Thursday, 18 June 2015

The “Duh-test”, or what is not a lesson learned

I was recently reviewing a number of texts which my organization collected from past projects and initiatives (some through an internal mandatory monitoring tool, others gathered as part of After Action Reviews or Lessons Learned Papers), which all meant to capture ‘lessons learned’ from specific experiences.

And while these texts were not wrong per se, I realized that there seems to be a fundamental misconception what constitutes a good lesson, and what doesn’t. Here are a few typical examples of what we often collect as part of such lessons learned exercises:
  • “Ensure that the [Team] Manager has excellent leadership, project and team management skills, understanding of programming and experience working in [the subject matter].”
  • “Project outputs must be compatible towards project goals. Throughout the project there is a need for careful identification of project goals and outputs to ensure that they are compatible with each other. This can be only ensured through a consultative and participatory approach in project design with target institutions, implementing partner and experts.”
  • “Managing relationships between key national and international players during [the project activity] is very important. Recognizing and respecting national ownership and leadership of the process is vital and key to winning the trust of the national authorities.”
  • “The better local authorities are involved in the process, the better the expected results are easily achieved and durable.”


The above examples are representative for a common type of lessons learned write up, which fails to pass what I would call the “Duh-test”:

If a ‘lesson learned’ statement is so obvious that it is self-evident to every reader, and at the same time so generally applicable to almost any type of project or initiative, it basically becomes meaningless.

It is good when a team realizes that it failed to put in place a team leader who has leadership and team management skills (and yes, it should remind itself do better next time), but there is literally no value in sharing that learning point with others outside the team, simply because everyone already knows that this should always be a criteria for selecting team leaders. There is nothing new to learn here that would change anyone’s views or actions.

Also, if a lesson is so generic that it could apply to any scenario, we deprive ourselves of the learning effect that comes from understanding the particular conditions responsible for making your project work or not work, so others can go and try to replicate or avoid those conditions.

Such lessons that are either too obvious or too generally applicable produce ‘lessons learned noise’ because these same lessons are reported from countless projects over and over again, without anyone actually learning from them. At the same time, this noise detracts everyone’s attention from the meaty lessons learned pieces that really provide value to a wider audience.

So what is it that makes lessons learned write-ups actually add value? Maybe asking ourselves the following three questions could help make lessons learned statements worth capturing and sharing:
  1. Will anyone else actually learn something new from this lesson, as opposed to self-evident truths that everyone usually already knows?This is the “Duh-test” and should always be the first criteria.
  2. Is this lesson particularly relevant to your specific situation, as opposed to a lesson that it so general that it would apply to any scenario?The more general a lesson is, the less useful it is.
  3. Does the lesson include or lend itself to a concrete action that you or someone else can take in order to effect a change in future practice? Capturing a lesson is only meaningful if there is an actual change triggered by it


But aren’t the ‘bad’ examples mentioned earlier still true and important to highlight, even if they are not particularly new or context specific? Doesn’t the fact that everyone agrees to them intuitively and that they apply to all our projects and initiatives all the more valuable?

Absolutely! But I would never call them ‘lesson learned’. Rather, these are important principles that anyone should abide by, no matter what subject matter expertise or functional roles someone has. We should treat them as guiding lights for our work, teach them in our training curriculae, communicate them our onboarding and induction sessions and embed them our policy guidance.  Some lessons from projects, if they are collected often enough, might eventually be added over time to such a common canon of principles. But we should stop collecting what is already part of that canon over and over again from individual projects, which is no good use of anyone’s time.

Monday, 13 October 2014

What remains after the bonfire: How do we define success of an event?


During the last few weeks I was heavily involved with the SHIFT Week of Innovation Action, a series of parallel events taking place in 21 different country offices. Over 50 practitioners were invited to ‘shift’ from one country office to another to share their experience on innovation methodologies and what they learned from their ongoing innovation projects (many of them funded by UNDP’s Innovation Facility), learn from others, and ‘shift mindsets’ in the process.
As part of the team that coordinated the event week I was in awe of the incredible energy coming from country office colleagues and the enthusiasm, creativity and time commitment on the side of organizers, participants, and the coordination team here in New York. And from the feedback that has been rolling in so far (the evaluation survey shows about 95% of participants were satisfied or very satisfied with the event) it seems the SHIFT initiative was a success all around.
Yet, we all remember other instances of well-organized events which achieved great visibility, but when people were asked there months later what the impact of the event has been, we didn’t have much to show for it.

So you had a nice event that brought people together and left everyone happy and excited, but so what? What came out of it?

I believe we have to be very honest about how we define success of events. Yes, it is good when participants convey in a survey how much they enjoyed the gathering. And it is also great when the event achieves visibility and external recognition with good communication during and immediately after the event, such as national media coverage of the SHIFT hackathon in Belarus, great videos produced about SHIFT events in Haiti, Montenegro or Georgia, or outreach products such as the SHIFT Exposure compilation, that give audiences a glance of what happened.
But it is not enough. Because if 12 months from now, none of the new ideas generated will have inspired actual initiatives, projects or products, if none of the innovative prototypes developed will have been applied in real life, none of the solutions shared will have been successfully replicated or brought to scale, and no one who couldn’t participate in person has a chance to learn from what was discussed the event – then I don’t think we can call the exercise a success.

Then it will just have been a bright bonfire that burned for a single night. We have a nice picture of it, but it will not warm anyone going forward.

