Knowledge and Information blog News

Open-access Knowledge Bank tackles malnutrition

Adequate nutrition, particularly in the first 1,000 days of life, is critical to both physical and mental development and long-term health. Poor access to agricultural and health information has been recognised as a major barrier in the uptake of improved nutritional practices, particularly for women and vulnerable groups in marginalised areas. Developed through the mNutrition Initiative, the Nutrition Knowledge Bank (going live on 25 October) aims to help bridge the gap between information providers and users by providing an open-access store of both nutrition-sensitive agricultural approaches and nutrition-specific health interventions.

Read the full news item

The GSMA mNutrition Initiative is a DFID-funded global project developing agriculture, health and nutrition messages to address knowledge gaps and promote behaviour change. The Global content partner consortium consists of BMJ, CABI, GAIN, ILRI and Oxfam. It partner with local organisations to produce localised content, which is then directly disseminated by service providers through mobile networks.

A one-stop shop doesn’t always work: Using different communication and sharing platforms at ILRI

Colleagues at ILRI often wonder:

Why do we have a wiki and a Yammer group for our project?

What is the point of both Slideshare and CGSpace?

Do we really need Yammer? What for?

Why not use one tool or platform?

Do I need to have all those different logins!

These are legitimate concerns that this post helps to explain.

What platforms? To do what?

For ILRI projects and programs, we tend to use a set of standard channels or platforms.

When a new project or program starts, they usually select a mix drawn from:

  • A website, usually on a WordPress (blog) platform that provides key static information, links, news updates and opinion pieces, and comments.
  • An informal wiki workspace, based on Wikispaces, which helps teams plan, document and track their work without fear of having to get everything polished and formal.
  • A CGSpace collection, for all finished products and outputs. This ‘publishes’ and archives the entire formal content produced by a project team, from books to articles, briefs, videos and presentations etc. It serves open access as well as publishing objectives.
  • A Yammer social network conversation space to share ideas, questions and information with project colleagues and wider CGIAR.
  • A Slideshare space to share presentations and posters, though sometimes we simply embed them in the ILRI Slideshare account and use tags to connect to a specific project or process;
  • A Flickr space for images and pictures – sometimes just as new ‘albums’ on the ILRI account, so we can use and re-use few but high quality pictures in blogs and other publications;
  • A YouTube space or playlist to publish the formal and informal videos we produce.
  • All using RSS feeds that allow interested people to sign up and follow project news and get email alerts.

At the corporate level, we use a similar set of standard platforms:

  • The ILRI website, as well as the blogs ILRI Clippings (with general livestock information and news) and ILRI news (news from ILRI research);
  • An ILRI Twitter account re-publishes news from our blogs and CGSpace collection for the wider public
  • An ILRI LinkedIn group  has wide conversations around livestock (research) issues in general and ILRI work in particular;
  • An ILRI LinkedIn page  is ILRI’s institutional face and automatically re-publishes news from our blogs;
  • An ILRI Facebook fan page re-publishes all news automatically and an ILRI Facebook account is used mostly for personal contact between ILRI and former staff, and does not have a professional ‘slant’ to it.
  • We use standard taxonomies, tags, categories, open applications and other devices to curate and ensure the content is re-usable and can be aggregated, re-purposed and re-published in many ways.

Why all these platforms?

There are various reasons for having all these platforms:

  • Each platform has its specific niche, purpose and audience. We have found it better to combine these than try to create a single platform (that compromises on many individual functionalities).
  • Rather than creating a single ILRI ‘portal’, by publishing our content on widely-used third-party platforms we have a greater chance of reaching people on those platforms.
  • These platforms tend to reinforce open access, while in-house systems tend to be much more closed; and in some cases pose major challenges to collaboration with external partners.
  • Putting all our content in one platform means that if that (commercial) platform changes its model or goes bankrupt, all our content is jeopardized. Using various platforms means all our eggs are not in one basket and minimizes risk.
  • Using different platforms enhances the visibility of our research content because the platforms complement each other and have a higher chance of boosting search engine ranking.
  • The variety of platforms means that staff and projects can tailor their use of different platforms and content. A ‘one-stop’ (or a ‘one-shop’) shop reduces choice.

Back to our original questions

If you are still wondering about where we started…

Why do we have a wiki and Yammer group for our project?

The wiki is for people to collaborate (share, plan and document) together, while Yammer is a sort of professional Facebook to share ideas, questions, updates etc. in an informal but (if needed) private space.

What is the point of Slideshare and CGSpace?

Slideshare features all our presentations (and posters) so we can re-use them (as visual snippets) into blog articles, web pages, wiki pages etc. Slideshare content is highly indexed and visible and attracts readers.

CGSpace collects presentations and posters (and all other outputs) for referencing, reporting and posterity. It is the permanent record of all outputs.

Do we really need Yammer? What for?

We do not need Yammer. But having a social network where we can safely chat about anything is rather helpful – and even critical for an organization that wants to be agile, learning, adaptive and quick in mobilizing its collective resources.

Why not use one system?

For the reasons above. The ILRI website is a single entry point to all ILRI’s public content. A new internal system, probably Office 365 and sharepoint, will likely provide an internal single access point. ILRI’s ICT team is working on a system to align credentials (and ensure maximum use of the CGIAR-wide active directory) used across the platforms.

Why create another account in a new/different platform? I’m struggling to remember my email password as is!

For the particular issue of remembering passwords across platforms, many of these platforms use consistent CGIAR credentials. Where this is not possible, there are simple password managers such as LastPass that alleviate the hassle of generating and remembering passwords.

See who to talk to for more on the different ILRI platforms/tools in the ILRI comms wiki FAQ page.

‘Leveling’ livestock information: Knowledge management at an ICAR–ILRI communications workshop

In May this year, ILRI and ICAR held a joint workshop on communications and KM; this post covers the discussions on focus area 3: Accessing, publishing and disseminating research knowledge, information, data, products and outputs for wide accessibility and use

ILRI news


At the lobby of National Agricultural Science Centre (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Note: This is the tenth in a series of articles on
‘Curds and goats, lives and livelihoods—
A dozen stories from northern and eastern India’.
PART 10: ‘Leveling’ access to livestock information:
Knowledge management talks at an ICAR–ILRI communications workshop  

By Jules Mateo and Susan MacMillan,
of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

This is the third of three reports on a Mar 2016 ICAR–ILRI communications workshop
held at ICAR’s New Delhi research complex.

To share best practices and explore opportunities for collaboration, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) held a joint communications and knowledge management workshop on 4 Mar 2016 at the National Agricultural Science Centre Complex in New Delhi, India.

National Agricultural Science Centre Complex

The one-day communications workshop was held at the National Agricultural Science Centre Complex in New Delhi, India…

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Reaching stakeholders, influencing policies: ICAR–ILRI communications workshop

In May this year, ILRI and ICAR held a joint workshop on communications and KM; this post covers the discussions on focus area 2: Communicating evidence for wider influence by engaging with and influencing decision-makers

ILRI news

IndiaWomenAtICAR-ILRIcommsWorkshop_CroppedSome of the ICAR scientists and communications staff at an ICAR-ILRI communications workshop in New Delhi in March 2016 (ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Note: This is the ninth in a series of articles on
‘Curds and goats, lives and livelihoods—
A dozen stories from northern and eastern India‘.
Part 9: Reaching stakeholders, influencing policies:
ICAR–ILRI communications workshop

By Jules Mateo and Susan MacMillan,
of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

This is the second of three reports on a Mar 2016 ICAR–ILRI communications workshop held at ICAR’s New Delhi research complex.

A communications workshop co-sponsored by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) was held on 4 March 2016 in New Delhi, India.

Jointly organized by ILRI’s Communications and Knowledge Management (CKM) team and ICAR’s Directorate of Knowledge Management in Agriculture (DKMA), the workshop’s goals were to share experiences and best practices in livestock…

View original post 1,447 more words

Towards innovation-spaces: Slowly evolving the ILRI Nairobi info-centre

@BecAHub Mark Wamalwa explains how illumina sequencer is used on the genomics platform [from twitter]

Just as scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) innovate and evolve next generation vaccines and genomic opportunities, we see significant evolution in the roles of infocentres and libraries in agricultural research. The infocentre spaces and services in ILRI are no exception.

While physical collections of books and journals were critical to research in the 1980’s and 1990’s, today’s agricultural scientists mainly rely on access to digital data, knowledge and science. More and more, librarians in research organizations are moving from roles as guardians of physical materials to curators of digital knowledge and facilitators of knowledge exchange. They no longer maintain indexes and catalogues, today they manage institutional repositories, publish services across the web and facilitate meetings.

