Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Pratical example: Obstacles to knowledge sharing experienced by a network in Ghana

I vlogged Edward Addo-Dankwa (working for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana and a board member of GINKS, a network on ICT for development in Ghana) about cultural obstacles to knowledge sharing for networks in Ghana. Unfortunately the video is very, very dark and I thought editing would help, but it didn't. I'm so sorry, but thought it would be a pity not to post it. To compensate I will add Eddy's picture here and my advice is to look at his picture while listening to his voice and what he has to explain, which is very interesting.

I actually had various talks on the topic of how knowledge sharing works in the network and while designing the question for Eddy I thought asking about obstacles would make a negative question and almost choose the alternative of asking about succesful learning processes within the network. Nevertheless, I decided that you can't go around understanding some of the obstacles as well. I asked Eddy because we had discussed the same topic in July as well. He talks about 3 important elements: the fact that people are brought up with information flows from older to younger generations rather than lateral flows, the assumption that knowledge and wisdom comes with age and the perception that people will make money out of knowledge which inhibits free sharing of information.

He actually suggests that education is needed to change people's perceptions to realize that young people may have useful knowledge to contribute and complement. With regard to the fact that people can make money with their knowledge, you may think about ways of rewarding experts, in non-monetary ways. Which is exactly the art of a community of practice to draw in experts and keep them interested by rewarding them with recognition and interesting contacts.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Technology: how to start blogging

Britt Bravo has a great post on how to start blogging. It's basically the process I went through, plus I tried to get some help and feedback from people before I started. And I'm terribly lazy with adding new things like a subscription feature, trackback, tagging, so I still have a lot to do. These things are so horribly time consuming. At some point I started listing the blogs I was reading haphazardly in bloglines (now I have 22). Somehow when you are blogging, it gives you more of an interest (or excuse) to read other blogs systematically, I only started reading these blogs systematically when I started blogging myself. And it's amazing what you pick up, things which are completely different from what you blog about at times. It's very tempting to allow your bloglines to grow, but I think I'd like to stop at around 25, to avoid the feeling of having to 'keep up' with your own bloglines (and creating your own information overload).

Saturday, December 24, 2005

same video with 1,4 MB instead of 18 MB (should be faster to open)

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Technology: building relationships through online and f2f interactions

I met Manju Chatani in Accra, Manju lives in Accra, is an online facilitator and interested in ICT4D. I interviewed Manju in July for my work with GINKS. Then we were together in the online facilitation workshop of Nancy White which was a great experience and we learned and interacted a lot online for 5 weeks. My work in Accra permitted us to meet again, and deepen our discussions about our online work. I had actually forgotten how fast she talks through all the online -mostly text- interactions :). The great experience for me was that we actually just continued talking where we left off online. For instance, we discussed blogging a lot during the workshop and she asked me straight: 'So, tell me why I should start blogging'; which is really the point where we left off online. I noticed f2f it is easier to fill in some details which seem kind of trivial, yet the lack thereof online may lead to plenty assumptions. (I realize how quickly I pick up accents; plenty is very Ghanaian english and it's the word running in my brains now).

I vlogged Manju about this experience: she has a great explanation of how online interactions can contribute to deepening (learning) relationships, reflecting on our relationship as an example. I knew it would be hard to get her on video, but I succeeded (I think the topic did a lot there)!!

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Changing cultures: men, women and carrying babies

Unfortunately, I didn't dare to take pictures while waiting for my plane.. otherwise there would have been two great pictures. The words probably won't do half of the work but let's try.

My plane was full of Ghanaians living abroad, going home for X-mas, many from the US. And there was one lady, carrying her baby on her back, tying it the Ghanaian way (when I did that some time, I felt like the baby could fall every moment, but Ghanaian women are quite comfortable doing so). And there was also one man, carrying his baby on his belly, with a 'western' carrier. It would have been great to post the two pictures on my blog if only I had dared.