So here is what I think is needed to make events worth the investment we put into them in terms of time and money. And please feel free to add your own bullet points to this list:

1. Set up an after-event communication plan, and follow up diligently

Rather than letting organizers and participants disperse after a good event, let’s use the current momentum and excitement when people return to their offices. Make a plan on how we want to communicate the results, increase visibility and leverage the event’s discussions and activities to initiate new collaborations, products and projects. Maybe this is the opportunity to promote an existing Community of Practice (COP), or establish a network of mentors around your topic! Make sure to use all available channels, from internal COPs, to external online networks (LinkedIn, Devex, DGroups, World Bank networks, etc.) to public social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, Slideshare) and try to engage new audiences.

2, Relentlessly focus on knowledge and learning products

Communication products and activities are crucial for getting recognition and visibility, and for reporting back to donors. But the important substance, the ‘meat’ of knowledge and learning points is what others really need in order to apply the results of the event to their work. Where can new colleagues who join the organization six months from now access the video recordings and slides of the presentations given so they can follow the event’s learning points? Where can they find blog posts and short interviews with personal insights and reflections of participants on what they learned at the event and how they intend to apply that to their own work? And where are the hands-on knowledge products that help them review the examples shared and apply the solutions that were discussed? If there are only glossy brochures and good-looking PR videos, but no substantive project examples, how-to articles, lessons learned summaries, guidance notes or toolkits coming out of the event, then we might look good externally, but the event was still a failure for the organization as nobody other the handful of on-site participants will learn anything from it.

3. Track status initiatives and projects coming out of the event

One of the reason we as organizations facilitate working-level events is to fulfil our role as a broker of exchanges to inspire and improve our projects and programming. We must come to an understanding that we cannot afford to organize events that look great from the outside but that do not result in concrete, improved approaches, projects and initiatives that are being replicated and scaled up in other countries and regions. We need to wrap up events with concrete commitments on what will happen next, and be diligent in checking-in with organizers and participants at different intervals after the event on how their commitments, prototypes and follow-up activities are evolving (and no, just planning for the next event to discuss the issue further doesn’t count! ;). That means that as an organization we have to expect more from participants than showing up and consuming presentations, but rather for all to become part of an active knowledge production and application process that extends far beyond the event’s closing session.


This is all much easier said than done. For SHIFT week, our team is trying to practice these points, by setting up an editorial calendar through which we will keep communicating about SHIFT results in the upcoming weeks and months, by supporting the formation of mentor groups for follow-up questions, and by following up with teams on potential knowledge products that could emerge from different events. I know there will be a lot of imperfections along the way, but if at the end of the day there will be more products that others can really learn from such as the Guidance for Project Managers on Crowdfunding, the live-stream recordings from Jamaica and Egypt on design thinking with governments or the top tips and questions from the SHIFT Rwanda coffee learning session, and if brilliant initiatives such as the 112 emergency service for people with hearing and speech impairments in Georgia, the bilateral knowledge exchange on public service centers between Bangladesh and China and others can be turned into re-usable guidance for other countries to build on, then we can truly say that the SHIFT Week of Innovation Action was a huge success.



In your option, what other elements are important for defining success of events?

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Rethinking knowledge products after the 'PDF shock': Make them leaner, faster, and never without the community!

Since the World Bank published its report early this month which states that over 30% of its policy reports have never been downloaded even once (!) and only 13 percent of policy reports were downloaded at least 250 times, a fascinating debate on the purpose and value of knowledge products is flourishing the web, and the posts from KM practitioners all over keep pouring in.

It’s not just the World Bank, but most international organizations

Interestingly, I have been thinking about exactly the same questions for the last 9 months now as I was drafting UNDP’s new Knowledge Management Strategy for the upcoming years. Here’s a passage which captures UNDPs own dilemma regarding knowledge products:

The current process of knowledge product definition, development, dissemination and measurement does not yield the quality, reach and impact that is needed for UNDP to be a thought leader in development.” The Strategy goes on to stress that UNDP intends to revise its process of planning, developing, and disseminating knowledge products in a way that makes them “more easily accessible, more relevant to clients’ needs, more accountable towards the community they seek to engage, more flexible and timely in their development and format, and more measurable in their quality and impact.”

Format matters

A lot of contributors to the debate, such as the commenters of the respective Washington Post article, the DevPolicy Blog, Crisscrossed or my KM colleagues from the KM4dev network highlight how we have to get much smarter in developing formats that actually appeal to an audience that is increasingly passing on lengthy unappealing reports and paper. And there is a lot of truth to this. Colleagues at UNDP are increasingly learning that short and snappy products, such as blog posts, 2-pagers or infographics will allow communicating important key points from their work to a larger audience and also more just-in-time. Compared with heavy research reports which take months and years to finalize, the advantage of light-weight formats is that they allow for adjusting content quickly as new data and evidence emerges, which makes the product more relevant and timely the moment it is distributed.

The launch of a paper cannot be the end of the project

Ian Thorpe (who arguably came up with the most crisp blog title in the debate so far ;) also makes an excellent point in clarifying that we have to invest much more in dissemination and outreach. All too often the launch of a product is declared the successful end of a research project, when in fact, this should be just the starting point of a whole new phase where we reach out to potential audiences through all possible traditional and social media channels, organize webinars and on-site events to raise awareness of the knowledge product and its key points, and inject ourselves into ongoing debates where our product can add real value. Budgets for development of knowledge products leave this part of the process chronically underfunded, and we as KM practitioners need to make a point that a dissemination and public engagement strategy has to be an integral part of any knowledge production process.

