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Friday, January 27, 2017

Dimensions of learning and knowledge sharing

This is the second blog cross-posted from WaterAid UK, where we've been supporting a Knowledge and Learning Review and a follow-up programme involving four countries. The aim there is to explore ways in which individuals, teams and leaders can embed improved learning and knowledge sharing into their everyday rhythm of business. In this blog we introduce that programme and focus on some practical ways forward for strengthening learning and (KM).


Training Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs) of Parasi Municipality, Nepal.
© Regina Faul-Doyle/ CLTS Knowledge Hub

Individuals, teams and leaders

Synthesising findings from the review, it became clear to us that a practical way forward in which WaterAid could learn from good practice was to focus at three levels:

Individuals: sustainable change starts at the level of personal attitudes and actions, with individuals changing the way that they behave and act with other people. We consistently came across WaterAid staff, at all levels, who were models for their colleagues in, for example, how they consistently sought to question; to seek learning about what works well and not so well; to engage with others collaboratively in addressing challenges and embedding learning; and to respond enthusiastically and voluntarily to requests for ideas and support.

Personal capacities, skills, learning and communication preferences, and work patterns, all influence how an individual engages with their work context. The work culture in each location influences hugely how effective individual efforts in learning and knowledge sharing can be, especially in terms of staff motivation. And, of course, commitment of resources and leadership from the top is necessary to support a minimum standard in communication and other competencies relevant to learning.

But a range of daily choices are down to individuals, for example:
  • What to prioritise 
  • How much to question assumptions and current practices – be critically reflective 
  • Whether to seek learning from outside the immediate context 
  • Whether to make the effort to share ideas, innovations and lessons more widely 

Six main themes emerged:
  • Curation – selecting and filtering, and sharing information relevant to particular projects 
  • Communicating effectively with others 
  • Critical reflection on current practice 
  • Networking and connecting 
  • Learning 
Competencies describing good practice in these areas can be used as a checklist, or for staff development.

Teams: people work in teams, whether organised by projects or programmes or by organisational structures. Presenting a vision of how the best teams in the organisation work can provide a yardstick for comparison. In this section, five themes emerged from the study:
  • Learning is at the centre of team plans and activities 
  • Knowledge-sharing practice caters for individual learning preferences, enriching the global programme while capturing learning from elsewhere 
  • Communication facilitates the flow of information and knowledge across the organisation 
  • Partnership and networking 
  • Knowledge capture 

Leaders: "management is always encouraging and often facilitates learning activities," – WaterAid Bangladesh staff. "The management is extremely supportive to reflect, learn and share," – WaterAid Madagascar staff.

These two quotes are typical of staff interviewed in the KM review. They illustrate the central and unsurprising finding – that senior leadership drive and support is essential to establish and nourish a supportive learning and knowledge-sharing culture.

A further output from the review was a simple KM culture review tool for management teams to use with their staff to understand current perceptions of how the culture supports effective knowledge sharing and learning. The output can form a baseline against which progress can be measured.

Knowledge and learning accelerator project

This 18-month project gives us WaterAid staff and teams an opportunity to strengthen learning and KM in selected projects in four country programmes. The accelerator project aims to enable teams and staff to become more efficient and systematic in how they reflect on progress and share learning. It began with the appraisal and identified gaps which will feed into the action plan.

We will continue to blog from the project as we explore how to learn from the findings of the appraisal tool, and how best to take the recommendations forward to strengthen learning and KM in the daily rhythm of business.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Converging on common ground - or not


As a facilitator of meetings and gatherings, it’s a great feeling when it’s going well and awful when you run into the sand. There’s nothing quite like the first stirrings of unease as you realise a session isn’t going to plan. And speaking personally, that reaction stirs a prickling of sweat glands, a stirring in the stomach, natural components of the fear response.


The FacilitationAnywhere wiki links to sample workshop methods for each phase

Reflecting on the process of coming to agreement, which is the next ‘phase’ of our loose six part model of ‘typical’ events, brought me to remember how often tensions are raised in these sessions. The process of prioritising, selecting and re-prioritising, means some people will have to give way on ideas they value. It is also the key exit route from the ‘messy middle’ which is another way of visualising Sam Kaner’s ‘groan zone, which we described in our earlier post on this phase.

