“Viral Explanation”

This is very important for you if you want your thinking to spread through your extended networks, beyond the small circle of people you can reach directly and beyond the small group who will read what you write: If you explain your stuff so well and so vividly at the same time that it will stick to people’s minds, helps them to make sense of the world and they can transmit this explanation without changing its basic shape and sense to other people, you have developed an explanation that can spread like a virus.

Why do we talk about explanation and not information? “Explaining” is making sense of the world, giving a coherent understanding of how things hang together and why something is important. That’s what sticks to people’s minds. Information is just a collection of facts (A pile of bricks is not a house… it is a potential house waiting for someone with a plan) . Without explanation and context, information as such has no meaning and doesn’t stick. Jay Rosen argues in this thought provoking post that today’s journalists got it all wrong, thinking that you feed the crowds with information and then they will be interested in explanation. It’s the other way round he says: If you give a useful and engaging explanation, people will now be looking for more information. Viral explanation is a term I learned from Howard Sherman, quoted by Rosen.

Let me tell you…

Next week (4th of September) I am giving a brown bag seminar at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington DC about “Using the Net-Map method to understand the political economy of social sector interventions”. This is more of an internal event, so I can’t invite you.

But while thinking about this talk I wondered: Maybe I should explicitly say it on my blog, so that my readers know: I would love to give a talk about Net-Map at your institution. If you are located in DC, it’s very easy to organize. But even if you read that I am traveling to your country, just give it a shot, send me a mail and find out if I have that extra spare hour that it would take.

Why would I go to that effort? Well, because I think that Net-Map is a very useful and simple tool that can help you get a better understanding of your world. I would love to see it grow far beyond my reach. Because I know that this hour will be enough to get one or two people in the audience excited enough to want to try it out. Because I know that one person (e.g. me) can only do so much and if I want to develop a community of practice, I have to beat the drum. And finally, because most of what I learn is from interaction with people and I want to learn together with you. So, drop me a line.

Different kinds of animals

I’m just off skype with my colleague Allison Hewlitt and our discussion about the different networks we work in and work with has left a door open in my mind. I don’t quite know what’s behind this door but I have started thinking. About what? About different kinds of animals. We are part of and work with a number of professional networks…

  • Some of them completely internally driven, spontaneous, undefined and in flux. These networks exist because we have met, worked together, attended conferences together etc. and feel like it would be helpful one way or the other, to stay in touch.
  • Others exist because someone from outside said: A network approach would help to solve this problem, provided funding, structures, opportunities, maybe facilitators to get and keep the network going.

And then there is a huge area in-between with all different stages of “internally-drivenness” and external support.

Both Allison and I are familiar with a number of initiated networks in developing countries, that fall into the purposefully designed, externally funded and facilitated category. And while we talked about the various challenges these networks face, I realized that – without thinking about it – I try to apply what I learned in my self-motivated spontaneous networks to the externally facilitated ones. Which leads to a lot of frustration, because basically they are two very different kinds of animals.

“Why don’t network members take more responsibility, why do they only come to meetings if we pay per-diems, even though the meetings are for their own benefit, why does little happen if it is not initiated by the donors?” It’s easy to go from frustration to accusations and a paternalistic view of the network partners. But maybe that doesn’t make sense and leads to no increased understanding or improved solutions.

Let’s look at it from another angle: A group of organizations or individuals works together, where one member of this group controls most of the resources and has set most of the rules for interaction right at the beginning. This is basically a hierarchical structure – even without a formal hierarchical organigram. So maybe the less resourceful network members react to what they perceive as the actual power situation they find themselves in – instead of following a network metaphor. This is not to say that donors and facilitators intentionally dominate the network. But it’s important to realize that the good intention to develop an egalitarian network might not be enough.

So what would network members have to do in such a situation, how can you facilitate / allow /encourage that all members in an externally initiated and funded network get a true sense of ownership and responsibility? Any ideas? Experiences of success (or failure) that we could learn from?

KM4D Journal call for papers: Collaborative learning: the role of organisational knowledge management strategies

If you read this blog, I just assume that you are interested in similar things as I am. And that might mean that you have something interesting to say about collaborative learning in organizations. KM4D (Knowledge Management for Development) is a great open access journal that encourages researchers but also people who are not so familiar with writing papers to contribute their experience, learning, case studies.

On the KM4Dev website, Lucie Lamoureux writes:

“This issue of the KM4D journal aims to showcase studies of knowledge management for development strategies, and how these facilitate and catalyse reciprocal learning among different types of development organisations — NGOs, bilateral and multilateral organisations, community-based organisations, etc — in different locations, both North and South.

The submission deadline for the title and abstract is 15 September 2008.”

Talking about talking about networks

Here is a pod-cast in which I talk with Noora Abermann from the IFPRI facilitated RENEWAL network on HIV/Aids and Nutrition. We explore how talking about networks can help to actually improve them.