ILRI’s infocentres in Addis Ababa and Nairobi have come a long way from their origins as reference libraries for scholars and visiting students. Over the last ten years their central purpose has gradually evolved from offering library services to a broader portfolio focused on knowledge exchange. Part of it has been an internet cafe from before the days when broadband access was widely available. The collection has moved online, researchers access critical resources like journals directly from their computers. The users of our Nairobi infocentre hardly read the books we provide, they seem to mostly look for a quiet space to work or to meet with colleagues and supervisors. Looking north, ILRI’s Addis Ababa infocentre is a hub of meetings and interaction where individuals and projects engage, plan and interact.

Info centre quiet zone

Quieter space for study, books as inspiration and reference (15 June 2016).

The evolving Nairobi infocentre

In Nairobi, we are pursuing ways to reinforce the institute’s culture of innovation. We are currently transforming the infocentre on the Nairobi campus into a multi-use co-working space. Our goal is to create a flexible collaboration hub for researchers, PhD students, fellows, staff from the regions and partners alike. It will bring together a community of users involved in agricultural research from diverse disciplines and backgrounds in an open collaboration space. It will help to bridge the spaces between people working up and down the ILRI hillside, and among those mainly in labs, office or the field.

One of our assumptions is that people who meet in such spaces will strike up conversations and these conversations will lead to new ideas and ultimately innovation. We want to help enable and ignite these casual meetings and serendipitous conversations. We also want to keep offering quieter spaces for study and individual or small group work. And we continue to provide space for traditional books and journals, especially those that are more difficult to access. We especially want to make some of our ‘archive’ special materials of ILRI archive reports, theses and other materials more accessible (they have been closed away for many years).

Info centre collaboration zone

Interim small space to collaborate and discuss (15 June 2016).

Space plans

The current ideas for the infocentre space have evolved in the past year or so. Looking for the potential multiple uses, the current  very simple design concept reflects the values of the community we want to serve: Openness, transparency, collaboration and ultimately innovation. The space is open, brightly lit with natural light and functionally furnished and features dozens of livestock-related artefacts illustrating the multiple uses of livestock and animal products in culture and lives.

We envision three zones:

Info centre floor planQuiet zone: For people looking for a private work setting. This is the part of the infocentre that will simply remain ‘library’ space, with its existing code of behaviour that is respectful towards other users’ need to focus on individual work. Cell phone use and videoconferencing is discouraged, the boundaries signal “do not disturb.” Activities supported by the space are studying, writing and thinking. The books and other materials are food for thought and exploration.

Intermediate zone: The potential ‘cafe-like zone’ encourages meetings, conversation and cross pollination. Some may choose to work here accepting disturbance (as at airports or internet hangouts). This is also the space where staff work and can mingle with visitors. It is situated so people will pass through as they enter co-working spaces. We aim to convert a closed store room into a small space where staff can join virtual meetings such as skype without disturbing the quieter area.

Active zone: This area is set up to support small groups discussing or collaborating. With its smartboard, it is perfect for small group work, team meetings, presentations, video conferencing, etc. Ideally this will be a ‘Cube’ with glass walls making the interactions visible but not audible. Next to the cube, we will re-introduce a ‘Lounge’ area as an informal space without tables and barriers. Again, this will ideally be divided from the quiet zone by glass walls, thereby maintaining an uninterrupted, visually open space while keeping the noise in.

This is all work in progress, reporting and sharing some of the changes we are doing and contemplating. As we increasingly move our knowledge resources online and open access, reducing barriers to innovation, we are exploring ways our traditional physical spaces can be made more accessible, open and pro-innovation while retaining elements of the past that still add value.

This post was written by Ben Hack and Peter Ballantyne




Could teachers or facilitators be leaders?

It is a perfect four out of four for me! Gundula Fischer goes on all fours to practically demonstrate (on a four part square marked on the meeting floor) that she achieved all her goals for attending the AR West Africa planning and review meeting 2016 (Ph

Most people, myself included, instinctively associate leadership with senior management roles. But leadership is not restricted to those with management responsibilities. Like senior managers, my role as a facilitation expert at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is essentially one of inspiring and guiding scientists towards a desired outcome. But I did not think seriously about the fact that I could be a leader until I participated in a facilitation skills workshop for African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) in March 2016.

At the workshop, which was organized by the Institute for People Innovation and Change in Organizations (PICO)–Eastern Africa, we heard how there are many overlapping forms of leadership. Some are formal with designated responsibilities while others emerge more informally as we interact with our peers. As facilitators, we lead groups and create engaging and collaborative environments for people to discuss and share their ideas freely; we help them improve thinking to achieve the objectives of their meetings and harness diverse thinking among group members to come up with rich decisions as well as learning.

The workshop was designed to impart facilitation and teaching skills to the participants, enabling them to make life easier and training more productive. It sought to enable the participants to successfully organize training sessions and meetings, helping us to enhance our skills of observation, analysis, conflict management and consensus building, handling conflict and time management.

The PICO-Eastern Africa facilitators employed a number of different learning and iterative approaches: plenary sessions, break-out groups and role plays. It was a learning workshop, so the topics were dynamically and flexibly co-created to reflect the needs of participants throughout. Topics were not pre-defined in a typical modular teaching framework. We, the participants, were divided up into groups reflecting the different scenarios we would have to deal with, i.e. when managing workshops and facilitative training sessions. In workshops, the facilitator deals with managing group dynamics, rather than creating knowledge, s/he helps other to do so. Whereas in managing facilitative training sessions, the trainer is actively involved in generating knowledge.

We learned a lot of different techniques, including facilitative listening and questioning skills, recognizing and effectively managing divergence points—‘groan zones’—in meetings/processes, and other ‘difficult’ dynamics, as well as how to help participants negotiate sustainable agreements. This knowledge will certainly help us keep content, process and structure on track during workshops and meeting.

Despite being such a diverse group of participants from Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, we all agreed that we had learned a lot. But for me, the most important lesson was that by putting the new facilitation skills into practice, I too can be a leader.

Strategizing communication and knowledge management for a new ILRI project: why, what and how?

A new project with the visibility and scale like the African Chicken Genetic Gains (ACGG) project deserves a strong communication approach, especially when the project team is keen on earmarking resources and attention for communication and ‘working out loud‘.

 ILRI/M. Becon)

The ACGG project – the latest opportunity for comms (photo credit: ILRI/M. Becon)

This post tracks back the development of the ACGG communication strategy/plan and some of the challenges and opportunities in the process…

Communi… what?

… or why invest in communication from the start?

A lot of research projects at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and beyond do not include (much) communication in their budget and plans. The project teams then typically wake up on the comms call only when they realize they would like to have some media coverage for their launch event, and some help at the very end of the project when the publications start piling up and editorial and publishing support is sine qua non for the success of the project.

The ACGG project was a different case. The team, led by  Tadelle Dessie and coordinated by Jasmine Bruno (ILRI) bought, from the get-go, into ‘Comms’. Perhaps because the project team is based in Addis Ababa and the campus has given opportunities to witness successful comms and KM support to various research projects (Nile Basin Development Challenge, Africa RISING, LIVES), there was willingness and interest right away [it was also budgeted in the project proposal …].

The benefits are multiple: good visibility of the research, strong engagement, more solid partnership development, more chances for research uptake etc. etc.

Add some of that glue and grease, please!

The story of comms in ACGG

So how did comms (encompassing traditional communication and public awareness with knowledge management) get funded and developed within ACGG – and play that role of ‘glue and grease’ that it does in the best of times? It took several stages.

Getting a foot in the door

During proposal development,  Tadelle Dessie (project leader) and Peter Ballantyne (Communication and Knowledge Management team – CKM)  discussed ideas and directions for comms in the upcoming project, roughly identifying areas and budgets. The CKM foot was in the ACGG door.

After project approval in November 2014, it was relatively easy to continue negotiations about the role of comms in the project. Ewen Le Borgne was asked to coordinate project communication and he and the ACGG team specified how CKM would support ACGG in detail. Based on past experience the CKM team developed a communication and knowledge management plan/strategy (rather pragmatic plans than long-term strategy).

With  a plan in place, people were mobilised from the program and the CKM side, including Tsehay Gashaw for engagement and collaboration, Meron Mulatu, Apollo Habtamu and Betty Alemu for publishing and design work, Paul Karaimu and James Stapleton for editing (and writing of e.g. briefs)… In addition, during a visit to Nairobi, the CKM team there met with the ACGG project team and identified other ways to support the project.

Currently the team is implementing the plan, including providing regular process support to the research team – through monthly gatherings to review important work that comms can support. The future looks promising.

Some lessons so far

Get your foot in the door of the proposal

The dedicated comms budget is essential. Luckily it was outlined before the project was submitted, which is more than most ILRI projects manage to do. Earlier inputs to projects rom Comms – as well as capacity development, gender, and so on -is something our ‘One Corporate System’ promises to facilitate.

