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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Curated updates: increasing the signal - reducing the noise

"We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas”1

FOMO – waving or drowning?

We’re drowning in a ‘tsunami of data’ said a group of WSH grantees at the 2014 Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS)2 convening. Time was when email was a welcome game-changer and people were in awe of the almost limitless information seeking and sharing opportunities afforded by the Web. But now the relentless and constantly increasing flow of articles, reports, research briefs, books, newsletters that compile all the above for ‘convenience’ threatens to overwhelm anyone trying to keep up with their specialist subject.

And “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO) - fear of missing trends and key new material is a major contributor to the anxiety caused by being unable to swim easily through the floods of information.

The model

In 2013 Ned Wells started circulating a short monthly update of digital marketing insights and clips that had struck him as useful and interesting. There were five items, in each update, with one short sentence explaining why Ned valued the piece. It took a couple of minutes to scan. I respect Ned as an expert in what he does and there were generally one or two items worthy of a quick click through, and occasional gems that merited a longer read, and a share. Simple, practical and anxiety reducing – ‘at least I’m keeping up with what people are saying, and the clips from Ned, who knows what he does, show that I am still in touch”.

BDS Curated updates

To address the vision statement in the second clip above (from another group in the 2014 BDS convening), in the BDS Knowledge Management (KM) project we borrowed the key elements of Ned’s idea: regular, short updates curated by specialists within a bounded subject domain, selected for a specific audience. Economy and efficiency were also key criteria in the design: we were testing whether a useful service could be delivered on minimal resources so that it would be a sustainable option, something that could be taken on by a larger organisation. Our target was that delivering the updates should take two or three days per month each, i.e, approx. 20% of a full-time post. We aimed also to mirror the level of interest demonstrated by Ned Well’s service, described above, recognising that a significant part of the value of such a service is addressing the FOMO. So we aimed for a 20% – 25% success rate in terms of interest.

We were very lucky to engage two excellent curators, respected, assiduous WSH specialists who were well connected to movements in WSH debates and publications. Pier Andrea Pirani has already blogged about our technology choices (a Wordpress blog and Mailchimp for the newsletters) and also about how we measured the progress of the trial service. The curators took on the responsibility of entering updates into the blog platform and the process of sending the newsletter was partially automated, requiring in the end only a couple of hours.

This activity was planned around a “publish, review, adapt, publish” cycle for 12 months. We tweaked and adapted the process, the newsletter and the content after each issue. The number of people signing on to receive the updates more than tripled over the 12 months all by word of mouth. We reviewed the output to-date with grantees at the January 2015 BDS convening. Following feedback, including from the curators about the difficulty of identifying genuinely new or outstanding content when there were disappointingly few recommendations from grantees and others on the list, we reduced the number to four updates a month and the curators sought to cluster the updates thematically.


As shown above, the open rate (% of subscribers that open newsletters) was always above MailChimp’s ‘industry average’ (NfP organisations), and once we had resolved a bug in Mailchimp’s statistics, we could see that the click rate (% of successfully delivered campaigns that registered at least one click) was consistent. The most significant finding is that the open and click rates remained constant even while the number of recipients consistently grew, pretty much in line with our plans.

There were generally positive responses from the grantees in an end-of-programme survey:
  • a large majority considered that, “on balance, the Curated Updates were very or a bit useful’ in their work
  • 30% considered that approx. four days per month constituted ‘extremely good value for money, while 59% considered it as ‘quite good’ value


And as is shown in the responses above, the updates rippled out across grantee’s own networks.

Less is more – boosting the signal in the signal to noise ratio

Speaking as someone whose digital archives go back over 15 years, who hoards web-links (using delicious.com), and whose digital filing structure is so rich and complex that it is generally quicker to search across the directory tree than attempt to navigate it, I recognise the compulsion to gather material that passes across an e-desk. And there’s clearly a role for organisations in collecting and sharing as much material as they can gather, for sharing with their own networks, for reference and for archiving. However, the demand from this small but important group of WSH specialists was to experiment with ways to amplify the signal to noise ratio of information. The case presented by the Curated Updates experiment is that a small investment in curation can deliver a significant return and deliver value to a targeted, bounded set of Development specialists – from practitioners through to those at the heights of policy and academia.