Listen to podcast (8 min 16 sec – click player below)

Finding things you didn’t even look for

One thing that is great about wordpress’ function of tracking down from where people clicked on my blog, is that it leads me to websites or blogs of other people that I wouldn’t have gone looking for by myself because I didn’t even realize that something of that kind was out there. Today I discovered the “Indonesia Facilitator’s Network” this way and their mission statement (plus their list of activities) sounds interesting:

“IFN envisions a better Indonesia through the development of participatory culture in various fields including, health, education, business, politics, social as well as religious life. Striving to arrive at such vision, members across the country determine to facilitate the process of self-empowerment among Indonesia’s facilitators and the process of constructive dialog and participatory learning among Indonesians which would lead to consensus building and powerful collective action.”

Working as a facilitator in the development context, I often doubt our methods as Euro- or US-centric impositions that very poorly link to the cultures we work in. On the other hand, the argument that “traditionally people didn’t do things this way” is more often than not used by those in a society who fear that change will take away their elite status and give more power to women, young people, lower casts, pastoralists, whoever was disempowered before.

This is why I am very curious about a network that is explicitly grounded in the local culture of a developing country and the energized pictures on the website, of women with and without head-scarf interacting with each other and with the participating men, look very convincing that this is not about some development-paradigm forced upon people by outsiders. Check it out!

What is the best network structure?

This is often the underlying question when we map out networks: Participants are eager to know if they have the correct, the best network structure. But giving a normative answer to this question (as in: This is how your network should be) isn’t as easy or straightforward as they might hope. Because before you can judge whether or not this is the best structure, you have to ask yourself: For what?

I have set myself the task of reading the whole Wasserman and Faust (which is one of THE social network analysis standards works and heavy enough to kill a healthy rat) and they say: Networks (as in relatively open systems with no or overlapping hierarchies and diverse participants) are ideal for solving non-standard problems. That menas on the other hand, if you know the solution to your problem already and you just have to implement it effectively and efficiently, maybe a more clearly hierarchical structure with defined membership and sanctions might make more sense.

I started thinking about this when brooding over the data collected in the Pro-Poor Risk Reduction – Avian Influenza Project and maybe the answer to “What is the best network in this case?” is: You need two different ones for two different steps of the solution. First you have a non-standard problem: The threat of avian flu to your country is a complex new problem and you don’t know yet, who has to react how to make sure your measures stomp out the disease without stomping out the livelihoods of your poor population. To find solutions, rules, regulations, project goals and structures you want to involve a lot of different stakeholders in an open manner where everyone can contribute without being stiffled by formal hierarchies and power play. A time consuming but potentially sustainable process.

But then, after you have gone through this and developed your rules and structures, you are hit by an outbreak on a farm or on a life bird market. ACTION! NOW! Start stomping! If you are prepared and have put appropriate rules and processes in place, this should now be a standard situation, where actors have to follow some simple, pre-defined rules to put movement restrictions in place, cull birds within infected zones, enforce necessary action fast. This is a military style concerted action that needs clear coordination and hierarchy structures to make sure that things happen without delay and that it is possible to enforce those steps that farmers or traders might be reluctant to take. 

From our discussions when drawing network maps about disease response in Ghana and Ethiopia, I got the impression that the involvement of too many actors in unclear hierarchical relations, where everyone and their brother have to sign specific forms to make sure that action is taken, was not seen as the best model for avian influenza response, while clear directives and a lean structure were apprechiated.

(This is one of these posts that help me develop ideas that are just growing while I write. I would really apprechiate comments and discussion to see if this makes sense and how you have experienced the need for different network structures in different phases of processes.)

Read this: Knowledge Management – Putting People in the Centre

Sometimes you read something and think: “How come these guys can put my hunches into such clear and convincing language, while I just sit here, having the funny feeling that something might be wrong…?” Then all you can do is smile and share it with everyone who might be interested. This is what happened when I read the new white paper by anecdote directors Mark Schenk, Shawn Callahan and Andrew Rixon on “Our take on ‘how to talk about Knowledge Management“.

My hunch: I see organisations pour piles of money and effort and thoughts into the database kind of knowledge management (or information storing) – on the other hand I see that I rarely use these kinds of information repositories in my professional learning. So in a way it’s reassuring to find out that I am not the only one:

“In 2003, MIT researchers found the same: ‘People are five times more likely to ask a co-worker for information than consult the Intranet, portal or other enterprise subsystem’. So why do we build KM solutions assuming that people first visit a database?”

While this is not to say that data collections and documented information are useless (obviously, they are not), it does makes sense to first think about how people learn and use knowledge and then develop structures, repositories, opportunities, water coolers, incentives etc. around this.

Visual Facilitation – in your head

There are a lot of cool visual facilitators out there who capture processes, discussions, results of meetings in drawings. But the other day I realized that visual facilitation can start before anyone even touches a crayon. When the members of the RENEWAL Aids and Nutrition Research Network discussed ways, how the national or regional level African networks could become more independent, one participant described how the giraffe gives birth. Aparently standing up. So the baby-giraffe drops from a considerable height on the ground, then the mother kicks the baby to stand up and start running. “Maybe”, the participant said, “we need a giraffe birth to learn how to be independent.”

What impressed me is how this giraffe stuck with us throughout the discussion and we came back to the picture again and again – either promoting or warning against giraffe-mother behaviour. What a strong impact the pictures can have that we draw in each others’ minds. Jim Henson, the muppet master of Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, lets his muppets show the power of visual thinking in visual thinking #1, #2. and #3