KM4DevFutures: The Case of SIWA: a failed Spanish KM4Dev community

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Augmenting Strategy Options

The Case of SIWA: a failed Spanish KM4Dev community?

By Camilo Villa

SIWA was a failed attempt to develop within the Latin American region a Spanish speaking community. It aimed to re-produce the success model that has developed KM4dev through its own practice and experience. This case study is part of a larger set of different projects that aimed to contribute to a better understanding of the KM4Dev community and the possible strategy options that would emerge (or are emerging). In particular SIWA case aims to contribute to the “Stories of change: a story or extended anecdote from someone whose life has been changed by KM4Dev”.

During the KM4Dev share fair and meeting held in Colombia in June 2010 a large group of the Latin American participants took the decision to launch a Spanish speaking community. Following the lead offered by the Costa Rican NGO Sulabatsu the name SIWA was adopted. This organization had decided to include knowledge in their portfolio and SIWA was part of it.

During the first months there were several conversations among the core group members. Through those conversations it was intended to define some leading roles and strategies to keep this new community alive. During that same period, different members contributed with a monthly donation to pay for the Ning platform.

Following a similar pattern as the global community a core group was established, a DGroup list and a Ning group were created. However, the conversations did not last too long and gradually the effort vanished until its complete silence. During the last months only few information messages circulated and by December 2012 there were no more messages. The Ning group and the Dgroup list were cancelled and nobody even noticed it.

Most Latin American countries share many cultural, historical and language factors and this was supposed to be a success factor for SIWA. However it was not the case. The question that arises is why did it not flourish? The objective of this short research is to unveil the factors that might explain why SIWA did not work and which are the lessons that could be learned to support similar processes.

Since the original list was deleted from DGroups it would be difficult to have a full overview of some figures and a complete set of the conversations held during its existence. This fact caused the scope of this research to be narrowed skipping a deeper content and statistical analysis. But for the purpose of this project, the qualitative approach that was used was the appropriate to capture the main m lessons for the future.

This research was done in two phases between December 2013 and January 2014. First a basic questionnaire was developed and distributed among 15 former SIWA members. It had two goals; first, to capture some common threads and perspectives (and therefore the differences) and, second, to provoke some reflections and memories among those colleagues. Then, all the respondents were invited to have a Skype conversation to talk about the lessons. Nine people responded to the questionnaire. By the time the project was developed three of them were independent consultants, another three worked at an international organization, two at an NGO and one was lecturer/researcher. Five of them volunteered to have the conversation.

Even though there were many similarities among the participants, it took some time to find a guiding structure to connect all the perspectives and the possible ways ahead. Through SIWA two different managerial cultures and different development agendas met. On the one hand were the more Anglo-Saxon and European logic, culture and agenda and, on the other one the Latin American ones. As Simone Staiger, from CIAT, said: “to secure success in a new attempt to create a community within the region we need to secure a larger overlap among KM4dev and the Latin American initiative”. What this case shows is that there was some overlapping but there was not and adequate interpretation of the cultural patterns and codes in both directions (Km4Dev and SIWA).

The process

During the Km4Dev event in Cali, the need to continue the conversations that started there emerged. It was like discovering that within the region there were more people interested in knowledge and learning and that there were some common challenges and experiences. So, more than defining clear goals, principles and activities what was done was to discover each other and be enthusiastic about developing this potential network.

Hosted by Sulabatu, the DGroup started to operate as an open community where more practitioners were attracted. In parallel, following the KM4Dev model, a core group was established. The author and most of the respondents were part of this last one. By that time (end 2010) the Ning platform still had a free service for small communities. So, it was easy to create the SIWA one, once again emulating the KM4Dev model that only a couple of years before started to combine to email list with the Ning platform, as two complementary scenarios to interact.

Scattered across 15 months (that I could track) there were some conversations among the core group. At the beginning they were done through Skype and lately only via email. As the motivation declined the voice conversations also reduced. During that same period, Ning changed its sales policies and all accounts were charged with a monthly fee. As Sulabatsu did not have resources to support it, the core group members assumed the costs directly during few months (every two or three months another member covered the SIWA costs).

As the core group (SIWA-gestor) had some interactions, the main SIWA list was rather silent, not to mention that the NING option was poorly used. The main one was mainly used to spread information from other sources (for example KM4Dev conversations or events) or from the members and their organizations. The conversations about more sophisticated knowledge and learning aspects only took place via SIWA-gestor.

Tracking some of these old emails and combining these data with the answers given in the survey, some common threads could be identified along the different conversations. The issues that were approached or suggested were related to: identity, themes, repositories, financial sustainability and organizational matters. However, it was difficult to agree on an agenda and to follow it. Conversations were a bit hectic and chaotic and it was difficult to reach agreements and move on. To facilitate the conversations within the SIWA list the core group members volunteered themselves to assume it during short periods in teams of two people. A consequence of this scheme was that there was not a clear facilitation role played by an appointed facilitator but rather a blend of it. As someone described in the survey: “there were no conversations…it was a silent community” Again this was done following the model adopted by KM4Dev some time ago.

