Getting VisuaLyzer

Those of you who clicked on my link to get a download of the computer program that I use to visualize influence networks, might have been confused, because it was a rather generic link that just led to the main page of the software company. The following comment will help you to get there more directly:

Hi Eva,

We are glad that you appreciate VisuaLyzer. Here is a better link to information on our website about VZ and other social network applications:

http://www.mdlogix.com/solutions/additional.html

– allen

Understanding your community

Now I’m not talking about a rural village but a community of practice. Today I had a great discussion with some of my colleagues of Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) about how to best map out this community of practice at our annual meeting in Lisbon next week. Who are we, what are the roles and networks of our members, what holds the community together, who drives it?

We discussed back and forth: What is it that we actually want to know? What is possible in the limited amount of time? How can we integrate old hands and new comers, more and less active community members? Just to give you an idea what such an activity can look like, let me give a brief outline:

We will have 3 hours, about 60 participants, 7 tables and piles of paper, post-its, pens and checkers pieces. We split up in groups of about 8 members, each group will draw one map together.

First all group members will put their own name on post-it on the map. Then the first one will take up the pens and draw links of different color between him/herself and everyone that they:
1. Interact with regularly (knowledge exchange, advice etc.)
2. Work together (paid or volunteering) to co-create something
3. Follow actively (meaning: seeking out their blog posts, websites etc. without actually interacting with the person)

The members of the working groups will interact with people beyond this small group, so they will add post-its for other community members that they interact with and draw the respective links. Once the first ones have drawn all their links, they hand the pens to the next person, who draw theirs, until everyone in this small group has added their part of the network.

A lot of the members of KM4Dev are actually also members of sister communities and it would be very interesting for everyone to know who holds double memberships, because it helps you in understanding the structure and networking beyond the immediate scope of the community. So we decided that participants will identify the relevant sister communities, draw a legend and assign different colored stickers to each actor who belongs to different communities.

We had a discussion about whether or not we wanted to talk about the influence of actors in a non-hierarchical network: Will that offend or intimidate some people? We decided to use the (influence) towers not to indicate power relations but rather how far actors are “drivers”. Some members will be drivers of the content development (What is KM4Dev? How does it work? etc.) while others will be drivers of the process (Fostering and developing KM4Dev as a community, making things happen for the group). We decided that these two functions are so different that we want to give “driver towers” of two different colors for driving content and driving process. The stronger the driving, the higher the tower.

This process is slightly different to what I have done before in group meetings. Normally I would ask the group to agree on a common view of all the actors and flows within a specific issue network. This would mean: Sometimes they would draw links that are not their own but indicate that “these two actors interact”. The way we do it this time, they don’t have to agree on a common view but rather build one layer on top of the other, each one just talking about the own linkages. Let’s see how that works and what the resulting networks look like.

Just take it and run!

At our last workshop in Bolgatanga, Ghana one of the participants, the regional head of office of the Red Cross, walked up to me with a beaming smile on his face: “Eva, the thing you taught us last time you where here [meaning: Net-Map], we are now using it with our community groups! It’s working very well!”

We didn’t have much time to go into further detail but he had made me happy. I had been convinced before but he was running proof: This is so simple and so useful, that any halfway interested layperson can learn how to draw Net-Maps in half a day and start understanding his or her complex work environment better.

Sure, I don’t know how exactly he is using it, if he exploits the method to it’s full potential and without misunderstanding. And, sure as well, to be able to structure a more comprehensive network learning approach or to develop a bigger net-map study, you have to put in more thinking and background knowledge into it.

But even though some of my colleagues caution me and advise me to make it sound more difficult, so as to make sure that people don’t “steal” the idea… I would rather want to encourage people to just take it and run with it. When I started pushing Net-Map beyond my own project, a good friend in Ghana said: “If you want this idea to grow really big, you need champions for it. One person can only do so much. But if you find a lot of people all over the world, who get excited about this, it can become much bigger than you are.”

So, my colleagues in Bolgatanga, Ghana will agree: This is no rocket science. It’s powerful because it’s simple. If you have tried it out and want to tell us about your Net-Map experience, the way you have adapted it for your use, the local materials you used, your challenges and unexpected outcomes, please contact me to write a guest post (short) or case study (longer). If you want to try it but are not quite sure if you are on the right track, contact me and we’ll discuss.

Demand driven etc. (part 2)

If we want “demand driven” not to be just another a buzz word to increase fundability of our projects, we have to (as I write below) ask a different set of questions to our stakeholders. Instead of asking: “What kind of research do you need to solve this problem?”, we need to ask: “What is the problem and who needs to do what to solve it?”

However, if we are a bunch of researchers asking this question, eventually the stakeholders will empathize with us, just as they did in Bolgatanga last week and say: “Well, you are researchers, what can you do, in the end you have to do research, that’s your job…” and help us to identify and justify research questions, even in a situation, where they don’t see lack of knowledge as the crucial bottleneck.

But imagine we could create situations where we would assemble everyone (around an issue) as equal partners and ask the question in a really open manner. We would sit with representatives of government agencies, private sector, traditional authorities, churches, NGOs, donors, farmers, researchers and who ever else is interested and instead of asking: “What can we do to help you?”, the question would be: “Who can do what to solve this?” Do you hear the change of attitude and power balance?

Some of us would go home after the meeting, having realized: In this case, there is not much I can do at the moment. And thus wouldn’t waste their energy on it. Others would understand: If I don’t take my own first steps first, it doesn’t make sense to hope for change to come from somewhere else. And some would see: There a specific things that others need from me to be able to tackle this issue successfully.

