Identifying international knowledge partnerships

With my colleagues Kerstin Tebbe and Bruno Laporte I just had an interesting design conversation for a session in which they want to help the members of a water basin commission better understand with whom they have knowledge exchange partnerships. We realized soon that this is not going to be a Net-Map session or a session of some squeezed out, shrunk down little cousin of Net-Map. So the proposed steps are the following:

  1. All 20 participants (individually) write the names of the commission’s most important and reliable knowledge partners on index cards (with thick marker and great handwriting). The cards are color-coded by categories, e.g. government on green cards, civil society on red.
  2. They put all cards on a large table and start looking for duplicates – if both of us wrote University of XYZ, we stack these cards to reduce the number of cards we are dealing with.
  3. Depending on the number of remaining cards (judgment call in the situation), they instruct the group to get up and take all cards (or only those of actors that have been mentioned at least twice), and walk to a large, sketched  map on the floor of the 5 countries involved. They distribute the actor cards on the map, according to the country the actor is located in.
  4. As this very rough geographical actor map emerges, the participants consider a number of questions: Do we have stronger networks in some countries than others? Are some colors (i.e. actor categories) overrepresented on the map – or in some countries? Who is missing? What is the difference between the stack of cards I produced on my own and the map that emerged as we started putting it all together? How can we, as a group, access this whole richness, instead of just our own little corners?

This activity is located at the start of a longer engagement to improve the knowledge exchange and management of this organization, so they don’t have to answer all the questions in the world, the goal is rather to get the conversation started, to invite the complexity into the room without being overwhelmed.

I am curious to hear what you think about this? Would it work in your context? Can you think of something which would even sharpen or further enrich the activity? Have we overlooked a critical risk? And, don’t you love the artwork above, which Tara Donovan (picture credit) created out of thousands and thousands of index cards?

Public Health Knowledge Management – One size does not fit all (paper by Sarah Harlan et al.)

(picture copyright by DFID on flickr)

In a recently published paper about knowledge management in family planning in Ethiopa, Sarah Harlan (of Johns Hopkins) et al. dig deep into the knowledge networks that connect the national and local government agencies with women and men on the ground. They combined Net-Map with focus group discussions and other interviews. Among their findings is the insight that actors on different levels have different knowledge needs and these are best supported by different network structures. I am especially interested in how high centralization impacts on a networks ability to deliver.

No network structure is perfect and every structure has pros and cons. If you have a highly centralized knowledge network, basically Ministry of Health in the middle, distributing information to everyone, this can be great in some respect, because you are in control of the message. In a context such as reproductive health, where traditional beliefs and modern medicine might be contradictory, having one central distributor of information can help to make sure the message that local women receive is consistent. Also, centralized systems are easy to understand for people within and outside the system, users know who to turn to, donors know whom to support. However, centralization also has a number of risks: They put a high burden on the central node – if the Ministry of Health is overloaded or does not perform well, nothing will happen. Also, they are weak at producing and sharing locally adapted solutions. So, while they work well in situations where there is one clear correct answer, they are weak, slow and not very creative in situations where many different solutions will work. For example, if the question is: How do we get village women to give birth in a hospital instead of at home, there can be many different solutions that work and that could inspire others – if you have a system that is designed to share information in a decentralized manner.

Do you have a Net-Map paper, report, blog post that you want to share? Send me a note and I am happy to include you here.