Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Knowledge Sharing in the CGIAR – An Interview with Nancy White

Knowledge sharing is a big part of what we do at the ICT-KM Program. Just take a peek at some of the work we’ve being doing since we got started, and you’ll see that we’ve been promoting Knowledge Sharing, or KS as we like to call it, since day one. Although many people have eagerly embraced what we’ve had to offer, others have taken a little longer to warm to KS.

Now, as we look back over the life of our soon-to-be-concluded KS Project, we have much to be proud of – there’s even feedback to confirm this. But we also wonder how much of an impact we have really made in the CGIAR. After the flip charts have been stowed away, and the World Cafe tables have been returned to their usual locations, and the Chat Show audiences have dispersed, we often wonder if we’ve left behind a big enough footprint.

So we called upon our friend Nancy White from Full Circle Associates to find out what she thought. Nancy is a familiar face to many in the CGIAR. Her online facilitation and community-building expertise has certainly left a lasting impression, and not just with the CGIAR. Her skills developing, nurturing and facilitating online groups of distributed work have been put to use in many of our partner organizations, too.

Nancy has been working with the CGIAR since 2003 and is familiar with the work of our Program.  Here’s what she had to say:

What kind of behavioural changes have you observed in terms of KS in the CGIAR over the years?

There has been an increased openness to new processes, to the way people interact, specifically to what happens in meetings. People are more open to moving away from having a presenter dumping information into the audience to more participatory interactive processes. For example, conversations during World Cafe sessions are really important ways for people to internalize and contextualize and make meaning of what’s been given to them. They get more value out of that sort of knowledge sharing versus someone who’s just presenting a paper.

There’s also been an increasing awareness of the challenges that face knowledge sharing in the scientific research context. The underpinning of scientific research is “publish or perish”, with scientists being recognized for their final product. But there’s so much important information that happens on the road to that final product. It’s difficult to get them to share this information, because of issues relating to intellectual property, credit and attribution.

Are there any other areas that need to be addressed if we want to achieve more with KS in the CGIAR?

I think the CGIAR needs to be a leader in creating open standards in data, which is something that has been and which I hope continues to be on the CGIAR’s radar screen. It needs to continue to work collaboratively at all levels with partners and other NGOs. I would also say that if the CGIAR can be a leader and an innovator in how to do that, it will cement its future. If it can’t, it will become irrelevant. I think we are at that fork in the road, not just for the CGIAR but for many international NGOs. We live in a global system and we cannot compartmentalize everything within our organizations, nor can we solve global problems with siloed “ownership” of the knowledge it takes to solve those problems. This is a challenging shift.

So do you see the CGIAR taking the lead and being innovative in this regard?

In the midst of the CGIAR’s current change process, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. I honestly can’t tell. The change process is refocusing attention on cross cutting issues. We have to make sure we keep the issue of HOW to do this cross cutting work on the table. This is where KS and collaboration skills are critical. Where you may have to make some fundamental changes to the way work is done. I know there are people championing this, but I don’t know if it is being embedded in the change.

What would you consider to be some of the KS achievements to date in the CGIAR?

As I noted, a change towards more participatory practices both internally and with partners. I see more willingness to share, as can be seen on the ICT-KM Program’s blog. And I’ve seen that echoed in some of the Centers. I see people, if not Centers, starting to recognize that a public face is an important way of reaching goals. In December, I saw amazing KS in the GPG2 meeting in Macarese, Italy, and the recognition of some new patterns in their work as they compared the progress to date. If we get too stuck into our individual work, we miss those patterns.

In terms of KS, how do you think the CGIAR is faring compared to some of your other clients?

The CGIAR’s participation in networks like KM4Dev and collaboration with other organizations shows that there is a community of practice of practitioners across the agencies who support and care about KS and who are supporting each other in this work. And it’s this network of practitioners that are innovating in the organizations, whether the organizations are supporting them or not. I’ve also noticed in my work that when the individual and the organization has triangulated outside their own organization, tapped into a group of individuals or network of people they can use in their learning in their network, who can then help them share and validate externally their own work,  all of a sudden that work has more value internally. I think the same thing is true in terms of validation with your partners. So I think knowledge sharing outside of the organization actually stimulates knowledge sharing inside the organization. We need to triangulate because our organizations are large ships that are hard to move quickly. So this triangulation seems to be a really important pattern.

What is your opinion of the ICT-KM Program’s KS Project?

The Project has built a network of practitioners in varying contexts. We don’t change an organization: we change as individuals, and as we collectively change, our organization changes. So you can’t really mandate KS from a top down perspective. You can support it, and you can create the conditions for it, but it’s the people that do it. So the creation of a network of practitioners is really important. I think a serious question for the CGIAR is how that network will continue after the formal end of the KS Project. Initiatives are important because they provide key seed work, but sustaining that can be difficult. Sustaining networks of people takes people.  The success of the Project can evaporate.

Is there a danger of that happening?

Yes, we see this over and over again, because innovation does take a while to become practice. Also, on a much more open face, the world of the CGIAR is important both from a scientific and human level. The world does not react to scientific publications alone. Different people react, participate and support in different ways. And providing more visibility and transparency through the KS Project is an important milestone for the organization.

In addition, some of the leadership of the CGIAR has walked the talk: leaders who have recognized the value of this transition towards more openness and more transparency and the role of KS in supporting that. Those people will be in a position to support the next generation of leaders who aren’t going to operate in the old ways. I can think of a couple of individuals who are doing amazing work, but if they don’t get support, they will leave. So the understanding that business has changed, that it’s not business as usual, will be key to keeping the important talent that is emerging now – the next generation of CGIAR scientists.

What has been your experience in the CGIAR with KS and social media workshops?

The workshops were an amazingly positive experience and I treasure what I learned from all the participants. I would love to see some follow-up to find out where the people who’ve been to the workshops are today. Some of the individuals I’ve had contact with certainly show that they have explored and have a deeper understanding and application of some of the social media in their work, but most of that is invisible, so I can’t assess it. I do know that people involved in the first round of KS workshops felt it impacted their practices, because they continue to do that today.

Do you see that people are keen to embrace social media reporting?

I see it as the case in workshops that people like Simone Staiger-Rivas, the KS Project Leader, have touched. Two things are key: one is that others find the results of the social reporting valuable. The second is having champions.  If you did a social network analysis of those who have adopted these things, I bet they will all have a connection back to Simone, who has championed the practice.  I have seen a similar pattern in other organizations. The champions inspire others and the practice spreads. But the value has to be there!

Do you have any closing thoughts about KS in the CGIAR?

Our knowledge about knowledge sharing, particularly supporting by online tools and methods, is just emerging. It’s a frontier. That’s why it is just as important to share the things that don’t work. I think that’s challenging in the CGIAR: the discussion of failure. People are reluctant to say, “This didn’t work. Why?” That’s a behaviour, whether it’s done internally or externally. If we don’t share what’s not working, how can we learn from it. My challenge to all my colleagues is to use every opportunity to learn and improve.