Thursday, January 22, 2009

Session Report: Making Networks Work Within Institutions by Nadejda Loumbeva

Making Networks Work Within Institutions by Nadejda Loumbeva
Day 3 at 9am in Queen Juliana

About 20 people (including 5 presenters) were part of the discussion. Two of those joined from FAO RAP via a video link. We first introduced the BlueBar network, then a couple of IFAD communities of practice. After, we played a video describing a third FAO RAP community. Discussion and questions were lively. Time was not enough to touch on all issues. Everyone seemed quite happy with the process. A couple of people told me they really enjoyed the session.

Process Challenges:
  • The quality of the video link sound was bad. We (more or less) overcame this by asking the people in FAO RAP to place the microphone the furthest away from them as possible. We still had to try hard in order to make out what they were saying. ... Understanding each other was difficult!
  • A short video had to be projected. We could not do this because Queen Juliana does not allow projecting a film and having something running over a video link at one and the same time (the projector screen 1. takes time installing and 2. is right in front of the video screen!). We ended up showing the video on a small computer screen ... it worked sufficiently well. We played the sound very loud.
  • There were ONLY TWO microphones (of the type that has cords and which you can not easily pass around ...) in the room. Each time a person wanted to speak, he/she had to have a microphone in front of him/her so that the people in FAORAP could hear them. This made us have to place the microphones in front of those who wanted to speak, each time! Logistically, this complicated the session.
  • The messenger was not in the room for the whole time! I really needed her to help with the above microphone issue.
  • The presenter from IFAD had prepared a 10min ppt. I had to discourage him from using it.
Summary of some of the discussion:
  • To make networks work within institutions, these would need to start as and build on informal communities, driven by interest, and demand for information/knowledge in a certain domain. The element of at least some informality is crucial to ensure the network is as organic as possible. This would be what would be enabling its members to learn together.
  • In some cases, it is good to have the financial and/or other support of the institutions within which the networks form, especially so were the networks to play a more strategic role with regards to the work of the organisation. (This was the case with IFAD's communities.) This would be in terms of network participants being encouraged:

    1. to take time to participate in the network

    2. to think together of concrete strategies and other ways (like commenting on strategies and plans of action, better even creating such) which feed into the business of the organisation

    3. to meet regularly by having financial and logistics support for such meetings (depending on the need for such)
  • Institutions should not be trying to manage these communities but rather cultivate them (like flowers in a pot).
  • The BlueBar community is an informal group of communicators in FAO meeting for coffee once a month in the BlueBar to share and learn. This process leads them to inform the work of each member and give him/her more access to the information they need. The community has also contributed to the FAO Communications strategy.
  • The CABIG network is a group of people who share issues related to AgriBusiness. Their objective is to share knowledge and experiences on agribusiness across technical groups in the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. One goal is to contribute better to the strategic thinking on agro-industries development at FAORAP.
  • The IFAD communities of practice (in terms of the Wenger's model, with an inner circle, and an outer circle) are driven by their own ToRs and work plans. They have, also, influenced IFAD policies on the issues of their interest (microfinance).
  • In some cases, senior managers may be supporting institutional networks openly which helps to make it work; however, in others, they may be preventing people from being members!
  • Sustainability of the groups: It is important to have a champion/champions and in some cases a more formal structure to the network in order to sustain it. The Bluebar does not need a champion as it is vital for its members to meet to share information. Even if the two current focal points left, the group would still exist. The need for a coordinator or champion was recognized by CABIG. It was questionable if CABIG would still function without the two current coordinators. The IFAD groups on rural finance are sustainable thanks to their recognized contribution to the IFAD strategic process.
  • Relationship with Management and achieving recognition: The Bluebar group did not intend to seek any sort of formalization or endorsement from FAO managers. CABIG is currently in a midway as informality allows greater flexibility of information sharing, but not having a formal existence within RAP does create hurdles to some activities the members would like to undertake. The IFAD rural finance networks are satisfied as their management sees great value in the existence and outputs of these informal groups.
  • The Manager of the Innovation Cell at IFAD asked all three groups to share one emblematic product and one great frustration for each of the groups. As far as CABIG was concerned, the FAO RAP publication 2007/13 "A Practical Manual for Producers and Exporters from Asia" was partly a result of CABIG. The sharing of information was in itself a product worth recognizing. It would be good to formalize CABIG in some form as the informal nature of the group sometimes led to some frustration when dealing with formal structures of the Regional Office.

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