So, when responding to the survey and having the interview most individuals contributed from the SIWA-gestor rather that SIWA itself. This small difference is important because this was the heart of the initiative. Therefore, more than learning from SIWA, most of the lessons from this research point to the core group. If the heart does not beat in harmony the whole community would not evolve with a clear direction. As already mentioned, the SIWA-gestor gradually declined and the network never became a community.

What went wrong: the lessons

All the respondents agreed that there is a need for more communication among practitioners within the region. One the one hand the small and isolated efforts held in some countries would benefit from the peer-to-peer support that emerges from this kind of communities. And on the other hand, language is an issue: it is easier to communicate and interact is Spanish as English speakers are not so common in the region.

At the time SIWA started there were few people with some experience in this domain working within the region. Even the SIWA-gestor team was integrated by some people with high of motivations and expectations but rather short experience in developing and supporting communities.

The motivation side led to sponsor the NING site and to assume the facilitation role now and then. But the lack of time (as knowledge was not part of their working agenda) and the lack of expertise contributed to mislead the process. However, it would be unfair to point only to them. Also those with a larger amount of experience failed to read the process and to assume a more proactive role, creating a more supportive space to enable the development of the community.

From the opposite perspective, six out nine respondents indicated they did not benefit from the process. Four of them simply said “NO” while the remaining indicated that the lack of interactions in the list and the poor conversations did not offer benefits. The remaining three coincided indicating that SIWA helped to enhance personal networks, especially within the region. And when inquired about the factors that would explain the failure they responded:

Table 1

How much influenced each factor the lack of success (number of respondents)

Failure factors Time I allocated to it Financial matters Size (No. of members) No facilitator
Not too much 4 3 6 3
Somehow 3 3 1 2
A lot 2 3 2 4

Interestingly, size and time were clearly not important factors, opinions are divided about the relevance of financial matters and the lack of a permanent facilitator was highlighted as a key factor.

The allocated time to knowledge matters has not change significantly. By the time SIWA started only one person was full time into this. This figure remained constant until now. For seven of them knowledge and learning is one among many other items in their portfolio. Only two of the respondents indicated that they belong to a similar Spanish speaking community.

The reason most often mentioned was the small number of practitioners in the region and that the few ones are involved in too many tasks, not always related to knowledge and learning. The fact is that there is not a large group of individuals and organizations interested in the topic and, especially with the experience to lead the development of such community.

This is directly connected to the second reason that was mentioned that pointed to the weak institutional capacity within the region. As a respondent pointed: “We still need institutional capacity because we are still in a consolidation process”. In this respect, a couple of respondents suggested that it was a mistake to add the initiative to an existing project developed by SulaBatsu. This fact led the process to a grey area where the institutional responsibilities and the ownership of the project were not clearly defined.

As Martín Rivera pointed out, “SIWA failed because it required more commitment and did not have enough communication among us and to have it would have needed some financial support to secure time for someone”.

There was also a leadership problem, directly related to the previous point, “we needed a group with a higher commitment”, said one respondent. Everyone in the core group members acted as a volunteer and the lack of financial support made difficult to sponsor a more permanent facilitation role that would have secured a more positive evolution; “for all of us, it was a task among many others”. And, finally, the face-to-face encounters were mentioned as a very important practice that would have helped to secure the continuation of the process.

But, considering all these aspects, do we need a community? The replies were diverse; all respondents agreed on the need of connecting, “knowledge management is crucial to secure development and we operate without coordination and this leads to weak processes”. But not all considered that the KM4Dev model would be the most appropriate benchmark. The main argument in this last direction refers to the small group of practitioners in the region: “we lack the critical mass to keep it going”, said one respondent. Another one commented: “within the region the participation in social networks is poor, weak, we value very much face to face encounters; this might be changing but it is directly related to the real interest in participating: when there is interest there is participation”.

The connection with KM4Dev should be clearer but we cannot aim to have exactly the same model within the region. As suggested during the interviews, KM4Dev might be a source of information and wisdom and what we would have to do is to translate it into Spanish.

Sebastiao’s contribution summarizes most of these ideas: “we need a Spanish speaking community but not in the KM4Dev way (…) there are many topics that would be nice to talk about in Spanish and to share about our cultural and social contexts”. The relationship with KM4Dev is a key one. This is a mature community that has been growing steadily for more than 10 years. It started with the financial and institutional support of the Canadian cooperation that made possible to have a permanent facilitator (Lucie Lamoureux) and around her the core group started to operate. When the sponsorship ended, the community was mature enough to assume the control of it.

But to say the “community” may be a bit vague. I see a group of about 40 people that are highly committed with KM4Dev, not necessarily members of the core group. I would label this group as the Heart Group. These people invest time, energy, contacts to keep the list alive, to organize face-to-face gatherings, to make the journal a reality, etc.

