This week in Addis Ababa, the The USAID-funded TOPS Program held a Food Security and Nutrition (FSN) Network Regional Knowledge Sharing Meeting to bring together food security and nutrition grantees, donors, and researchers for peer learning, knowledge sharing, and networking (see event program and details).
On the afternoon of the first day, Peter Ballantyne (Head of Knowledge Management at the International Livestock Research Institute) spoke at the session on ‘Program Learning and Adaptation: Integrating Field Experience and Realities into Improved Program Design, Implementation and Results.’ The organizers wanted to hear about ways that a research organization documents, shares and organizes knowledge to improve learning.
Ballantyne’s presentation (see below) started with a story borrowed from ILRI scientist Alan Duncan and shared at a recent Ethiopia Livestock Feeds project synthesis meeting. Basically, ‘business as usual’ approaches to livestock feed development don’t always work – we need to investigate and innovate (and learn), with communities and partners. Alan quoted Mark Twain in this regard:
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” Mark Twain
The presentation covered ILRI’s learning roles/contributions in more effective development, why we want to share and learn – as starting points for knowledge management – and illustrated approaches used at ILRI. As well as talking about ‘regular’ knowledge sharing approaches, the presentation aimed to show ways that ILRI’s research for development (R4D) is itself evolving to be more open and transparent – and more likely to inform program learning.
Three main roles of ILRI in program learning were singled out:
- ILRI as a ‘knowledge’ partner in development projects. Here we are often called on to take on roles related to learning, M&E and impact assessment, by providing knowledge and evidence as well as expertise, and specific facilitation and capacity development skills.
- ILRI as an R4D ‘solution-finder’. Here we work with partners, often through innovation platforms and along value chains, adopting participatory, multi-stakeholder approaches and tools, and often having an explicit learning/knowledge focus …
- ILRI’s ‘open’ research, knowledge and learning approach [local to global].
Why is sharing and learning important for ILRI? The simple answer is that, together, researchers, communities, and development partners already know so much . . . but:
- How do we create, document and share this knowledge?
- How do we support learning, and share the results?
- How do we enrich these processes of documenting, learning, and sharing?
- Can we do R4D better?
To increase the effectiveness of R4D!
Some approaches used by ILRI to answer these questions include:
- Co-create and co-learn in multi-stakeholder platforms. Here, the main example given was the use of innovation platforms to engage with communities and other actors, catalyzing spaces for diverse actors to engage in dialogue, and to jointly identify, learn about and address issues.
- Document and mobilize knowledge from the (un)usual people. Here, the main focus was on some of the less usual approaches we have been using to document knowledge and learning: Participatory video, most significant change stories as well as ‘discussion support tools such as FEAST and Techfit that are being tested in Ethiopia and elsewhere
- Make research knowledge, events, processes and platforms ‘open’. Here, the main focus was on the open multimedia and ‘social’ tools and platforms (see some examples) we are using to plan and report events, publish presentations, reports and photos and generally do research ‘out loud‘ – an interesting new take on interactive, collaborative work in which project staff report or ‘narrate’ what they do openly (on blogs for instance) so others can follow. A more engaging ‘observable’ approach has us creating and storing work in ways and platforms where others can see and comment/modify it, long before it is final. This extra scope for workplace involvement offers potential to enrich learning through critical interaction and feedback and helps sustain engagement and interest throughout a project’s lifespan. The key implication for us is that we ‘communicate’ and share knowledge from the very beginning of the project – even when much of this is still ‘about’ the research rather than its results.
The final slide reflected on challenges encountered: Process versus product (scientists need tangible outputs beyond learning); getting to open (many people and projects are still unsure how much they can share and be really open – will competitors get a head start?); finding ‘facilitation’ and process expertise (more and more crucial at all levels from community ownership to design of an event); fear of new ‘tools’ and information ‘overload’ (which calls for smarter ways of working); and finally just making time to learn and share (delivery – today – and deadlines – yesterday – are the enemy of learning).