Have you ever felt that what you heard at a conference finally became important months afterwards. Did you ever feel that a talk you heard or a discussion you were in only fully made sense when you were working on a project later in the year. Conferences are certainly an opportunity to meet new contacts and have new ideas but how can they be structured to efficiently exchange ideas, share knowledge and build new innovations. The ICT4Ag conference, organised through collaboration among at least 20 partner institutions and aimed at setting the scene and guiding future collaboration on ICTs and Agriculture and Rural Development, was an opportunity to try something different: address the learning process throughout the organisation of the event. Thus at the ICT4Ag conference, a number of Knowledge Management activities were used, from building more discussion space into the agenda, building a large facilitation team, using a range of facilitation methods and adopting techniques of experience capitalisation.
Principles of single, double and triple learning loops
The approach in organising the conference to generate emergent knowledge required that opportunities for learning be created, facilitated and documented as part of the process. Thus, the double-loop learning (Argyris and Schön, 1978) and triple-loop learning (Swieringa and Wierdsma, 1992) provided a good basis for the conference process. A quick overview of single, double and triple loop learning is provided at www.thorsten.org as follows:-
The identification of topics to be addressed in the context of the ICT4Ag conference was carried out in a participatory process, with the contribution of the Steering Committee. A public survey, announced through various discussion forums, enabled stakeholders to vote on a range of around 30 topics, with the intention that the most popular topics could constitute the sessions of the conference. Meanwhile, members of the Steering Committee were also asked to volunteer to organise sessions on topics of interest to them. Finally, most topics were covered either separately or combined into 24 proposed sessions for the conference and clustered under three thematic streams focused on
(a) emerging/Innovative technologies
(b) stakeholder empowerment and capacity development, and
(c) creation of enabling environments
A call for contents was then launched inviting stakeholders to submit contributions, consisting of an abstract covering the issues to be addressed, lessons learnt and proposed take-home messages. Based on these submissions, session organisers accepted contributions within the respective sessions.
While the above process appears linear, the next phase comprised of negotiations among all involved in organising the sessions, streams and the conference process itself. The KM and Facilitation teams worked with each group involved in a session to combine the set of issues proposed by the contributions into a package of perspectives to inform the topic of the session. The format of the sessions were left to the session organisers to determine within the limits of what was logistically possible at the venue.
Pre-conference single and double loop learning
The negotiated processes involved in organising each session involved going from a single-loop learning level of the individual contribution to a collective double-loop learning level within the group that was organising the session (see figure). For example, the views of the various contributors on the topic, in terms of the lessons learnt within their context of implementation and experience (frame) of their own action, had to be weighed and organised against the views of the other contributors by the session organiser. The negotiation consisted of moving away from the ‘powerpoint slide deck’ to more engagement with the audience, around the topic of the session. This negotiation benefited from the input of an experienced facilitator to guide the session organiser in managing their session. The contributions and any slides prepared for the sessions would still be made available through the conference website.
While each session was being prepared, several of the Steering committee members were given the responsibility of coordinating the sessions within the three streams. Thus, the KM and Facilitation teams, while working with the session organisers, were also coordinating the organisation of stream synthesis sessions, which would allow participants from various sessions to reflect along one of the streams at the end of each day of the conference, and eventually contribute to a final plenary session. This process constituted the core of the double-loop learning process that would be promoted during the conference. The process was also complemented by the publication of an issue of the ICT Update Magazine which covered the case studies and examples from the contributions, grouped by streams.
Double-loop learning during the conference
The conference consisted of a Day Zero (Plug and Play Day) focused on interactions around technologies, products and concepts to enable participants to update their knowledge of the technical advances and their applications in the field. This provided an opportunity for participants to form a common basis about technologies and approaches to support discussions in the following days.
In addition to the plenary sessions, participants attended parallel sessions facilitated within three streams where the experiences of practitioners and lessons learnt were shared. Group discussions during the sessions enabled group reflection on the effectiveness of achieving set objectives on the session topic, and exposed participants to different perspectives. During the sessions, the Social Reporting teams documented the processes through tweets and blogs, while the KM Team drafted syntheses of the sessions to highlight four aspects of the session:
- Discovery – What was the new or emergent ideas from the presentations
- Case studies – Which good examples can others study and learn from
- Lessons learnt – What was learnt during the session, arising from the presentations and group discussions
- Making it happen – What proposals were made about taking the process forward and issues that needed to be brought to the attention of the conference audience for further discussion.
While the two first aspects related to the cases and experiences presented by contributors, the latter two captured what was discussed and learnt at the session.
At the end of the day, additional synthesis sessions organised by stream, supported by purposeful facilitation and inclusion of previous findings of the sessions into the group discussions. These stream synthesis sessions allowed participants to be further exposed to related concepts and perspectives that could also lead to establishing new principles, hence bring about triple-level learning. These syntheses would then constitute the basis of further discussions during the plenary sessions leading to the conclusion of the conference.
Triple-loop learning in final stages of and following the conference
Coordination of the KM and Facilitation teams at the conference enabled a final plenary session to be held where future initiatives on ICT4Ag were jointly conceptualised by participants. This provides the basis for potential transformational change among the participating organisations, which should be nurtured as a follow-up to the conference. The synthesis reports were used by the Stream Coordinators to report on their views of the conference outcomes in the ICT Update Magazine (now renamed ICT4Ag Magazine), as well as supporting the write up of the Policy Pointers document following the conference. Currently, plans are for the discussions of the final plenary session to be used to engage the participants to implement the proposed initiatives. Given the size of the audience, such engagement will have to be facilitated through the establishment of an e-mediated community of practice.
Observations on using this approach:
- The process of triple-loop learning provided an appropriate framework for planning, facilitating, documenting and promoting engagement on ICT4Ag.
- During the planning phases of the conference, the approach was not well understood and was in competition with all the other pressing activities involved in organising the conference.
- Greater awareness of the process among the implementers themselves, accompanied by careful planning at each stage could have improved on the engagement of stakeholders before, during and especially after the event.
- The approach is worth trying again in the context of documenting and learning from the process of intense interactions and learning by many stakeholders over a short period such as in the context of a similar conference or Share Fair
- capacity development
- emerging technologies
- enabling environments
- ICT4Ag conference
- KM and learning
- learning loops