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 clichés. 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 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.