1  Steve Jobs
2 The BDS portfolio has now merged with another to make up the Measurement, Evaluation and Dissemination, for Scale (MEDS) initiative, whose first annual convening takes place this September

Thursday, April 21, 2016

KM in WSH - leadership and a learning culture

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other1

The good news is that it doesn’t take extra time for leaders to influence the culture of an organisation or project so that it is more supportive of learning and knowledge sharing. It’s more about being than doing, which is just as well, since leaders are always (almost) the busiest people in an organisation or project, the ones with the impossible diaries and the crippling email back-logs. It’s how leaders relate to their teams and colleagues that sets a culture. A leader who constantly asks questions, who reflects openly and publicly on their successes and challenges, who uses meeting times for collective reflection and conversations as much as operational agendas – wouldn’t we all want one of those!

The bad news is that it’s hard to write about leadership, Knowledge Management (KM) and culture without banalities and clich├ęs. There is very little that is new: the principles of how leaders can support learning and knowledge sharing show through any study, whether it’s our recent KM review work with WaterAid or this recent piece about a USAID funded project in Uganda. But we’ve some good, practical examples of small changes that influenced behaviour from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS)2  KM project. Below we discuss project and portfolio identity, describe how we addressed the issue of a learning culture and two ideas that were tested.

A band of projects on one funding line is not an identity!

We were surprised by our initial grantee survey finding that showed how little grantees saw or used each other as sources of information. But of course a Gates Foundation portfolio like the BDS isn’t an organisation, hardly even a coherent programme. It is rather a collection of funded initiatives addressing core development research questions. It is similar to many large collections of funded projects collected together by donors. These collections may be named by the funder and have a coherence in terms of budgets and timescales from the donor point of view. However, from the perspective of the recipient organisations, the funding is a contribution to their own programmes, derived from their own strategies. So there is not necessarily a sense of identity within the grantees, nor a sense that they are a community of practice within they can learn and share knowledge.

Communities of practice take time to develop, generally far longer than the 18 months of the BDS KM project. So from the outset we were clear that we would need to construct a set of activities that could prompt reflection and exchange within the grantees, support those over time and track what happened. And we were mindful of the fact that people talk about what matters to them. Another truism, but necessary to re-state since KM programs sometimes assume that people will talk about KM and how to improve it with the same enthusiasm as KM geeks. Our interest was in bringing to bear on WSH issues the specific collection of experience and capacity represented by the collection of BDS grantees in ways that would enable them to collectively explore and advance their common agenda, defined in the overall BDS framework. In later blogs we’ll describe the network animation, connection activities and ‘learning events’ that formed the core of this effort.

