Monday, November 11, 2013

Knowledge at ICT4AG

We were active at the ICT4Ag conference organised by CTA. It was a big event. About 400 people passed through over four days, and even by the end of the fourth day around 200
(thanks to Nancy White for this photo of groups at work)
people were still prepared to spend time thinking together about what they had learnt and what kind of actions would advance the different agendas that had been surfaced

Pier Andrea Pirani trained and led the social reporting team and we were also there to both support and try to enrich the learning and knowledge sharing and try to capture some of the processes  – the conversations, any outputs of individual and shared thinking, the formal presentations and, if at all possible, some of the informal exchanges that are always at the centre of conferences and workshops. It was a busy time, for participants and us. After an introductory Plug and Play day, which we helped facilitate, and of which more in another blog, the central three days of the conference were split up into:

  • Plenary panel presentations 
  • Parallel sessions, 24 in total, where three or four people presented case-studies, projects, studies and stories and, if the presenters were able to convince people to keep to time, some discussion; 
  • Two ‘open sessions’, where the aim was to encourage collective reflection, cutting across the thematic streams which were part of the organising framework, to surface fresh perspectives and emerging trends   

Learning and knowledge sharing 

So participants at ICT4 Ag experienced a rich and varied programme, that offered a broad span of opportunities to learn new things, to deepen existing knowledge, to meet informally and exchange ideas with other people, to take part in more organised group discussion activities, participate in processes aimed at encouraging reflective thinking and the emergence of collectively sifted ways to improve the use of ICTs in Agriculture. Participants had access to detailed programme and background information from a website, a mobile phone application, a printed catalogue, presentations during content sessions and brochure material distributed by those who were presenting. Those who use and engage in social media shared in the production of a huge number of content items including tweets (8,778!), blogs, video interviews and Facebook posts

A daily narrative of each day was published on the site, as was a short video story. And then there were the evenings – something happening most nights, for most participants, with one ‘reception’ well fuelled by alcohol (there is a blog somewhere about alcohol and development, how for people who meet rarely, and work virtually globally, it shortcuts to more intense connections and conversations and, of course, makes it more fun!)

If my own experience is typical, all of those channels will have enabled those who participated actively to leave with an enriched understanding of trends; new ideas; which older ideas work and which don’t; deepened relationships and extended networks, as well as a range of fully and partially formed ideas about doing things differently, or doing new things.

Knowledge – or information – management 

And that is all without having a look at all the output that we and others have gathered during and since the conference. We weren't able or resourced to provide a full record of the event: 
  • If we had videoed content session we would still only be providing a small proportion of the learning represented by the recorded sessions, since there wouldn’t have been the conversations before, during and after those sessions that provided context and material for comparison. 
  • We could have documented each content session in detail: harder to absorb, but possibly a basis for later analysis for major and common ideas. 
Instead the CTA team aimed to participate fully in the event and gather material from the inside, looking to surface and record learning:
  • Four people were employed to participate in and write syntheses of the key ideas and features of the parallel content sessions. Deliberately, we aren’t looking for neutral reports of proceedings but a personal take of the material and conversations, based on our own judgement, informed by experience and, of course, our own preconceptions, based on our own imperfect understanding and knowledge; 
  • The output of from the social reporter team was aligned to those content sessions using tags identifying three main streams of work 
  • Participants were encouraged to leave ‘what next’ reflections on wall boards, which we will be sifting and sorting; 
  • In the two non-structured 'open sessions' participants were first encouraged to identify themes which had emerged, cross-cutting the formal conference structure and then envision a future within the themes which emerged and note down what could be done to support progress, actions for themselves or by other stakeholders in agriculture. 
We’ve been capturing and analysing the material, sense-making as we go along. And we’re at the stage now of trying to work out what will be really useful, for both participants and other people interested in ICT4Ag. We don’t want to generate material that is only valuable to researchers and archivists. So who needs what? 
  • One of the main audiences is participants themselves, who have a shared experience and for whom syntheses, tweets, blog stories will serve to jog memories and start reflections. 
  • Another is CTA and its organising partners, who will all value more structured, forward-looking material, to support planning and programme development and to help shape the course of ICT4Ag, as well as attract more resources to support that work and those who work in it, all ultimately aimed at improving the well-being of populations in ACP countries. 
  • There are some lessons and ideas that will be valuable to people who weren’t at the event. Although without the conversations and atmosphere of the conference those will be thinner in terms of understanding. 
The challenge, I think, is that whatever we produce will be a pale reflection of the actual event, where participations had a kind of broadband experience, multi-dimensional and intense.

So what’s our K goal? I’ve been trying to use the triple-loop learning frame as a guide 

To capture for CTA, for reflection and planning?
To share more widely, selectively, to help people practically (e.g. trip reports) …..
…..and in terms of learning (double)?

To identify what we think are lessons that people in the sector could use to make their own work better?
To promote innovations that we think are worth watching or backing?
To reflect on our own learning?
To encourage/enable others to reflect on their own action….
and learning

Again, if my own experience is a guide, participants are likely to look at some of the final output, selectively, picking out those things that impressed or moved me. And while I do sometimes watch video-recorded events, I personally find that reports or summaries of action-points, however full and well-written, rarely move me to do anything. Whereas the energy from a good event continues to drive follow-up of various kinds for some time afterwards.

What about you? What kind of output from events that you didn’t attend do you find genuinely useful, and how much do you read?