Keep Calm and Carry On

25/10 Crowd Sourcing is one of those creative methods from the Liberating Structures people, designed to both stimulate new thinking within a group – using a form of quick brainstorming - and help a consensus form about the most promising ideas. It’s a curious method, almost algorithmic in the way it tries to use a rapid process to bypass deeper reflection and questioning that can slow down, or interrupt a group’s convergence on what is common.

"First, every participant writes on an index card his or her bold idea and first step. Then people mill around and cards are passed from person to person to quickly review. When the bell rings, people stop passing cards and pair up to exchange thoughts on the cards in their hands. Then participants individually rate the idea/step on their card with a score of 1 to 5 (1 for low and 5 for high) and write it on the back of the card. When the bell rings, cards are passed around a second time until the bell rings and the scoring cycle repeats. This is done for a total of five scoring rounds. At the end of cycle five, participants add the five scores on the back of the last card they are holding. Finally, the ideas with the top ten scores are identified and shared with the whole group"

I’d had warnings from that ace facilitator, Ewen Le Borgne - about how easily the process can go wrong. Ewen’s response to most things is to laugh, which is a great way to deal with problems and stay in touch with other people in the room. The problem with the 25/10 method seems to be that the apparently straightforward sorting process is unusual: it’s mix of allowing people to talk about an idea, and then asking them to simply score the rest on a rapid appraisal. There is some movement too and music is meant to help. But when the process broke down during a large event we were working on last month, it suddenly made it all worse. There was too much noise and even more confusion about when the music should be on or off. So there we were, meant to be starting round two of the five scoring rounds and some of the ideas cards already had three or four scores on them. Uneasy looks, prickling of the skin: we had to laugh, and my first reaction – scratch out all the scores and start again – was quickly corrected by the group to the more logical and easier start the scoring again on the other side of the card. Dunh!

And like magic, a quietly-spoken participant, not at all one of the most vocal during the earlier three days, started making sensible suggestions during the rest of the process, but talking very softly, almost into my ear (confession: I tend to panic over numbers and counting, early educational trauma!). It was both an intensely practical way to help the group, via helping me, and also very calming for me. As a result we ended up with a series of ideas that the group in general found the most interesting – the method does work!

[More reflections and examples of methods and approaches to dealing with the 'messy middle' are included in the remainder of this post on the FacilitationAnywhere blog]


Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Social Learning and sense-making in events


"One day a woman went hoeing in the field. Before she started hoeing she put her baby under the shade of a tree. Whilst she was working in the field some baboons came and stole her baby." The constantly original and creative Charles Dhewa grabbed instantly our attention during a session at the 2011 IFAD ShareFair as he told one of the Bantu narratives he describes in his powerful paper, "Traducture and Sensemaking: Experiences from Southern Africa". We were working together in a session exploring sense-making as a process, and the stories were triggers for us to reflect on how different people take different meanings from a single prompt.



Dhewa developed the sense-making framework illustrated above that embraces the complexity of this process, especially when working with people from different cultures and with widely varied experience. The paper explores the dimensions illustrated above and it's a good introduction thinking about the role of a facilitator in working with large and small groups of people as they sense together and shape ideas and new meanings from their discussions.

As we described in our first blog on sense-making and emergence, the process of collective learning and making sense of what is emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop. Several popular and well-tested facilitation techniques can be used to support these processes, including:
World Cafe, where participants have rounds of conversations on linked sets of questions, with 'hosts' at tables recording the progressively richer exchanges.
  • The wide range of variations in storytelling methods 
  • The different approaches to Appreciative Inquiry, with their emphasis on seeking the affirmative and positive as the basis for considering future actions 
  • Future Backwards or Backcasting - taking people out to a future they construct, either or both ideal or nightmare and then considering how they will or did get to that future, as the basis for thinking about what they might do next 
[Information about FacilitationAnywhere courses (next one likely to be in April 2017), the associated wiki of resources, and further examples of methods to encourage sense-making can be found in the remainder of this blog on the FacilitationAnywhere site]

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Knowledge Management in organisations: admitting success

British organisations, like the British more generally, tend to shrug off compliments. Ask a member of staff at an international development NGO to describe what’s wrong with x or y in the organisation and make sure you have a comfortable seat, because people will usually provide a huge list, speaking at length and without notes.