The best of all possible worlds

How the donor representative plays their leadership role in collections of funded programmes defines whether the collection coheres or remains a series of parallel activities. Our BDS KM plans included looking at how the BDS portfolio operated and how internal portfolio management processes could support improved KM. We described previously the activities within the Gates Foundation aimed at improving knowledge flows (KF). The KF team developed a draft of a Future State document listing indicators that would be present within an organisational culture in which Knowledge flowed easily and productively. We used this draft document as the way to structure conversations with Jan Willem Rosenboom, the Senior Project Officer responsible for the BDS portfolio, about internal processes and the role that he might be able to play in supporting the KM effort.  The target was to identify areas where changes in practice and behaviour could have impact, knowing that suggestions for extra work would be very difficult to fit into a packed schedule. Jan Willem was an active sponsor of the KM initiative and keen to experiment. Two ideas emerged immediately that are described below and were implemented over the next 15 months. Neither was radical, or involved significant extra time but both sign-posted intention and set a different tone for how people might behave with each other within the portfolio, focusing on learning and exchange rather than simply on the operational business.
  • Future State indicator: staff members can quickly and easily tap into the experience and expertise of the foundation-wide network.
    • Given that we needed strong incentives for grantees to begin to discuss and share between each other Jan Willem proposed to ask the group regularly for comments and advice about specific knotty problems that concerned him - using the mailing list we'd set up with Dgroups. As well as being prompts more likely to trigger responses – which they did – this approach has added advantage that operationally preoccupied senior staff have an incentive in the opportunity to discuss issues that interest and concern them.
  • Future state indicator: learning and knowledge sharing activities are integrated into the regular rhythm of work
    • Jan Willem determined to build into standard BDS practice a recurring activity that operationalized sharing and learning, such as a meeting, a phone call, webinar, or group phone call, involving groups of grantees, on a regional basis for time-zone reasons. So there were two rounds of ‘open agenda’ calls. The innovation, which caused some questioning initially, was that there was no set agenda, no intention to deliver an output or requirement up-front preparation. The aim was to talk and share, in the same way that people do when they meet face to face over meals, or in coffee breaks. 
    • Sharing during the calls was enhanced hugely by the use of MeetingNotes.com for collaborative real-time documentation of the conversation (facilitated by the awesome real-time note-taking skills of the peerless Nancy White). Participants commented and added links during the conversation so the notes evolved along with the discussion

From functional to conversational

It’s hard to describe the impact of these two components in isolation since they were integrated into a group of communication and connection activities that will be covered in a later blog3.  Pippa Scott, a WASH specialist who also has experience and skills in online facilitation – a rare and valuable combination -  led the connection component of BDS KM. Pippa’s comments on the differences between the two sets of open agenda calls  provide one indicator of the changes in behaviour and expectations about learning that accompanied these activities. 
  • “The nature of these first round of calls was rather functional, where several organisations 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.” 
  • “An interesting benchmark of how the conversations amongst BDS grantees had changed were the open agenda phone calls held in May 2015 where the content of the call was more focused on sharing learning and grantees identifying possible synergies of their work (as opposed to general assistance requests) with a deeper quality dialogue than the first round of calls 6 months earlier.”

Learning leaders

BDS convenings have been always been structured to maximise opportunities for learning and knowledge sharing. A key element is the commitment to field visits, which provide a springboard for in-depth conversations both during and after the visits, as well as providing unstructured time – those long minivan journeys for people to simply get to know one another. The 2015 BDS convening in Hanoi was designed to also provide opportunities for grantees to go deeper, get beyond straightforward knowledge and experience exchanges into second and third loop learning. Again, Jan Willem led from the front, as described in a previous blog, setting the tone for the event, and supporting actively the range of facilitation approaches we used, such as the Samoan Circles and Fishbowl methods described in yet another  blog.

"The way we do things around here"

And so to a learning culture, another topic writing about which has destroyed forests.  The ‘way we do things’ quote is attributed to Bower (writing in 1966) and is still a useful shorthand for describing organisational culture. By leading in the way that he has, Jan Willem has defined questioning, sharing, provoking, critically reflecting as ‘the way BDS wants to do things’. And as we shall describe in later blogs, if grantee approval of the KM activities is any guide, then the BDS culture, loose as it is, has been changed, set differently by clear and determined leadership.

What examples do  you have of inspiring and effective leadership?


1  John F Kennedy
2 The BDS portfolio has now merged with another to make up the Measurement, Evaluation and Dissemination, for Scale (MEDS) initiative, whose first annual convening takes place this September
 Note that we have been blogging throughout the BDS KM project, but mainly on the platform we set up for internal BDS conversation that was kept as invitation-only to encourage freer conversations than might be possible in more public spaces.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Knowledge Management in a portfolio of WSH projects

Learning never exhausts the mind1

Learning is something we all do personally, more or less effectively. It’s when we work in groups, in organisations, in programmes and projects that we fail at learning and sharing what we know more often than we succeed. And it’s a problem that has been written about for as long as you care to look back, in Business, in Government, in International Development.

