September 2008

tree at ICRISAT campusThe motto of the ICT-KM program always links me to trees. The campus of the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT, one of the CGIAR centers) extends over 3,500 acres in a beautiful setting. As you walk among the field trials of their 5 mandated crops, you cannot fail to remind yourself of ICRISAT’s mandate to improve people’s livelihoods in the semi-arid tropics through integrated genetic and natural resource management. ICRISAT’s headquarters in Patancheru, Andra Pradesh, are hosting the 2008 annual meeting of the IT managers in the CGIAR. This is a self-organizing community of IT professionals who apart from their centers’ specific duties are very committed to supporting an efficient and effective IT system for the CGIAR system. As the CGIAR reforms itself, IT remains central to its mission. This gathering offers an opportunity to share lessons and discuss how this group can strategically position itself to best serve the renewed CGIAR system. 

As we start the last week of the online phase of the KS Workshop, the conference call this morning was about looking back at the network mapping exercise and its usefulness. We talked about the tools and methods that we are currently exploring on our virtual discussion space, and we did a short evaluation of the workshop so far.

Many found the network maps really useful: “it is good to have it as a visual.” “It was the best workshop lesson because it showed the weaknesses and what I can do better to involve others” “It was good but now I have difficulties to relate the map with the tools” “It was great to do it with my colleagues” are some of the reactions. We also learnt an interesting unexpected use of the map: As an induction to a newcomer in the project team, or as a way to explain an organization, a project or a team during a recruitment process.  

For the upcoming workshop in Rome, many tools are on the list of desired hands on sessions and explorations: wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, social bookmarking, tagging, Content Management Systems, but also communities of practice, World Cafés and After Action Reviews.

Finally there was a round of feedback on the workshop so far, and the issue of the amount of information and interaction that seems difficult to digest for many. On that one, I just came along a post by John Smith of CP Square called “How much time does it take?” He describes a very similar situation in his workshop about communities of practice. Have a look!

The Institutional Knowledge Sharing project is supporting three pilot activities in three CGIAR centers in order to contribute to institutional innovation, and learn about the effectiveness of KS approaches. Two of the pilots have now made available their products.
“Recovering from natural disasters” A ‘Storymercial’ by WorldFish
“The storymercial is e a combination of video, audio and images.  At the heart of the storymercial is the story; the oldest most proven way humans learn and remember information.” says Helen Leitch, Project Leader. “Despite a huge investment in communications, awareness of the CGIAR Centers’ work and contribution to development is often low. Since knowledge products with more mass appeal are needed, this project examined the role storymercials can play to attract our donors and partners to knowledge, thus increasing the uptake of research outputs”.  Have a look at:

Best Practices in Research data Management (IRRI)
“There is still little experience in using wiki technology within CGIAR. The openness and visibility of a wiki is often seen as a risk, rather than an opportunity for increased participation and collaboration in communities of practice.” states Thomas Metz, Project Leader. This project developed, collected, recorded, and applied good practices in research data management, and initiated a communities of practice for research data managers.  It is enabling scientists to produce better quality research and release their primary data as global public goods that will be available and usable for future secondary use. See the wiki at:

More to come soon…

Week two was very active at the FAO-CGIAR KS Workshop. Participants were invited to think about the people we do / need to share knowledge with. After having explored the issue of the “Why share knowledge?” during week 1, which aimed basically at getting to know each other’s contexts better, during week 2 we dived into the area of our networks.

KS is about people and people organize themselves in groups of all kinds. The network theory / approach allows us nicely to analyze those groups –call them teams, communities, units, organizations– in terms of: How do we share our knowledge currently and what could we do to improve interaction, enhance innovation, reach out to new users… We invited participants to listen to related podcats, look at a related IMark module, participate in a conference call, and most important to develop a network map that would look at the today of our project / group dynamics and at the opportunities for improvement. Our special guest this week was Eva Schiffer, former IFPRI, now consultant, who specialized in network mapping and helped us explore the potential of this method.

