How do you share learning when you’re busy doing?

That title’s not (just) a blogger’s ruse to give me the opportunity to tell you what I think the answer is. I’d really like to know how people who are busy doing interesting things make sure they share what they’ve learned with other people? How do you turn what you’ve learned into something that other people can use? Do you do a little bit regularly? Or save it all up for a big learning retreat? If you’re in a team, do you work by yourselves (‘self-learn and share’) or does someone facilitate learning sessions, and help you publish and promote what you come up with?

Is this the solution to my knowledge-sharing problem?Embed from Getty Images

I have just finished working with GDNet to help them to produce a set of end-of-phase learning publications and am starting work on a Learning and Dissemination Plan for a new four-year programme, so this is a good time for me to reflect on what I have found helps, and to scout about for inspiration from other people.

GDNet was a programme run by a small team, most of whom were based in Cairo. It aimed to increase the uptake of Southern research, mainly through an online database of Southern research and capacity building activities for Southern researchers. GDNet’s last phase of funding from DFID ended on Monday this week (June 30th) and I worked with the team in the last six months to coordinate how they documented and shared what they had learned about being a knowledge-broker and capacity-builder in and for the South. GDNet had a goal of producing and disseminating four short publications about the main areas of GDNet’s work, plus a ‘legacy document‘. We did it, on time (the last publication went online about lunchtime on the last day!) and in my utterly subjective opinion, they’re a pretty nice looking useful bunch of documents.

While I still have some residual knowledge-sharing energy left, I thought I’d reflect on what it is we did that worked and what it is important to remember to do in the future:

1) Make it important. GDNet’s logframe for 2010-2014 for DFID dedicated a whole Output area to sharing lessons learned, and learning from others. Rather than being something that was on the ‘wish list’, learning and dissemination was on a short ‘must be done list’. Anyone who has been involved in the final months of a programme knows that there is so much to do, that documenting institutional knowledge can easily be neglected. Having it built into the programme from the start is a really effective way to make sure it happens.

2) Make it measurable. Because it was an Output area, there were indicators and milestones attached which meant it was reported on and evaluated and the team could track their progress. For the future, I would add more short-term milestones as producing a publication can be a long process. An interim step, such as a blog post of early findings, for example, could help maintain motivation and momentum.

3) Use interviews for source material. Partly as an experiment, partly based on how the MK4D programme generated its lessons, I interviewed members of the GDNet team using Skype (with freeware MP3 Skype Recorder) or my laptop (with Audacity, free, excellent audio recording and editing software) for face-to-face interviews. I sent the questions in advance and suggested they read certain internal documents to refresh their memory beforehand. For two of the publications (on social media, and on capacity building), the authors used the transcripts as the starting point for their articles. Another one, which looked at two perspectives on monitoring and evaluating a Southern-focused knowledge service, two separate interviews were written up as a single feature which I think worked nicely. Tip: don’t use a headset with only one headphone when you listen to a Skype recording – you will only hear one half of the conversation and panic that your recording didn’t work!

4) Let the publication evolve. We started out with a complicated project management Gantt chart and quite fixed ideas of what the publications should cover and how long they should be. In the process of writing and editing, and getting feedback from some ‘Critical Friends’ (other members of the GDNet team, DFID, peers) who asked ‘Why? What? How?’ questions, the publications all ended up different lengths (the right ones?). We also discovered that some of the things GDNet knew about were more interesting to other people than we thought. The Capacity Building publication, for example, ended up twice the original length to include new content, especially details of the monitoring and evaluation of the workshops, which tools GDNet used and how, what worked and didn’t, etc. and the publication is all the better for it.

5) See what worked for other people. Before we started I browsed other people’s legacy documents and learning publications to pick up ideas for tools and publication designs. The Cornwall County Council Public Health Legacy Document, has a nice  timeline in its introduction which prompted me to include one for GDNet. When I worked at IDS, I was introduced to the River of Life tool which I suggested the GDNet team use to help them to trace their programme’s journey and identify places where learning had happened.

6) Take lots of photos during the programme. Luckily GDNet had a stack of photos on their Flickr account which gave me a headstart in finding images for the publications. However, I wasn’t able to find all the photos I would have liked to have used. In the new programmes I am involved in, I will make sure we have photos of every member of the team ‘in action’ and look for opportunities to add images that illustrate terms and messages that are likely to come up in learning publications – anything to avoid using clipart!