The real issue is the lack of community feedback loops

But while clear abstracts, interesting illustrations, good formatting and focused outreach will go a long way in mitigating the “too long; didn’t read” (TL;DR) problem, my personal belief is that we must pay much more attention to where the problem of unread knowledge products starts: at inception. The Complexia blog nails it when it points out that there is a “lack of demand-driven research” in which “research projects tend to be more driven by the interest of individual researchers”.

How can it be that organizations give authors green light for the development of papers and reports for which they haven’t done any preliminary analysis of what the targeted community needs and whether the product to be developed is likely to find an audience? How is it possible that we can go through an entire cycle of a product production process without probing with the relevant communities of practitioners outside our organizations whether the questions we ask and the conclusions we draw resonate with the audience that is supposed to benefit from them? And not just once in a peer review when the product is almost finished, but at every step, from inception to formulation of research questions, outline and early drafts?

It is clear to me that we need to get rid of our internal navel-gazing posture and get much better at involving the relevant communities much earlier in the process, and at much more frequent intervals than we do today. This is not rocket science, as such ongoing feedback loops can be achieved through regular blog posts about work in progress, a targeted e-discussion at an early stage, and frequent participation in external online fora to vet ideas. But it requires that authors start seeing themselves not as isolated writers, but as facilitators of a larger debate who are tasked to feed the essence of that debate into their product. Authors who make a living of the actual impact of their publications understand this, as you can see from countless books of business advisors and speakers. Authors who are just hired to deliver a product for an organization by a certain deadline (often without even being credited for it) don’t have that incentive.

Are we at international organizations ready to change this? What can we do to turn this pattern around and start thinking about the relevance of knowledge product from the users’ perspective?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Kick-starting Innovation in Response to the Syria Crisis: A Peer Assist Conversation with Arndt Husar and George Hodge

In November 2013 I got deployed for 3 months to Amman on a consulting assignment to support the setup of UNDP’s Sub-Regional Response Facility for the crisis in Syria. A key role of the Facility is to operationalize the Strategic Plan’s key area of ‘Resilience’ in an environment of crisis by marrying the humanitarian response for Syria with a development response. So far there has been a primarily humanitarian angle to the Syria crisis, with OCHA, UNHCR, WFP and FAO leading the response efforts in the region. UNDP’s interest in this situation is to widen the perspective and highlight that there is a dramatic development cost for Syria’s neighbor countries Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, which deal with the largest refugee movement since the WWII. Given that most refugees are not staying in camps are embedded in host communities with families and friends, the host communities face a heavy strain on local services such as access to housing, water, sanitation, health care, education and the labor market, as well as on social cohesion more generally. UNDP finds itself in a situation where it needs to explore new solutions to something that in this scope and in this way hasn’t been done before. This calls for innovation, and my job at the Facility was to help the facility to establish a KM and Innovation framework and action plan to define what the Facility can do from a knowledge and innovation perspective in the next two years, to help UNDP implement a resilience-based response to the Syria crisis.


I have been following UNDP’s work on innovation, and I closely followed the Global Innovation Meeting that took place in November 2013 in Montenegro, including its outputs such the excellent Budva Declaration. Still, much of this to me was rather theoretical and I didn’t have a lot of practical experience on how to approach and manage an innovation initiative. So I contacted a number UNDP colleagues who work on innovation and asked them to participate in Peer Assists – a knowledge management methodology that brings together a group of peers to elicit feedback on a problem, project, or activity, and draw insights from the participants' knowledge and experience (to learn more about Peer Assists, watch this excellent 6 min video here).
I was lucky to win Arndt Husar from the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, and George Hodge from the UNDP Country Office in Armenia for a Peer Assist session I conducted in Dec 2013 to tap their brains on implementing innovation initiatives, and I hope the following shortened transcript of the conversation can be of as much help to others as it was to me!

Johannes:  I invited you to this conversation, because you both have been involved in practical innovation events and initiatives in UNDP in the past. My hope is to get to a better understanding of the conditions under which certain innovation initiatives make sense and how we would plan for something like this. Where would a team like ours here in Amman start? And what would be the conditions under which it would make sense to have e.g. an innovation camp in one of Syria’s neighbor countries to identify new solutions together with municipalities and local actors?

George: I like that you are trying to incorporate different approaches in addressing these challenges. The first thing I usually do is to get out of the office and talk to municipal officials and the other stakeholders in order to get a better sense of the problems. When running social innovation camps and innovation challenges, the better you can define the problem at the very beginning, the happier you will be about what happens later in the cycle.
If you run an open innovation challenge where you ask “tell us about your problems, and suggest solutions”, you get a better sense of where the problems lie. Whereas if you want to address more concrete problems of your stakeholders, then you should run an innovation camp or challenge around a specific question.
I recommend visiting your stakeholders to get a sense of which public services are under strain. Then you can run a series of concurrent challenges asking “Can you come up with ways in which we can overcome this particular issue”. But if you are at an early stage and you are trying to make sense of the environment, an open challenge may be best. You should expect over 100 responses, and from that you will get a sense of where people see the most pressing problems.

Arndt:  That was great feedback from George. I think I need more clarity on the scale: Is this something you want to do at an inter-governmental level, or do you want to look for solutions in each specific country? This will define your immediate counterparts and your outreach. Municipalities are good, because they are the ones delivering your cutting-edge services. You could break your issues in the sub-region down into national challenges, and then go out and do the sensing with local partners. For me the big question is the connection between that massive scale of four countries, and the local services that you are looking at.