Learning comes home to Seattle

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WSH)  team recently met to review the progress and outcomes of an 18-month long project that explored how to improve Knowledge Management within the Building Demand for Sanitation portfolio of grants. At the end of a two day process the team committed themselves to a series of actions aimed at improving the way that they do their work of listening, discussing, reflecting on and sharing what they and their grantees are learning from the large and strategic investments made by the Foundation.

This is the first in a series of blogs describing the process leading to that meeting in Seattle. In the final blog we’ll share some of the outcomes of the Seattle WSH team meeting in September 2015. But it’s important to understand first the context, the goals set for the KM project, the activities and outputs and, importantly, what grantees said about the process. In this blog we introduce the BDS portfolio, the conception of KM that underpinned the work, the process by which the KM project was designed and the different work streams. What we did in those workstreams, what happened and what people said about the activities and their impact will be described in later blogs

Building Demand for Sanitation 

The Gates Foundation is committed to helping establish sanitation services that work for everyone, especially the poorest. The Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) portfolio was one of five distinct initiatives within the WSH program. It focused on stimulating demand for improved sanitation in Africa and Asia, where the vast majority of those who lack toilets are living2. The core BDS approach includes stimulating demand for sanitation within communities, as well as working to improve the evidence base on effective practices to better influence the policy and regulatory environment, and to help improve the effectiveness of local governments and implementing organizations. The initiative works with a range of partners, including government and private providers, focusing on evidence-based programming, community-level demand creation, development of appropriate technology and service options, etc. The goal is to scale up implementation of effective rural sanitation approaches in order to end open defecation, as well as to help ensure sanitation facilities are safe, hygienic, and used by all – especially the poorest

KM is….?

The term Knowledge Management has always been contested: “you can't manage knowledge — nobody can. What you can do is to manage the environment in which knowledge can be created, discovered, captured, shared, distilled, validated, transferred, adopted, adapted and applied”3.  This quote from the venerable Chris Collinson gives a sense of the range of activities that need to be considered in thinking about KM. (Note: Collinson is now working with DfID on improving its KM, following the Amber/Red 2014 assessment of it’s organisational learning by the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) in 2014. DfID is not alone: interest in and a determination to improve Knowledge Management is sadly something that ebbs and flows in a regular cycle in most large organisations).

For the BDS KM work we focused on four activities that would included in most definitions of KM:

  • Information management: the collection and management of material from one or more sources and making that material accessible to and usable by one or more audiences;
  • Knowledge sharing: a set of practices that enables people to share what they know with others in the application of their work;
  • Learning processes: both individual and collective or social, focusing less on the “sending” and more on the “receiving”, particularly the processes of sense making, understanding, and being able to act upon the information available.
  • Communication: in the sense of a meaningful exchange, as a foundational competence for the interactions that are at the center of learning, sharing and managing knowledge

Context is all - participative design

Rather than take a pre-formed template or follow one of the countless KM models we set up a process to engage grantees in a collective project design process. A preparatory survey confirmed that reliable, affordable Internet access remains a problem for those outside larger, well-resourced organisations for many people across the globe.

