Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Session Report - Leveraging Geographically Distributed Expertise Through Knowledge Sharing (Part I)

Session Report - Leveraging Geographically Distributed Expertise Through Knowledge Sharing (Part I) Day 2
Espace Gabon
Facilitator: Nadejda Loumbeva

About 15 people participated in the session. 3 of those were presenters. We started off with telling each other about the initiatives being presented (EastAgri network, Biotechnology Forum, SolutionExchange network). Then we moved to a discussion focused on making geographically distributed expertise through knowledge sharing work. In the process of this, we used some of the computer and projector to show the websites of the featured initiatives. I also took notes on several flipchart sheets, one for each network and one for the overall discussion and conclusions. Despite that the Espace Gabon room does not allow all participants to face several flip chart sheets all at once (you need to stick the flipchart sheets to the walls and so some participants would have their backs on them), we had no problem with participating in a shared discussion and following on notes being taken. This was because all participants were very willing to suit with a discursive and flexible session format. In the process of the session, this took a tendency towards a peer-assist, with the SolutionExchange and the Biotechnology Forum presenters offering insights to the EastAgri presenter on starting off and maintaining network online discussions. If I could do this again, I would spare some of the time we spent on telling each other about the initiatives being presented and cut straight to challenges and opportunities.

Summary of some of the discussion:

EASTAGRI network:

EastAgri is a network of financial institutions investing in agriculture and agribusiness in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, the network has 24 institutional members, of which some are international organisations (i.e., IFAD, FAO), some are private sector organisations (i.e., Rabobank), some are bilateral organisations, and some are international financial institutions (i.e., European Investment Bank). Country ministries are also part of the network. EastAgri is intended as a flexible and informal platform via which good practices and lessons learnt in institutional investment in agriculture and agribusiness in the region are shared and institutional synergies are found. So far, members of the network have come together in the context of several annual meetings. There have also been the opportunities of study tours within member countries to learn about a specific agribusiness aspect. The coordinators of the network have been using google analytics to track EastAgri website visits and thus judge about the popularity of the website and its underlying initiative; the number of website hits has been steadily increasing. In addition, the EastAgri website has a password-protected member section; it has nevertheless been difficult to get network members to communicate/participate in online discussions. A next step would be to explore online communication opportunities with the network members.


The FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture (FAO Biotechnology Forum) was established in March 2000 with the aim of providing quality balanced information on agricultural biotechnology in developing countries and to make a neutral platform available for people to exchange views and experiences on the subject. It has hosted 15 moderated e-mail conferences so far on biotechnology and topics such as bioenergy, water or genetic resources. Membership of the Forum is currently about 3,000 people and is open to everyone. Greatest participation in its conferences is from people working in universities and research institutes, although all other relevant stakeholders are also involved in the discussions, and they are more or less evenly distributed worldwide (for example 1/4 of messages have come from Europe and 1/4 from Asia). Normally between 10-20% of Forum members subscribe to any one of the e-conferences. The e-conference topics are chosen by the FAO Working Group on Biotechnology and the choice is motivated by factors such as the actuality of the topic and potential interest for FAO member states. Prior to each conference, a document summarising the latest scientific research and background on the chosen topic is sent to all Forum members. Each online conference is moderated, to ensure the messages posted are clear, understandable and follow acceptable standards for an e-mail discussion and to allow the moderator to add relevant explanations and scientific information. There has, in general, been little need to reject messages. After each e-conference, a summary document is sent by email to all Forum members as well as put on the Forum website. The Forum has a very well organised structure and process which has apparently worked very well with the nature of the Forum's membership. At least in part, this may also be due to the very clear purpose behind the Forum.


Solution Exchange, an initiative of the United Nations Agencies in India for the harnessing the power and passion of Communities of Practice to help attain India’s development objectives and the Millennium Development Goals. There are 11 communities with a total of 15,000 members as part of Solution Exchange. The Food and Nutrition Security Community of Practice is facilitated by FAO and co facilitated by Nutrition Foundation of India. The purpose of this community is to enable sharing of experiential knowledge that helps meeting of the respective Millennium Goal. The main principle underlying the Solution Exchange communities is ''knowledge on demand'', i.e., what is discussed within the community is driven by its members. Members send email-based questions to the moderator of the community, which is then circulated to the members via an email distribution list. Anyone can join the community and participate in e-discussions (which aim to answer questions being asked to the community by community members). Face to face discussions are also organized to facilitate further collaborations and knowledge sharing among members. During those meetings, methodologies such as fish bowls, knowledge café, open space, appreciative inquiry, AAR and peer assists have been used in order to get people to know each other better and develop a sense for their community.

- Ensuring participation in online discussions can be very challenging - important to identify a strong case for members to seek to know about and learn from each other (what's in it for me?) as well as be aware of good practices in online facilitation.
- It is important that network/community activities, discussions, etc., are driven by incentives and demand. This would make them effective at leveraging the knowledge of network/community members.
- For networks/communities to work well, it is important to develop their face to face aspect in addition to their online aspect. This would be via workshops, round tables, and informal meetings.
- When starting an online discussion, it is important to ensure the issue of discussion is topical and one in which at least most members are interested in. In addition, circulating a document summarising background research, if appropriate, can help to get members involved in the topic. The participation of a known expert in the online discussion can help, too, as well as network/community members leveraging their own networks to participate in the discussion.
- It is good to keep e-conferences 2 to 4 weeks long.
- It may be challenging for network/community members to share failures, despite that sharing failures is good, too!
- It may be challenging for network/community members coming from different sectors (public vs. private) to communicate and exchange, either face to face or online. Overcoming sector barriers is important, by building strong incentives for collaboration and then building on this with online facilitation and community building activities.
- The fact that network/community members may speak different languages and not always English can be a great challenge. This can be tackled by enabling sub-communities form driven by different languages, then cross-fertilising among them as much as possible.
- Liability disclaimers can be a good way of enabling open and free discussion on somewhat sensitive issues (more generally, so long as a specific issue is not being debated, there may not be the need for a disclaimer)
- When networks/communities have a broad membership, it may be difficult to keep them focused when a topic/issue is being discussed. In such cases, it is good to work as closely with the network/community as possible in order to keep the focus of the discussion clear and explain to individual members why a certain post may be inappropriate, etc.
- Often, community/network moderation/facilitation is a full-time job, especially when it has an e-conference component. A considerable part of this may be taken by ''IT management'', or the management of information related to the network, online moderation, discussion summaries, etc.
- Monitoring and evaluation are important for keeping track of progress. It may be better to base those on community process rather than on content; however, depending on how clear the network/community objectives are, it may be good to also monitor and evaluate for content in addition to process.

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