Johannes: To give you feedback on the scale, we are talking more or less about three countries: Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, because those are the three countries that host the biggest population of refugees. They are also at a more advanced development stage with larger middle income population, so we may have a higher chance to get some of those technology solutions with private sector off the ground.

Arndt: Ok, I think that’s very good. This sounds similar to what we had in Singapore with our social innovation camps. We had activities in multiple countries and at the end convened a regional summit where we brought the various countries together to combine different country perspectives, which worked quite well.
Regarding the conditions that have to be in place to organize something like this, Mm experience in our regional initiative in Asia-Pacific was that the outputs depended hugely on the local organizing partner and also on the network that the local partner brought in. If you partner with some agency that has a very specific urban network, then you get that kind of result. If you partner with an agency that has a lot of techies in it, then you are going to get a lot of IT solutions. So it’s really important to pick the right partners (ideally a consortium of partners) so you can have a wider range of solutions.
Another lesson that we learned is that during the short duration of a three day camp people really just scratch the surface. I think if you want to get real solutions from municipalities to be innovative, you need to along the lines George suggested: First the sensing, then the definition of the problem, then the call, then probably some research (almost like the production of a case study), and then you go into prototyping and so on. That’s a really thorough preparation process, which we ourselves were not able to do through just a social innovation camp. The above requires a bit more work.

George: What Arndt has just identified is why we – after running a few Social Innovation Camps – decided to set up an Innovation Lab, because we realized we needed a bigger support structure around our events. You need to do the sense making first and then come up with a series of really specific challenges - this will give you results that are much better aligned with your mission.
After the first social innovation camp, we gave the teams grants and just said “good luck, come to us of you have any problems”, but this approach is too passive. By now we have a much bigger support structure where we get our hands dirty with the teams and actively invest in the initiatives that pass through the lab – much more like a incubator. 

Johannes: So how many of these three-day social innovation camps in Armenia did you run? And have they all been successful?

George: We have run four of them, and they were definitely worth it. I would say if you run a three-day event, it is useful to look at what is already out there of which UNDP is not aware, and identify people who have a deep understanding of the social problems in question. Maybe there are teams that are already established, but don’t know how to scale their activities, in which case you could throw UNDP’s institutional weight behind an initiative and scale it quickly.

Johannes: And then you can go a step further and turn that to a ‘lab’ structure. What is a lab exactly?
George: It’s an incubator for social projects where we mimic business incubators: Identify ideas, conduct rapid prototyping, get a very basic product into the world, test it with users, and then look at the feedback. Is this working? Is this gaining traction? If yes, let’s invest more! And all the while you are giving the team access to mentors and design workshops, and develop their capacity. With a lab you can test multiple ideas and hypotheses at the same time, look for results, and then scale. This is very different to traditional programming approaches.  The lab in Armenia attempts to solve big social challenges by harnessing citizens’ experiences, insights and ideas alongside public services.  It applies approaches like horizon scanning, design challenges, user-innovation and service design.

Johannes
: And what does it take? How much does it cost and how many people are involved?

George: Social Innovation Camps all-in-all cost about $25,000 here in Armenia. The event team should include an Event Coordinator working part-time, plus a full-time assistant, plus a full-time intern over the course of four months. And all that a Lab does is to extend this team people on an ongoing basis.
In terms of time you are looking at four months from the launch of the call for ideas until the event itself. During the preparation phase the team goes out running workshops, talking to people and developing ideas about the problems or challenges. Once the applications come in, they are also looking to find the experts that will complement the idea owners. For example, we had a doctor approach us who said she wanted to digitize Armenia’s blood registry. Of course she had no idea of how to build a database and how to build a web interface. She was just a doctor who understood the problem and had an idea how it could be fixed. So the organizing team then goes out and finds the extra skill sets and people needed to build a crude prototype of the initiative (in this case an online blood registry database) at the event.

Johannes: But even that is a lot of things to do in just four months.

Arndt: Well, in your case we may need to rethink the whole approach. For emergency response situations you need to get to solutions much more rapidly. It is almost like ignoring what Design Thinking says: You have to give it time through various iterations. But you are in a situation where you need quick solution which you can rapidly scale up. Maybe we need to design a process that can be more integrated into government and existing institutions, so we skip the part of building a team. Instead we do stakeholder engagement, and bring in NGOs, relief organizations and governments, host community and refugee representatives and come up with something that can be immediately picked up by the municipalities. Thereby you could crunch the time that you would usually need for the incubation.
George: But then, it is still an untested idea, and the whole point is to establish whether an idea works.

Arndt: Yes, you would still have to test that idea and develop it further.

George: Another idea that builds on Arndt’s could be to do an open call for existing initiatives that are already working on a pre-defined problem. If they have developed a prototype which has generated results we can help them scale up. You are basically looking to adopt alpha or beta products in the late stages of development. You can apply the same skill sets that you would need for a Social Innovation Camp, but you get to scale faster. The challenge is finding these existing initiatives.

Johannes: How do you identify who you can actually talk to? It’s not like you have in a Country Office a list ready with all the actors that you could potentially approach on specific issues.

George: Well, I would start with whatever list you have, and talk to them. First you talk about the problems they face and then you ask them who else they know in their network who is good at addressing this kind of issue, and contact them as well. Repeat this process until you find existing initiatives or citizens who are addressing the problems in creative ways.