Assign dedicated comms capacities from the start

The relatively large project never budgeted for full-time dedicated comms support (as is the case with e.g. Africa RISING or LIVES). This has left some gaps, especially around systematic, regular content generation and dissemination. Large and complex projects should have dedicated full time comms expertise.

Plan for and schedule content

One of the important adjustments, to fill the content production gap, has been to develop a content plan and calendar where a number of possible content items have been identified. This rolling plan should help generate regular content and align activities with content and events. In the process this ensures that all relevant ACGG work is indeed documented and disseminated.

Develop a comms plan with a wider team

The comms plan was developed mostly by Ewen Le Borgne with support from Peter Ballantyne and shared with all other CKM staff involved in ACGG. However, the Nairobi team was less involved and critical inputs around awareness and advocacy work were missed early on. These are now being included in the plans.

Get regular contact with the project team and regular meetings

A project of this nature evolves very quickly with multiple activities, events and partnerships happening in parallel. Regular meetings between comms staff and the project team (as is the case with the monthly chats organized) are a must to keep abreast of, and if possible anticipate, everything (especially without a full time dedicated comms person).

Set up standard channels and basic guidelines and principles as soon as possible

As is often the case with new projects starting, ILRI CKM uses a bouquet of standard platforms and this is helpful to have a well-oiled routine that can be rolled out, but also (e.g. using the project work space / wiki) to keep track of principles of work that can be referred to. Branding for instance needs quite immediate attention and can be organized much more quickly if a project website and wiki is already up and running and that is part of the understanding of working with CKM.

Source allies in places and countries where CKM is not present

ACGG takes place in three countries (Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania) but CKM is formally present only in two of these countries, not in Nigeria. Identifying comms allies that can do some comms work in those countries – if only for important events – is essential to ensure all countries are covered adequately. One of the lessons from the Africa RISING project was that people close to the ground were necessary to ensure representative coverage of the entire project.

Help the team document its learning and insights

Luckily the ACGG team is keen on learning and adapting along the way. Nevertheless, dedicated efforts are required to properly document major developments. Process documentation is an important building block for keeping track of all the learning. The earlier starting this the better, as early learning is quickly lost unless well-documented.

Developing ILRI’s capacity in participatory decision-making, from out in and in out

Who can argue, in development work, that they never need participatory decision-making? Being able to hold group conversations and to come to collective and participatory decision-making is arguably an essential piece to the success of complex initiatives such as international agricultural research programs.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has recognised this need and has been investing in this skill. Since 2007, ILRI has been inviting Sam Kaner and other members of his company ‘Community at work’ to train a number of ILRI staff members.

Since early 2015, these efforts have redoubled with a total of 6 training sessions provided between February 2015 and March 2016. A total of around 100 ILRI staff members have been trained in such a fashion and the demand for this training is not weakening.

What is group facilitation? (image credit: Paul O'Raw)

What is group facilitation? (image credit: Paul O’Raw)

Why is ILRI investing in group facilitation skills from outside in?

‘Group facilitation skills’ is one of the main training courses provided by Community at Work but it cannot be mistaken for ‘just’ a facilitation training course.

What training participants come away from the course with include:

  • A distinction of different types of meetings and objectives that has a clear impact on the necessity and role of facilitation;
  • A number of hands-on practice sessions with a variety of ‘listening skills’ that actually help anyone, at work and in personal life, be a more supportive person;
  • A deep recognition of the value of conflict and of using the frustration of people to lead to the birth of genuinely novel ideas;
  • A clear picture of what a decision is and what it means to arrive at one, for a group;
  • A much better understanding of what is at the heart of group dynamics and difficult behaviours in that dynamics;
  • What it means to rethink a meeting or event structure (design) from the standpoint of group energy;
  • Why and when it is possible to lead and facilitate at the same time, and how;
  • How to reach closure that leads to sustainable agreements;

And so this course is actually not really meant just for people who end up designing and/or facilitating meetings and large events, but also any leader that has to understand participatory decision-making, as well as any other worker that needs to work with other people from different backgrounds.


Nelli Noakes and Sam Kaner (Community at Work) with Ruth Nyaga and Tadios Tekalign (ILRI) (photo credit: ILRI)

In the complex world of agricultural research for development that ILRI operates in, it is no wonder that this training course is indeed recognised as a ‘game changer’ by a large number of participants.

This is one of two training courses that transformed me and really contributed to my growth (Flavio Sacchini, ILRI)

And retrospectively it is no surprise that ILRI is investing in this set of skills and understandings in order to obtain the work it aspires to achieve.

But the series of group facilitation training courses is only one aspect of ILRI’s commitment to group facilitation.

How is ILRI investing in group facilitation skills for the future, from inside out?

In addition to the six training courses that have taken place since early 2015, ILRI and Community at Work initiated a process of ‘training the trainer’ whereby one of the ILRI facilitators from the communication and knowledge management (CKM) unit is being trained to become the in-house trainer on group facilitation skills ‘a la Community at Work’.

This initiative is not only economic in the longer run, but also ensures that the community of group facilitation skills trainees remains close to one another and cultivates the skills that have been acquired across three days of training.

A virtual network -aspiring to become a genuine community of practice- was set up in November 2015 for all past trainees. This network has its dedicated resource page and is hosting bimonthly virtual chats to answer anyone’s question or aspiration regarding putting their skills to use. In the future, face-to-face sessions are also expected to take place.

2016 may see other groups of trainees join this group and strengthen the collective practice of ILRI with group facilitation. It remains difficult to show exactly how this training course has been put to use to improve ILRI staff work, but the feedback on this course has been uniformly positive.


ILRI’s Muthoni U Njiru facilitating a session during the ResUp Meet Up Exchange in Nairobi (photo credit: ILRI)

Are you hosting an online conference? Here’s how to make the people online REALLY feel part of your conversation

ILRI staff are increasingly organising virtual meetings to run day-to-day business. But these are not easy meetings. Sometimes they even look as dramatically comical as this:

Most of us at ILRI are probably involved in such meetings on a daily, weekly or at least monthly basis. But nearly none of us seem to apply good practices to create an environment where the people ‘skyped in’ or ‘webexed’ feel included in the conversation that is taking place face-to-face with the largest group.

I recently took part to one of these meetings and I was one of two people not based in Nairobi but invited to the conversation. And more often than not I felt like the face-to-face group did not really care whether I was there or not. And at some point, although the internet connectivity was fine, I kind of gave up on the meeting altogether, even if I had valuable contributions to make…

Here are some ideas for avoiding such scenarios:

  • Provide very clear instructions for online participants about the system used to get connected, ahead of time. And make sure the online participants feel they are connected and understand the system a few hours/ a day before the meeting. The ICT team can provide excellent support in this;
  • Make sure a web camera is set up in both/all locations so the groups can see each other. This creates a more human/e dynamic and engaging space – and it also reminds the people sitting physically together that there are other people;
  • Encourage virtual participants, if they can, to gather physically (e.g. an Addis group invited to join a large Nairobi group) rather than from multiple locations – this also encourages everyone to remember that there is another set of (online) participants;
  • Put the online conferencing device in the centre of the physical meeting room. If the meeting involves many people (e.g. over 8) multiple devices should be set up so that everyone’s voice can be heard by the online participants;
  • Ensure that someone is there in the room to attend to the needs of the virtual participant(s)/group(s) – sometimes they need to just set one thing up and the rest of the group should probably not be held hostage when that happens. A dedicated attendant can see to this;
  • Remind everyone to talk loudly and/or sit next to the online conferencing devices;
  • Remind everyone to talk one at a time – it is notoriously difficult to make anything out of virtual meetings when all physical participants are talking together;
  • In the physical room, regularly check that everyone online is hearing what is going on;
  • If the connectivity is not good enough or for some reason communication is difficult, ensure that there is another way for online participants to follow the conversation. In a lot of online meetings I organise, I also take notes on a MeetingWords pad, it’s super simple to set up and works with low bandwidth. Someone has to dedicate themselves to taking notes throughout the online meeting, however.
  • Remind everyone at the beginning of the meeting about some of these good practices;
  • Try to keep the meeting to about one hour maximum, as it is very difficult to keep an online group engaged for sustained periods of time.


Facilitating CGIAR country collaboration and site integration with the ‘power of comms’

The development of new CGIAR research program (CRPs) proposals for a second to start in 2017 is currently looking into developing country collaboration and site integration processes that guarantee all CGIAR centres are collaborating among themselves and with other critical national partners as much as possible in 20 focus countries. Communication and engagement are critical to such processes and a communication team is well placed to help there.

In Ethiopia – one of the six priority site integration countries in that list of 20 – the ILRI Communication and Knowledge Management (CKM) team has been strongly involved in this process.

Before site integration even became an issue for the second wave of CRPs, the CGIAR system in Ethiopia organised, under the leadership of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), a meeting with the national agricultural research system in December 2014. This initial consultation, facilitated by a CKM staff, helped identify a number of areas of cooperation.

