Thursday, February 19th, 2009


In September 2007, together with Frank Rijsberman, then Director General of the International Water Management Institute, Sanjini de Silva then Deputy Head of IWMI’s Information and Knowledge group, I co-authored the paper “Outcome Contracting: Show me the impact!”, a thinkpiece on how to be relevant and effective and not just a “drop in a bucket!”

I found the principles and ideas presented in that paper still extremely relevant if I look at the current reform efforts of the CGIAR and Agriculture Research in general, at the AAA framework that we are advocating, and our work on Public International Goods. So here is the paper again – good food for thought.

Let’s look at what it is all about: Scientific research has historically been assessed by the level of citations a publication or researcher has – the more the better being the mantra. The reasoning being that the “credible” researcher (or significant work) would automatically lead to citations or popularity: the more “credible” leading to more citations. Problems with this model are quite obvious, as it leads to a “publish or perish” mentality and encourages “popular” or trendy research. In addition, frequently cited publications are, at times, cited for their controversial nature, and not necessarily for their significance or impact in terms of research. But what does that mean for agricultural research? I am not arguing peer-review processes are to be discarded. They are important to ensure the scientific excellence of our work. But my argument: they are not sufficient.

The final product of agricultural research should, at the end of the day, have a measurable positive impact on the lives of the poor. If that is taken as a given, then we must reconsider our current evaluation models for agricultural scientific research. Various other strategies have been considered to address some of the shortcomings of the “publish or perish” model. However, most of these strategies aim to include the end-users either in the developing of the project or in training at the tail end of the project.

Is this enough? Is there not a better way to measure impact? How can we better link outputs to results? What about accountability?

The basis of the proposed “Outcome Contracting” model is accountability, both in terms of project design and funding. If the primary goal of our work and research is poverty reduction, should we not be held accountable for it? In the new model, researchers, along with the end users, partners etc, identify the impact pathway of any particular project, and decide up to which point the project can be held responsible. Accountability is established and funding, or partial funding, is awarded upon achieving the intended goal.

Can such an inclusive model be adopted in our new environment? How would that affect our current approach to research? And the funding?
Last week I participated in a workshop on “Data for decision making” hosted by the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation where I was quite inspired by how the funder was showing direct interest in understanding the factors that affect a project, and work together to find ways to mitigate any negative impact. Real interest was shown on the “impact” rather than just the “outputs”. More on that in a later post.

More work on this new inclusive model to reserach has been carried out by our Knowledge Sharing in Research Project.

The Triple-A Framework developed by ICT-KM seeks to assist CGIAR Centers/ Programs and their scientists decide on the level of availability and accessibility they want for their research outputs, and also the pathways to get there. For that to happen, ICT-KM is benchmarking the outputs of  selected Centers against measures of availability and accessibility. The Centers that have been quick to sign up for this opportunity are: Bioversity, CIAT, CIP, CIMMYT, ICARDA, ICRAF, WorldFish and the Challenge Program for Water and Food.

Based on the current status of Availability, Accessibility and Applicability (AAA) of their research outputs, Centers will be better able to devise pathways to turn these outputs into International Public Goods. ICT-KM will be on hand to help Centers identify their aims within the next 12 months following the benchmarking and also help them identify pathways to implement the AAA roadmap. 

A draft workplan has been set and we’ve begun assessing the availability of research outputs from the WorldFish Center. What will it reveal?

