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; 
  • A private blogging space (using to help the community protect their learning space, and where we shared other information about projects and grantees
  • Social media, particularly, to link with the small but growing band of digitally-active grantees 
  • Webinars, both private to the portfolio and public, via

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, the learning exchange visits described in the previous blog (shared with grantees on email and in summary blogs on 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 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 ( 
  • 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

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 ( 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
Resource Type
Principal Subject Categories
Akvopedia Sanitation Portal
Wiki articles and links to references.
Sanitation technologies. Note that this is a Wiki, and not a library of published documents.
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’.
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 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.
Wide range of WHO and other UN body documents
Very detailed, covering over 5000 topics in the library (all of health sector).
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
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.

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 
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)..