Arndt: In your case in Amman, the approach is really a lot about user experiences, either from refugees that are coming from other countries, or the host communities. Think of who has the best information and can identify the crunch points for which you want to develop solutions. Then interview people and collect stories, so you do the sensing exercise in that particular environment that surrounds the issue you are looking at.

Johannes: In both the Armenia Social Innovation Camps and in the regional camps in Singapore, who did that sensing. Was it both of you, or did you hire consultants to do that?

Arndt: In our case it only happened in one camp, and I must say, that we didn’t go with the standard Social Innovation Camp approach because it didn’t do as much of sensing. It basically relied on the participants, the idea givers, to do that. Some of them had done a decent job, but a lot of them had not. The one camp that did this really quite well was the one in Singapore where we had a local counterpart institution that had the mandate to engage on this in the long term, and they did a fantastic job on this.

George: In the case of Armenia, we did it in a team of three: a consultant, an intern and me. The three of us travelled across the country delivering the sensing workshops. Because as Arndt rightly highlighted, you need to get a lot of different perspectives on the problem. I recommend keeping the team in-house instead of giving it to contractors, so you can develop and keep the knowledge, relationships and networks. Also, if you outsource there can be issues of quality assurance. It takes a little bit more work, but at the same time, it really supercharges your learning. We now have an entire list of organizations and people with whom we would never have developed relationships had we not run the event and the lab in-house.

Arndt: It sounds to me that if you want to do a three country project, it will be a quite elaborate process. If you want to create real value it make sense to invest some funds into it and have people do it full time.

Johannes: Do you think it is better to start off with only one country, rather than doing it in three countries at once?

George: It depends on how you are going to do it. If you do it in-house start with one country and make sure you build the skills within the team. But if you are going to outsource it, you might as well go big from the start.

Arndt: I would tend to say go big, because for the Sub-Regional Facility, that will prove your value.

Johannes
: Well, it’s not like I am going to do this outreach myself, I am here on a detail assignment for another few weeks. But what I need to do is to put the train on the rails and a plan in place so the Facility can hire someone full time to take that plan and run with it.

Arndt: The other thing is: So far we only looked at the option of Social Innovation Camps at the grassroots level. The other possibility is to think of this rather as a public service initiative in support of an innovation-type exercise. You can look at examples of Policy Labs that were presented in at the Global Innovation Meeting in Montenegro, and now again at our event in Singapore, such as like the Mind Lab (Denmark) or designGov (Australia). The latter is more a governmental initiative which also applies a design thinking approach where it is government officials who do all the sensing. They have almost a purely government-driven lab, but they hire service providers which will accompany this process. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Syria’s neighboring countries had a few companies providing design thinking consultancy services that you can hire to facilitate governments finding solutions. This is different than just coming up with a solution from a UNDP office and then developing a pilot, which is the traditional way UNDP does business. Instead, it means that people really go down to the ground level, get a sense of problems, go back and develop prototypes, test them out, and then scale up what works.

Johannes
: In the case of Singapore, did the government already have something like that in place, or did they ask UNDP to help them establish the lab?

Arndt: Here in Singapore the Human Experience Lab (THE) Lab is a relatively recent initiative, while Denmark, Australia and UK have policy labs since while. The Singapore lab is only half a year old, but they have been practicing design thinking for a bit longer. Supporting such government labs is possibly an alternative option for UNDP, although these modalities don’t necessarily exclude each other. You could have a government-driven process going on, with social innovation camps as satellite events. That would be really nice because the innovation camps could feed into an official government-driven process and you could have a dialogue between the processes. That might actually be even better than each modality on its own. But of course you need more money for that.

Johannes: From your experience, how many of these solutions that come out of such modalities are IT-driven, like Web 2.0 or e-government solutions, and how many of them are non-tech, like processes or policies?

Arndt: The social innovation camps I’ve seen were almost all tech, but that is because we had specifically asked for tech. The output from the government lab was mostly non-tech, such as project re-engineering, cutting silos, cutting bureaucracy, finding new ways of communication with citizens, etc.

George: From its origin, the specific objective of social innovation camps is to apply Web 2.0 to social problems. So if you are looking beyond tech then you are looking at innovation challenges or design teams. Service design approaches do not involve crowd sourcing but can be a good way of generating lots of ideas for alternative approaches to service delivery. You certainly get non-tech solutions emerging from this. However, if you embrace an open process and just collect ideas, it actually doesn’t matter whether the solutions are IT-based or not. The point is: if you open up to many different inputs, you get good ideas.
Arndt: I second that. It is also easier to scale if the solution is non-tech.

Johannes: From all that you said, I understand that at one point we will have to make that national , regional or global call when you put the question out there who has a solution to a particular problem. How do you actually plan for that?