When country collaboration (initially titled ‘site integration’) became an objective as part of the submission of CRP proposals, the CGIAR centres could resume this process, on the way to a national consultation process that was to be echoed in the 20 countries.

Group work CKM staff contributed to designing the first and largest national consultation meeting for Ethiopia in December 2015 and helped turn this challenging event into a useful exercise in aligning around national priorities and fostering a spirit of collaboration across the board.

CKM support also included the coordination of a marketplace helping all CGIAR centres highlight their work in Ethiopia. Meeting notes and the official meeting report were recorded by CKM staff and colleagues.

Following that first consultation meeting, a few other meetings took place. They were organised by individual CRPs (such as the Livestock CRP) or as follow-up meeting among CGIAR centres based in Ethiopia. Both of these meetings were  designed and facilitated by CKM staff in Ethiopa. CKM process design and facilitation support also extended to Kenya where a livestock CRP consultation mirrored the Ethiopia consultation meeting. Beyond these face to face meetings, an online space was set up to pose specific questions on the development of a Livestock CRP proposal.

In 2016, more of these meetings and consultations are likely to take place and ILRI’s CKM team is well-placed to support the overall engagement process. Such processes demonstrate the value of bringing in CKM; ideally they form the start of longer-term and sustained inputs from ‘comms and KM’, as illustrated by positive experiences of the Africa RISING project.

Read results from the first national consultation process from December 2015 – including the official report.

Read results from the CGIAR-Ethiopian agricultural research system meeting from December 2014

Read more about the national consultation process in Ethiopia (on the GCARD website)


Social learning – is there any other kind?


Herding village livestock to pasture at dawn, Muchamba Village, Tete Province, Mozambique (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

Meeting and talking where livestock trails intersect has energised learning and the development of a shared culture since people began herding animals thousands of years ago, which is pretty much as early as it gets.

Nobody at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) needs to be reminded that social learning is at the heart of human development. So why are we still researching and talking about how to ensure social learning is at the centre of our work in Development? It’s partly to do with language: it’s rare to find two people who’d agree immediately on a definition of social learning. And it’s a domain that’s become further complicated by the use of the term social media to describe the explosion of new digital networks and platforms that people use to communicate and connect. It’s also about power. Identifying how social learning can be energised and built upon to achieve change is difficult, given that social processes play out within formal or informal power structures. While social learning can contribute to the coming together and collaboration of people to increase their influence it’s often hard to link transient and usually un-recorded social processes with the actual change processes. And creating programmes that maximise the opportunities for that kind of social dynamic is even harder in the complex environments in which projects happen.

We’ve been exploring social learning in climate change for three years in the Climate Change and Social Learning (CCSL) project. That specific ILRI-funded activity has stopped, although the activity and research continues within the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and other related programs. The issue highlighted above, in particular, social learning and power, is an area CCAFS continues exploring. As CCSL had a strong communication component we thought it useful to review how social and other digital media intersects with what we call social learning, touch on what is being said about Return on Investment (RoI) and the impact from Social Learning, and consider what that might mean for future efforts to integrate social dynamics into development programs.

Social media and social learning

“We are, above all, social animals. Throughout the history of digital communication ordinary people have used or subverted digital technology to communicate and make connections, and will only adopt them when they meet such primary needs”. We wrote that in a review of social media for HIV/Aids communicators[1] in 2008, which also happened to be a great year for Internet start-ups, including Github, AirBnb, Yammer, Groupon and Pinterest! Even then it was clear that the rise of social media was both going to change the way that people connected and was itself a constantly evolving set of products and tools shaped by people’s hunger to deepen bonds and make new connections.

Jane Hart, a speaker and writer on modern approaches to workplace learning, brings the perspective of a learning professional seeking to integrate social media into learning. As she says in this summary presentation, while ‘social learning can make learning a more powerful experience’, ‘social learning doesn’t require the use of social media’ and ‘use of social media tools doesn’t mean social learning takes place’.


Hart’s view pretty much represents mainstream thinking in 2016 among communication, knowledge and learning professionals. Organisations like ILRI are extending the impact of social media across the enterprise. Julian Stodd has also done a lot of work from the learning perspective, developing a practical framework for integrating social learning into more conventional learning, exemplified in his work on a ‘social learning scaffold’

Hart later takes the conversation further, contrasting social learning and social collaboration, which he defines as, “the sub-set of social learning that is focused around the learning that takes place from working together”. Hart stresses the potential importance of the latter – which has particular relevance for the CCSL agenda of mapping and energising the link between social learning and social change.

Harold Jarche, a commentator on the intersection of social spaces and learning, has written a lot in the same vein, focusing especially on linking social learning, social collaboration and the notion that we live now in the ‘network era’, Jarche maintains that, ‘social learning is how work gets done in the network era’.

ROI and Impact

A key issue has always been a lot to do with being able to identify, name and monitor the impact of social learning. Stodd opens up the issues in his blog, ‘How do you measure the return on investment (ROI) for social learning?’

The Social Learning Evaluation framework developed within the CCSL project is one of its most practical and potentially impactful products. Etienne Wenger and Bev Trayner have also been working on a strategic evaluation of network activities’ which provides a rich, evaluative framework.


Using the social learning framework of Wenger-Trayner to visioning and planning (image credit: Wenger/Trayner)

They continue to develop their ideas and have been recording progress in their blog. This video introduces their work (and has a great soundtrack!)


Social Learning – back to its roots.

Given its centrality to human interaction and learning it’s hardly surprising that the basics of social learning keep cropping up, at the most grassroots levels through to elevated policy fora. This 2006 paper from Siebenhuner describes social learning processes at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example. While we all constantly engage in social learning, how can we isolate good practice in a way that others can learn from to improve their social learning initiatives? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, at its core, it’s a reflective process on the part of individuals and groups, being aware of what is happening, noting when and where learning takes place, recording it, reflecting on it, and then sharing individual and collective insights and reflections with other groups and individuals. In essence, it’s networked social learning.

In 2016, engaging with social and other digital media is part of the answer, including blogging, sharing presentations on slideshare; sharing ideas and asking questions in email groups and social networks like Twitter and Yammer; sharing photos on Instagram or Flickr to trigger conversations. Such ‘working out loud’ is encouraged in many organisations seeking to embed networked social learning into their processes and practice, as in UNDP’s recent revision of its’ KM strategy, for example.

But to go back to where we started, and connect with people working in agriculture to achieve food security, who also face the on-the-ground impact of climate change, it’s about noticing when and where people meet and talk – whether on cattle trails or at agricultural markets, for example. Then, as is evidenced another blog from eMkambo about their fascinating work on learning in agricultural markets in Zimbabwe, it’s about listening, learning and encouraging activity that increases equitable collaboration between farmers, researchers, and policy makers in co-creating knowledge on climate smart agriculture, and thus potentially increasing people’s access to and influence on power.

[1] Future Connect: A Review of Social Networking Today, Tomorrow and Beyond, and Challenges for AIDS Communicators


Social learning at the AgKnowledge innovation process ShareFair

Social Learning is, almost by definition, a form of Slow Learning ( Yet post-event evaluations generally happen immediately or soon after completion. And, generally speaking again, evaluations tend to be positive, unless the event has been a disaster – it does happen!

People have enjoyed meeting others, having fun, escaping everyday work and being stimulated with new ideas. And above all, people are full of good intentions – to do things differently, follow up on contacts and change how they work. So we thought it would be interesting to follow up the May 2015 Innovation Process ShareFair some time later, to investigate the longer-term outcomes. What were people saying some months later, when they were back to the grindstone?

As a reminder, the Sharefair happened at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus in Addis Ababa, and the event wiki ( has more details about the collaborating organisations, agenda, reports and photos.

Here’s a summary of the event objectives:
“We are constantly seeking process improvements that help us.

  • 2007-09-04-team-buildingTackle tough issues through collective actions
  • Collaborate across teams
  • Forge and sustain partnerships for impact
  • Take interventions to scale
  • Engage effectively with local expertise
  • Empower different actors
  • Develop capacities for innovation and learning
  • Facilitate dialogue and conversations

… using these ideas as guiding threads, the share fair will use innovative design, process facilitation, and the active involvement of expert practitioners (and learners), to:

  1. Showcase, test and assess a set of the most promising ‘process improvements’ known to make (agricultural) research and development activities, programs, and institutes more effective.
  2. Energize, catalyze and capacitate a wider generation of ‘transformers’ able to take these approaches to scale.
  3. Help participants develop strong engagement and participatory approaches for problem-solving and foresight.
  4. Help participants assess progress on the challenges they encounter, individually or collectively.

