Sunday, October 05, 2014

Learning about Learning - telling stories and reflecting on change

Telling stories, as a way of sharing and ‘storing’ knowledge has been part of the culture of our species since we first started talking to each other.
And storytelling has been recognized as a central tool in the area of work we now know as Knowledge Management in Development (KM4Dev) since Steve Denning, then leading the World Bank’s drive in the mid 1990's to become a ‘Knowledge Bank’ made it a central part of his methodology. So we were following a well-trodden path in asking participants to tell a story of change at the East Meets West (EMW) workshop during the WEDC 2014 conference in Hanoi in September.

In a previous blog we explained the context and genesis of the workshop. In the session we put our overarching question to participants after we had introduced the concepts and process: ‘How does sustainable change happen, and how can learning about change be applied at scale and in different contexts?

We then asked participants ‘think about a situation where something has changed over the past two or four years, at team, project or organisational level' and then 'tell the story of how that change happened'
  1. Where, when and in what context did this happen? Paint the picture in words or on a flip chart
  2. Who was involved?
  3. What happened - list the key steps in the process?
  4. What happened next, was the change institutionalised (embedded in the organisation or project), or is it still being worked through, or did the learning and drive to change disappear e.g. management structures for institutionalising reflection, such as set time within meetings 
  5. What can other people learn from your example that they could use in other situations?
The process was outlined as follows:
  1. In small groups, brainstorm some examples
  2. Choose one story and develop it in more detail, capturing key points on a flipchart or post-its: diagrams are good
  3. Share the story with another group and identify any common themes and critical factors - what had to be present for the change to happen. Was the change maintained beyond the original context - and if so what made that happen?
  4. Sharing back - in plenary if there's time, or as posters on the wall - summary of the story and key learning points that could be shared beyond the project or organisation
Half of the  participants were either EMW staff or partners of their CHOBA program. The other twenty or so people came mainly from INGOs present at WEDC. We’d done some preparation with EMW staff. Theirs is a fascinating story to tell, since they have been developing an Output Based Aid program now fully funded on a payment-by-results basis. This video is a recording on an EMW Project Officer, Nguyen Van Ngoc Tien, telling their story, translated on the go by Nguyen Hong Hanh, Senior Monitoring, Evaluation & Research Officer at EMW

There were other stories in the room, for example:

  • Jonny Crocker, from the University of North Carolina, working a related WASH project with PLAN International,  on his learning about how to cut through the formalities of large organisations to be able to engage directly as a researcher with project staff
  • A great story from UNICEF about the positive impact of handing control of developing M&E systems  over to national staff (you’d have thought not a lesson that still needs learning!)

Reflections on the reflections

One of the challenges of working in this way relates to the age-old tension in KM4Dev between product and process. Learning is a process, as is reflection. “Being 'busy' creates a mindset that is not conducive to innovation and creativity.  Time to discuss, reflect and generate new ideas is the ransom that quality demands.”1. But without concrete outcomes, like reports, action points or stories – like this one – people are often uneasy about the value of these kinds of sessions. And part of the challenge is that the learning is as likely as not to become evident or relevant well after a particular workshop. We deliberately ensured that Kathryn Harries’ excellent materials were available to participants as a handout, to ensure that there was something immediately concrete to take away. And we hope to track the outcomes of the workshop with East Meets West staff in the months to come, following up on the event and asking about people’s own perception of what happened and whether useful learning took place and, most importantly, whether what happened as a result. And when we have completed this set of blogs we will follow up with other participants as well.

In terms of learning from the workshop, all the organisers were pleased that the majority of the responses in the post-workshop evaluation form were positive. We ourselves recognised that we came to the event with our own objectives, some of which overlapped and some didn’t. So the format and activities were necessarily a compromise, which meant that we too came away feeling positive but not entirely satisfied. Simply from the point of view of workshop facilitation I (re-) learnt some lessons about using story telling

  • Not everyone is a good story teller: it’s not always easy to condense important events over a period of time into a short, compelling narrative and some people are better than others at identifying the elements that will engage an audience, from amongst the detail, and even fewer people are natural raconteurs in front of an audience.
  • Everyone is ready to have a go, which is the fun of the event
  • Using graphics is essential. Again, some people are better at visuals but most people can display a story at least as well as they can tell, it, and most people do best in a combination of the two, as illustrated in the video
  • Those who regularly reflect both on their own and with others in a social, critical reflection process, find it easier to find examples and construct stories. But it’s a challenging exercise for those who haven’t that experience to do so in the constrained time of a workshop
  • The group sharing was too short in our own workshop: we should have left people for longer, simply telling stories to each other, rather than pushing them as early as we did to construct one illustration. The ‘group’ story would have emerged more naturally and easily after a longer small-group period and people would have had time to listen and learn, to engage and question
The next in this series of blogs will be about the CHOBA experience in Vietnam, based on interviews with EMW staff and their key partners in the Vietnamese Women's Union.

(Note 1: adapted from a quote by Thierry Barreto-Fernandez West Africa Rural Foundation, Senegal)