But apart from dividing the tasks and responsibilities to the individual actors involved in a more realistic way, this approach would also allow us to develop non-traditional collaborations and design solutions that don’t necessarily follow an organizational blue-print but cater to the actual needs on the ground.

I know that this sounds simple and rather straightforward in theory and rather unrealistic in practice: Someone would have to be brave enough to fund a truly open-ended process (or at least the initiation of it), where it is not even clear who would do what work in the end. Organizations and individuals would have to set aside their own interest (“I’m a researcher and I need to do research”), take a step back and allow for a bigger-picture vision. And everyone involved would have to be truly excited about solving a problem instead of wanting to do business as usual.

But… if we can start thinking these things, we might be able, step-by-step, to make them happen.

Use Net-Map for group formation (by Jennifer Hauck)

There I am again – surfacing from the fieldwork with quite exiting results.

Remember…

At the end of the main phase of my PhD research on fisheries in small reservoirs in September 2007, I invited the fishermen to feed back information. I did not want to pay my interview partners for different reasons. On the other hand, I did not want to leave without showing how much I appreciated how much time they invested to answer all my questions. So I decided to organize a meeting for each group, where I wanted to present some preliminary findings, show them how to use the newly gained information and link them up to organizations which could follow up. To work with the Net-Map tool allowed me to get a very good insight into who is influencing fisheries activities. Other parts of the research showed, that fish stocks are over-exploited and production potentials are not realized because of very unsustainable fishing practices. This is nothing new, however Net-Map allowed me to find out who the baddies are and even the reasons why they keep breaking the rules.

Together with staff from the regional Ministry of Fisheries, who would provide information that is more technical and with the support of the NGO Community Self Reliance Center, I opened a discussion on what is wrong with currant reservoir governance and how it could be improved. The preparation of this workshop caused some sleepless nights, since I knew that if I would feed back the wrong information I could turn these villages into war zones, with fishermen fighting fishermen and other water users. Rather the opposite was the goal, namely to bring fishermen to establish sustainable management for aquatic resources together. And it worked! When I came back to the communities half a year later, and called a meeting fishermen came in great numbers to report, that they now really try to avoid fishing with gear that catches juveniles, that they try to stick to the ban in rainy season to allow fish to spawn and to meet frequently to discuss their problems and solve them.

So what did we do? Well thanks to Net-Map it was clear that in one community some people felt passed over when it came to management decisions, which was the main reason why they did not accept the rules and even edge others to break them. Including those rule-breakers into the discussion and assigning tasks to them, converted them into the most enthusiastic guards for good governance. In the second community, fishermen were not willing to listen to the extension agent who tended to held endless, instructive monologues, without responding to actual problems. These fishermen just stated that by elaborating their problems in the guided discussion they understood how important it was to share problems and ideas to solve them. Two other communities, which share one reservoir, just needed a hint on how to overcome the barriers of separated leadership. By forming a dual leadership with the right people and the experience why it would be important to cooperate, the gap between the two communities could be overcome.

Well nothing new really, you might think now. I agree! However, the communities all had different problems, and Net-Map proved to be a tool that provides information on the conflicts rather quickly and easy. Even though it was not part of my actual PhD work to find ways to improve group formation, I am very glad to be able to contribute this piece of work. I would be most happy to discuss this further with practitioners to find ways to implement this into daily work.

Demand-driven, stakeholder-oriented etc. etc. research

As I explored in an earlier post, my last trip to Ghana was aimed at (amongst other things) getting a better understanding of the integration of research and governance: “How can we increase the impact of policy oriented research through improved collaborations on the ground?”

One thing that my 3 years in Ghana have taught me is the following: “Most of the times, I don’t even get the question right!” And the biggest problem with my questions (and most outsider’s questions for that matter) is that they are full of assumptions about the nature of the problem and give a rather narrow set of answer options for the other person to pick from. Look at my question above, I basically assume that research will be needed to solve “the” problem and that the bottleneck is the quality of collaboration on the ground.

Now let’s zoom in to the real world: At our workshop I facilitated a discussion amongst government staff, NGOs and farmers about the challenges of improving sanitation and environmental health. And while the participants were highly engaged in describing what they know, what they do and where they struggle, something started nagging me. Luckily we have build a strong enough working relationship over the years that we can be rather frank to each other, so I finally asked them: “Maybe it’s time for me to go home?” Because they have the knowledge they need for action (about spreading and effects of water borne diseases and possible counter-measures). They claim that the rules and regulations they would need for action are appropriate and lack of external funding didn’t once come up as a major concern (though individual poverty did). However, the solutions are not implemented, adopted or enforced. “We are just not doing it”, they say.

While this could lead to another series of blogs about incentives for action, corruption etc., today I want to tell you what this taught me about our demand-driven (or whatever the buzz-word of the day is) research for development.

We are like a hammer producing company that goes to people with all different kinds of problems (marriage trouble, broken down car, picture to hang on the wall) and ask: “What kind of hammer do you need to solve your problem?” In some cases (picture) a hammer will be the perfect tool, in some (car) it might be used in an unintended way and sort off help patch up a problem clumsily, that would have been solved more easily, cheaper and better with another tool, in others (marriage) we just hope that the end-user will not even think of using our tool to solve his or her problem.

So, how can we get the question right and what can we do about finding an answer? It’s a number of questions actually:
“So, what is / what are the problem/s?”
“Where do you see the bottlenecks to solving these problems? Is it lack of knowledge, funds, political will, incentive structure etc.? What can we as researchers contribute to the debate about bottlenecks?”
“Who needs to do what to overcome these bottlenecks?”
And the answer to the last question might or might not be: We need researchers to do more research on this and that. Which leads us from “demand driven etc. research” to “demand-driven problem definition and problem solving”. Let me think a bit more about how that could work in my next post.