I’ll end by having a go at answering my own questions, but then I’d love to know what you think.

How do people make time to share what they’ve learned with other people? Make it important, assume it will take longer than you think (it will still be less time than you expect!), make sure you have an audience for what you’re going to share before you start so you have an incentive to publish.

How do you turn what you’ve learned into something that other people can use? Do you do a little bit regularly? Or save it all up for a big learning retreat? If you’re in a team, do you ‘self-learn and share’ or does someone facilitate learning sessions, document it and send it out?  I hope we managed that with GDNet, in which case the answer is to give readers enough information so they are not left with lots of questions, signpost to other sources, come up with a template that looks attractive (including a style guide), and get feedback on what you’ve produced while there’s time to improve it.

Do you do a little bit regularly? Or save it all up for a big learning retreat? If you’re in a team, do you ‘self-learn and share’ or does someone facilitate learning sessions, document it and send it out? GDNet had been taking part in reflective activities, participating in networks and disseminating its learning throughout the phase but for this last activity we produced our publications over a six month period with steady, small bursts of effort at the start and then a lot of work at the end. We used a team retreat, individual learning logs, interviews, the ‘River of Life’, analysis of internal documents, collaborative writing using Google Drive and Skype calls. I think it helped having someone coordinate the process, to keep it on-track and come up with a standard design and style for the publications. However, the team already had a culture of individual reflection, thanks to their monitoring and evaluation framework, and were used to blogging their ideas and observations as part of their regular work. This meant that they had no trouble coming up with ‘lessons learned’ when they were interviewed and were keen to get as much of their learning documented and ‘out there’ before the programme ended.


How to get engaged (with your stakeholders)

What better day than 14th February to think about getting engaged? Last week I came across the kind of document I love to see: a short, snappy, practical summary of some tools for analysing stakeholders from IDS. The authors explain four key tools; some are pretty familiar to marketing folk e.g. Alignment Interest Matrix (AIM), while others are less commonly seen outside of development, such as Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis.

It got me thinking about some of the ways people working in fields such as marketing, organisational change, etc. look at stakeholders and whether these might be of relevance to people wanting to engage research stakeholders.

One tool that I think is under-used is Peter Block’s matrix which positions stakeholders in term of level of Trust and Agreement with you. It takes the AIM tool a step further to factor in relationships between people and I’ve found it really helpful when I’m in situations where how much people like me is my only source of power. I often use it when I’m teaching project management (given that project managers often have to cajole people to contribute when they have no hierarchical mandate). I imagine it could be useful for think tanks who are trying to influence stakeholders with whom they have some level of existing relationships (negative or positive).

The Block matrix is explained nicely by the TeamSTAR Project with some advice on how to work with each group e.g. with Opponents (where there’s trust but disagreement) are people you can have a constructive discussion with because you already have an established relationship and may end up reviewing your viewpoint or reframing it. Sticking with Peter Block and the power of personal connections (this post is fast becoming a Valentine’s card to his work…) his “six conversations” methodology for civic engagement is really worth a read.

Finally, a shameless plug for something I wrote for IDS. The Organisational Decision Making Unit (or the buying centre) is a nifty piece of marketing thinking that people working in research uptake might consider to identify who your stakeholders might be influenced by. I’ve tried to find a development-friendly summary online but am stumped (please tell me if you find one) so meanwhile check out p.17 of Who Are We Aiming To Reach?


Research “consumers”, know your rights!

I’m not claiming to be the first person to spot some problems with applying models of supply and demand, and consumption and production to research. But I wonder if I’m the most obsessed?

I’ll admit, part of it is personal. I’m a Chartered Marketer working in development and I’ve observed (and experienced) some quite aggressive reactions to suggestions of applying marketing theories or business thinking to encouraging development research to be used more. The unethical marketing behaviour of certain large companies is no doubt partly to blame for this. But I’m a bit bemused to see how avidly the language of manufacturing and selling has been adopted by people working in research communication, without any interrogation.