George: From our experience here in Armenia, once you have a sense of a problem, you can either do an open challenge where you say “tell us about problems and suggest solutions” or a slightly more specific one “tell us about problems in this sector and suggest solutions”, or you ask a really focused question like “tell us about solutions for this specific problem”. Once you have the question you build a small website and integrate social media into it. Whatever the social media platform of choice is in the country you are working in, focus on the top two. Then you have to go into different communities, both online and offline, and starting talking to people. You can’t just build a beautiful garden and expect people to come, you have to go out and engage with people where they are. Our intern worked very hard going into every single web forum in Armenia she could find, talking to people and looking for activists with whom we could work. Just talking to them at a personal level about the issues, and through that engagement process, a lot of hits were generated on our website, and then turned into applications for the event itself. You then complement that with a series of sensing workshops, where you are targeting specific groups of stakeholders. In your example you would talk to host communities, refugees, to state officials, municipal officials – especially in front line service delivery, and journalists. You invite them to a workshop where you ask them to define the problem more clearly. Or if you have already identified the question or challenge, you let them brainstorm on solutions. You also ask them “who do you know who is already working in this”, so you can meet them and see if you can support their work. From that engagement process you will get a lot of connections and ideas. Then you take the best 5 or 6 ideas into a prototyping event, much like a social innovation camp.

Johannes: Well, thank you so much guys, this all really helps our thinking here a lot. We will have to develop an action plan on this going forward. I will write this up, both in a blog but also in the form of some concept note for the Facility. And I’ll keep you updated on how I can inject those thoughts into what we are doing at the Facility, and we’ll be happy to share how far we will have come with it in a few months’ time!





Monday, 31 March 2014

Figuring out where to begin: How to do KM for a start-up business unit (Part 3)

Following my earlier posts on my assignment with the Sub-Regional Response Facility for Syria in Amman, Jordan, where we identified the general directions for KM for this business unit, here are now the details of the KM plan that I introduced, based on our earlier needs assessment.


1. An Online Collaboration Space for the Facility, targeted at the Regional Working Group and invited guests
To support of the Facility’s role as a broker, the creation of an online collaboration space hosted by the Sub-Regional Facility will allow the team to provide an online home for the Regional UNDG Working Group for the Arab States/MENA to share draft papers and relevant resources on an ongoing basis. Even more it creates a space to discuss questions and collect comments from colleagues on the Facility’s ongoing work. In the spirit of ‘working out loud’ we will also invite a number of selected colleagues from all UNDG agencies into this space.
2. Establishment of a UNDG-wide Community of Practice on Resilience-Based Development, including selected guests from academia
A key element of the Facility’s broker function is fostering a Community of Practice of colleagues working on resilience in context of humanitarian and development work. The Facility will use the above space as a launch pad for e-discussions and ad-hoc queries and benefit from the input of UN colleagues. A first formal e-discussion on vulnerability criteria has already taken place in December 2013, and the Facility will reach out to selected experts in the field of resilience, humanitarian work, local governance, etc., followed by additional discussions and surveys among the new community members in 2014.
3. Mapping of stakeholders for research on resilience and partners for engagement on Resilience-Based Development
In order to identify relevant stakeholders that the Facility can engage and work with in its role as a knowledge broker, a knowledge mapping exercise is recommended. This will be targeted at two levels:
  • Mapping of potential members for the above Community of Practice on Resilience-Based Development for Syria.
  • Mapping of stakeholders for collaboration on research, innovation and substantive projects outside the UN system.

4. Exploration of organizing social innovation camps in Jordan, Lebanon and/or Turkey to identify and prototype e-governance solutions for a priority issue (e.g. local services)
UNDP’ experience in the Europe & CIS region suggests that there is great potential in bringing together citizens, local actors and innovative NGOs and companies to identify innovative solutions to local issues that would benefit from the UN’s support in prototyping, testing and scaling up. This can include the Social Innovation Camp methodology and could also be precluded by a public innovation competition to crowd-source practical solutions to local challenges around resilience-based development. Depending on the evaluation of the experience, this could be a precursor to widening the scope of audience and establishing at a later stage an ongoing innovation lab facility in cooperation with one or several of Syria’s neighbour governments, similar to Kolba Labs in Armenia.

5. Series of targeted consultations on questions related to resilience in context of a sub-regional development forum for Syria
In the process of identifying innovative solutions for operationalizing a resilience-based development approach, the Facility should draw on input from a larger audience. UNDP/KICG’s experience with large scale consultations targeted at a large pool of external experts and interest communities, such as the Rio+20 Dialogues or the Post-2016 Consultations have the potential to add significant value to the above process. The objective would be to inform the operationalization process of the resilience-based approach with substantive experiences, suggestions and prioritizations from selected actors in the sub-region, including government planners, public service workers, host and refugee communities, as well as selected civil society organizations and private sector companies.
6. Creation of data visualizations and infographics, to use as communication, advocacy and capacity building tool
Once the resilience-based approach has been operationalized in more detail, the Facility’s dissemination and capacity building efforts will benefit the use of simplified infographics and data visualizations for communication purposes. This is particularly suitable for data-heavy research findings that allow for clear conclusions, narratives and calls to action. This visualizations can then be used in print, video or online knowledge and communication products.
7. Conducting monthly webinars, to periodically inform UNDP and UNDG stakeholders about the Facility’s ongoing work, outputs and results
While the focus of the Facility is on brokering and innovating, there is still a natural need to disseminate results to at least the immediate audiences the Facility is working with, such as UNDP and UNDG agencies. In order to create visibility for the work of the Facility, to communicate results of research, projects, events and initiatives, as well as to foster learning within the Community of Practice, the Facility could host regular online webinars that would serve as both learning and advocacy instrument.
8. Maintaining a regular blog about the Facility’s ongoing work and results, to increase visibility and influence the general debate on resilience
In order to influence the debate on Syria among stakeholders, and ultimately influence decision making of development actors, the value of the tool of blogging cannot be underestimated. Maintaining a regularly updated public blog where different authors provide personal views and reflections based on UNDG’s work can have a significant impact on framing the conversation along the outputs, activities and objectives of the Facility. I order to do this right, the Facility must be committed to publish at least two blog posts per month. This can be reasonably achieved by rotating authors among the facility’s substantive development experts.
9. Peer Assists, applied as needed to get input from peers on internal tasks and challenges of the Facility
A Peer Assist is a KM methodology (see instructional video) that brings together a group of peers (on site or online) to elicit feedback on a problem, project, or activity, and draw lessons from the participants' knowledge and experience. Peer Assists are useful when starting a new activity or project and a team wants to benefit from the advice of more experienced colleagues, or another group that has faced a similar situation in the past.
This methodology is targeted at the Facility internally to improve its own work as a team. The Facility should map the planned projects for the upcoming, determine which of the new projects and initiatives would benefit from a formal Peer Assist, and then identify potential peer experts who could be invited to participate. However, they can also be organized ad-hoc when problems emerge that the team is not quite sure how to address.
10. After-Action Reviews, after key events or activities to reflect on the ongoing work of the Facility and capture learning points
An After Action Review (AAR) is an internal process used by a team to reflect on a recent activity or event to capture learning points with the goal of improving future performance. The facilitator of an AAR will ask the team three questions: “What was supposed to happen?”, “What actually did happen?” and “What can we learn from it?” AARs can also be employed in the course of a project to ‘learn while doing’. They should be carried out with an open spirit and no intent to blame. The American Army, which invented the methodology, used the phrase "leave your rank at the door" to optimize learning in this process. The KM Specialist of the Facility should constantly look out for opportunities to conduct AARs with the team, which can be as brief as 15-30 min, even though AARs of up to 2 hours might be suitable for reflecting on larger projects or events. 

