Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What can knowledge interventions contribute to development?

I was interviewed for Vice Versa and asked for input. It was a double interview together with Eric Smaling working for the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. An interesting combination as he is well grounded in the science world as professor. I will blog what I remember as main points and issues. I hope I remember enough- waited a little too long to blog it and didn't make any notes (as the journalist was taping it). Curious to see what she will choose to publish too!

The first difference I remember is about what knowledge is. In my practitioners view- knowledge resides in the head of people, practitioners or policy makers. Eric Smaling would consider a phd research as knowledge. I would prefer to call this information rather than knowledge (if it does not reside in anybody's head except the phd student's head..). Or if you'd like to call this knowledge too, then I would like to clearly distinguish it from 'actionable knowledge', knowledge that leads to changing practices. Smaling pointed out that there is a gap between research and practice. A lot of research never gets transformed into changing realities. So how to close this gap? My solution would be to think of dynamic learning communities and networks where scientists, researchers and practitioners can meet. This solution is so logical to me, but I am now conscious of the fact that it is not all the solution for many others. I pointed out my belief in the power of south-south learning to increase the impact of development efforts. The World Bank has done a survey and the results tell us many respondents agree with this.

One of the first questions was 'what kind of knowledge should the Netherlands 'export' or 'transfer'?. I explained my vision that in my idea the counterpart model in development (the northern expert working with a southern person for a longer period of time) has disappeared because it is not how people learn and change happens. Rather, I look with a learning lens knowledge and change. Hence I start with the learner and his/her learning journey. Then it is more logical to talk about what are the knowledge needs and questions at stake. I'd say that depends on the sector and type of knowledge workers. A finance manager or minister could probably learn a lot from another manager or finance minister (through a network or community, though trainings, workshops and exchanges help too). But I guess the question of relevant knowledge within the Netherlands could be asked at a global, policy level in the sense of what are the strengths and expertise areas of the Netherlands.

This kind of led us to jump to the reciprocity in learning and knowledge sharing. Is learning north-south? Can we in the Netherlands also learn from developing countries? I definitely think so (and Smaling agreed). It is a pity if we feel that learning is north-south only, like I mentioned before, I believe in south-south learning and south-south-north learning. I gave the example of the forest landscape restoration learning network. A network where people from Brasil, Indonesia, Ghana and other countries learn, but also people from Scotland. Smaling and I both felt strongly that openess to learning is necessary. If you are in a relationship where you feel you are the expert or know more, you are not open to learning from others (but you may share). I have seen this between participants from two African countries (one looking down upon the other), I have seen it between departments in organisations and I've also noticed it myself as a trainer. What is, for instance, obstructing southern NGOs from learning is that they feel that they have obtained funding for a program because they can implement it. That doesn't favour asking questions or visiting others who may have undertaken similar programs. And sometimes it is simply lack of time. I feel when you start a new project, you should always ask around for experiences. That's not the common way of working.

Given my focus on south-south learning and networks (and alliances too by the way) to enhance learning for more impact on development, the interviewer was wondering 'but what's the role of the Netherlands'? Well, there is definitely a role to be facilitate south-south learning, to spot innovations, to compile information. As Lucia Nass, a former SNV colleague also observed there is a mindboggling number of website and manuals and even studies to compile and compare all manuals on climate change. We focus on collecting, but not enough on connecting the learners.

And ofcourse social media play a huge role and have an enormous potential to facilitate south-south-north learning, but there is a need to learn to make effective use of these media. To find information, to connect with the relevant people, to participate in online communities in ways that change and improve development practices. That's why I focus on helping people to start and facilitate communities, or to develop themselves using internet and social media. I think that we are starting to see a shift but to quote Clay Shirky "social media will not become socially interesting till they become technologically boring". In other words the real change in connecting likeminded learners and speeding up learning and change is still ahead of us.

We ended (if I recall well) with a kind of philosophical question about the role of internet and social media with regards to learning and working together in this globalised and connected world. Can we learn our way out of the global problems? On the one hand I'd like to be a sort of cyberutopian believing we will all learn to solve all global problems like poverty, climate change, feeding the growing world population. Peace through the internet. On the other hand I can imagine that there is a limit to collaboration when there is a scramble for dwindling resources. A kind of fighting for a piece of the cake. No matter how empathetic we may be, in the end we will try and make sure we and our closest families and friends are fine.

How is internet changing the way you think? book review

Edge is asking an annual question. In 2010 the question was: how is internet changing the way your think? This question was presented to 151 people and they answered this question in 2-3 pages. Amazing to see how different the 151 answers are! It was a great read during the holidays, very inspiring and there were many things I recognised..

Some people state that the Internet is not really changing their way of thinking, but most of the writers respond it does. Many mention that they consulted pages on the internet while writing the piece, and so reached different conclusions than in a world without internet. Paul Bloom: "I realize how nice people can be through the Internet". Strangers devote their time to respond and share their ideas and knowledge. Haim Harari is a physicist and sees three major changes:

  • Messages are getting shorter, the attention is more and more on one-liners (potentially misleading!)
  • Facts are available on the Internet, so hence we need to think less about facts. Thinking comes more down to making connections, collecting new ideas, distinguishing head and side issues, analysis, etc. As the facts are now available on the Internet, we do pay less attention to remembering the fact. (though with the warning that it is important and hard to distinguish between pseudo- and real facts and facts on the internet)
  • The process of learning and teaching is changing in-depth by all the possibilities and dangers of the Internet. Lessons of the greatest teachers in the world are available, we need to know fewer facts by heart as they can always to be found on the internet. This leads to a different pattern of knowledge, understanding and developing thinking in people. This fact has, according to him, not yet sufficiently penetrated and transformed the world of education. And I think it has not yet led to profound changes in the training / education world (but seems to come).

Personally my way of learning and thinking has changed dramatically by the Internet and especially social media. I follow many other professionals, what they are thinking, doing, sharing, reading. I become more creative, think of new possibilities. I am also a collector of information. The danger is that you do not have enough time reviewing the information to place and also had something to do, something that many authors mention in the book. Judith Rich Harris compares the Internet even with a bottle of ketchup. First too little came out, and now too big a glob. I have to watch myself that I'm not taking in and bookmarking too much information not using it to apply ideas and incorporate it in my own practices. I see my use of social media as supportive to developing my professional practice. Yet it happens that people retweet what they found through me and that I already forgot! I see this as the real danger. A beautiful expression of Brian Knutson (from this book) is 'survival of the focused'. He observes that some are steaming ahead as internetsailers, while others navigate around helplessly.

Making good use of the positive aspects of the new possibilities of learning through the internet while watching the pitfalls is necessary. For me, that means improving my focus on quality and application of new ideas, make sure it is not a mash of information, but that it affects and improves your own professional practice. So I try to read less, but apply more.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What is important in knowledge sharing for innovation in development?

Next monday I will have an interview with a journalist of a magazine about international development cooperation (Vice Versa). The topic of the interview is knowledge sharing. I'm trying to put some of my ideas together and would really like your input as the topic seems so vast: what are the main trends in knowledge management/knowledge sharing within international cooperation that I should highlight?

I have a very short summary of what they are looking for which I will share with you: "The importance of knowledge sharing is more and more recognised within international cooperation. The big question is: how do you do this anno 2011? What knowledge to share, how to share, and what needs to be done for innovation in international development cooperation?"

What would you definitely want to highlight? Please contribute by replying..Even though the interview is in Dutch I will make it available in English later.