I love a good metaphor as much as the next woman, especially if it helps me make sense of something intangible. But in this case, it doesn’t work. Using the notions of “research consumers” and “research producers”, of a research supply chain complete with intermediaries, and of stimulating research demand, creates many more problems than it solves. Here’s just a few:

1) the words already mean something and these meanings are different to the way they’re often used in the context of research. For example, a consumer is an individual who gives to the seller something the seller values, in exchange for a product or service for their own personal use, or as a gift to someone else. And it stops there. Strictly speaking, this means if I’m a research consumer, I’m someone who commissions someone to do (produce) some research for me. It doesn’t mean I read anything they write. “Organisational customer of research” would be a closer approximation to what I think is the intent behind the phrase “research consumer” but I don’t think that’s going to catch on.

2) the notion of research producers and research consumers suggests two different types of people – often consumers are seen as policymakers, and producers as researchers. But really these are behaviours which the same person can display or roles they can take up and drop as needed. Based on the way the term is used in research communication, aren’t researchers, research consumers? (I just made myself dizzy thinking about academics subscribed to the Journal of Consumer Research; are they consumer research consumer research producers?!).

3) the language of demand, supply, intermediaries, push, pull and products (linear) is often used within writing about complexity, systems, non-linear thinking and all things wiggly and swirly. The two sets of ideas are at loggerheads.

I sense some more posts in the pipeline – on intermediaries, for example. But for now, I’d like to propose (with only half my tongue in cheek) that research consumers be given the same legal protection that consumers in the UK enjoy. This means that anyone “selling” research has to follow the same rules as other producers and sellers, such as:

  • not using a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention (CAP Codes).
  • not providing material information “in a manner which is unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely” i.e. writing in Plain English (Unfair Trading Regulations, 2008).
  • only providing research that is of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose (Sale of Goods Act, 1979).
  • making consumers aware of how much it will cost them to “purchase” the research over the internet (e.g. downloading).
  • not promoting research by email to people who haven’t said they want to hear about it.

Research consumers, stand up for your rights!

What is it I do again? How to talk to strangers about our work.

As Charlie used to say, you should “never go anywhere with men and ladies that you don’t know” and that’s good advice. But sometimes we do have to talk to strangers about our work, often at short notice and even answer the dreaded question “so what’s your project all about?”. What’s the wise thing to do in those situations?

I recently ran a workshop with some of the lovely folk at the British Library for Development Studies where we shared our experiences of talking about what we do or want to do, to people who we want to get to know better (donors, potential partners, people who might be able to help us with our work).

We quickly ditched the idea of developing an “elevator pitch”, those short speeches we’re meant to deliver to a captive audience. Of course it’s handy to have a standard statement or two and there’s lots of advice out there on how to develop them. But it’s not very considerate of the person riding in the elevator with you (or stuck in the queue for the coffee or loo). We were looking for some good advice on how to get conversations going with people, who we don’t know well, and get them interested in our work while still being ourselves.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Turns out that between us we had quite a few ideas including:

Ask questions – the anti-elevator pitch approach is to get to know the person as quickly as possible, and then explain your idea or project or odd-sounding job title in a way that speaks to what you’ve found out about them.

Have something in common – look for a connection between the two of you, where you are, who you know, what you’re wearing.

Use examples and stories – especially if your work involves a lot of jargon or theory, remember to bring in real people and situations to make it accessible.

Be rigorous – you don’t need a prepared speech, but it is worth learning some facts that support what you’re saying; maybe something an expert has said in a recent publication, or some firm numbers from evaluations that back up your case.

Be a lovely person – you’re talking to another person, who might be tired, away from home, fed up with being pitched at. If it’s your style, by all means be charming, or cheeky, or funny, but try to make them feel better for having spent time talking to you.

Have no more than three messages – those core points to get across which could be your values, objectives, what you’re doing that’s different. If you work in a team then you need to establish these together. They’re the things you’d like the other person to go away associating with you and your work but how you communicate them is up to you.

Make sure you can contact them – ask for their card, or their email and send them something useful and relevant afterwards (maybe a link to that expert’s paper you were talking about or the name of a great B&B in NYC).

Knowing all this is great, and pinning down the facts and messages in advance is better, but best of all is practising it. For which I have two recommendations: get into the habit of practising scenarios with your colleagues (with another team member around to give feedback and support if needed), and go speed-dating.