We offered two podcasts:

  • In her interview on social networks Patti Anklam who has a strong KM background and has been working for large computer companies before becoming a consultant, highlights how social network analysis (SNA) helped her to make sense of her intuitions: “SNA helps us to improve our understanding of organizations and ask relevant questions. We are used to see organizations through their charts (who reports to whom?), but to get things done we use much more our personnel connections. SNA illustrates the existing knowledge pathways and a map can illustrate questions like: Are we focusing too much on some individuals? Who are the connectors? And SNA can reveal the hidden value of people. Where do we need to create more pathways?” Patti recommends a reading for those who want a introduction to this area: Robert Cross: The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations
  • Eva Schiffer complements nicely Patti’s interview by linking SNA to our R4D context. She tells two stories that illustrate the use of SNA in research projects, done in low-tech environments with basic materials like paper, markers and post-its. “SNA opens the black box about impact, because it helps us to understand how things work and why we have or don’t have impact. It can give us additional information on how to reach better out to end users.” Eva uses SNA in meetings and asks project stakeholders questions like: – Who are the actors in your project? – How are they linked? What is their role (donor, advisor, partner…) – How influential are they? (using influence towers) – Have you influential friends / enemies “The complete map is for many an eye opener and generates excitement. It confirms intuitions for some, for others it highlights the different understanding that the actors can have about the relationships and dynamics in their network”, she says

Our weekly resource, the IMark module is definitively an extremely rich and useful resource for those who want to go more systematically through the issues of on-line communities and how to establish and make most out of them. The module offers us a first exploration with concrete situational examples within our R4D domain. Then it helps us go through a needs assessment, and have a look at the available options and tools. It guides us through all the design issues of on-line communities—from roles and responsibilities to online security issues—and has also a crucial chapter about online facilitation. On that one, and just as example, I really like the slides about cross-cultural differences i.e. about how we start a conversation, use humor, our attitudes towards time, conflict and moments of silent… very insightful.

Our weekly conference call (divided as always in three alternative schedules to cover the different time zones of our participants) allowed us to have Eva Schiffer with us and to explore network issues around some examples given from the participants. On the call we explored questions like: incentives and the existence of a “tipping point” for active participation and how to reach it; the role of a core group as most active members who engage the others; the potential of focal points to reach out within the network; the notion of “boundary spanners” between the more connected and the less connected in a network; the trap of seeing us too often in the center of the network as an indispensable node; the power of informal meeting opportunities for networking; the power of on-line tools for active networking and the need to offer different tools or channels to meet member’s varying preferences.

The network mapping exercise generated some good on-line discussions on our Moodle space. So far participants contributed 10 maps or so. The discussion came up about the need to map the network with regard to the people we have relationships with, not so much the units or groups. It’s the nodes between actors of the network that we can influence / work on. Another important step in the mapping exercise is to look at the map as it is now but also to add the links and relationships we dream of developing. Here are examples of issues that emerged while analyzing three of the maps:

  • “ By looking at my map, I found that we should involve more on our Focal units, because they are working at the national level and they have a close collaboration with their national institutes and researchers. A Regional Information System doesn’t mean nothing if it doesn’t has the support of National Agricultural information system.” The feedback suggested for example to aim at a face-to-face meeting to strengthen and motivate the focal units.
  • “ I envision that I have currently centralized to such a point where I am the only connector and now I would like to ensure that the relevant areas take on ownership of their own pieces of the Portal.” Eva reported an example of a colleague who tries to be very involved in the strategic development of his projects in the beginning, but who right from the start will look for a “leadership apprentice” to take over and who can assure continuity.
  • “Our partners are of different nature, positions, cultures, but they are all committed to information exchange. The actors involved are basically those who produce information (data providers) and the big audience that uses this knowledge.” Workshop participants reply: the challenges is to moving individuals in the network from a mindset of “data exchange” to thinking about KS, i.e. What would the map look like if those same end users were able to shape the type of content that goes into the platform in the first place?

It is also worthwhile mentioning that this week we experienced some problems with our Moodle space. Many participants had problems to post their messages, specifically when they were pasted from another document. While this is been currently addressed we all had some frustrations and certainly lost some good comments. We hope that next week will be a no technology problem one! We are looking forward to now explore tools and methods for knowledge sharing during week 3 of our workshop!

As the workshop moves into its second week of on-line discussions, and learnings (week one we talked about Why KS, now we explore the Who via a network mapping exercise), I wanted to share with you the amazing role that our two workshop mentors are playing. Not only do we have two former participants (Pete Shelton from IFPRI and Gauri Salokhe from FAO) as facilitators. We have also two mentors who volunteered to redo the workshop and bring in additional perspectives: Michael Riggs from FAO/Asia and Alexandra Jorge from ILRI/Bioversity are doing an amazing job in bridging the two workshops, supporting participants with tips, and linking many ideas. Congratulations Alexandra and Michael.