Below you can see an overview on how the different suggested KM action items will be rolled out in 2014.





Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Figuring out where to begin: How to do KM for a start-up business unit (Part 2)

Following my earlier post on my assignment with the Sub-Regional Response Facility for Syria in Amman, Jordan, I'd like to follow up with the results of the needs assessment that we conducted, and the resulting directions for knowledge management that the Facility identified for itself.

Role and audience as prioritized by the Facility
After exploring the potential roles, audiences and challenges of the Facility, its mandate, the management of the Facility defined the Facility’s role and audience for 2014-15 as follows:

The Facility sees its knowledge management role in brokering partnerships and exchanges, and facilitating innovation on the issue of a resilience-based development in context of the Syria crisis. It will do so by also facilitating, investing in and drawing on data-driven catalytic research and development, however, it does not see itself as a research institution.
 

In terms of audience, it will take an incremental approach over time in which it will – through the work of the Regional UN Working Group on Resilience – focus in the short-term on serving UNDP Country Offices, then expand this work to UNCTs and UNDG agencies, and later target the larger development community of governments, NGOs and other partners.

The incremental approach to widen the audience of the Facility’s work over time is illustrated in the following figure:





Recommended Knowledge Management Activities for the Sub-Regional Facility
One concern raised by the management team of the Facility was that – given the Facility’s limited team size –its KM approach should not be too complex in order to avoid any capacity issues (recruitment of a Knowledge Management Specialist position is planned for Q1 2014). With the direction for knowledge management of the Facility derived from the knowledge needs assessment, and keeping in mind the need for prioritization due to capacity constraints, UNDP was then able to identify potential KM initiatives that can support a knowledge agenda focusing on brokering and innovating – as well as to some extent research – and that targets first UNDP Country Offices and UNDG audiences, as shown in this figure:



The following are the recommendations for knowledge management activities for the Sub-Regional Facility:
  1. An online collaboration space for the Facility, targeted at the Regional Working Group and invited guests;
  2. Establishment of a UNDG-wide Community of Practice on resilience-based development, including selected guests from academia;
  3. Mapping of stakeholders for research on resilience and partners for engagement on Resilience-Based Development;
  4. Exploration of organizing social innovation camps in Jordan, Lebanon and/or Turkey to identify and prototype e-governance solutions for a priority issue (e.g. local services), potentially in combination with a public innovation competition to crowd-source practical solutions to local challenges around resilience-based development.
  5. Series of targeted consultations on questions related to resilience with staff across UNDG agencies, as well as invited external guests from academia, international organizations, NGOs and private sector partners.

While not immediately being in the focus of the Facility in terms of role and audience, the following activities can also add value to its knowledge agenda:
  1. Conducting monthly webinars, to periodically inform UNDP and UNDG stakeholders about the Facility’s ongoing work, outputs and results, and foster learning among stakeholders;
  2. Creation of visualizations and infographics, to use as communication, capacity building and advocacy tool, packaging evidence from research and results of the Facility’s work;
  3. Maintaining a regular blog about the Facility’s ongoing work and results, to increase visibility and influence the general debate on resilience
 
Finally, to support the Facility’s internal work, the application of the following is also recommended:
  1. Peer Assists, applied as needed to get input from peers on internal tasks and challenges of the Facility;
  2. After-Action Reviews, applied consistently after key events or activities of the Facility to reflect on its ongoing work and capture learning points.

What could those priorities entail in detail? Expect a last blog post elaborating on each of the initiatives, as well as some first results in implementing this work plan!