We built a survey round those aims and received 21 responses. And the responses were gratifyingly positive, as shown below

First we asked about networks: “have participants followed up any of the people or conversations that took place at the Fair and has it led to any concrete activity?”, a question that addressed particularly the second aim above


Follow up? Concrete Activity?  Process SFair Graph 2  Process SFair Graph 1


And there was an interesting range of follow up actions, including:

  • Working on building/developing a book on research for development concepts
  • Collaboration on the communication and KM briefs to inform the new CGIAR Research Programmes (CRP).
  • “I was able to connect with fellow communicators as well as key scientists and together we continue to share key research outputs collaboratively – I learnt a lot on pitching to policy makers and what strategies not to use. Subsequently, our engagement has somewhat improved”
  • 1) Proposal draft for a sourcebook development. 2) Interacted again with a new contact that I have met. 3) tried out some of the liberating structures methodologies.
  • Communications Task Force for CGIAR Research Programs
  • Developing materials about online and blended meetings
  • Working on a digital story for CYMMIT with xx
  • Began work with xxxx, yyyyy and others on a book on Institutions for Innovation.

Second, we asked about learning: “is there anything that you learnt, or heard about, or thought about for the first time at the ShareFair that you have since passed onto other people, or tried out in your own work, or means you have or will change something that you do?”, which addressed aim one above.

Process SFair Graph 2

Again, the responses was strongly positive, with a similarly wide range in the examples respondents provided of learning they remembered and already implemented or planned:

  • Different ways of facilitating. How wrong the CG gets research-for-development.
  • Looking at developing a new project using participatory radio.
  • Lots of support for Liberating Structures methodologies
    • Facilitation skills. I used a ‘liberating structure’ facilitation technique for a communications team meeting. It worked and my colleagues enjoyed it.
    • Liberating structures M&E for communications and knowledge management
    • Have used some liberating structures techniques in meetings
  • “I am comfortable with new facilitation techniques which I’ve applied to my work.”
  • Facilitating online meetings – plan a lot more carefully and in detail. Improvisation is fun and easy in f2f meetings, less so online
  • I’ve connected with others about Participatory Video, submitted 2 proposals around it, with one likely to be funded.
  • Better engagement with policy makers for instance by ensuring I pitch key research to the media and organise forums for engaging policy makers
  • The way we operate in groups and facilitate was a new learning that involves participatory processes
  • I have applied a lot of what I learned in other workshops I have facilitated

So, at the simplest level, the organisers can collectively pat themselves on the back. A lot of people have come away from the ShareFair with new ideas, new facilitation methods, concrete proposals and were motivated enough to follow up. And at the level of social learning it’s interesting to note how many of the examples relate to working together with existing and new groups of people.

“What do we know about the long-term legacy of aid programs? Very little, so why not go and find out?”

What this survey couldn’t explore is different levels of learning, whether and how people have engaged with issues more deeply as a result of the ShareFair. We are particularly interested in whether they got to the deepest levels of reflection and questioning that is often called third loop learning – when people consider the conceptual frameworks that govern our work, and the governance processes themselves, in the context of our overall aims. But that would require both more in-depth investigation, probably some interviews, and the tracking of changes over time. That’s an expensive process, and there has been surprisingly little focus on such long-term tracking in Aid or Development.

As we described in a blog about Social Learning and ‘Africa RISING’, it’s very valuable, in terms of seeing sustained impacts, unintended outcomes and systemic effects, to keep track and learn from ideas, networks and people that move through the succession of programs in any particular locality. Programs that may appear unrelated or only loosely connected are in fact more closely linked once a location lens is applied.

Organisations like ILRI and other CGIAR centres that have worked in themes and geographies over a long period represent an especially rich treasury of possible study and learning. Duncan Green opened up the issue in his May 2015 blog post about the long-term legacy of aid programs, a post that is very much worth reading for the large number of ideas and examples in the comments that followed the blog post.

Do you have any examples of long-term studies tracking social learning over timescales of up to a decade or more?

Post by Pete Cranston, Euforic Services

ILRI emerging career researchers learn to use ‘paperless’ data collection techniques

Story by Joyce Maru

Emerging career researchers (ECRs) at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) were recently trained to better collect, organize and manage the data they generate during their day-to-day research activities, starting from data collection in the lab or field through to publishing of research results and archiving.

One of the tools introduced in the training was the Open Data Kit (ODK) which is an open-source suite of tools that helps organizations to author, field, and manage mobile data collection solutions. ILRI’s research activities are moving from paper-based data-collection methods to mobile-based options like ODK; therefore there’s a need to ensure that the emerging researchers who support ILRI scientists in the field are up-to-date with these new methodologies.
Using the Open Data Kit at ILRI Ethiopia

The combination of affordable, powerful, mobile devices (e.g. phones, tablets) and easy-to-use readily-available (open-source) software has significantly lowered the barriers to electronic-based data-collection. ODK tools are fairly easy to develop & use and help to speed up the processing for getting data ready for analysis. Furthermore these tools have the potential to decrease research costs, particularly in the long run, by using standard tools and databases and reduced cleaning time if pre-validation quality assurance has been included in the tool design.

This is the stuff that takes data collection to a new level, aids in collecting and accessing data, thus moves the cleaning work faster.
Jesse Owino, PhD fellow

The ECRs were also introduced to ILRI’s biorepository popularly known as Azizi which is a Swahili word meaning ‘precious’. ILRI biorepository is a research service unit at ILRI tasked with ensuring safe, secure and efficient storage of biological materials and their related data. The aim is to develop a collaborative network of partners who share their samples and data, by encouraging the use of common protocols and systems, creating a virtual, distributed resource for probing the diversity of African livestock. The unit currently preserves a wide range of biological materials and has over 84,000 materials which are open source and can be widely used by the research community.

Thanks to CapDev and RMG for closing the tech gap between social and physical science through this training. I feel very equipped and ready to develop my first ODK data tool!
Violet Barasa, research assistant

The training was conducted by ILRI’s Research Methods Group (RMG) working closely with ILRI’s Capacity Development Unit (CapDev) and the People and Organizational Development Unit (POD) units. Twenty two participants, including PhD and MSc fellows and early career researchers (research assistants and technicians) attended the workshop.

The course was part of an initiative to provide learning opportunities to graduate fellows and staff that include a blend of a series of “bite-size” modular courses in cross-cutting skills areas, e-learning opportunities, effective mentorship support, evidence and assessment to further enrich the their learning experience at ILRI.

Promoting agricultural research – which services do your scientists use?

Image credit: Swansea University

Here at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), we have set up lots of platforms to help our research results travel – an open access repository, blogs announcing results, a portal for our data, email alerts and RSS feeds, twitter and more.

Increasingly we see that scientists themselves are using different platforms and services to increase the visibility of their research – also collaborating and getting metrics and impact scores for their work.

With no claims to originality, here are 4 services we want ILRI scientists to use – are there other services like this you consider essential (please add a comment below)?

  1. ORCID ( A unique digital identifier for scientists, ORCID  helps scientists claim their publications. See for example Alan Duncan:
  1. Google Scholar Citations ( As well as helping scientists list their publications, it provides their ‘h-index’. See for example Steve Staal:
  1. Mendeley ( This is more focused on collaboration and networking but also helps researchers track, share and find publications, creating groups where teams can collectively build knowledge bases. See for example Tezira Lore:
  1. ResearchGate ( Similar to Mendeley, this helps researcher share and find research. See for example Zelalem Lema: Important for ILRI is that people select the correct institution – in our case using ‘Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’ and the ‘department’ called ‘International Livestock Research Institute’.

And of course there’s Yammer – the CGIAR’s facebook, linkedin, facebook, twitter and many more … This post explains why these tools are much less daunting than they appear to be!

Just as we want all ILRI staff to be on these platforms, it may help the collective CGIAR presence and identity if  CGIAR staff in other centres and programs pursued similar approaches and services (some already do I know: For instance, IFPRI is big on Mendeley and ORCID; CIFOR and I think IWMI are  implementing ORCID in their repositories; ICRAF has used Google Citations to look at staff impact factors … ).


Fear of the blank box: why and how to post updates on Yammer, LinkedIn etc.?

Writers fear the blank page.

Bloggers fear the blank screen.

Many of us also seem to fear the ‘blank box’. What should we write in that Yammer, Twitter or LinkedIn text box that invites us to share a status or update.

It’s somewhat strange since many of us have no problem posting updates in the Facebook blank box for friends and relatives. And there’s lots to share.

The catch is that Yammer, LinkedIn and Twitter are more for work. This seems to freeze our creative juices, curtail our writing appetite.

I’m trying to comprehend. And I think I do.

Why do people freeze? 

  • They may too busy to share ‘stuff’ on professional social networks;
  • They may not see the value of investing time in these networks;
  • What they see there is of no direct, immediate value to them;
  • They get frustrated at all the notifications they receive from these networks so they’re put off by it;
  • If they are interested in making use of these networks they may not know exactly what is expected of them;
  • …or what kind of ‘stuff’ they should write;
  • They may have technical limitations with this too…

Well, here are some answers for your questions:

You don’t have time? Perhaps reconsider from the long term perspective?

