Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Learning exchanges and journeys in BDS KM

“Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted
We only know what we know when we need to know it
The way we know things is not the way we report we know things
We always know more than we can say, and we always say more than we can write down”

‘The essence of the Knowledge Management (KM) proposition was that better outputs in terms of products and learning are generated by strengthening learning and knowledge sharing amongst grantees, which can be influenced by low level investment in:
  • Strengthening links, and increasing conversations between grantees 
  • Focusing on learning and reflection processes 
  • Making specialist content more accessible
In the next two blogs in this series on the Knowledge Management (KM) activities developed in support of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation WSH portfolio of grants we focus on ‘connections’ and ‘learning’ activities. This blog describes how we integrated reflection and communication into a series of learning exchange visits between grantees. Dave Snowden is an academic and KM practitioner (not to be confused with Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor!). The quotes above from Snowden, the KM practitioner, frame well the complexity of the learning process and why exchange visits have a special place in the KM toolkit.

Investing in what works

Like a well-used family recipe, exchange visits keep on delivering. From farmer field schools to government level exchanges, Development organisations continue to invest in exchanges because they work. “I’d had emails about the new products but it was only when I visited the site that I recognised the significance of what they were doing”, reported an experienced grantee. And “staff visiting … ask questions and force us to think”, said a project team member.

Learning is emergent, chaotic, subversive, individual as well as social, and people learn what they want and need to learn, which is (only) sometimes what the designer of the process would like them to be learning. Face to face conversations at meetings, convenings, exchange visits and study tours provide that necessarily random stimulus, the wide spectrum of experience that encourages reflection and fresh thinking. To paraphrase Snowden, we learn when we arrive at a point where our current models don’t match what we are seeing and we are required to investigate and reflect. And whatever digital enthusiasts like me say about the value, fun and power of social media and online conversations, people consistently rate face-to-face exchanges much more positively. For example, to choose just one from the constantly refreshed, rich collection of documented experience, the Challenge Program for Water and Food implemented a very wide range of KM style learning and Research for Development tools throughout the 10 year-long project. In their end of project surveying, “the three tools that received a positive rating of over 80%, i.e. rated as useful learning mechanism or very effective mechanism, were Study Tours, E-mails, and Annual Reflection meetings”

Development Tourism or learning journeys?

There’s lots of common-sensical advice within the literature on how to maximise the benefit from the investment in exchange visits. So our process for the Building Demand for Sanitation portfolio (BDS) of the Gates Foundation emphasised the importance of clear learning aims, at both a personal, team and WSH grant portfolio level - one of our selection criteria was the likely relevance of the content to other grantees. Our particular interest was in combining the connecting and learning aims listed above, intensifying reflection, learning and sharing. So we borrowed from reflective journaling and action learning processes as we constructed the format for the exchanges. We therefore required applicants to choose how they would communicate and engage with us in the KM team and the wider portfolio before, during and after the visits. The BDS KM mailing list (constructed on and the BDS blog were the two main communication channels, while any grantee who already used other channels like Twitter or Facebook were encouraged to comment as the visits progressed. As well as generating shareable content we hoped that the reflective journaling would help participants consolidate their learning, as summarising and communicating with others often does.

We ring-fenced finance for the learning exchange visits, waiting until the latter part of the project until connections strengthened between grantees and opportunities for mutual learning became clearer. We advertised the opportunity among grantees, stressing the two-tier nature of the exchanges:
  • A content exchange, where specialists would engage with other specialists on specific WSH issues and challenges. This is the meat and drink of most exchange visits. And although our specific interest was in learning and communication we recognised that most learning would take place internally to the participants, and much would surface much later, as people realised ‘what they knew when they needed to know it’. Participants were required to produce short outputs, visual or written, to share insights and reflections about the specialist content with other grantees.
  • A learning journey, where the participants would be reflecting as they travelled – and we all know the best ideas often come when staring through windows on a trip – having the kind of conversations based on direct observation and contact stakeholders that are the backbone of adaptive project management. And they would be recording those processes in some kind of learning journal. For example, one exchange participant tweeted regularly, another emailed us daily, another group agreed to a Skype conversation mid-visit. Pippa Scott, leading the 'connecting' strand of the BDS KM project, used the content to construct blogs and emails for sharing with the portfolio. We also followed up with participants at the end of the exchange, discussing reactions, identifying specific pieces of learning and how that might impact the program.

Figure 2 East Meets West Skype with KM team during their visit to India

The communication in turn triggered some responses from grantees, some in the public spaces and some directly to the participants. Final products included a report, Local Women Centered Institution for Sustainable Rural Sanitation and Hygiene? A Learning Discussion’; a reflective paper on, Developing Markets for Sanitation and a video narrative of a visit focusing on low – cost sanitation product manufacture.

Taking it wider

Maintaining the two levels of exchanges, content and learning, captured in a variety of communication products, of course, opens possibilities for the learning to ripple out beyond the narrow context from which it originates. For example, in Tanzania, Ghana and Burkina Faso the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Programme (CCAFS) ran a project called ‘Farms of the Future’. CCAFS wanted to explore study exchanges between farmers organized around climate modelling (a climate analogue tool). Participatory video was used in the process to support farmer (and wider stakeholder) learning – the participants filmed the visit themselves and fed back to their wider community on return. The CCAFS teams were already working on participatory action research in the host communities so there were opportunities to support follow up after the visitors returned home. They videos and supporting documentation are publicly available

Other helpful resources:

  • The World Bank’s, ‘The Art of Knowledge Exchange is a particularly useful resource ( 
  • John Roux wrote a couple of handbooks on Learning Journeys for the Water Information Network in South Africa (WINSA) in 2007 – one for organisers and facilitators and a summary version for sponsors, hosts and participants – the latter is on the WINSA website