We queried grantees’ information and communication seeking and sharing habits. The responses confirmed that the explosion in social and other digital media has had little impact on development actors’ behaviour:

  • To gather information, grantees asked a colleague first (50%); then either research online or ask other WASH colleagues (outside BDS programme), then contact other Gates grantees, then go to specialist online communities
  • Grantee preference for sharing ideas, in order:
    • email individuals they know working in the same area
    • share ideas face to face
    • contribute at technical workshops/conferences
    • phone individuals they know to talk through the idea
    • publish an article in a specialist magazine or paper in a journal
    • send an email into a specialist online community or discussion group
During the 2014 BDS annual convening we ran three sessions exploring in more detail the kind of activities that grantees thought would be useful in their contexts. Two primary themes emerged

Connections not collections:

Ask for a definition of KM and sadly often people will fall back on describing the process of recording and documenting ‘knowledge’, storing these ‘content objects’ in databases and disseminating documents and other products. If anyone had any doubts as to the limitations of this definition they’ve only to look at the results of the World Bank’s study of how many of it’s fabulously rich databases of policy document are downloaded. And almost none of the BDS grantees prioritised databases or content repositories in their recommendations. Rather they confirmed the importance of strengthening ties and connecting with each other. From a standard list of KM activities and functions grantees prioritised:


Increasing the signal to noise ratio:

Once upon a time the introduction of email and other Internet services to Development organisations was seen as a wonderful advance. Today people battle, complaining loudly, with unmanageable inboxes. Meanwhile, the range of information sources continues to multiply exponentially. So grantees were keen that the project explore ways to address the problem.

Knowledge Flows in the Gates Foundation

Having synthesised the inception workshop output we discussed the ideas and recommendations with the WSH team in Seattle, seeking also to learn about integrate the project with related Foundation initiatives. The Knowledge Flow initiative was a set of activities investigating and aiming to improve the flow of knowledge within the Gates Foundation. Their simple and elegant conceptualisation of the work provided a framework that mapped onto our emerging proposals (illustrated below) and, we hoped, would enable us to develop our work in alignment with thinking in the Gates Foundation.


In the following blogs we will discuss the main activity streams in turn, turning next to a discussion about KM leadership.



1 Leonardo Da Vinci
2 The BDS portfolio has now merged with another to make up the Measurement, Evaluation and Dissemination, for Scale (MEDS) initiative, whose first annual convening takes place this September
3 Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell, Learning to Fly - Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations (2005), Chapter 2, pages 24-25

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Facilitation Anywhere: Online and Blended – what’s all the fuss?

"We’re not alone in wanting to explore the opportunities and challenges of holding events online, or blended face-to-face (f2f) and online. Suddenly the web is full of courses and primers on how to do it, like this first in a series of webinars from the deeply experienced Martin Galbraith, or this one on virtual collaboration from Grove. And in our blog on Coming to Agreement in meetings we highlighted the great resource on web meetings just released by the wondrous Nancy White.FB knows Im a dog Everyone's talking digital.
Today was the online introduction to the three-day Facilitation Anywhere course, which begins next week. It was wonderful to meet the participants, after all our preparations, and we're both excited - and properly apprehensive - about next week. After several introduction exercises, increasing the bandwidth as we went along - from text chat to video and audio - we introduced some of the concepts underpinning our design.

Apart from big, all-purpose events, most gatherings engage a group of people with a common purpose. This could be a product they need to develop together, or some planning, or some ideas they need to work through in detail, or a programme they want to share experience and learning on. But of course a whole range of personal, emotional, social and organisational currents operate in and around the formal agenda.

So in the Facilitation Anywhere course we're operating at broadly three levels, and we're proposing three enquiry question for each of those."

For the remainder of this post please go to the Facilitation Anywhere blog

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Facilitation Anywhere - Ending and Transition

The year end has got us thinking about the flow of experience from beginnings through to endings and transitions, and how the best of our experience and learning can enliven and enrich the next stage of our lives. So too with gatherings. When a meeting comes to an end, how can we best support people to make that sometimes tricky transition back to the workplace?
meeting 01
image credit development art.com

In our first blog in this series, focusing on the ‘openings’ of an event, we talked about a key early task for facilitators being to help people ‘arrive’ in every sense of the word. At the start of a gathering we help people transition from the clogged busyness of the everyday so they can focus on their shared purpose and agenda. When a group spends time together, committed to a common agenda and prepared to relax into a more creative frame of mind, together they can make a kind of magic when they find or combine ideas, untangle the knots that block progress, and release energy for joint action.

