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?