Watch this space…

Silvia Renn

Silvia Renn

We’ve all sat through talks that involve a PowerPoint presentation and conclude with a question and answer session. Although such presentations are not without value, not everyone feels comfortable or motivated enough to speak up at the end of them. Questions on the tip of the tongue can often go unasked, and valuable insights can remain unvoiced.
To encourage and maximize audience participation at the recent Share Fair held in Rome, Italy, PowerPoint presentations were banned from almost all sessions. Several participants, among them GIS Specialist Silvia Renn, voiced their approval of this decision.
“The Share Fair had a good overall atmosphere,” said Silvia when recounting the event. “People really committed and were participating, I think, partly because PowerPoint was banned. As a result, we used methods that were somewhat different to what we were used to. Often the Powerpoint presentation itself stands out much more than the actual topic and all the attention is focused on a screen. But the various tools that we were exposed to at the Fair soon had everyone participating.”
Silvia attended the Fair hoping to find innovations about knowledge sharing methods and tools that she could take back and use in her work at The WorldFish Center in Penang, Malaysia. She didn’t return disappointed.
“I attended an interesting session on geodata: Food Security and Vulnerability Mapping,” she explained. “Hosted by WFP, the session gave an overview of the organization’s work: what it was doing with its data and how and in which form the data was being made available to other organizations and/or the general public. I made many useful contacts during this session and had some interesting discussions, even long after the session had ended.”
Silvia also attended the session on Knowledge Sharing in Research Projects and enjoyed the discussion that got going during the event.
“It was a very practical discussion. People started talking about the challenges they were facing in the field and everyone chipped in to give best practice experiences from their own projects. So, in that regard, it was different from some of the other sessions.”
While at the Fair, Silvia was also introduced to Flash Meeting, a tool that she was eager to try out.
“Usually, I use Skype to have virtual meetings with my international colleagues. But Flash Meeting is much easier – I don’t even have to install anything to begin communicating with it. I just have to send the link to my colleagues, and they can immediately access the meeting, with or without a webcam. A meeting can also be taped and uploaded onto an FTP server, so people who missed it can view it later.”

Silvia has also blogged about another session she attended at the ShareFair on Data Management for logistics, a session where Peter Casier from WFP replaced powerpoint presentations with Rubik’s cubes!

Short after returning from the Fair, Silvia decided to try out this versatile, easy-to-use tool by scheduling a meeting with partners in Mozambique, Malawi, Germany and Zambia.
“I was really surprised at how well the meeting went,” she said afterwards. “Usually it takes some time before people get used to new tools. Everyone caught on quickly and we have agreed to use this tool for our next meetings as well. The best function is that only one person can speak at a time, so no interruptions. If someone would like to say something, they are placed in a queue.”
From the perspective of a GIS specialist, Silvia feels that knowledge sharing is vital in her field. Data generated by most organizations usually has too many restrictions attached to them when it comes making them accessible to others, but especially so with geodata. For example, organizations within the UN collect a wide array of geodata that they don’t share with the public or even other organizations within the UN. So they often end up collecting the same data twice.
“The CGIAR has a geoportal with geodata from many of the CGIAR Centers (CGIAR CSI),” Silvia said, “but the licenses often restrict users outside the research environment from using this data, and this prevents efficient sharing. I think it’s important for the CGIAR to incorporate knowledge sharing into its data policies, especially regarding geodata.”
Restrictions do not only apply to geodata but also to research papers and reports.
“I can’t even access some of the papers or reports generated by colleagues because of the restrictions,” she said.
Like many other participants, Silvia was also introduced to the KM4DEV online community for the first time at the Share Fair and was suitably impressed by the people involved.
“I found the KM4DEV members to be really open and inclusive, and not just online,” she explained. “It’s easy to be inclusive online, you just open a Wiki and everyone can contribute. But in real life the members were very welcoming and genuinely passionate about sharing knowledge. I am also impressed by the KM4DEV website because it has a toolbox of KM tools that is only one click away. I have accessed this site many times since the Share Fair and even sent the site link to friends.”
Needless to say, Silvia is already looking forward to other knowledge sharing events scheduled for the near future, the first of which will take place this month at WorldFish.
“My colleagues and I will give a ‘Food for Thought’ session about knowledge sharing possibilities within the organization. We will use Speed Dating, an inclusive method similar to the World Café, which I learned about at the Share Fair. Thanks to the new methods I experienced first hand at the Share Fair, I will finally be able to leave my laptop with the PowerPoint presentation at home!”

With thanks for Mary Schneider for interviewing Silvia!