Technology: live blogging from Accra...

Just for fun: blogging from my hotel room in Accra with a wifi connection (and no, this is not the Hilton, nor Golden Tulip, but a 'middle range' hotel...). 20,000 cedis per hour (2 euros). So connectivity is improving in Accra, if you have money. But you can also buy a sim card at every corner for 75,000 cedis. And there is an innovative system whereby you can a card like a phone card, but its for a dial-up connection.

In the plane, I got upgraded to business class (for the second time in my life :). While swimming in my seat, I watched all the movies there were to see and found out you can also send sms/emails if you want. (I resisted this).

We did some brainstorming with GINKS board members (in the picture: Agnes Adjiabeng from EPA; clearly happy with the results). I was very impressed with everything going on. And did I hear the word blogging during the brainstorm??

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Technology: blogging by mail

Hi, this is a test to blog by e-mail. If it works, it would be easier for people with low-bandwith problems. (you can type offline and send all your mails at once, when you are connected). Test, test, test.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Technologies: online versus f2f


Yesterday I met the first person who knew my blog without knowing me!! Weird experience. Since I had few comments, you have the impression that nobody is reading your blog. (which is OK because it is also a way of organising and documenting your own thoughts, but getting comments is very stimulating). It was at an informal gathering of people working in development organisations. I also met a person who talked about oyster as important for searches for content on the web (I'll try it). Since we met f2f I forgot his name & it took me some time to find oyster on the web (didn't know how you write it). Beth Kanter mentioned live blogging at Global Voices Summit in London with pictures of people meeting f2f and still hooked up to their computer, which seemed (and still seems) utterly weird to me, but OK there are some disadvantages not putting something immediately in your computer...

I also heard about interesting work by my own colleagues from people from other organisations, which was funny, and shows how hard it is for organisations to develop systems for good internal knowledge sharing, without ending up in boring meetings all the time. I think blogging would be great to keep eachother informed of the basics, but it goes with the habit of blogging and reading. Just wonder if there are private blogformats (suppose there are). It shouldn't be public. But the habits and discipline to blog?. I'll talk about my experiences with documenting in Ghana some other time.

Culture: sinterklaas jokes


For the last time: sinterklaas by Pathuis from Intermediair

Cost reduction; 'what you can't achieve without firing staff'' 'to start with the show-around Piet, did you ever hear about navigation?'

Probably the joke will be hard to understand without knowing the context (so it's for the 33% of my blogreaders who log in from the Netherlands, amazing what statistics you can get from a free sitemeter..).

Monday, December 12, 2005

Communities of practice


There is a webcast with a presentation by
Verna Allee on value creating network. The good thing is that it takes an hour, but you can click on subparts, and the whole webcast is on transcript as well (I ended up reading rather than listening). There are some really interesting parts related to communities of practice.

First she makes important distinctions between different social networks like information networks, affiliation networks, and purpose networks like knowledge networks and communities of practice; whereas social network analysis has not really made this distinction. She recalls an organisation where everyone was so excited about communities of practice that they started calling everything a CoP (hm very recognisable!). She distinguishes CoPs from knowledge networks since CoPs have a shared domain, a joint enterprise flowing from a joint understanding of the practice, which comes from within. So there is a whole educational process needed to make people understand the difference. She mentions that CoPs are very popular because it seems to build people's skills to survive in a networked society. A different set of skills than needed for survival in a hierarchical organisation.

I like the stricter definition, but if you apply it strictly, I wonder if multistakeholder networks would qualify for CoPs (because of a wide variety of practices and maybe very uneven practices) or are more often knowledge networks (and then what are the different implications for supporting or structuring it?). So far I tried to avoid looking at the name but rather whether CoP theory could help in any way to understand what's going on in a network or CoP. (??)