Our colleagues Sophie Alvarez and Boru Douthwaite from the CGIAR are busy with their team supporting projects all over the globe with their project planning and M&E by using a novel approach that has lots to do with knowledge sharing. The Participatory Impact Pathways (PIPA) is now outlined in our KS Toolkit.

Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis (PIPA) is a project planning and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) approach. It is a relatively young and experimental approach that draws from program theory evaluation, social network analysis and research to understand and foster innovation. It is designed to help the people involved in a project, program or organization make explicit their theories of change, in other words how they see themselves achieving their goals and having impact.

More at:

Some interesting responses have come to the blog post on

“Sharing knowledge-tell us a story”–article on KSinR project in latest New Agriculturalist

The questions which have arisen have asked whether this type of work has not already been done-thus we are re-inventing the wheel. It has been pointed out that many approaches, initiatives and attempts have already been made at learning, adopting and following knowledge sharing in research type activities (participatory)–much coming out of the influence of Chambers’ “Farmers’ First” work. This work has resulted in many resources (mostly literature) on the subject.

My response to this questions was, if this is the case then why is it still an issue, why has change not occurred in the face of all that previous work?

The KSinR project is not trying to replicate the work already done, and also does not focus solely on participatory research–it is broader than this, encompassing this valuable work,a s well as work on priority setting, communication, dissemination, extension, local knowledge, and much more. The project has three main objectives:

* knowledge generation-through learning from what others have discovered and also from the piloting of activities

*sharing, brokering and promoting this knowledge, experience and elssons

*supporting the application of such approaches and ideas

The main framework which KSinR tries to use is the integration of knowledge sharing approaches into the research cycle.

So a further question for discussion whcihw as brought up was in light of what has already been done, what is new/different about this current work of KSinR .

Any thoughts out there on this?

It may sound like the title of one of Aesop’s fables….but it really is the title of a very intriguing book I just finished reading.

It is a book about the power of decentralised organizations: the parallel to the animal kingdom is intriguing! If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world. Rings a bell???

Starfish organizations are taking society and the business world by storm, and are changing the rules of strategy and competition. Like starfish in the sea, starfish organizations are organized on very different principles than we are used to seeing in traditional organizations. Spider organizations are centralized and have clear organs and structure. You know who is in charge. You see them coming.

Starfish organizations, on the other hand, are based on completely different principles. They tend to organize around a shared ideology or a simple platform for communication. They arise rapidly around the simplest ideas or platforms. Ideas or platforms that can be easily duplicated.

In today’s world starfish are starting to gain the upper hand.

How can Toyota leverage starfish principles to crush their spider-like rivals, GM and Ford? How did tiny Napster cripple the global music industry? Why is free, community based Wikipedia crushing Encyclopedia Britannica overnight? In today’s world to answer this it is essential to understand the potential strength of a starfish organization.

The parallel to the way the CGIAR is organized came to mind many many times as I was reading the book.  To our structure, to the innovation we foster, to the creativity we encourage…the CGIAR is our starfish! A timely reading as the CGIAR is going through its Change Management process. How can we ensure we preserve our starfish-like structure to support our science but create small, nimble agile spider-like departments where centralization means efficiency? Should we think of a hybrid model?

The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, made me look at the organization we work for in a very appreciative light.

Happy reading!

An organization that does not change is bound to die….. all centers, our teams, our partners all face similar challenges. We need to build on each other’s strength, on the lessons we learn to be able to move forward…

We know there a lot of good stories you can tell us on how you..

  • Work in geographically distributed environments?
  • Capture and share local (indigenous) l knowledge, issues and ideas?
  • Deal with culture and gender issues?
  • Retain knowledge when workers leave?
  • Build relationships or networks?
  • Effectively communicate internally (within your organisation and project) and externally (partners, stakeholders)?


We dare to tell us your story …

Sue Parrott from Green Ink.

Sue Parrott from Green Ink.

As I am participating in a meeting of the Change Management Process of the CGIAR at IRRI in Los Baños, Philippines I was happy to have a chat with Sue Parrott who took over the role of a live blogger during the event. Sue works for Green Ink., a UK-based communications consultancy, and has been reporting meeting sessions and interviewing participants in this event that aimed at engaging the Working Groups, and the Steering Committee with a whole range of stakeholders in a consultation process. Very soon –in less then a month—the Steering Committee has to make recommendations to the Executive Committee of the CGIAR, which will lead to final decisions about the future of our System during the Annual General Meeting in December this year.