Do we really have no time to look at possible improvements? (image credit: unknown)

Do we really have no time to look at possible improvements? (image credit: unknown)

We are all busy. All super busy. And our attention is divided by many signals, to-do’s, emails and a variety of strange attractors. But the point is: sharing some information on social media sometimes helps others gain time. And you would appreciate that time gain also. Various people have written about the time gains obtained through social media when used professionally. The main reason is: social media and networks are information filters. And this idea is not new (see the presentation below), it is a reality.

So think twice before saying you don’t have time to save time and be smart(er).

Why invest in social media when they are full of irrelevant, fluffy-bunny ‘stuff’?

This is one of the most common misconceptions about social media.

Yes, it is true that some people talk about their favourite brand of clothes, or share what they just ate on Twitter and the like.

Yes one can waste a lot of time spending time on social networks.

And yes a lot of that ‘noise’ is totally irrelevant to you.

But that is only if:

  • People use social networks for personal purposes, not professional purposes.
  • And the bottom line is thus to know who to follow on these social media. Follow quality, you get quality. Follow garbage, you get garbage.
  • Most importantly, social networks bring value on an ‘on-demand’ basis. You’re the one who calls the shots. Don’t let your flow of information being ‘polluted’ by noise. Take control over your inbox and your RSS feeds.

If you do that, social media provide a lot of very relevant value to your work. Very established organizations (covered by very respected media) have demonstrated that a lot of value can come from social media engagement.

You can’t deal with these eternal ‘notifications’ jumping at you – so you’ve given up on social networks

There is nothing as irritating as receiving endless messages from the same source, to the extent that you don’t even bother checking them any longer.

And yet there is nothing so simple as this kind of problems to fix. Nowadays pretty much every social network (be it Yammer, LinkedIn, wikis etc.). Don’t let this frustration take over your experience with social media. And if you’re not exactly sure how to set your notifications, ask your communication and knowledge management (CKM) colleague(s) for help. We are there to do this, among others!

You are ok to use these social networks but don’t really know what to do with them?

ILRI has a lot of different websites, platforms and channels for communication. It’s confusing.

But then you don’t need to use most of them. Only the ones that matter to your specific team / program (e.g. a website and a wiki). And corporate ‘engagement’ channels: Yammer and LinkedIn. You may only need to go to specialized sites for specialized content (e.g. presentations on Slideshare, photos on FlickR) and usually the comms specialist of your team or unit takes care of this.

Here is what to remember:

  • Use Yammer for ILRI/CGIAR-internal updates. There are however external Yammer networks set up for specific programs etc.
  • Use our LinkedIn group if you want to engage with a broader group of people working on livestock research/development issues.
  • Use wikis to collaborate over time around a specific issue, theme, project, document, with your team members. If it’s for a specific document for a limited period of time.

And we are sure you have your own social networks (e.g. Researchgate etc.) – we would love to hear which ones you use and why…

You don’t mind using professional social networks but you don’t really know what to share / write

That is the real ‘blank box’ syndrome. And it is a real issue: are you supposed to talk about your publications? Your questions? Your challenges? Your team’s work? Your upcoming projects? Your funding opportunities?

Actually, all of this and more, if you want to.

It all boils down to ‘working out loud‘ – the idea that you:

  • document your work to better understand how it works and how you can improve;
  • narrate and share this work with a broader public as it might help others facing similar challenges etc.;
  • lead in this with generosity, showing the way to others, so they become similarly useful;
  • build a social network – which can become your ‘personal learning network’ (see the presentation below about this);
  • make it all purposeful so that you don’t just document everything all the time (well, it’s your right) but focus on the resources and networks that make sense in your current personal and organizational objectives.

So what are some examples of useful things to share on Yammer, LinkedIn etc.?

Your latest publication, your questions, your answers to other peoples’ questions, your interesting (professional) reads, the events you are organizing or participating to, calls for action/proposals etc. that come your way, ground-breaking news that affect your work and probably others too. And the latter point is the key: Whatever you found useful and think others might find useful to is worth sharing. As Yammer’s Steve Nguyen’s said once:

“if what you are working on is not worth sharing, why are you working on it?

You have technical limitations or issues that prevent you from using these social networks

This is again a no-brainer: ask your comms specialist – and in their absence ask Tsehay Gashaw (t.gashaw [at] to support you or direct you to other competent people to help you overcome technical limitations.

Some final reflections…

We know that a lot of people are not active on Yammer, LinkedIn, wikis etc. But they are listening. And that is great. It’s a prerequisite of engagement on social networks. Take your time and best believe there is nothing negative about being an empowered listener.

Social media are all about trying and exploring, playing around and reflecting. It’s time well worth investing in, but do assess, after talking with people who are in favour and against any particular social network, whether it’s something for you or not.

 Keith Davenport)

Overcome the blank box fear by sharing YOUR work (Credit: Keith Davenport)

What is considered ‘Good practice’ is also a matter of collective conventions. So discuss these things with your colleagues, partners, and agree together on what constitutes good practices. But sharing, in itself, is not a bad way forward.

We all know that social media have their flaws and even bear the inherent risk of turning us in not all to social people, but the alternative to sharing your work online is face-to-face, and that remains always powerful, yes, but also limited: to the people who are present there and then.

Now, time to experiment and get back to that dreaded blank box. The next thing you write there might just be the first stepping stone of a very long and successful engagement, learning and improvement process, for you and for others.

Is that not worth a try?

Ripples of change and winning people over with engagement: Lessons from Africa RISING

 IITA/Gloriana Ndibalema) Working with the same group of people to support their events and processes clearly presents many opportunities. One of them is that through regular engagement it becomes possible to shift the attitude and ideas of the group and the course of their events and processes.

The Communications and Knowledge Management (CKM) team of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has benefited from three years of engagement with the Africa RISING program teams in East and Southern Africa, the Ethiopian highlands and West Africa. The CKM team has contributed to a series of review and planning meetings and other events by providing design, logistical organization, facilitation and documentation support. This role started with the project launch meetings in early 2012 when the Africa RISING program leaders and the funding partner (the United States Agency for International Development, USAID) recognized the importance of communication and process facilitation in their activities.

 IITA/Jonathan Odhong’)Since then the CKM team has been involved in every project review and planning meeting and various program meetings, giving the team and all involved many opportunities to learn, share and help the group to do their best thinking in terms of achieving the objectives in the best possible way.

Every step and every event of this engagement journey has been a stepping stone for the next event, progressively transforming the mindset of the organizing team. Bringing in (good) facilitation usually leads to changing the attitude and behavior of participants from potential resistance to cooperation; from possible conflict to increased mutual understanding; and from discussions to result-oriented action. For organizers, involving good facilitators may also imply that they shift from thinking of an event as a PowerPoint recital into organizing more engaging events where group conversations, interactions and co-creation become central.

This is the journey that Africa RISING project teams went through with every review and planning meeting. As West Africa chief scientist Asamoah Larbi summed up at the end of the last review and planning meeting for West Africa, “This was very good”, and that meeting was probably the most experimental review and planning meeting in terms of moving away from the typical PowerPoint recital mentioned above.

What are the results and lessons of this event support?

As a result we were able to generate extensive outputs

  • Most of the documents and group discussions have been documented on the Africa RISING wiki (work space);
  • 162 presentations have been published on the Africa RISING Slideshare, many of which directly collected from these events;
  • Nearly all events have had their dedicated collection of pictures published on the Africa RISING FlickR;
  • Interviews, stories and other insights have been captured on the Africa RISING website;
  • All final outputs of public consumption generated by these events have been captured on the program repository collection on CGSpace.

These results complement the efforts that Africa RISING communication officers are putting into collecting success stories, challenges and research results as published on the website, harvesting 290 publications (working papers, publications, briefs, etc.) on CGSpace, and documenting activities through video and photo films.

What are some of the lessons?

At the end of every event, to review what happened or what may happen in the next event, the CKM team and organizers run an ‘after action review’ (AAR) to better understand the gaps, learn and plan for improved next meetings. Here are some of these reflections.

