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.


Be interested in other people: the golden rule for freelancers?

When I talk to fellow freelancers who do a lot of work from home, a couple of challenges seem to come up again and again: staying solvent and staying sane.

We know we have to keep the pipeline of assignments flowing, to avoid the ghastly feast or famine syndrome, but how do we get enough (but not too much) new work lined up when we’re busy getting our current work done? And while we’re managing that balancing act, how do we keep ourselves motivated, up-to-date and avoid turning into people who talk to their furniture having spent so much time in our own company?

Here’s something that I’ve observed seems to help: being interested in other people. I’m a nosy so-and-so, a chatterbox and a bit of an approval-seeker (Do you like my new website? Do you? Do you?). But it turns out that these qualities come in pretty handy now I’m self-employed. I’ll admit, I went a bit bonkers when I first started out as a freelancer. It was January. I was snowed in. And I went from having about 50 face to face bits of friendly useful office chitchat a day to asking my cat how her weekend was. So I realised early on that I needed to plan to have at least one cheery phonecall or coffee date every day in order to keep myself going. Sometimes with a former colleague, other times a new contact. Just keeping in touch, exchanging advice, sharing know-how and news. Getting feedback, advice or just letting off steam.

Some really great things happened as a result. I didn’t have to look for new clients – they found me. My lovely network would mention me when asked for a recommendation and as a marketer, I know that a lot of this was to do with me being “top-of-mind” thanks to our recent chats. When thinking of a brand (or person) we tend to remember those we spoke to or heard from not long ago. I was accidentally doing Relationship Marketing.

I also came away from most encounters feeling inspired to get on and do something I’d put off, or more confident about tackling something new and a bit scary, or knowing more about something I’d almost certainly find useful at some point.

So getting back to the two challenges. If you find yourself worried about either or both, I recommend making more time to befriend and be a friend. Schedule some “Let’s catch up” calls for next week. Email your contacts and tell them what you’re up to, and find out their news. Take time to have lunch with an old colleague. Trust that you won’t have to spend time looking for work; work will find you. And your marbles will stay put.

Your cat will be grateful for the extra peace and quiet too.

PS: I wrote a paper on Making and Keeping Friends (advice for my colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies on how to build and maintain strategic relationships) so you may find some of the tips there useful if you’re looking to grow your network.

No more tiers: five things that can take the pain out of decentralised marketing communications

Marketing communications is no longer just the responsibility of those with the words in their job title. Many organisations require staff in different roles to incorporate promotion, dissemination and general news-spreading into their workload. This decentralisation of marketing communications has the potential to be very effective, however it doesn’t happen by itself. Here are five things I have observed can make
a difference:

Motivation – whether from the results people hope marketing communications will bring, or from enjoying the process (using new tools, using their imagination, doing something tangible, interacting with real people, etc.). On the other hand, if staff can’t see a personal benefit to doing it, they are less likely to allocate time to it or have the enthusiasm that successful marketing communications depends on. When did a reluctant marketer every convince you to do anything?

Time – staff need genuine encouragement from their managers that they should prioritise spending time on marketing communications over other activities, rather than it being something to be done in addition to their current workload. If not, it’ll either languish at the bottom of the “to do” list making people feel depressed every time they see it, or it will get done but staff are likely to become stressed and de-motivated.

Freedom – giving people the space and permission to experiment with new communication tools, to come up with their own ideas, and make (inevitable) mistakes. But they also need to be clear what the boundaries are: e.g. house-style guidelines, approval processes, legal restrictions, etc. Staff might surprise you with their innovation and unearth hidden talents.

Focus – when people know what the specific purpose is for their marketing communications, who it should be aimed at and have measurable targets, they can use their time more effectively and see how well they are doing. Realistic, measurable targets can help with Motivation. It helps if your organisation has identified its niche (in comparison to others in the sector) and how to select which target audiences to prioritise.

Support – this can include peer support mechanisms (e.g. meetings where people can share their experiences, ideas and challenges with others), having someone to ask for technical advice or feedback, reference tools, and a champion or cheerleader for marketing communications who will persuade people to keep going. Perhaps a role for the Marketing or Communications Officer?

These are observations from a number of organisations working in the development and public sectors. How do they fit with your experiences?

(This post was originally featured on my earlier blog, Positive Influence. I’ve been told the advice and observations are still as relevant as ever, hence its reappearance here)