Practical examples: 5 examples from Latin America

In Intrac Praxis Note 16 (available in English and Spanish), Brenda Bucheli and Gabriela Romo describe some of the outcomes of a workshop on communities of practice held in Mexico at the beginning of this year. The participants were from SNV, PACT and IMAC. The workshop defined a community of practice as a group with a 'common learning interest, aimed at establishing long-term learning processes, innovation, the improvement of practice and the strengthening of relationships between members. It analyses success factors in 5 areas from getting started to incentives. It stresses the building upon existing relationships, knowing who the members and their strengths are and that focussing on the themes of interest does not necessarily commit members to joint action or a formal constitution. Motivation to participate can be strengthened by concrete products like cases or guides, as well as trainings or workshops.

In the appendices, the five cases are summarised: they vary from corporate CoPs (SNV), to a inter-organisational CoP of civil society organisations (IMAC), to a CoP of M&E professionals. At SNV a team works to promote the CoP, which is key to the success, and work programmes can become very ambitious. IMAC and PACT found that the existence of a webpage that recorded the history of the CoP made it easier to integrate new members. EVALperu concludes that it is not indispensable to have external funding. (here members pay a subscription for running costs). IMAC concludes that it's indispensable to contract someone specifically to promote exchange and learning between members, connect and follow-up. Also that organisations with sufficient resources to cover their own operations are more able to participate in the CoP.

Overall, most seem to be relatively formalised with mention of constitutions, internal rules and operational plans. Unfortunately, there are no reflections on the cultural adaptation of the concept, but the conclusion is that CoP provide interesting ways of promoting learning within and between organisations on a larger scale.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Communities of practice: learning about lice & taboos

Friday I helped with the X-mas decorations in school. One of the mothers talked to me about her wish to know who is having lice (louse-lice?) in the class of her children. Lice is a huge problem in all Dutch schools. Since my daughters are schooling, after each holiday there is an inspection. With the exception of one holiday, on all occassions, we received a letter announcing there is lice in class, please check your children with some short explanation about treatment. Apart from that there is no talking about the topic, out of fear of stigmatization of children. My daughters had it once and even though I checked I saw nothing, you really need experience to recognise it. I have learned a lot about the practice of combatting lice from practice, chemicals don't really work and give the illusion it's been treated. So when I shared my lessons, the mother was surprised. We also discussed whether you would allow a child with lice to play with your children. The ideas were wide apart! Even though there is a lot of informal sharing and collective learning around eating habits etc. in the community of school parents, collective learning on lice is limited. Lesson: opportunities for informal contacts (X-mas decoratings) may help get some conversations on difficult but important topics going. (more difficult in virtual communities?)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Communities of practice: site map


There is a site map with a very visual overview of CoP theory (like the picture for hierarchy). Though it doesn't go much in-depth and doesn't offer links to articles, it gives a quick overview and some short definitions of terms (though it doesn't state where the definitions are originating).

Culture: Guanxi and social network theory

Pete Bond posted some articles in the yahoo com-prac discussion group, amongst others one by Hammond and Glenn called The ancient practice of Chinese social networking: Guanxi and social network theory. The chinese concept of Guanxi refers to a social network that contextualizes individuals within a highly collectivist society. It is defined as a mechanism by which individuals are able to achieve personal, family or business objectives. The essay argues it overlaps with Social Network Theory and that Western theorists could gain significant isights from Eastern thoughts. The three overlapping areas are:
1. Information and sustainability. Both imply that information is crucial for sustaining a social system.
2. Change and emergence. Relationships are characterized by constancy or change.
3. Order and chaos. (I only understood the overlapping areas when reading the full explanation)

I found the differences as interesting as the overlaps: the essay argues that Guanxi defines insider and outsider relationships, which may be compared to strong and weak ties in social network theory. Yet, whereas in the Chinese tradition of Guanxi the outsider is treated with mistrust and the insiders with trust and sharing of information, in social network theory, weak ties are seen as critical because they are a source of new information. Within Guanxi the collective identity is important and relationships are seen as permanent (as in other collectivist cultures).