  • It has become easier, over time, to recognize whether the review and planning meetings, according to their organizers, actually aim at sharing information, collecting feedback or moving towards taking collective decisions. It has also become easier to influence the course of the events towards the more collective end of that spectrum – recognizing that co-creation is key to long-term collaboration in a program of this kind.
  • As has been the case in many different programs in the experience of ILRI, events have been a great way to introduce a wider palette of communication support (such as social reporting, harvesting and curating outputs etc.) to the benefit of the project teams;
  • Being involved in the program for many years also means the facilitators have vastly increased their understanding of what it is trying to achieve, to an extent that no other facilitator could easily match, and scientists seem to appreciate this;
  • The facilitation team has been able to progressively propose more innovative, engaging and collaborative methods to help the groups engage and learn better. These different ways have helped challenge the participants, kept them motivated and helped them bond with each other;
  • Participants generally appreciated the value of facilitation and event organizers have involved CKM facilitators at increasingly early stages of the event design, when key decisions are made;
  • As a result, efforts put into preparing group work appropriately (for review and planning meetings when teams have to generate comprehensive plans for the next year) have borne fruit and led to more coordination by the teams ahead of the event and much more time made available for integrating activities and thinking about typically abandoned cross-cutting issues such as gender, capacity development and communication;
  • The program learning events have been useful opportunities to showcase what an interactive event looks like, and to generate ideas for the more business-as-usual review and planning meetings;
  • At the same time, the focus on things other than strictly ‘science’ has created a thirst, among Africa RISING scientists, for a science symposium, which is planned for the last quarter of 2015;
  • Although this is not part of facilitation support, ensuring strong logistical coordination among organizers and with the facilitation team has ensured participants are not distracted by challenging logistical circumstances;
  • The facilitation team should focus on finding ways to draw out shy participants and encourage a space where genuinely all voices can be heard.

Being involved from the beginning until now has helped the CKM team create an interactive and engaging space for participants to do their best thinking and generate better results. One can safely assume that through this progressive engagement supported by CKM, event participants are now more focused and engaged; this work has created stronger linkages across the program teams working in different regions; internal communication, sharing ideas and learning from each other has improved and led to better documentation and a more complete harvest of outputs.

Africa RISING has another year and a half to go and this means more opportunities to strengthen these events. This is not a luxury given that the project coordination teams themselves have realized the need for more coordination and inter-linkages across regions. Facilitated collaboration has never been more popular.

If you would like to get CKM team support for your events (find out all the options that this covers), please contact:

Ewen Le Borgne, Team leader, knowledge, engagement and collaboration, ILRI, Addis Ababa.

Tsehay Gashaw, Knowledge sharing and web communications officer, ILRI, Addis Ababa.

Muthoni Njiru, Knowledge sharing and engagement officer, ILRI, Nairobi.

By Tsehay Gashaw and Ewen Le Borgne

AgKnowledge innovation process share fair: Processing the process of all processes

 @DulceRuby)Development, research, communication, knowledge management, partnership development, innovation and extension are indeed all processes and all are deeper and more than the sum of the parts.

An AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair recently took place (25-26 May 2015) at the Addis Ababa campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to discuss this central message. From its design to the various parallel sessions it featured, all the way to the conversations and results it stirred up, the fair focused on what too many people tend to forget often: the process (of innovation) and the need for process literacy.

Why focus on process? Because it is what connects the dots, the conversations, energies, interests and the purpose behind bringing people together. In development, the process is probably what gets innovations to efficiency, effectiveness, scale, and impact…

But a process needs serious and detailed crafting.

Designing a process

 ILRI/Apollo Habtamu)

Share fair process facilitators preparing (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu)

What started off as an idea by Nancy White – who was to be one of the facilitators at the annual eLearning Africa conference in Addis Ababa the preceding week, though it never came true – became a ‘process of all processes’. No less than eight ‘process coaches’ were called upon to design this share fair.

Over three months, the process coaches slowly put together a process to unpack the goals of the share fair, which meant:

  • Identifying what its focus would be (eventually all participatory processes that matter in agricultural and rural development).
  • Identifying possible session topics and interesting conveners (or additional topics).
  • Organizing the design and facilitation principles (spelled out in the event web page) to emphasize must-do’s and must-not-do’s such as using conventional structures like PowerPoint recitals and open discussions, or failing forward (embracing ‘practice-on-the-moment’).
  • Identifying possible ‘stances’ that participants could take, more informal than appointed roles: ethnographers, timekeepers, documenters etc.
  • Developing a separate ‘e-strand’ (documented by Euforic Services here) involving various shades (or processes) of online participation;
  • Organizing the documentation and social reporting of the fair.
  • Setting up logistics for the smooth running of the event.

Running a process

Process '101' at the ‘AgKnowledge Innovation' Process Share FairThe process coaches decided to organize the entire fair around a relatively recent collaboration and facilitation approach known as ‘Liberating Structures‘. Three of the process coaches had intimate knowledge of the approach while others had partly used some of its structures.

Once the fair started, all kinds of processes were unleashed and used, in nearly 20 parallel sessions, all focused on ensuring participation, sharing of expertise and adapting along the way (failing forward). Process coaches, then worked with volunteer facilitators to review the next day’s agenda and adapted ideas for all the plenary sessions, culminating in a synthesis and capitalization session that reviewed how these process lessons could be used in the working context of the participants. The fair then concluded and a participants feedback was collected.

Benefiting from a process

In the final exercise at the fair, participants gave an indication of their appreciation of the event and processes used by raising one to five fingers of their hand, five being the highest rating.

The vast majority showed four fingers and a couple even all five, while one participant raised two fingers and a few others three.

Among the less satisfied ones, some cautioned on the danger of putting process above content and of ‘over-processing’ everything. Others said the event was focused on agricultural development processes (many CGIAR staff  attended), which would not be useful for those working outside the agricultural sector.

Overall, though, feedback from the share fair was quite positive, as illustrated by these tweets…

#sfaddis agKnowledge share fair was a super cool event:innovators,communicators & dancers @genevrenard@Zerihun_S@ewenlb@peterballantyne

— Ewa Hermanowicz (@miscelanousmind) May 27, 2015


I was lucky enough to remotely attend one of the sessions; you need to check this out! #sfaddis

— V. Protonotarios (@vprot) May 29, 2015

But positive reactions do not undermine the need to question what we learned from this process.

Learning from the process

Different process are used for different purposes. Placing process as the ultimate value in innovation can be as unhelpful as overly focusing on content. Both process and content should be mixed as context dictates. Focusing too much on ‘process’ could give the impression of play-driven rather than purpose driven engagements. The combination with purpose is really key.

But choosing and using various processes takes time. In this share fair, process coaches were left nearly exhausted at the end of the day. It takes weeks of preparation and careful participatory process facilitation to make sure all voices are heard when they need to be, and factored in appropriately in such meetings.

Effective use of process requires focus. Having many ‘process coaches’ versed in group and process facilitation is great and allows for a truly different type of event and experience, but it does not mean that that group itself does not need to facilitate its own preparatory or reflective sessions to operate well.

Process takes multiple forms, all with their own dynamics. Face-to-face processes are increasingly complemented with online processes, which tend to suffer from a relative deficit of attention, preparation and facilitation. Yet there is much to gain from working in virtual teams and in participating meaningfully in virtual conversations.

Process has a cost. Using facilitation processes such as Liberating Structures has the advantage of keeping a high pace and high energy, without necessarily requiring a lot of expertise in facilitation. However, it also means putting a lot of pressure on the blended/online sessions making use of them. Read more lessons about the blended online-offline sessions through the Euforic Services blog.

Process requires the ‘political acceptance’ of its proponents. It takes senior managers, researchers, top people that have some degree of power to make the process more acceptable, process thinking the norm and process literacy more visible. But power structures are not organized around participatory, empowering processes, so there is a political dimension to the process crusade.

Process calls for collective thinking. And thinking is a process. Learning is integral to ‘process literacy’ and it is difficult to carve the time out to reflect on all the grand and little things that make a process successful. And yet that is what is required for global development (research) work to be ultimately successful. “It takes a village” is a good epitomy of the process literacy voyage we are suggesting to embark on. on with process(es)

Was the share fair a waste of time and resources? Definitely not!

Would ILRI and the process coaches run another ‘AgProcess share fair’? Probably not.

Will participants remember ‘the process’ and develop their ‘process literacy’. Probably.

Have we learned much in this process? Definitely!

Will we see important developments as a result from this share fair in the work of ILRI and other institutions, networks and individuals involved? It may be early to tell… change takes time and it can be exhausting, fun, painful and confusing. And the AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair was all of that bundled in one intensive event. All we know is: with increasing complexity in our activities and in our professional relationships, process is here to stay, and this ‘process of all processes’ might be just a passing star or a precursor to change.

Read everything about the fair and results from individual sessions

See pictures of the share fair

See the visual report of the share fair on Storify

Find more resources online around the hash tags #AgProcess and #SFAddis.

James Stapleton joins ILRI Communications and Knowledge Management group as managing editor

James StapletonOn 1 June 2015, James Stapleton joined the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) Communications and Knowledge Management group as the managing editor.

