platform for developing and maintaining social contacts

  • Meta-data from uploaded documents is automatically captured (although it generally requires some editing);
  • It's easily searchable by user-created tags, key words or other attributes;
  • Users also can access and search the entire Mendeley document database[4].
  • There are limited social functions, enabling people to find others with similar interests and interact

BDS grantees were very interested in the prototype and several are experimenting with it.



1  TS Elliot 
2  
As a Wiki, this may be a group process 
3  Institutional Repository for Information Sharing.
[4 Mendeley reportedly has about 1.9 million members, and is home to 65 million documents (supposedly covering over 97% of all published research)..