Many of the SIWA founders came from the KM4Dev experience while some others did not know about it. And most probably the main learning challenge was exactly there because the expectations, the benchmark that was motivating each one was different. If we go back to the above descriptions of the SIWA process it is possible to identify some practices that contrast with those from KM4Dev. This community has grown and evolved under an important influence of the Anglo Saxon and European cultures. That means that appointments, agendas, planning are managed with punctuality and tend to be sharply structured. This if fine, somehow part of the success of the community is related to these practices. It requires discipline to develop a wiki as KM4Dev has done, for instance.

And this is directly related to the fact that the concerns about knowledge and its relationship with development emerged from northern organizations. It has been a donor driven topic. Southern agencies might understand the relevance of knowledge but have no idea about how to deal with it. There are exceptions, mainly because of individuals that have a passion for the topic. But knowledge is not at the core of the portfolio of most NGOs and development related organizations in Latin America.

So, in the SIWA experience there was a double clash, one from a cultural perspective and another from a content one. And the problem was that the core group members were not aware of them. It is not possible to simply reproduce the KM4Dev cultural practices elsewhere, especially if the cultural context is so different. And if there is an important knowledge gap about KM4Dev topics then the challenge is even larger. Of course, this could be read in the opposite direction. I mean to look at how KM4Dev is permeable to other cultural practices and ways of handling knowledge. I am not quite sure about the answer to give, but this would be another research. This brings us to the last section to discuss the possible ways ahead.

Ways ahead

During the interviews this topic was largely explored. As mentioned, there is agreement around the need for such a community and different alternatives were discussed. There was also agreement around the idea that it should start from a face-to-face gathering to strength a small community or group that would lead the process. What should be done differently?

  • Clearer leadership and vision
  • Clearer facilitation roles
  • Have a stronger core group
  • Spend more time to support the process
  • More face-to-face encounters
  • Increase individuals’ participation
  • Use a name in Spanish
  • To motivate the employers to sponsor the time allocated to promote and develop the community.

But at this stage, I would like to give the word to my colleagues. Each one has a different view and at the same time there are many common ideas and feelings. I simply quote the contributions done through the interviews.

Musuq Allpa: Yes, we are willing to develop a new alternative but our problem is the lack of time due to workload, we should be realistic. While there was some money (through the time allocated to two former starters) it was possible to have some interaction, but it started to die. Financial support is required to secure financial and institutional aspects. At the time SIWA started we were too young in this field and this topic was not part of our agendas.

Sebastiao Ferreira: Within the Latin America we do have not the same conditions as KM4dev does. We have to create spaces to create knowledge, to raise awareness about each other’s knowledge, to share it and to generate new one; to share reflections and experiences. Maybe a blog and a face-to-face gathering would be the best starting points.

Simone Staiger: What went wrong: there was not enough overlap among KM4Dev and SIWA (more Latam people in KM4Dev and more KM4Dev members in Latam). It was a mistake that Sulabatsu did not assume the leadership; they started it and immediately abandoned it. There was an effort to secure facilitation but there was no follow-up and we did not have a clear idea of the topics that people are interested in discussing. I would secure a very small team that would keep it alive and I would suggest having a small list with a high level of contributions, with more concrete topics. We lack institutional strength.

Aimee Marron: Within the region there are many people that are very much into technologies but, in my case, they became a permanent information bombing, I feel overwhelmed, I even feel intimidated. It moves so fast that it makes me feel dizziness; it has a different pace and I have difficulty to adjust my own rhythm to such one. I love my own rhythm. I do not have too much time for philosophical concerns, I am extremely pragmatic and I find that too often the conversations within KM4Dev become too philosophical. I can interact and play at such level but I do not feel it helps me to perform in a better way at work. There is an issue related to cultural rhythms differences but there is also an issue regarding self-confidence and trust. Not everyone feels secure enough to contribute. An option would be to develop a consultant’s network or to collaborate to offer training

Martín Rivera: There is a huge potential that we do not take advantage. A face-to-face gathering is necessary to re-connect again. Skype is fine but if you really want to re-launch the initiative we need the physical connection and from there we can start again. During such encounter we would be able to define a strategy, topics and tools and to identify potential donors. It would help to make an inventory of the existing networks and people to create alliances and to identify potential members. The new community could act as an umbrella for smaller communities. And we need to make evident the benefits of joining and participating

The path to follow seems clear even though it is an important and difficult challenge. Most probably the best way ahead is to feed the Heart Group of the Latin American region, to have a face-to-face encounter and from there…we will see.

Camilo Villa: KM4dev member since 2006, since then until 2011 core group member, participant in some organising teams of several KM4Dev encounters. Colombian, anthropologist, master degree in development Studies, based in Colombia, email, phone: +57 3174425847.