Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Time to make connections–not collections!–Words of wisdom from Geoff Parcell at the Share Fair 09

Time to get connected —The wheel has already been invented

An interview with Geoff Parcell at Share Fair 09

As much as we might try, it’s not always possible to collect and document everything relevant to our work. Nonetheless, if we try, we can usually find a balance between collecting knowledge and connecting people. Today’s organizations need to focus on connecting their people, listening to them, and learning from them. We need to stop reinventing the wheel, over and over again, because the knowledge we need might just be a desk away. And no one knows this better than Geoff Parcell, the co-author of the best-selling book Learning to Fly

Geoff, who is also the knowledge management coach for the WHO, UNDP, the World Bank and the Swiss Development Agency, delivered the keynote speech at the Opening Ceremony of the recently held Share Fair organized by Bioversity International, the CGIAR ICT-KM Program, FAO, IFAD and WFP. Held at FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, from the 20th to 22nd January 2009, the Fair also saw Geoff convening some sessions on Knowledge Management.

The ICT-KM Program’s Nadia Manning-Thomas caught up with Geoff at the end of the Share Fair to capture his impressions of the event, the CGIAR and its knowledge sharing successes, challenges and opportunities.

Nadia Manning-Thomas: First off, let me ask if you enjoyed the Share Fair and if it was what you’d expected it to be?

Geoff Parcell: It was fun and pretty much what I’d expected. I attended the Dare to Share Fair at SDC (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) and can see that a lot was used from that model.

NMT: What was the highlight of the Share Fair for you?

GP: The engagement with the self-assessment process that took place during the session I led on this tool. In particular, there was a striking moment with 35 FAO people sitting outside the Iran Room discussing their own capacity in knowledge sharing with no boundaries or defensiveness. An additionally exciting part of the event for me was being able to witness the overall chaos and energy in the Atrium. (Booths had been set up in the Atrium and served as a focal hub for the Share Fair.)

NMT: What were the challenges, if any, that you felt or observed during the event?

GP (chuckling and pointing to the meeting rooms with their screwed-down furniture): This is not particularly conducive to this type of event, its activities and goals. This shows that organizations like yours need to be moving towards more flexible room setups with small tables to allow for small group work and alternative and effective methods of sharing knowledge.

During the event, I found that there is still a mix of attitudes when it comes to knowledge management and sharing. Essentially knowledge management is an attitude change from ‘we are the experts, telling others what to do’ to ‘let’s look at what’s going on and see how to support those efforts.’ The problem is that people feel threatened by change. What they don’t realize is that it can be a very powerful thing to facilitate processes rather than dictating or leading them.

All of the organizations involved in this Share Fair can no longer think of themselves as the authority on food and agriculture. People will get information wherever they can. And especially with new and advancing technologies, information is now available in many more ways than it has been before.

NMT: So what is their role now?

GP: These organizations need to see a new role for themselves in providing platforms, in facilitating the processes of getting people connected.

NMT: The big question that always comes up at events like this focused on new ways of operating is that it is difficult to bring about change, difficult to get organizations and people to make the shift. What are your thoughts on how to encourage and bring about change?

GP: We need to tell stories; stories about how these new approaches are being used and are working. We need to encourage people to follow examples—such as the activities carried out at this Share Fair. We should be making connections happen and work.

NMT: Coming from the CGIAR, I would like to know if you have any impressions about the CGIAR System in relation to knowledge sharing.

GP: I didn’t know much about the CGIAR before this event, but after attending some sessions that presented CGIAR projects and activities, seeing booths with CGIAR materials, and talking to some CGIAR staff, I got some impressions about the System and its successes and needs related to knowledge sharing. I was struck by something in particular I heard about the CGIAR and knowledge management strategies. When I heard that each of the 15 Centers in the CGIAR System plans to write or has written its own knowledge management strategy, I thought, this is crazy! There should only be one strategy developed for the whole System. A knowledge management strategy is mostly about process so it doesn’t matter about differences in content. I assume that most Centers have similar knowledge management goals, so the focus should be on the knowledge management process to achieve those goals – and applying the process to particular content.

It is about getting people to have the right conversations. It’s also important to find ways to have learning incorporated into any organization’s project or activity – before, during and after the event.

Sometimes it is just simple things that we need to change or adopt, and importantly we must keep our minds open to things that can be transferable to our needs and situations, even if they come from very different sectors, groups, or situations.

At one point the Steering Committee of the Share Fair asked me if I could make my keynote speech a bit more relevant to ‘their’ reality – meaning the food and agriculture sector. I replied by saying that “knowledge sharing is not about telling people how to do things. It is about people figuring out how to adapt practices to their conditions and needs.”

We’re not as different as we think we are.

NMT: There is often a lot of (differing) perspectives on what knowledge sharing is. Do you have a definition that you use?

GP: Knowledge is whatever we use to get action. Reports may be fulfilling for the writers but the goal of your organizations is to reduce hunger; therefore, we need to make sure that what we generate gets to the point of application. The situation is like a massive supply chain along which knowledge must flow. Although, you may not be responsible for all parts of the chain, you need to find ways to work together; to make the right connections to make sure that knowledge gets to the end.

My model for knowledge management is using knowledge in service of delivering results.


Thank you to Simone Staiger and Meena Arivananthan who also took part in the interview.

Thank you to Mary Schneider for adding the journalistic touch to this piece.