In contrast, explain to those same people that actually their organisation, like most, does a lot of things very well, that they are ‘good enough’ and typical of the sector, and you can watch the eyes glaze. If, more radically, you suggest that identifying and building on good practice instead of addressing an endless list of faults generates more sustainable and less disruptive organisational change, then you get back, even from the polite British, grimaces and grunts of disbelief. 


Inclusive WASH planning © Regina Faul-Doyle/ CLTS Knowledge Hub

We've been supporting a Knowledge and Learning Review in WaterAid UK. In this summary of a blog, cross-posted from the WaterAid site we explain how we created positive conversations when reviewing WaterAid's practice around learning and knowledge management. We shared some of the examples from WaterAid of good and excellent practice in learning and knowledge management. From reactions to our sharing of these stories at the 2016 Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) conference, we believe these examples are also useful for other organisations facing the same challenges.

Appreciative inquiry

The knowledge management review used ‘appreciative inquiry’ (illustrated by the diagram below). We chose this method to create a positive conversation and practical footing. It involved:
  1. Moving away from the deficit model, characterised by long lists of faults in the organisation.
  2. The art and practice of asking questions that strengthen an organisation’s capacity to identify, anticipate and enhance the potential of its processes. 



The review investigated two WaterAid country programmes that are well regarded for learning and knowledge sharing, and also two cross-organisational areas of work that demonstrate good knowledge management. The resulting four case studies described the context, common principles, and examples of good practice found across all the studies.

As we worked our way through the investigation, common themes emerged from the project and the country programme case studies. For example:
  • The crucial role of consistent leadership and management support, at all levels. 
  • A shared commitment among teams to: talking; sharing experiences, challenges and learning; noting down formally or informally the process, conclusions and recommendations, and revisiting those notes to review progress; and to embedding this culture in regular project processes.

Equity and inclusion – the 'Rolls Royce' of projects

For example, one of the areas chosen was WaterAid’s Equity and Inclusion project (E&I). We referred to this as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of projects, as it was well designed and well resourced. It ran over several years and aimed to improve the way WaterAid integrated and adapted its work to the needs of all its stakeholders, paying particular attention to specific needs of, for example, disabled people.

We considered it as a model for how organisations can change fundamentally and how they do business at all levels. Key points of interest are:
  • The project was supported strongly at all levels of management, from senior leaders at the global and the country levels through to middle management and staff at the country level. 
  • The project was well resourced. Support staff were available and money was set aside for global face-to-face meetings. It also involved partnering with WEDC and others to develop custom materials. 
  • The project embodied good practice in ‘learning by doing’. The team constantly reviewed and reflected on their progress, adapting the project over time. 
  • The project built a powerful network of country E&I champions, but the pace and scale of its achievements owe a lot to the team at its centre, led by Louisa Gosling, who networked and communicated well and placed partnership at the centre. 

The story of how WaterAid developed its work on menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is equally powerful, and very different. The MHM case study, which we described in an earlier blog here emphasised that the combination of active listening, communication, and critical reflection is an important aspect of learning and innovation. Another major highlight from the various interviews was that networking and partnership play important roles in strengthening knowledge management.

We processed and discussed these findings across WaterAid UK, and will describe some of the follow up activities in a later blog.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ideas that spark and take life

This is the third blog of this current series describing some of our experience in meeting and event facilitation. We're focusing on how to foster and encourage those spaces and times when groups find their creativity together, spark off each other and generate ideas that are entirely new or re-visions of current thinking. It seems such an obvious and straightforward process, and there are gazillions of relevant approaches and methods in resources like the KS toolkit. We suggested some ideas of our own when we first blogged about this phase in an event. But all too often the post-it notes are written up (or photos shared) only for the energy to dissipate and the promising ideas to wither in the storm of everyday pressures. The challenge is to create an environment that provides the best chance for the most realistic or promising ideas to take life beyond the event.

