Capturing institutional memory…

Imagine someone has worked for your organization and your cause for 25 years. Or maybe for the same cause in different organizations. Or for the same organization but different causes or regions. As he or she approaches retirement the organization will not only loose the workforce that will leave when the person leaves, the 8 or so hours a day that s/he puts in. But also the 25 years and all the network knowledge gathered over this period of time. You can easily find someone for the 8 hours, but they won’t have the 25 years.

In an ideal scenario you would have some kind of apprenticeship time where the old and new employee work side by side and the new person learns the ropes, get introduced to all the long standing partners, to be able to take forward both the formal and informal relationships, that our old employee has developed. In reality, there will rarely be the time and resources to do that.

What I would propose instead is more of a one day instead of a one year activity: Invite your experienced leaving expert and maybe 3 of the people who will work in the same area in the future (or do so currently) for a facilitated one day institutional knowledge sharing exercise. The core activity of the day is that the old employee draws a Net-Map of all the actors that s/he sees as influential for this cause / organization / position. Make sure that they include individual contact people and the names of movers and shakers where ever possible and take the time to document the details about both formal and informal relationships and specific characteristics of the different actors. Allow a lot of time for questions from the new position holders. Develop some strategic plans together, looking at who the core partners are, what specific untapped opportunities are, what stumbling blocks and old mistakes to avoid and which focused activities could help ease the transition. Maybe there are specific actors that are very crucial or very difficult to access and the old employee would be a perfect door opener.

This activity would not only smooth the transition from one to the next, but is also a great way of showing respect to an “elder statesman” of your organization.

Same, same but different

When doing Net-Maps with different people about the same question, we face the following dilemma: We want them to be free to mention any actor who comes to mind, whoever is involved in, let’s say innovation in the poultry sector in Ethiopia or managing small reservoirs in Ghana. But then we might want to combine these maps to get a master view of the problem. And what seemed like a minor oddity, the fact that people give the same actor different names, or use more or less condensed actor labels (do they just say NGOs or give us the specific names of the NGOs involved, do they name individuals by their name or position?) can become a major problem when trying to combine the maps. Even just minor spelling differences means that we have to fiddle around with the data manually where a click or two should be able to do the job for us.

On the other hand, especially in fields where we are not the experts, it is absolutely unrealistic, that we could come up with a pre-defined list of actors, especially if you want to include formal and informal players. And it is one of the big strengths of this method that it allows you to explore actor constellations even in areas where you don’t even really know what questions to ask.

How do we combine the need to explore and be open with the need for consistency in the labeling of data?

In one of our current projects we will try out an approach that is very remotely inspired by the Delphi approach, we will let our experts build on each others’ knowledge: The first interview will start from a blank slate, asking: Who are all the actors involved?

Pythia sitting on the Delphic Tripod Cauldron and a priest

For the second interview we will write all the actors mentioned by interview partner 1 on prepared stickynotes and ask our respondent to choose whichever they want, plus add any that are missing. Interview 3 will have all the actors from 1 and 2 to choose from, plus any that respondent 3 adds.

I’m curious to see how this goes. Will the later Net-Maps have significantly more actors than the earlier ones? Will we find a good balance between openness and consistency? This approach will work better for some questions than for others and it only really makes sense if your final goal is creating a consensus map of a common network. That means it could work for questions such as: “Who is involved in developing this policy?” but not really for questions likeĀ  “Who do you personally go to for information about job opportunities?”

Change: (You) say it, (I) do it (maybe…)

Or the other way round.

picture by psp

There might be people out there, who find all the change they need within themselves. But when I look at how Net-Map moved from toys in a cookie tin to what it is now, I know that I met a significant guide at most of the important cross-roads. Someone who says: “This might be the best idea you’ll have in your life, stick with it for a while, don’t run away because you’re bored, don’t assume you’ll invent something more interesting tomorrow” (John Mason of NCRC, Ghana), “Give it a name, turn it into a toolbox, make it a recognizable product – and we’ll help you do it.” (Klaus von Grebmer and his communications team at IFPRI), “WRITE THESE RESEARCH PAPERS! This is how people learn about Net-Map and start taking it seriously.” (Regina Birner at IFPRI), “We’re all doing it and you can also be independent and thrive!” (Mark Steinlin, Nancy White and so many other colleagues at KM4Dev)

Today is my personal international “Thank the change agents day”. It’s amazing how that works, because change has to be outside and within at the same time, this brief moment that is like an opened door. Because we all know how often people encourage us to change this or that and we just feel like: “Leave me alone and mind your own business.” But every once in a while you meet people who hear the change that is brewing in you already and give you the one question, advice, criticism that you need to jump. It does make you wonder: Who or what opens this door?

Ok, in the end you have to do all the hard work to make it happen, and, let me tell you, change never comes for free… But, would you even have tried without this random or pointed remark?

My last change agent encounter was actually with more than one… more than one customer asking me for the same time slot, wanting me to be in different corners of the world at the same time. And then I sat down with my partner in crime Noora Aberman (IFPRI) and we asked ourselves: How can Net-Map grow beyond our own limited capacity? How much sharing and how much control is needed so that it can spread wide and still not be diluted too much? Can I let go? Of what? How does collaboration work if I don’t want to employ?

I don’t know. Yet. But I will find out. And I’m asking all my friends to tell me what they think… So if you have made an idea grow beyond your own limited size – or if you failed to do so and learned a lot along the way – tell me what you have learned and you might be on the golden list on my next “thank the change agents day”…