Stakeholder engagement is a crucial element of the whole process (see a related post reflecting the reactions of Ruth Haug from Norway) and the blog has been identified as one possible channel to convey frequent up dates and hopefully get some feedback.

So, I asked Sue about her blogging experience:
It has been really good fun. The blog, as a new channel and trendy media, generated interest among the meeting participants who responded very positively to my interview invitations. I could work very independently also I would almost have liked interviewees to be more controversial. Sue and I agreed about the importance of keeping the blog going actively until the December meeting at least, and to publicize it. Sue admits that this is her first event blogging experience and would love to get feedback about its usefulness: Does it give you information you can’t get elsewhere, is it timely?

The blog covered the 3-day event with 15 posts, more then 10 of them being interviews of participants, many in video format.

The Instiutional KS project has been working with the CGIAR Secretariat on stakeholder enagement and knowledge sharing issues over the last 3 years.

A research-oriented organization such as the CGIAR cannot be satisfied just knowing that it has produced good research. It is critical to ensure that the knowledge or outputs this research produces is put to the best possible use. Using the same philosophy that questions how a crop grown in a lab can feed a hungry person, the issue here is to find the pathway that will take research information off of library shelves and out of hard drives and make sure it is available to its intended users – be they policy makers, researchers, extensionists or the farmers themselves.

The CGIAR ICT-KM Program has developed a plan to assist the CGIAR Centers in taking the steps necessary to ensure that all outputs from their research become international public goods, in other words, that they are Available, Accessible and Applicable to all who could benefit from their use – a Triple-A approach.

ICT-KM believes the Triple-A approach offers a pathway for bringing the benefits of the crops grown in the lab to the people who need them.

More on this topic soon….

The CGIAR is undertaking a major Change management process,  and new governance and funding options are already on the table for discussion.

The CGIAR has opened up access to all interested to participate in this debate through the Virtual Forums at

A live blogger has joined the change management retreat group meeting in Los Banos, Philippines 7-9 September …you can comment virtually on the discussions by posting your views on the Change management blog

Time to be bold, says Kathy Sierra, Chair of the CGIAR

Join the discussion and help shape the future of the CGIAR!

September 2-4, 2008. A CGIAR / FARA Consultation towards Partnerships and Coordinated Implementation was held at FARA’s Headquarters in Accra to harmonize CGIAR and FARA research initiatives in Africa.

This consultation was not intended to cover the overall operation of CGIAR and FARA in the continent. The focus was on collective action initiatives requiring strategic partnerships between the CGIAR and FARA,
and which have capacity for contributing towards the overall CAADP agendas of Africa. .

I participated to represent the ICT-KM program and seek synergies and collaborations with FARA’s Regional Agricultural Information & Learning System (RAILS). A number of collaborative activities have been planned between our initiatives, as a result of this consultation.

Look at what Dr. Ola Smith, from ICRISAT, one of the research centers of the CGIAR thought of the meeting.

Since 2004 the ICT-KM Program has funded the Online Learning Resources (OLR) project to identify and apply innovative ways to make available and accessible content knowledge of the CGIAR for teaching and learning purposes.

From the 15 of September, for 2 days participants from most CGIAR centers, a number of advanced research institutes and partner institutions will meet in Rome to look at the achievements, look for synergies with other related initiatives of the CGIAR and its partners and plan the activities ahead in the area of learning and capacity building.

Since  2004, the Online Learning Resources (OLR) Project has been adapting international educational technology standards to enhance the availability and accessibility of CGIAR learning resources for distance learning and Web-based instruction through a repository integrated with an open source learning management system. Recently, the OLR project has begun to assess the viability of an ISO standard for quality assurance for education, training and learning to enhance the quality of CGIAR learning resources and partnerships.
The project has also advised CGIAR training and capacity-building officers on pedagogical and technical implications of these technologies, and helped facilitate incorporation of these technologies to disseminate content knowledge for agricultural education, training and research capacity-strengthening. It has engaged with southern universities and researchers to identify needs for, and seek contributions to, share learning resources and related research or training support products. Northern universities have also assisted to facilitate international educational technology standards for knowledge sharing.