The articles conclused that social network theory claims to be a new idea set, yet, the practices of social networking are much older (and more universal?). There will always be emergent rules to create coherence in social interaction. (I would add that the rules may vary in each cultural context).

To link this story to communities of practice; I'm still trying to think through possible differences of CoPs in various cultural settings. I guess it would be too easy to think that in collectivist cultures people are used to be in communities and hence it would be easier to nurture CoPs, as these social networks (like Guanxi) are not around practices. From the above explained differences in the essay I gather that outsiders might be regarded with much suspicion compared to insiders. Even though it is a risk in any CoP, the risk of CoPs becoming clique-ish in collectivist societies may be higher. These kind of clique-ish communities tend to stagnate and the close ties may prevent members from critiquing each other or from seeking to deepen their understanding of the domain. (p. 145 cultivating communities of practice, Wenger, McDermott and Snyder).

Communities of practice: Nancy Dixon on knowledge transfer


I went to the local library because they had purchased their first book on weblogs (apparently Rosmalen is about to enter blogosphere). But someone had borrowed it already and I bumped into Nancy Dixon's book on 'Kennisoverdracht in organisaties'. In english: Common knowledge: how companies thrive by sharing what they know. I had read her book on the organizational learning cycle, but this one was quite different.

Personally I had abandoned the term 'knowledge transfer' because I thought it's impossible to transfer knowledge. Rather people should take their own learning trajectories in hand. But after reading this book, I see it can be possible under some conditions. (still I feel the term knowledge transfer implies an easiness in handing over knowledge which is misleading)

She first does away with three mythes about knowledge transfer:
1. Build the system, people will come
2. Technology can replace human contact
3. First you have to create a learning culture

(must admit I was not sure that the third one is a myth, but I'm happy it is..). It's easier to build on what exists rather than changing the culture by introducing something new. She distinguishes 5 categories of transfer (very useful to make a distinction, I have the feeling often all kinds of knowledge are heaped in a single discussion on knowledge management):

1. Serial transfer (the same team executing a task in a new context)
2. Near transfer (transfer from a source team to a receiving team with a similiar task in a similar context)
3. Far transfer (transfer from a source team to a receiver team with a non-routine task, implicit knowledge)
4. Strategic transfer (transfer of complex knowledge from one team to the other, separated in place and time, the task is of strategic interest to the organisation)
5. Specialist transfer (transfer of explicit knowledge about a task not performed on a regular basis) This is a typical case where a listserve may work.

(just realize I don't know which english terms she uses as I read the Dutch translation, near and far transfer sounds weird). Other things which were striking:

* The fact that elements of a new situation can trigger people's implicit memory, so that old experiences bubble up.
* The reason to name a certain scattered, existing knowledge practice is to make is a legitimate activity, which makes a request for support no longer a favour from your colleague but a recognised part of your professional practice.

* Putting all implicit knowledge on paper on in text is very hard. Because implicit knowledge does not only exist by facts but also of the linkages between facts and how people link facts to deal with a certain situation. So gains from implicit knowledge can be found in situations where new things have to be designed or thought through. (this last one helps me to specify my question on virtual communities of practice, I still wonder how they will deal with transferring some of the deeper levels of implicit knowledge of the members, which can only be observed through reacting to certain situations).

Culture: on changing mobile phone cultures

Yesterday in the train, a girl was talking loudly to a friend using her mobile. Two men sitting opposite her told her to lower her voice. (I sympathised with her because I seem to do the same thing according to my husband; talking too loud in a phone). And someone added that this was a 'silent' part of the train. But after some time, the phones of the two men also started ringing and they engaged in a -longish- conversation as well :). Someone next to me said: "it's OK if you just inform people of where you are, but you shouldn't throw your whole life in....". I have the impression 7-8 years ago with the introduction using mobile in public was considered inappropriate. Personaly I like it a lot when people throw their whole lives into the train!
A difference between Ghana and the Netherlands is that here you are supposed to put your mobile off in meetings. In Ghana, in 2003, important people used to leave their mobiles on and answer the phone during the meeting (whispering though). Will see if that changed.

