Interview: Demystifying experience capitalisation

Israel Bionyi Nyoh

Is experience capitalisation only a task for external consultants? Jorge Chavez-Tafur disagrees. He thinks grassroots communities and networks can successfully follow an experience capitalisation approach to reflect on their experiences, draw concrete lessons, and improve on effectiveness and efficiency of their interventions. His argument is based on years of practical field experience in the documentation, systematization and capitalisation of rural development projects. This wealth of experience he brings to CTA, as he joined the crew in July 2016.

“Experience capitalisation” refers to a set of learning processes that transform experience and knowledge into capital for future use. How can this approach benefit a smallholder organisation?

Jorge: More and more organisations are recognising the benefits which an experience capitalisation approach can bring, and are therefore interested to try it out, and to develop the skills they need to try it and to benefit from it. It can directly improve the efficiency of rural development projects. Describing and analysing what organisations are doing can help them understand what they are doing and achieving, and improve the course they are following.

There are two ways in which organisations can benefit from this approach. First, an organisation can see what it is achieving in detail, with all the constraints and limitations, even if this is something that does not happen often enough. Many projects are being implemented and most have very positive results, but many of those working in the same organisation don’t know what is happening, and the main lessons are lost once the project ends. Second, other organisations can also benefit from the lessons that are drawn, hearing about what works and what doesn’t or about mistakes that they should not repeat, or simply by being inspired to develop their ideas further.

Experience capitalisation involves documenting, capturing, packaging and sharing lessons, something which can take days, months, and even years to happen – especially when working in complex environments. Can grassroots organisations confidently apply this approach?

Jorge: Many people are talking about experience capitalisation, perhaps with different names, or slightly different approaches. But not many organisations are able to put it into practice, mostly because there is not enough time – especially because projects want to do a lot. But many organisations also feel that experience capitalisation is difficult and that it is something that can only be done by an external consultant. They feel they don’t have the skills and are therefore unable to put it into practice. There is a general feeling that knowledge management and experience capitalisation are tasks that are better left for external experts.
I believe that most development organisations are very capable of completing a capitalisation process and benefiting from it. Perhaps they need training materials, or coaching or support. But there is no reason why an organisation cannot do this. I believe that describing, analysing, sharing, this is something we all do, even during a conversation about our work. So experience capitalisation is not a complicated, new idea. Even if in an informal or unstructured way, it is something we all normally do.

What is the experience capitalisation project at CTA hoping to achieve? How does it expect to reach its objectives?

Jorge: The project wants to test and validate the approach as a comprehensive process, and on the basis of this try to encourage other organisations, and CTA itself, to make it a regular part of their work. I think that organisations can benefit a lot by regularly describing, analysing and sharing what they do. If you go to the rural areas, you can see a lot of interesting projects going on, but most of them are not known and not analysed enough. So not enough lessons are drawn from what they are doing, and when the project finishes only those who were in direct contact with it know what really happened. Many more people could benefit if the experiences are well documented. We want to upscale different ongoing projects by drawing concrete lessons and sharing them.

CTA’s knowledge ecosystem approach is built on a set of tools and processes which improve organisational learning and aim at developing skills and the capacity of ACP organisations on KM. How does experience capitalisation fit in CTA’s ecosystem approach?

Jorge: We are not trying to invent or bring something totally new. I think that CTA has a long experience on knowledge management, with specific tools and approaches, and this is very positive. This project will build on what is already there, what has already been tested and is going on.

What is the relevance of devising a knowledge sensitive approach to networks or individuals?

Jorge: We need to demonstrate the importance of knowledge on performance. knowledge management is something that we regularly do. People take decisions on the basis of their own experience, and on the basis of what they have learned. What we need to highlight is that it can be done in a more systematic or organised way, and therefore in a more efficient way. knowledge management can help us achieve better results by focusing on what we do as a group. This is especially necessary as the work and objectives of a farmers’ organisation, for example, are a bit more complex than the actions of an individual. So perhaps I could say that promoting knowledge management is trying to do collectively what we naturally do as individuals.

How can we measure returns on investment in knowledge management? Can it be quantified? How do we see impact?

Jorge: I think that impact is visible at all levels. At the level of a farm, organisation or project, you can see those who are more efficiently practising knowledge management. Perhaps you cannot see knowledge, but you can see the results of knowledge being sourced or used. If it is a farm, you can see higher yields or incomes, and if it is a project, you can see a more effective project. I don’t think knowledge is a commodity that you can measure, but the benefits of managing it are evident.

About Jorge Chavez-Tafur

Jorge Chavez-Tafur joined CTA on July 1 2016, as Associate Programme Coordinator, Knowledge Management. He is working on the Experience Capitalization project implemented by CTA in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), supported through a grant from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Jorge masters the art of sourcing hidden knowledge in projects, people, and organisations. Prior to CTA Jorge worked as editor of Farming Matters, and also as consultant with different organisations, promoting a documentation, sistematización and capitalisation approach for rural development projects in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America. He describes his job as listening, interviewing, gathering information, packaging and sharing lessons, and supporting organisations to do the same

Download knowledge resources from Jorge’s previous work