This is reprinted with permission from SDC:
A Greenhorn’s insights of the KM4DEV annual workshop in Zeist, Netherlands, 18-20 June 2007.
Once upon a time there was a greenhorn who had been entrusted by his superior to represent their organization on the occasion of the annual workshop of an international community of practitioners.
He was aware how lucky he was to have the opportunity to participate in such an event, but he also thought that his task was not as simple as it might look! First, because the topic of this meeting was complicated. Knowledge management is a complex field, especially when it takes place within the framework of international development. Second, because the organization the greenhorn had to represent is recognized by its peers for its competences and the quality of its work in this particular issue. And finally, because his organization was one of the main sponsor of the project the greenhorn was supposed to work on, he felt that he would hold a strange position.
With his 8 month experience in this field, would he be equal to such a responsibility? During the flight from Geneva to Amsterdam, the greenhorn suddenly caught a glimpse of the fact that he might not be able to live up to the expectations placed in him. But this feeling didn’t last for long. “No risk – no fun”, he thought.
On Monday morning, during the warm-up “ice break” session, he had the confirmation that this event would be a complete new experience for him and that it would be very funny. Thanks to the “madness” of the facilitator of this session, participants met and learned quickly from each other. It had the power of creating an atmosphere as cheerful as motivating. All were in the mood to dare share. The work could begin.
After a talk show session on the challenges of collaboration, the parallel sessions for project work started. The greenhorn joined the “Knowledge Expeditions” group that was in charge to collaboratively develop this concept. The audience was diverse. There were people working for NGOs, research centres, international organizations, universities and development agencies, from North, South, East and West.
The session started with a story told by one of the facilitators and recorded by the other. They showed to the group what should be the procedure of the documentation of experiences within the framework of a knowledge expedition, how it should be recorded, pictured and posted on a blog, etc.
But…the problem that begun to rise within the mind of the greenhorn was that the group hadn’t created a common understanding of what actually was a knowledge expedition… Admittedly, as we could have read it in the project concept, we knew that this was “an initiative which would generate methodological process that could be followed, adopted, and adapted by development workers to address common and specific challenges”. Ok, but it wasn’t so clear for the greenhorn. He said to himself: “It’s in the nature of a greenhorn, not to understand how it all goes about”, and he let it go. He noted though that what was proposed to the group was to work on the “how”, without being sure of the “what” and, more importantly thought the greenhorn, without knowing the purpose, the “why” of the knowledge expedition. Going on an expedition is funny, he noted, but maybe dangerous if you don’t know where you are, where you go and what you want to find. “Anyway”, he thought.
During the break, on the balcony, on the occasion of a talk within a small community of smokers, the greenhorn noted that he wasn’t the only one who had had troubles understanding what the knowledge expedition was about. Each one of them started to confront its own perception of the concept. For some it was a development of the storytelling method, for others it was an electronic way to document stories, etc. For the greenhorn, knowledge expedition was a process that goes from issues or needs to solutions by the intermediary of KM tools, and so in order to create understanding and legitimacy for knowledge management as an efficient way to solve problems in the every day development work. A member of the group said to the greenhorn that it was also his personal understanding and his acceptation of the concept as a way to respond to the needs of his organization. But he added that others could have other needs and, consequently, other acceptation of the concept. Ok… the greenhorn thought at this moment that, maybe, the purpose of knowledge management wasn’t after all to simplify things.
After that confusing break, the participants were invited to form up pairs in order to test the procedure of the knowledge expedition with a volunteer issued from another group of the workshop. The aim was to record a story related to one of the eight knowledge expedition themes that were proposed and then, post all the documents (audio, picture, text) on the knowledge expedition blog. The greenhorn and his colleague were a bit confused because they didn’t know what to explain to the interviewed person. So they decided to come to an agreement on the “what” and the “why” of the knowledge expedition, as a guideline to conduct the interview. They conducted it with a person that gave to them a good practice on the way to foster environments that could support deep personal and collaborative teaching, that enables people to share knowledge in an efficient manner. This man gave to the pair the example of a fair he collaborated to organise and explained to them that it was an effective way to foster exchanges and learning. The greenhorn thought that it was a great moment that led to an interesting discussion between the trio on the recognition from the top management of the usefulness of such an event. The pair documented this story and made it posted on the blog as an exploration of the theme “wisdom”.
On the second day, after a very interesting as well as funny session on graphic facilitation, the knowledge expedition group met again in order to go forward with the work on the concept. As an introduction, each one of them explained his experience of the past day with the interviewed person. It led to interesting insights on the conducting of the storytelling method.
But after that warm-up session, the need appeared to split up the group. One part would work on the procedure of the knowledge expedition while the other, which express the need of more intelligibility, would define more precisely the outlines of the “why” and “what” of the knowledge expedition concept. The greenhorn participated in the “vision group” which drew the conclusion that the concept was hard to explain as well as tough to understand… The greenhorn noted that it would be difficult “to sell” this concept to a sponsor in that state of affairs… Another member of the group added that this concept had to be very clear in order to “be sold” as well in organizations, for colleagues who would be part of such a process. So they decided to address the central question of the “why”, the “what” and went so far as to also examine the question of the “for whom”.
The greenhorn was relieved. He would come back to office with something concrete and specific for his boss who had showed interest in the progress of the work.
On the last day, the two parts of the group worked on the presentation that would take place in that afternoon. They managed, thanks the use of graphics, drawings and metaphors, to come up with a clear explanation of the various dimensions of such a difficult concept.
The greenhorn was happy. Even if the work was hard, the conceptualization sometimes tough, the construction of a common understanding not so easy, the collaboration within the group was highly efficient and productive and led in the end to a coherent and understandable concept. The good work has to continue because the expeditions have just begun.
During those three days workshop, the greenhorn learned a great deal, that’s why there would be many other things to tell, such as the informal talks in the bar, the Dutch food, that strange misunderstanding of what knowledge sharing means for people in the South and in the North, the consequences of an internet connection failure on web 2.0 addicted people, etc.
But he will stop here and leave his organization after his internship period with one more happy memory of his first work experience.
Axel Roduit, SDC