What does the term "landscape of practices" evoke for you in your own KM4Dev work?

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Original Message

From: John David Smith, posted on 2013/12/17

It seems to me that Etienne and Bev offer a very good question with “What does the term "landscape of practices" evoke for you in your own KM4Dev work?”

I think it’s interesting to note that there are many different practices that are discussed and included right here in KM4Dev. And everybody understands them a bit differently and they don’t exactly fit together neatly. (I’m using what I have been learning from the responses to a questionnaire I’ve been using to understand the pathways toward involvement and leadership in KM4Dev.)

For example, one participant in the Seattle face-to-face meeting (Denise Beaulieu) shared this reflection:

I was surprised to realize how much focus was placed on facilitation (in all its facets) relative to issues like: what kind of knowledge are we talking about? Is all knowledge worth sharing? What is our role as a community with respect to the increasing importance of the evidence-based policy discourse (with its threats and opportunities)? How can we better explain what we are doing so that organizations can be convinced that a more systematic utilization of knowledge can improve relevance and effectiveness? What is a legitimate source of knowledge?

I think those are very good questions. And it strikes me that one person and one comment can have a big effect on our perception of the landscape.



All replies in full are available in the discussion page. Contributions received with thanks from:

Bev Wenger-Trayner
Charles Dhewa
Eibhlín Ní Chléirigh
Ernesto Sirolli
Etienne Wenger-Trayner
Florencia Guerzovich
Ian Thorpe
Jaap Pels
Jim Tarrant
John David Smith
Nancy White
Paul Mundy
Peter J. Bury
Philipp Gruenwald
Tina Hetzels
Valerie Brown

Related Discussions

This discussion sets the context for KM4Dev Futures: landscapes of practice and systems convening.

  • Starting with the question of facilitation, what it means, what the alternative labels are
  • Talking specifically about a “systems convener” and what that might be, how develop
  • Now the conversation is branching into the landscapes in which we work, so we are talking about development intermediaries and their resistance to change, about development on the ground, about the role of universities and other outsiders, about directed listening and … to be continued


This discussion was a ramp-up and follow-up on a webinar in which Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner presented their work on landscapes of practice. A landscape represents a field - with different stakeholders, issues and different practices, each of which has its own particular history, context and dynamic power relations that play out in the landscape. Etienne and Bev reviewed the conceptual history of the field, starting with the origins of the concept of community of practice in studies of apprenticeship, moving on to its application in various contexts, and ending with their recent work with “systems conveners” in complex landscapes of practice. These conveners enable new learning by opening new spaces in that landscape, forging new partnerships, making connections, and proposing new visions of what is possible. They call this reconfiguring the landscape.

The metaphor of landscape

The metaphor seemed to work for most people. It suggested different categories of landscapes: deserts, forests, urban (Jim Tarrant) and conjured up notions of gardening and landscaping (Jaap Pels). A landscape, like development, is constantly changing and the question is how we can shape it in the service of productive development (Pete Cranston).

Knowledge and power in landscapes of practice

Landscapes of practice are shaped by relations of power, which include language and access (Pete Ctranston, Jaap Pels). When a landscape is a lens about knowledge and practice, power derives from the ability to define what counts as competence and as knowledge (Etienne Wenger-Trayner). Reshaping the landscape involves reshaping these relationships of power (Bev Wenger-Trayner).

This brings up the question of advocacy as an aspect of the work in addressing issues of power and inequalities (Pete Cranston). There is a distinction to be made between changing our own practices to achieve better results versus changing the behavior of powers that be (Flo Guerzovich).

Can a landscape be like a “Ba” a la Nonaka, a space where people can open engage in deep knowledge creation? Given all the relationships of power and the hierarchies in most organizations, this is rather rare. (Eibhlín Ní Chléirigh, Etienne Wenger-Trayner)

Facilitation and systems convening

The difficulty of reaching a point where learning can easily flow through a landscape points to the importance of facilitation in enabling flows (i.e., communication) that shape the landscape (Jim Tarrant). However, the notion of facilitator seems like an over-used word (Charles Dhewa, Valerie Brown). Moreover, facilitation is perhaps too weak a notion: it is one aspect but does not cover the full work of reshaping landscapes, which is the work of “systems conveners” (Etienne Wenger-Trayner).

Systems convening requires an array of different skills (Paul Mundy). These includes knowledgeability about the landscape, bringing together and synthesizing many voices, enabling learning from failures, managing risk, and being careful about backlashes. It takes “deep practical grasp” of various constituencies and stakeholders to nudge toward collective action. It is work of an intrinsic political nature. Stakes are usually high. It can be risky and even painful (Flo Guerzovich). The list of qualities required brings up the question of how to train these people, support them, and legitimize their role (John Smith).

The role sounds a bit like those of network weaver or maven (Nancy White) or what the French call “animateur” (Jaap Pels). Most conveners would not recognize themselves in these labels: their work involves a strategic process of reconfiguration from having a vision of what is possible, understanding where different types of expertise lie, and bringing them together in the right configurations (Bev Wenger-Trayner). Bev reports being hired as a facilitator for a project building networks of legislators in Africa. Her role changed to supporting systems conveners once the work was understood in terms of a strategy to reshape the landscape of practice through an attempt to change practice across a multiplicity of communities and stakeholders.

Bringing this conversation to KM4dev, most systems conveners do not view themselves as doing KM, even though they use the power of knowledge to change practice and for long-term landscape transformation (Flo Guerzovich).

Real change is hard, however, as people seem to adopt new terms and do the same thing. Theory rarely seems to transform practice, but it would be good to have more examples of concepts like communities of practice making an actual difference on the ground (Tina Hetzels). The idea of systems convening would be to map the field as a landscape of practice, then thinking of interventions in strategic places where leverage is maximized (Bev Wenger-Trayner).

Practice and culture

It is important to remember that practice is embedded in a broader cultural context. Of course the constitution goes both ways. It is a dialectic relationship. It depends on the location and scope of the community in the broader landscape, but even local communities shape the cultural context. The shape of the landscape is defined by every hill and valley (Camilo Villa, Etienne Wenger-Trayner).

The field of development as a landscape of practice

Framing the question in KM4dev’s context? How can the metaphor of landscape be applied - to KM4dev as a community or to the field of development? Would it help make sense of trends such as disintermediation where countries trade directly for the knowledge they need (Nancy White)? Intermediaries create all sorts of problems, including overhead (Jaap Pels) and there is indeed a change afoot in the field of development and intermediaries need to adapt to a new role (Ian Thorpe). Change would require professionalizing listening, creating communities as social movements (Philipp Gruenwald), and increasingly using local agents (Ernesto Sirolli). Of course the field is very varied with different funders using very different approaches (Flo Guerzovich). If we view the field as a landscape of practice to be shaped in the service of citizens/countries, might the notion of systems convener shed some light on the new role of intermediaries?