Plenary Session: Change, Learning and Knoweldge in International Development

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What needs to change in international development practice and how can knowledge and learning contribute to bringing it about personal, organizational, institutional dimensions


In this session, Boudy van Schagen, Kath Pasteur and Jethro Pettit presented the arguments of their paper ‘Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning for Development’, submitted as a concept note for the workshop. Based on a review of the literature on organizational learning and knowledge development, the paper suggests that the fields have neglected to deliberate over their purpose for being. The presenters hoped to challenge the workshop participants to consider the kinds of change that knowledge management and organisational learning are intended to bring to international development. Are they being employed ultimately to alleviate poverty, or to shift power relations, or simply to make any organization more effective at whatever its stated goal is. In additional to a lack of clarity in purpose, the paper also points to a lack of clarity in definition. There are a huge amount of definitions, perspectives and institutional contexts for OL, KM and LO. They are often used interchangeably without much concern for difference between them. The conversation that followed focused on ways theory and praxis can better communicate. Finally, as an overture to bridging this gap, the presenters led a participatory exercise designed to elicit thought among participants on the factors that have meant success or failure for their previous projects.

Kath What is the change we want to bring about with KM and OL? What have you been trying to achieve with KM/OL in your organization?

  • Role and habitation of orgs is very temp
  • Bigger community more important than orgs
  • Preaching externally/not applying internally (busyness main reasons for this)
  • Not prescriptive about what organizations should do but holding up a mirror
  • Some orgs have clear mandate, often the change is not clear or pin down
  • Encouraging more reflection
  • Subversive agenda: encouraging critical thinking/ decentralized decision making
  • Difficulties of individualistic approach
  • Showing mundane examples of how KM/OL how they occur
  • How to get the South at the steering wheel
  • Participatory agenda sending needed - linking to power
  • Help country officers do what they do better
  • Capacity building among networks
  • CoPs developing practices together
  • Broken down barriers/organizational silos

What changes to international development are you trying to effect?

  • Respect in the development agenda

Boudy: brief review of the background paper

  • Problem: OL, KM and LO used interchangebaly
  • Organizational learning more theoretical and process based. KM more content and practice focussed.
  • Convergence? Second generation knowledge management embraces learning as a social process and a relational view of knowledge, not just data storage. Some authors say OL and KM now studying the same thing but with different terms and tools.
  • Origins: Knowledge management has arisen strongly since the World Bank’s “Knowledge Bank” declaration, the democratization of knowledge has become a priority, with knowledge being seen as a public good rather than a proprietary asset. Organizational learning emerged with the establishment and development of multiple strands, eg. learning process approach, M&E of development projects, participatory and action research.
  • Values and aspirations: How can normative aspirations and values be identified individually and collectively? Development: values are implicit?
  • Levels of intent: Is there a willingness to move to generative or double-loop modes of learning? Without leadership, these things will not move forward.

Jethro: Ways forward

  • Operational gaps between theory and practice. Its still tough to transform theory into practice sometimes
  • Behavioural change might require different types of learing (e.g. experiential and presentational and embedded practices of action, reflection conceptualisation and practice)
  • There is a need to look more systemically beyond intra-organisation to inter-organisational process, drawing potentially on the lessons of social learning theory with recognition of the interdependence of various actors and the importance of building level platforms of negotiation based on reciprocity and trust.
  • Next generation KM/OL

Plenary discussion

  • Helpful paper, pulled punches on social change
  • Links between research and practice
  • Looks at development from an academic approach – summarizing it in a way which is interesting - but doesn’t explain it for practitioners. Still needs translation
  • Issue of ‘DiP’: Development of LO looked at future, not at what happened
  • WB: pioneers, unable to critically reflect on their experience because of their status can’t be critical, can’t deal with failure
  • Definitions: doesn’t help practitioners much
  • Next generation: should wait till we have achieved what we want now
  • ‘Northern lense’ CB in South = KM dumping…

Small buzz groups Participants broke off into small groups to reflect on past experience to distil lessons on what has and has not worked, jotting these down onto coloured cards. Returning to plenary, the participants sorted the cards into groups. The resulting categories, though fluid, included:

  • External environment
  • Organisational structure
  • Challenges of leadership and learning champions
  • Peer-to-peer relations
  • Fear and Trust,
  • Misplaced certainty and preaching
  • Diversity and difference within organizations
  • Modalities
  • Communications
  • Individual incentives and behaviours

Building on this exercise, the group elected to split off into four groups to discuss the tensions emerging between some of these categories. The four discussion groups were:

  • What works and what doesn’t, making the case and walking the line between communication and preaching.
  • The mission of an organization and the motivations of individuals; agenda setting, relevance and passion.
  • Leadership and management, trust and fear, reality and expectations.
  • Modalities and organizational structures; working with headquarters, networks and the field.