The following quote from the Evaluation and Impact of Training in the CGIAR, (CGIAR Science Council Secretariat, 2006) is evidence of the importance of the work of the Capacity Building community in the CGIAR:

“Greatest demand in [the] future is nevertheless foreseen for specialized short courses, individual non-degree and higher degree training (in collaboration with northern / southern universities). A major contribution is expected by making more materials available on-line. In this respect the Panel’s conclusions are supportive of the System’s ICT-Knowledge Management Initiative’s Online Learning Resources project, the objectives of which include to strengthen capacity, facilitate cooperation between Centers as well as to disseminate existing training and learning materials. […] The most promising future strategy for efficient sharing of responsibilities would seem to be through the multipartite training partnerships, already in operation, where northern and southern institutions are linked with the Centers, and the work load shared efficiently according to the distinctive competence of each one.”

See in the most recent (Sept 08) issue of the New Agriculturist. An article on the CGIAR ICT-KM Knowledge Sharing in Research project-highlighting the ICARDA Farmers’ Conference called “Sharing knowledge-tell us a story”

Magazine can be found at: 

Sharing knowledge – tell us a story

“My story with farming began when I was a child,” says Mahmoud Shlash, whose village lies near the ancient city of Aleppo in northern Syria. “At that time, the rainfall was high unlike the rainfall this season. I watched my father when he collected spikes (barley seedheads) from here and there and brought them home. I asked him, ‘Why are you collecting the spikes and nothing else?’ Now I realise that he was doing the same as ICARDA is currently doing with the farmers.”

Selecting plants with high productivity and resistance to local threats like disease, drought or frost, would find its place in many farmers’ stories, ancient or modern. It is also at the heart of participatory plant breeding, where researchers and farmers work together to select desirable crop traits and test plants under a range of management systems. But how can farmers’ knowledge, whether from recent plant trials or their wider experience, be used to improve the research or plant breeding process? The Knowledge Sharing in Research (KSinR) project, of the CGIAR’s Information Communication Technology and Knowledge Management (ICT-KM) Program, is examining the value of storytelling, as a way of helping farmers to share this kind of information, both with fellow farmers and with scientists.

The two year project, started in 2007, aims to improve the impact of CGIAR’s work by investigating how to integrate knowledge-sharing into different stages of the research process. In May 2008, more than 50 farmers from Syria, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Eritrea met with researchers at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria for a four-day International Farmers’ Conference. But instead of the standard conference format, the farmers were asked to share their experiences of farming and plant breeding through storytelling.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Stories are a common tool used by farmers to enrich discussions and get their message across. According to two of the conference organisers, Alessandra Galie and Bernhard Hack, the storytelling format was flexible enough to accommodate whatever issues the participants wanted to discuss, while also being less formal than conventional presentations. Participants found them easy to understand, with farmers from Syria commenting that the stories were “better than speeches, because they felt more like real life.”

Ruqeia, a young Syrian farmer who attended the conference, explained that she had taken on the farming duties in her family following the death of her father, and since then had been trying to improve her crop yields in many different ways. On arriving at the conference, she felt scared and shy at first, being with new people in a new place. Talking to other farmers, however, she became more comfortable and when she told her story, she found that the other participants were impressed by her knowledge and encouraged her to continue in agriculture. Ruqeia believed she had learned a lot, particularly from the other Syrian farmers, about planting, fertiliser use, harvesting and storing seeds, and would use this new knowledge in her fields during the next year. Such farmer-to-farmer extension was, according to scientist and participant Maatougui Mohammad, a key benefit of the conference, of particular value to farmers from countries whose formal extension services are weak or non-existent.

In addition to the storytelling, the conference participants visited ICARDA facilities and farmers’ fields and showcased their seeds and products at a food fair. Dr Stefania Grando, one of ICARDA’s principal barley breeders and the KSinR Pilot Project leader, thought the conference had succeeded in collecting and consolidating farmers’ knowledge, which, she believed, would help scientists in better targeting their research to address farmers’ needs.

Spreading the word

The Farmers’ Conference is one of six strategies now being explored under the KSinR project. Other approaches being piloted include the use of radio programmes, training videos, and databases to communicate research findings. The farmers’ stories will now be featured on a website to document the conference, in the form of audio files and written transcripts, translated into all the languages spoken by the participants. The site will also contain video clips of the storytelling, which can be sent by mobile phone.

Sami Jaber, a farmer from Al Sweida in Syria, began his story with a saying: “If you don’t plant it, you don’t experience it.” The organisers are hopeful that retelling the stories, whether in person, online or by phone will help to spread the knowledge that comes from experience, for the benefit of other farmers and the crop breeders who work on their behalf.

With contributions from Nadia Manning-Thomas, IWMI

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September 2008

Further information:

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