Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Laying the foundations of a knowledge sharing network

By Catherine Fisher

AfricaAdapt is a knowledge sharing network on climate change adaptation in Africa. My colleague Blane Harvey and I recently published a paper that shares insights from its first phase of operation.   Entitled  “Behind the Scenes at a ClimateChange Knowledge Sharing Network: IDS Insights from Phase One of AfricaAdapt”, it explores the dynamics of design and implementation of a knowledge sharing network in a distributed partnership, from the perspective of the former lead partner.

The paper identifies insights across a range of areas, from governance and managing financial resources to capacity building and learning that we hope will be useful to others thinking of setting up a similar knoweldge sharing network.   Here I focus on one theme that emerged  around building mutual understandings and the importance of inception and set up meetings.  I also share a few practical ideas that didn't make it into the paper. 

Importance of exploring and constructing meaning

One theme that emerged in that paper is the importance of establishing understandings that will underpin effective collaboration at the beginning of partnerships. This includes exploring more theoretical understandings about concepts (such as knowledge) as well as practical understandings about planning and communication.  We argue that time spent on exploring understandings is important for a range of reasons, not least to help prevent the lead organisation dominating the construction of meaning within the partnership.

Using inception phases to explore understanding

Inception and set-up phases and meetings provide the opportunity to explore understandings, harnessing differences in opinion and perspective to best effect. However inception and set-up meetings are generally very action-orientated and focus on identifying what is to be done by whom.   The insights in the working paper point to the importance of also exploring why and how activities are undertaken as part of creating a knowledge sharing network.
Practical suggestions for inception meetings

The table below provides a few suggestions of questions to explore before (or at the beginning of a process) establishing a knowledge sharing network, and ideas of processes that could be used to explore them.  I have used some of these approaches but not all and  this should not be taken as “best” or even “good” practice. Instead I hope it will be food for thought about ways of addressing some of the issues raised in the paper.

Hope you enjoy the full paper and, if you are planning to set up a knowledge sharing network in partnership, that the following ideas are useful input to any inception or set up meetings.

Questions to explore
Suggestions on process

How do we understand key concepts? 

Explore understandings of key concepts by individually completing the phrase “Knowledge is…” (repeating for other concepts  eg “knowledge sharing is...”, “communicationis...”, “participation is..."). First by writing it down then moving around to compare with others.  Reflect together as a group on similarities and differences. 

What’s the purpose of this network?

Revisit the purpose and logic of the network exploring questions such as:
What is the problem this network is seeking to address? Who are the stakeholders? What will be different for them if this is a success?  Outcome based planning tools such as Outcome Mapping or Theory of Change approaches could help.

What are our motivations and expectations?

Facilitate a discussion that asks participants to share:

What I hope to gain from involvement
What my organisation hopes to gain
What I/my organisation expects to contribute
What I/my organisation expects others to contribute

What’s the organisational context in which we will deliver this? 

Use creative ways such as metaphor or pictures to explore organisational culture and values (e.g. if my organisation was a machine/animal/season/colour it would be..).

Draw organagrams (from memory) of each organisation, including people outside the organisation that might affect the network.  Compare with each other  

How will we actually deliver this? 

Explore what each organisation thinks they will be contributing on an ongoing basis and how they will do it.  

 For example describe “A day in the life of a KSO

How will we make decisions?

Explore scenarios of different decisions from big decisions such as adopting a new partner to small such as adding an item to a website/newsletter.  Who would be involved?

How will we work together?

Identify what existing experience partners already have of working in partnership.  One approach could be sharing stories about highs or lows of partnership working.  What kinds of partnership do they have, how is this similar or different, what works and what doesn’t? 

Consider generating principles and strategies for working together, including  communication methods and etiquette.

What do we expect of the lead partner?

Explore what power does the lead organisation have vis a vis the other organisations? How can this be balanced? What responsibilities does it have?

What do we do if things go wrong?

Build scenarios of what could go wrong. Explore different ideas of “wrong” then discuss how it could be addressed. Relate to principles for working together. 

How will we learn in this process?

Explore what approaches to learning and professional development each organisation has.

Look at simple models for learning such as “experiential learning cycle” and see how they can apply to the partnership.  Think about how to learn before and during the process looking at methods such as After Action Reviews, peer assists etc

How will we monitor and evaluate our work? 

Discuss understandings of M&E (which are often very different), partners’ experience of it, and what they expect to contribute.

Catherine Fisher was Capacity Support Coordinator for the Impact and Learning Team at IDS. She left IDS at the end of September 2012 to join Amnesty International as their new International Capacity Building Co-ordinator