The 7-8 years suddenly remind me of the fact that in the UNDP case (see previous post) it took from 1999-2003 before numbers of members of CoPs really went up. Would be interesting to know more about that process and if there was a specific reason for it to go up at that point in time.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Practical examples: the knowledge sharing approach of the United Nations Development Programme

In the km4dev journal there was an article by Kim Henderson on the knowledge sharing approach of UNDP based on CoPs or knowledge networks. The first CoPs were established in 1999 in some of the priority thematic areas of UNDP, currently there are 20 knowledge networks with between 300-2300 members each, corresponding to the strategic goals. Members are primarily UNDP staff, though some are open to external participants. The networks serve for sharing experiences and good practices, and for discussion of substantive issues. The networks are linked by electronic networks, but also supported by regular face-to-face meetings. One of the unique features is the use of a standardised product called the 'consolidated reply'. This reply entails supplementing each discussion with information about what is already known and published on the topic.

Subscription is voluntarily and rose slowly from 1999-2003, but sharply between 2003-2005. CoPs have improved connections between the headquarters and the field, between country offices, leveling the hierarchy and enabling inputs from bottom up into policy and practice. It is reported to be a huge shift from 1998, where staff were required to clear message content with senior managers before sending out e-mails. (I recall this too, in 1998 in Ethiopia, our secretaries were printing, stamping and filing all e-mail messages :)) to direct communication between national programme staff. The consolidated reply is reported to be a real time saver by CoP members.

Key ingredient for healthy CoPs are reported to be:
* Moderation or facilitation
* Maintaining quality
* Balancing participation with quality of contributions
* Getting to know community members
* Sequencing and managing the flow on the electronic network

You should not presume CoPs can do everything and take the place of organised project mapping or knowledge gathering. A key issue was to maintain the quality, yet if the bar is set too high, members were too intimidated to provide contributions.

Further efforts will go into ongoing translations (over five official languages), systematic collection of knowledge to complement the connecting by the CoPs, and mainstreaming knowledge management into human resource approaches such as performance assessement and career tracks. The article concludes by saying CoPs can be an excellent entry point for knowledge management initiatives within development organisation. Yet, CoPs can only take an organisation so far, and efficient systems for collecting information are required as well.

Communities of practice: HIV/AIDS prevention practices

Yesterday, a colleague had organised an interesting meeting with Achieng Renish Ngube, a Kenyan HIV/AIDS activist, who figures in a book called Mijn status is positief by Annemie Struyf and Lieve Blancquaert. Two things struck me in relation to communities of practice/learning.

The first thing is that she mentioned that all the information my colleague forwarded to her about HIV/AIDS contributed to her change from patient/victim to activist. So knowing more about HIV/AIDS changed her attitude.

The second thing is about being at the cutting-edge of practice. We asked her to comment on the HIV/AIDS educational materials that IICD partners in Ghana produced (a comic depicting HIV/AIDS by monsters). She felt the content would probably be very appropriate for youth, but that the second part of the message is missing, being the message about the availability of antiretroviral drugs. And this could be important to stimulate people to go for testing. It clicked with the story of a friend who went back to Ethiopia. While we were there till 2000, testing was very uncommon, but now lots of people in his area (Ambo) had gone for tests, since they had free access to antoretroviral drugs, in case they would test positive.

It seems that being linked to a community of practice is very important to be at the cutting edge of practice, since the scenery is changing rapidly. It would be a pity if all these NGOs and agencies continue with the famous ABC (abstain, be faithful and condoms) message while there is an important opportunity to change people attitude towards testing. (apparently there are more drugs available in Kenya than people who have tested positive and qualify for it). Huge needs to speed up collective learning.