Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Want to make knowledge move around: Is the roundtable approach applicable?

How can you make knowledge move around?  Well like any mechanism that moves around you need the right kind of apparatus to be moved around,  some sort of push or force to make it move, a good track for it to follow, and some momentum to keep it going.  You need the whole system to be applicable to the job.

And this is true of making knowledge travel around- you need it to be in the right format, you need energy to make it move, you need some sort of plan or framework for it to follow, and it definitely needs momentum to keep it going. We see various mechanical contraptions achieve this movement- like the ferris wheel shown in the image- but what kind of systems can achieve moving knowledge around?

This is also the concern of the CIARD initiative, which is a collective commitment to promote and sustain the sharing of agricultural research outputs in a global network of truly public collections, based on a Manifesto and a common set of values. It believes that to ensure that public domain research outputs in the form of information, data and knowledge form part of a global ‘knowledge commons’ for agriculture, these outputs should be created, assembled, handled and ‘moved around’ in ways that ensure that they will be available, accessible and applicable as possible. The complimentary Triple A approach looks at how research can be made available, accessible and applicable particularly in the context of the CGIAR.

While a number of pathways have been documented as part of the CIARD checklist, we are continuously exploring and learning about new pathways, particularly that are being and can be undertaken by researchers and in research projects to move research around to those that can make use of it, particularly in ways and formats that are appropriate to the target audiences (applicability).

So how can research projects help to make knowledge move around? Well one project at ILRI is making use of a few ‘pathways’ that are trying to do this, including the use of a roundtable approach (hence the ‘moving around’ theme of this blog post!).

The roundtable, as well as other approaches, were built into the design and implementation of the Fodder Adoption Project(FAP), as it takes an innovation systems approach, which puts alot of emphasis on conversations and interactions with stakeholders as a key mechanism for conducting project activities and making sure that the knowledge and innovations generated are widely shared” informed Alan Duncan, project leader of IFAD-funded Fodder Adoption Project(FAP) at ILRI.

On Tuesday 22nd June 2010 the Fodder Adoption Project held its bi-annual Ethiopian Fodder Roundtable. This event, now only held for half a day after realising that participants wouldn’t stay on for sessions after lunch, included a format of a few short, stimulating presentations focused on a particular theme, some small groupwork discussions to look at key issues and  ways to influence action, as well as a plenary synthesis session.

The topic of this particular roundtable was ‘effective delivery of input services (artificial insemination, feed and veterinary services) to livestock development’. As with other topics, this one was identified from previous roundtable discussions as well as issues raised from the associated multistakeholder platforms organised in the field site locations of the project-another important part of the innovation systems approach.

Present at this roundtable were ILRI scientists, representatives from NGOs (e.g SNV, ACDI-VOCA, Land o’ Lakes), regional offices of the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute, Networks (Prolinnova) as well as private sector companies.

I found myself sitting at the same table as Dr. Emiru Zewudie, previously head of the National AI Centre (ALPPIS) and now starting up a private sector business. I asked Dr. Zewudie if he had attended one of these roundtables before. He said that this was his first time at this fodder roundtable, but he had attended many other roundtables before. “This is excellent!” he stated  “The topic of this roundtable is what I am working on and is of my concern. In fact it is a big concern for farmers and should be a concern for everyone. I am happy to see people talking about it and exchanging knowledge and ideas.”

I asked him what his expectations were in attending the roundtable, to which he replied  “I look forward to hearing the results of studies that have been undertaken in this area. I am sure there will be a lot for me to learn.”

During the coffee break I caught up with Carl Birkelo, Deputy Chief of Party-FEED from ACDI-VOCA, to find out his perceptions on the event. When I asked him his thoughts on the roundtable he replied:

Putting people in the same room leads to transfer of knowledge. And in this kind of format they can take bits and pieces which are useful to them. But overall it is exposing people to research, studies and knowledge being generated, especially from the field, which can help all of us in one way or another.”

He continued by saying that “After all of these years of research so much technological knowledge has been generated but has not been getting out and generating benefits. The focus needs to be -and is- changing to not more generation of technological knowledge but a focus on how to get it out there, how to encourage and support uptake. Key in this is the need to put knowledge into context and figure out how to apply it. And this type of approach-the roundtable- is one way to work towards this.”