Before his appointment, Stapleton spent more than 15 years working for various international and national NGOs in policy and communications roles. Between 2004 and 2015, he oversaw the strategic development of communications at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). In addition to managing relations with the media and taking a hands-on approach to the development, design, editing, translation and publication of electronic content on the JRS multilingual websites and social media platforms,

Stapleton also taught human rights at the Rome Campus of the Loyola University Chicago and was actively involved in advocacy networks on child soldiers, migrant detention and landmines. He also worked for the Irish Refugee Council as the policy officer for three years until 2003, where he was responsible for the development of policy and research papers, and relations with the media.

During the 1990s Stapleton worked for the African development NGO Environnement Développement Action dans le Tiers Monde, Amnesty International and the Institute of International and European Affairs. He has a bachelors degree in economics and mathematics, a masters in social policy from the National University of Ireland Maynooth and a certificate in managing non-profit organizations. He is an Irish citizen and is fluent in French, Italian and Spanish.

ILRI CKM supports ‘gamification for social good’ hackathon

I had the pleasure of attending my very first Gamification Hackathon, ‘Gamify it!’, organized by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in partnership with iceaddis and eLearning Africa to support the event through documentation, shooting videos and capturing photos. The four-day event (17 and 20 May) took place at iceaddis and African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This event has brought more than 30 young and talented individuals from all over Africa working in various fields including programmers, designers, problem solvers, and subject matter experts covering issues in sustainable development.

The objective of this Hackathon is to develop applications that can change Africa by the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game contexts, in this case to trigger sustainable changes in social systems.

Gamification for Social Good Hackathon participants

Before we proceed, let me take a moment to explain some of the peculiar words:

Gamification – Is the use of games to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. Through this people can learn new skills or concepts in a fun and interactive way.

Hackathon – Is a gathering where programmers collaboratively write an application in an extreme manner over a short period of time while working on a particular project.

What happened in iceaddis?

On the first day of the Hackathon, participants were grouped into 5 teams, during the course of the day, they worked on identifying the problem they were going to address, how they would tackle this problem as well as assigning roles to the different team members.

Day two of the hackathon was time for the groundwork exercise done on day one to be turned into usable applications. Presentations on the agile development strategy were presented before the teams where then dispatched to start building their ideas that will be presented to a panel of judges—the presentations were held at the Africa Union building on day three as this was also the opening day of the eLearning Africa Conference.

Facilitators of the Hackathon

What I’ve learned

Among all the applications developed, the innovation that got my attention was ‘AfriOne’. The objective of the project is to ‘fight Tribalism’—it aims in fighting tribalism by providing a platform where people can learn about different cultures as well as share about their own cultures using a gamified virtual 3D avatar in a real-world environment.

Software used: Unity – Game engine, tools and multiplatform

Unity is a cross-platform game engine developed by Unity Technologies and used to develop video games for PC, consoles, mobile devices and websites.

Unity3D: It helps us create our own 3D games for the iPhone, iPad, and PC using the powerful Unity Game Engine.

JavaScript to build their website: is a dynamic programming language. It is most commonly used as part of web browsers, whose implementations allow client-side scripts to interact with the user, control the browser, communicate asynchronously, and alter the document content that is displayed.

Appsgeyser to build mobile app for Android: is free web platform that allows converting any web content into an Android App in 2 easy steps. Built to help people to transfer their ideas into apps.

Hardware used:

Cardboard for 3D display: Is a simple Google gadget made out of a few pieces cardboard and a couple of lenses. You slide a smartphone in, and just like that, you have a virtual reality headset. With Cardboard Expeditions, things get much more interesting.

Android Phones: Smartphones and tablet computers with an Android mobile operating system (OS).

Liya Dejene at the Hackathon

I’ve learned that Hackathon is a very effective way to kick-start development, it should not necessarily be a one-time event. I believe, there are advantages to conducting follow-on hackathons to continue the development process from basic design to actual code, creation of media, dealing with change management issues, and internal or external marketing of the resulting instructional products.

All things considered, the hackathon was a success. I loved most of the applications that the participants came up with–such as Build Better Citizen (Zega) in Amharic, Apply Design Thinking (Be the Boss) and Top Bird (Coach Young Entrepreneurs). There were also several other great designs from some very intelligent and talented young people, and the positive and collaborative spirit of the event made for a fun time.

The benefits also exceeded my expectations. In addition to interesting augmented realty apps, I connected with African technology community, made promising new contacts, learned some interesting facilitation techniques and even drew my attention to Gamification. I appreciated their teamwork, enthusiasm, collaboration and engagement which makes me think that I have to practice more back at the office. I also had a lot of fun!

Role of ‘critical research friends’ in mentoring emerging researchers: Reflections from a mentorship workshop

 Introduction to research

ILRI staff at a Capacity Development training (photo credit: ILRI/Samuel Mungai).

By Joyce Maru

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)/CGIAR graduate fellowship program provides practical, hands-on mentorship support in well-resourced ILRI research laboratories and facilities in Kenya, Ethiopia and in other countries where ILRI operates.

This hands-on mentoring, usually in periods ranging from six months to three years, is an important component in developing the capacity of emerging developing-world leaders in agricultural research (at MSc, PhDs and postdoc levels). It also supports production of high-quality of research outputs from ILRI.

A key consideration in the graduate fellowship program is the need to understand and respond to the career and capacity needs of research fellows so that the mentoring supports them appropriately in designing and carrying out their work in developing-country contexts.

One of the ways in which ILRI is helping fellows is by giving them access to groups of ‘critical research friends’ made up of various mentoring supervisors. According to Costa and Kallick (1993) a critical friend is ‘a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique of a person’s work as a friend.’ The term is mostly applied in critical pedagogy and in contexts of mentoring and coaching to refer to support provided to individuals and groups undertaking a certain project. In ILRI’s context, graduate fellows or early-career researchers could, therefore, refer to their mentoring supervisors as their critical research friends.

I recently attended a training of trainers (ToT) workshop on mentorship in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was conducted by Vitae UK and organized through the CIRCLE fellowship program. In this blog post, I reflect on the key learnings I derived from the workshop and how I think they can be used to enhance ILRI’s approach to mentorship.

As a starting point, it is vital to clarify the different terminologies that are loosely and interchangeably used to refer to ‘mentorship support’ in research. For example, it is important to clarify whether when using that term, we mean ‘graduate fellow supervisors, mentoring supervisors, supervisors, line managers or coaches.

I prefer the term ‘critical research friend’ or ‘mentoring supervisor’ because, for example in ILRI’s case, graduate fellow supervisors often assume a hybrid role of mentoring graduate fellows although other informal mentoring relationships may emerge stemming from friendships with work colleagues.

Irrespective of approach used, however, the important question is what makes a good mentor? Is it correct to assume that line management relationships automatically become mentoring relationships? And moreover, how can we encourage line manages to take a mentoring approach to supervision?

Qualities of a good mentor

During group discussions at the Johannesburg workshop, a mentor was portrayed as one with an ideal personality and demonstrating a long wish list of qualities, behaviour and competencies, but the top five qualities that I think a critical research friend should demonstrate include:

  • Generosity of spirit – mentoring is ingrained in their value system and they are always willing to share skills, knowledge and expertise with their mentees i.e. they are available as a resource and a sounding board;
  • They always encourage and inspire their mentees to learn, improve and conduct cutting-edge research with integrity;
  • Self-reflective and values ongoing learning and growth in the field;
  • Helps the mentees to set and meet ongoing personal and professional development Mentors continuously help their mentees to develop by highlighting, through constructive feedback, the areas that need improvement and by objectively focusing on the mentee’s behaviour and not their character;
  • Well respected and admired by colleagues and employees in all levels of the organization.

Making ILRI a centre of excellence in mentoring emerging/early career researchers

If we aspire to become a centre of excellent in mentoring and supporting emerging career researchers, some important considerations and reflections could include:

  • How does the mentorship scheme align with the strategic direction of the organization?
  • How do we identify and support those who have the values and qualities to become mentors?
  • Is there a strategic plan, leadership and champions for mentoring?
  • Is there a clear, formal policy and guidelines on mentorship? (Defined roles of mentor/mentee, implementation plan, mentoring support, evaluation and feedback mechanism);
  • Is it sustainable?
  • Is it a coordinated approach? Who leads the initiative?
  • How do we continue to develop mentoring skills and capabilities?
  • Can we demonstrate output and impact?
  • How do we reward and incentivize best practice?
  • How do we institutionally support good mentors with integrity and without exploitation?
  • How do we set boundaries for the institution, the mentor and the mentees?
  • How do we create a critical mass of mentors?
  • What alternative models can we create for a mentoring experience when resources are scarce?
  • Is it inclusive? (Gender sensitive, interdisciplinary, diversity);

Here a question can be posed on the extent of the need to have, in place, a unified/formalized mentoring system that allows equality of access and is quality assured. I think that quality assurance underpins effective mentoring relationships and, therefore, there is need for more systematic and constructive support and mentoring for emerging research leaders.

Joyce Maru is a capacity development officer at ILRI.