Knowledge Sharing and Knowledge Management for Development
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EDD 2016 Brainstorming Lab: "Sharing knowledge in development organizations: making Communities of Practice work"

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Lucie Lamoureux1 July 2016

The brainstorming lab “Sharing knowledge in development organizations: making Communities of Practice work” took place during the European Development Days in Brussels on June 16, 2016.

55 participants from multilateral and bilateral organisations, NGOs, Foundations, Think-Tanks and the private sector came together to come up with concrete ideas, innovative solutions and good practices on the shared challenges faced regarding establishing Communities of Practice (CoP).

Ms. Androulla Kaminara, Head of the KM Task Force at DEVCO, welcomed participants and provided a short contextual introduction in which she raised the following points:

  • There are many knowledge sharing challenges in development organisations, such as geographical dispersion, knowledge “silos”, lack of knowledge sharing culture and a weak link to the overall organisational strategy
  • Communities of Practice (CoP) can be an effective mechanism to address knowledge sharing challenges
  • But there are a lot of challenges associated with setting up CoP in development organisations, such as high workload and low prioritization for knowledge sharing, few incentives to share, “Communication apprehension” (i.e. difficulty to ask questions and share in public) and ensuring usefulness of the CoP
  • DEVCO as part of its LKDS strategy is also trying to support CoP on its platform Capacity4dev
World café

Following the background introduction, participants discussed the following questions in a World Café format:

  1. How can you ensure a CoP best responds to practitioners’ needs in their daily work? (hosted by Ivan Kulis, ECDPM)
  2. How do we engage practitioners, including those from the field, in active participation and exchanges of substance? (hosted by Teresa Kerber, GIZ)
  3. How can we know that our CoP is on the right track and monitor success? (hosted by Pauline Van Norel, MDF)
  4. What tools can we best use to enable knowledge sharing in CoPs? (hosted by Chris Korakas, DEVCO Unit 06)

During three 20-minute rounds, participants shared their experiences relating to the aforementioned questions. The following threads emerged from the discussions:

Start with purpose, then focus on evolving needs

Communities of Practice are living things, always growing, evolving and changing. For a CoP to work well, purpose needs to be very clear at the start and re-validated along the way.

Participants made it clear that need should be the leading entity. Therefore, understanding the needs of members through surveys and polling is the best way to remain attentive to emerging needs and changing dynamics. The community manager/moderator can then adjust programming and activities according to the phase of the community lifecycle the community is in. 

Heavy workload and time pressures mean that the “what’s in it for me?” question is the most commonly faced issue. Motivation to participate in a CoP starts with a perceived usefulness, so find concrete ways to make it beneficial to members.

Moderation or facilitation is still key

Managing community dynamics through facilitation continues to be a key factor in establishing trust and making the CoP work. A “build it and they will come” approach to CoP has led to many abandoned online platforms that were meant to support communities.

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The CoP moderator is essentially a knowledge broker, contributing curated resources, encouraging contributions and ideas from members and, in some instances, co-creation of new knowledge. By engaging champions and seeking distributed leadership to the CoP, moderators can also ensure a more sustainable community.

Various facilitation good practices were shared during the session. For example, in order to allow field-based practitioners to share their experiences in a setting that is culturally appropriate, one participant provided the following tip:

 

 

Find incentives that make sense

Participants flagged developing an incentive structure as a very important factor to make CoP work. Visibility and professional recognition are strong motivators and celebrating achievements – for e.g. what DEVCO has done with Certificates for Knowledge Champions on Capacity4dev – is a potential incentive. For moderators, ensuring that members develop a sense of ownership in the community is always smart, as members feel they are contributing to something and the incentive is ‘built-in’.

The most relevant incentive remains having CoP embedded within a job and its processes, such as is the case in the best practices for CoP at GIZ. This ensures that the CoP doesn’t become an add-on that can be easily dismissed.

Success sometime comes in subtle ways

Success in a CoP is like ripples; it starts with a new idea gained from the CoP, which can affect the work life of the member, the organisation and sometimes even have an impact on the national level.  Success is also when people from different backgrounds are linked through sharing good practices, and breaking down silos.

Participants suggested a circular approach to monitor if a CoP is on the right track, where the system of interest (purpose and domain) is implemented through dialogue and then validated, feeding back to the system of interest, which can change over time.

cop diagram

The CoP sponsor, facilitator and members all have different stakes in making a CoP successful. For the latter, success can be as simple as enjoying being part of the CoP, getting energy from it, as well as when the ‘aha moments’ create new actions in one’s work. It is important for the moderator to capture those member stories through interviews and good documentation or learning logs.

Everything comes to an end, even a successful CoP. Monitoring success also involves considering when the time has come to close your CoP and to think how the wisdom of the community can be integrated into your field.

 

Finding the right tool is still a struggle

No one has found the perfect CoP support tool it seems, not even the private sector. Large organisations struggle with too many tools which are not taken up, are not linked to each other, or integrated.

Simple tools like wikis seem to be used more often, combined with intranets and SharePoint types of environments. Participants found that tools that emulate face-to-face contact fare better, like webinars and Skype for Business.

The 75-minute brainstorming lab went by like a flash but was filled with intense and enthusiastic exchanges. Many thanks to all who contributed to the session, both as co-organiser and participant. We are keen to continue exchanging with each other in this Capacity4dev Group, Knowledge sharing and Knowledge management for Development.

You will find the session’s report back videos here and, on the EDD website, you can find here photos of the session.

 

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