I asked him how he thought that this roundtable approach would be applicable for achieving the kind of knowledge sharing he had indicated needed to happen. He responded that  “This is a good format for sharing ideas as it is small enough to be really focused”.

I also took some time later on to talk to Alan Duncan more broadly about the roundtable approach he has been organising within this research project.  According to Alan,  “one of the objectives of the roundtable is to influence policy… but this is not happening“.  And this was echoed by one of the participants during the roundtable who shared his frustration that “we identify the problems many times but still find that not much happens on the policy level-why? We have lots of documents from lots of studies, but how can we share this knowledge with those who can influence, make and change policy?”  One response to this challenge was made by another participant who pointed out that ” no one is here from the Ministries at this roundtable-so how can we reach them?”

There was alot of discussion about how to move beyond studies and documents to real policies and practices, and Alan shares this sentiment-“How can we translate talking into action?” he asked. So there is obviosuly some work to be done to find applicable ways to share knowledge to influence policy–and maybe the roundtable is not well targeted at that.

But despite the roundtable not achieving huge impacts on the policy level, Alan does see some positive outcomes.

“The roundtable has been a good form of communication. It has helped all involved to learn about what different actors are doing around fodder, allows good networking, and helps make connections to other initiatives. People appreciate it. It not only makes more information available within the sector as a whole, but also is a good forum to synthesise main elements of what is going on in a particular area. It has crystallised real issues which we can then document and share further. It keeps knowledge moving around.”

At field-level the project has also created multistakeholder platforms which meet on a regular basis. In addition to facilitating discussions between the various groups of stakeholders at this level, a number of joint actions are developed and project activities are implemented through these platforms. The final presentation of the roundtable was a review of these multistakeholder processes used in the FAP to date by Kebebe Ergano from the project. Kebebe started his presentation by saying that “new technologies developed by researchers do not find their way into mainstream practice very easily“. He followed this up with the hypothesis of the project:

Fodder scarcity is not just about technology but also about collective capacity of a network of individuals and organisations to share and make use of knowledge

The stakeholder platforms involved:

  • focus group discussions
  • farmer field days
  • formal and informal meetings with individuals over the course of the project

Additionally the project has developed Fodder fact sheets in English, Oromiffa and Amharic which are being distributed among farmers and experts in the project learning sites, given that

In our sites in Ethiopia we find a knowledge gap when it comes to growing high quality fodder. Livestock in Ethiopia are largely kept for subsistence purposes and there is limited tradition of using high quality feeds to enhance productivity. As systems intensify, this is changing but there is a need for provision of simple information on how to establish, manage and utilize planted fodder. With this in mind, local forage agronomist, Abate Tedla has taken existing information from ILRI’s Forage Diversity Project and added material on forage feeding aspects to yield a brand new set of 10 fact sheets for major fodder planted options for Ethiopia. (Blog post by Alan Duncan)

Sounds like some interesting and applicable pathways for sharing knowledge to me!

So, finally,what did I think of the roundtable?  Here are some of my own reflections:

  • The presentations were short and succinct and often presented key facts and statistics. They presented real case studies, and often focused on real problems and constraints  that could be addressed
  • Presenters get good feedback on their presentations, their research, their projects, and their ideas–knowledge came around to researchers too
  • I liked the fact that not only research and studies from ILRI (CGIAR) were presented but also the work and research of others too. The roundtable provided a broad platform for a wide set of information and knowledge to be shared and blended.
  • Although alot of research is presented at the roundtable, the roundtable also allows for related issues of policy influence, communication and outreach needs and implementation challenges to be discussed as well.
  • In the roundtable format knowledge is not only shared but is, in the discussions, applied to real needs on the ground and allows for discussions on what actions could come from knowledge generated and available.
  • The roundtable also allows for research to be strengthened as well through learning about other activities, needs, knowledge gaps which can help to inform, guide and enrich research activities too.
  • Facilitation of these kind of pathways for sharing knowledge is key and needs to make use of a diverse set of innovative tools and methods to help people engage and share better.  More of these could be explored and made use of in the roundtable to enhance the way knowledge is shared.

So what about any of you out there-have you worked with or experienced the roundtable approach? How did it work? Was it successful in sharing knowledge around? Share with us your experiences and thoughts.

Photo thumbnail credit: Thank you to Alek von Felkerzam, PushBeyond, for Spin City image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1154394

Photo credit : Peter Ballantyne/ILRI