Meetings and gatherings at their best open up space for focused conversation and exchange, thinking and reflection on the issues and questions that really matter to the people in the room. These are luxuries under normal operational pressures. All the more important then to intentionally create spaces that allow for emergence – that unpredictable and magical thing that happens when ideas and thoughts combine and something else takes shape.

So a good ending really matters. It completes a cycle of learning, energy and engagement so that people can more easily make the transition back into the realities of working and everyday life. Ending is a process, and includes drawing together key learning, deciding on actions and personal commitments, reviewing the event process, saying thank you and good-bye, and bringing everything to a close.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Facilitation Anywhere - Coming to Agreement

"A group who was deeply committed to their issue had shared a huge amount of experience and there was a real feeling of connection, energy and commitment in the room. And then it got stuck. Round and round we went. Action couldn’t emerge because something fundamental was missing – a signal from the leadership of unequivocal support."



This kind of blockage, a feeling of wading in treacle at a crucial point in an event or process, is something we often face as facilitators. Sam Kaner has been writing and teaching about participatory decision-making processes for over 20 years [1]. Kaner invented the term groan zone, also called, ‘the zone of struggle in the service of integration’, which perhaps sums up the issue more accurately (if less elegantly!). If the emergence and sense-making phase described in our previous blog has gone well then ideas have emerged, new combinations of activities are possible, assumptions have been challenged and fresh groupings of people have formed around agreement and difference. So everyone in the group has to struggle in order to integrate new and different ways of thinking with their own.

Once power and hierarchy, not to mention gender and difference, are layered into the situation …. kaboom! If you don’t learn enough about the power dynamics in the group at the outset and clarify who has the authority to hold (or block) decisions, the process can become unstuck.

Detailed and clear preparation can help groups anticipate and get through the ‘groan zone’. Breaking down the agenda into topics, questions and likely outcomes are part of that preparation and inform the design of the process - and being able to let it go in the moment.

Equally important is the need to be clear about what agreement looks like. Consensus is often thought to mean ‘we all agree’. But as Sam Kaner points out, consensus isn't so much the end point as how you get there - ‘a participatory process in which a group thinks and feels together en route to their decision’. The agreement itself might be unanimity or majority. The process of getting there is all important – hearing objections, exploring resistance, drawing out proposals and possible ways forward, listening for the ‘sense of the room’, testing for agreement until you get there.


1. Kaner's Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making should be on all shelves or e-readers!

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Facilitation Anywhere - Emergence and Sensemaking

"When people meet in groups they begin to think and feel differently, whatever the purpose of the gathering. In our second blog we talked about how our own ideas are being challenged and enriched as we design the Facilitation Anywhere training course. This process is amplified in groups. We think about and change our ideas - whether about each other, the specific work context or program, the subjects being discussed, or even ideas or subjects entirely unrelated to the workshop but in the forefront of our minds. In the collective learning that happens in groups (often referred to as social learning), people recognise shared beliefs and what they have in common, begin to shape new concepts, identify their differences and come together around what they can agree on.

Being the facilitator

Making sense of what’s emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop or event, for both facilitator and participants. The facilitator needs to notice and reflect on what’s happening and, in consultation with the organisers, share this with the group to help trigger further conversation. Facilitators play a central role at this stage, not because we’re driving the event, but because it’s one of the key moments when, as the person ‘holding the space’, we have the potential to add most value.

Practically speaking, this isn’t something you can do on the first morning. After surfacing ‘what we know’, now’s the time to start to sense into what’s emerging, give people space to reflect and see what insights, patterns and themes are taking shape. It’s necessarily messy, often chaotic, frequently uncomfortable and can also be exciting! As facilitators we have to call on all our internal resources to be in tune with the group, stay centred, listen and adapt to what’s arising. Let go of the choreography and improvise!"