Time, time, time - just give me a little more time

The challenge can be envisaged in three parts. The first is the process of engaging and energising participants in creative ideas generation. Many of us find we do our best thinking and reflection in the moments when there's nothing much going on - in the shower, out walking or on a long journey. One of the reasons that generating ideas is a relatively easy task is that meetings and events are a luxury in most people's lives, especially if they have a facilitator 'holding' the process. Once people find that time is allocated to simply thinking and being creative with other smart and committed people, they usually relish the opportunity.


Climate Change and Social Learning project workshop on evidence gathering

We get energy and inspiration when the question or issue has heart and meaning. The Human Centred Design approach starts with an exploring situation and issue through the experience of the people most affected, and through this clarifying the critical question. Asking ' how might we ... ' becomes the launch pad to generate tons of ideas - 'ideation', in short - when nothing's ruled out. At this stage, the facilitator's role is to create a creative positive space, and provide a simple structure for ideas to emerge. You'll also be managing the materials, displays and documentation, and perhaps providing examples from elsewhere. Ideo have a fantastic resource, with lots of ideas. Note that facilitators are the default provider of simple or fancy stationary so we all have our standard travel kit, like this one.

[Graphic Facilitation, as well as examples illustrating other ways to encourage and support idea generation are described in the remainder of this blog from the FacilitationAnywhere site]

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Posters, presentations and speed geeking: finding out what we know

The seven openings to events that we described in our last blog are a first step in 'bringing people’s voices and their different experiences into the room, in a spirit of curiosity and learning'. We used that phrasing when we first blogged about our Facilitation Practice last year to describe what happens as you move from openings to a logical next phase in gatherings: 'finding out what we know'. The Tagging and Human Spectrogram exercises we described in our last blog get people curious and interested, and lead naturally into richer conversations in which people find out about each other.

What shall we do about Presentations?

Presentations have a bad press among a lot of development people exhausted by the round of conferences and workshops and generally also among facilitators. The issue here is one of framing and organisation:"what if we re-imagine conferences and meetings as gatherings where people can connect, learn and have the conversations that really matter", was a blog response here to Duncan Green's rant about awful events. We described a simple but effective approach to sharing, a variant on speed-networking. Three-minute snapshot presentations from people of what was inspiring about their work meant that in less than an hour everyone knew the best of what was happening across a range of projects.

Presentations become engaging and energising when people are limited to a fixed time or number of slides, or by using a timer approach like Pecha Kucha. This also offers a compromise for those who value the security or ease of powerpoint. When there is a lot of detail to present, doing it this way allows for different approaches to communication and learning. For example, in a recent annual meeting of the CARIAA program, which involves four large, complex research syndicates in detailed and current climate change research, each syndicate gave a 10-minute introductory presentation very early in the three-day event. A bit like a TED talk, it meant that each of the senior scientists and their teams produced rich, engaging and dynamic communication that set the scene and sparked off a range of questions and follow-up conversations.

Posters and Galleries

In both those events the presentations were followed by a ‘market place’, with posters and other information for more in-depth discussions. The Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) program, on the other hand, started with the posters.

Nairobi 13 BDS convening gallery walk.JPG
Prof. Bilqis Hoque talks about women leaders in local Government at a BDS convening
The way it's organised and managed has evolved over the five years of the program, as is explained in our original post on the FacilitationAnywhere blog, where we also discuss other methods such as Speed Geeking and Carousels

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Seven Openings to facilitated events

Almost everyone’s arrived. Some are already sitting down, others are standing around and chatting. A couple of people are late, but time-keeping matters. It’s time to get started.

Suddenly you find yourself in front of a group of people – 15, or 33, or 65, or 128 of them, or more, most of whom don’t know you. You’re the facilitator and the people in the room are putting their trust in you to help them achieve something concrete by the end of the event. You want to seize the moment so that the participants come into the physical and mental space for the gathering as quickly and smoothly as possible. Then you can make a start on doing what needs to be done, letting the locus of control move between you and them.

Openings are about coming fully into the present and connecting with self, others and the purpose for the gathering. They enable people to ‘arrive’ in body and mind, relax into what’s happening, ready to engage with the work to be done. People need to be able to meet each other as quickly and easily as possible, to form as a group and create the ground for collaboration. Each group is new, formed in that time and place, meeting for a specific reason, and shaping its own particular identity.

In our recent blog on the FacilitationAnywhere site we describe seven ways to open, engage and connect...