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Figuring out where to begin: How to do KM for a start-up business unit (Part 1)

How do you do knowledge management (KM) when you’re a start up? When the identity of your business unit is still in the making? And when you’re not sure what KM has to offer for what you want to achieve? You bring in someone to help set up the unit, define your role in terms of KM and explain the KM options you have. That’s what the Head of the Sub-Regional Response Facility for Syria in Amman did, requesting a KM expert from headquarters who can assist them in this task on short notice (like, the following week?), and I raised my hand…  In reality, it still took about six weeks until I received the call for deployment end of November.

To give some context: Three years into the Syria crisis, the civil war has wreaked havoc in the country, killing over 125,000 people and leading to 2.3 million refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and North Africa, putting a heavy strain of those countries’ public services, employment situation and social cohesion among the host communities. In addition to the refugees, over 6.5 million of the Syrian population is internally displaced (Source: http://www.usaid.gov/crisis/syria), receiving limited services from the international community. Estimates indicate that this is the largest movement of people since the Second World War. In order to respond to this situation that is threatening to reverse development gains of decades in the region, UNDP has decided to establish a Sub-Regional Response Facility to support Country Offices and partners in the sub-region in developing a resilience-based development response to the crisis that goes beyond emergency assistance.

Arriving here in Amman end of November with the prospect of a two-three months detail assignment, my TORs consisted basically of a generic list of all the potential things that KM people can do. The mandate of the Facility had been established two months earlier through a concept note, which mentioned the need for “a strong knowledge management capacity to effectively adapt, align and transform responses to the volatility of the situation… [requiring] …innovation and a strong capacity to learn from errors and successes”, but it didn’t really elaborate how such a function should look like.

So the first goal was to identify the priorities for the Facility in terms of KM. Well, how do go about it? I convened the team and conducted a KM needs analysis in which I asked them “Among the different roles that Sub-Regional Facility could play in terms of knowledge management, what role should it play?

What are those potential roles? For a newly established entity which wants to position itself among existing partners as a coordinating body, as well as driving force for a specific issue, there are multiple ways how it could interpret its KM work. It could…
  • Capture Knowledge: Collect data, evidence and lessons from past initiatives to take stock and understand what worked and what didn’t.
  • Broker Knowledge Exchange: Connect individuals, teams and institutions and facilitate exchanges for mutual learning, support and partnership building.
  • Do Research: Undertake quantitative and qualitative analysis based on existing or new data to generate evidence, consolidate existing knowledge and generate new knowledge.
  • Innovate: Identify, sponsor and prototype new potential solutions for complex challenges and questions that haven’t been solved before.
  • Disseminate Knowledge: Establish channels of communication and training to deliver existing knowledge to target audiences in order to educate, build capacity and raise awareness.

Second, I asked them who they want to do this for? Who is their audience? On a broad level the Facility could distinguish between five layers of target groups:
  • The Facility itself (KM to increase internal efficiency)
  • The Regional UNDG Working Group on Resilience
  • UN Country Teams and UNDG agencies
  • Governments, IOs, NGOs, Academia, Private Sector
  • The Public

To give the team some visual aid I put together the following illustration as an overview over the different directions that KM could take for the Facility, and how each role can be played for various layers of target audiences:

For each role and audience, the practice of KM can draw on a range of tools and methodologies. To understand the spectrum of tools and methodologies available, one could skim through the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit (maintained the KM4Dev network, FAO, UNICEF, UNDP and CGIAR) which lists 64 tools and 124 general approaches. For the sake of this exercise, I focused on those tools that UNDP has most experience in, as well as the capacity to support, each of which would require a further look at intent, content and audience:
  • Knowledge Fairs to identify & reward successful projects or insightful failures, learn from them and scale up (On what topic? With which stakeholders?)
  • Knowledge Systematization and Transfer Exercises to document lessons and tools from past experiences (On which projects? On which topics? With which partners?)
  • Communities of Practice for individuals to exchange knowledge and learn from each other (On what topic? For which stakeholders?)
  • National Solution Exchange Networks to facilitate exchange among development stakeholders in a country (Which country? On what topic? Which stakeholders?)
  • Knowledge Mapping to identify key stakeholders for knowledge partnerships, exchange and engagement (For what KM activity?)
  • Online Idea Market to collect new ideas from selected audiences (For which audience? What mechanisms for follow up?)
  • Public Dialogues or Consultations with targeted stakeholders (To get input on what questions?)
  • Innovation Challenges/Competitions to identify innovative ideas to complex challenges (On which challenges?)
  • Crowd Sourcing to identify priorities and concerns of populations (On which issues?)
  • Social Innovation Camps to identify/prototype new ideas (With which stakeholders? On which challenges?)
  • Online Collaboration Spaces to host discussions and provide knowledge resources (For which audience? For what purpose? Under which brand?)
  • Visualizations and Infographics to illustrate research data and communicate results (What story to tell? What data source?)
  • Webinars to share experiences (Which projects? Which audience?)
  • Trainings to deliver known content (What content? What audience?)
  • Public Website to disseminate knowledge resources (What content? What audience?)
  • Social Media to reach out to the public and raise awareness (What message? What audience?)
  • After Action Reviews for the Facility to learn from its activities (On which activities of the facility?)
  • Peer Assists for the Facility to get input from peers on its upcoming tasks (What problem are you trying to solve? Who can assist?)

Each of the tools and methodologies can provide particular value for specific audiences and purposes:

So how did the Facility position itself in terms of priorities for knowledge management? And which KM initiatives did I recommend as a result? You will find out soon in my next blog post update from Amman! :)