Beads - Passion for Facilitation

Capacity development, learning, change, poverty/power/progress

Blog about learning/change, facilitation, systems: small groups and large scale processes, and poverty/power/progress.


Barefoot: learning among organisations

'It's not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest'. Charles Darwin

In June I joined a guided reading of the Barefoot Guide 2: learning practices in organizations and social change. (Download this and other Barefoot resources from here). When I saw the announcement of this initiative I immediately jumped at it. Since last April I am freelancing again, so I have to create my own learning opportunities. I'm a Barefoot fan, and regularly use the Barefoot Guide 1 as a resource. The guided reading was a great way to become familiar with the second Barefoot Guide.

My question at the start was how I could become less focused on creating and broadcasting ideas, and more focused on building relationships and co-creation. I know the latter is critical to get learning going, but I still need to become better at it. Much of my ‘regional/global’ work is via skype and email, and everybody has such big agenda's, but I still have to deliver results by the deadline, so I tend to begin to do things for people rather than to engage them. Readers of my blog will have noticed that I ask this question in the context of the theme that currently runs through my work: 'bridging professional divides' for joint practice and learning.

What fascinates me at the moment is that knowledge tends to be equated with learning, but it is not the same. As an example, I was a heavy smoker for years, and I knew perfectly well how bad it was for me, but I couldn’t quit for I long time. I can now say that I learned to stop, because I haven’t smoked for years, and I’m no longer tempted either. More to the point of this blog, I know very well that more learning happens when people come together around issues of similar concern. However, this doesn’t mean that I can do it, can instantly create such situations with the people I’m working with. I have facilitated learning throughout my career. I guess I’m a natural, and have become better through self-study, practice and reflection. Yet every time I’m faced with a new group of people I have to rediscover how to make learning happen.

Each time you want to make learning happen, you need to discover how to do it. That is because 1) people learn in different ways, 2) everyone has their own specific understanding of the issue at hand, and 3) their own motivation for taking an interest in that issue. If you do the mathematics of dynamics in a group of 10 people, these 3 variables make a total of 30 variables interacting with each other. That is 30 times 30 makes 900 things to take into account when you want to make learning happen in a group of 10 people. That’s not possible. Moreover, the variables increase if you are dealing with complex issues like climate change adaptation. Therefore, if you want to make learning happen, the first thing to do is to let go of the idea that you can be in the control of other people’s learning. You can give them knowledge, yes, but you can’t make them use it.

To make learning happen you need to discover how the people in your group learn, you need to help them share their understanding of the issue at hand, and you need to help them understand their own motivation and to appreciate the motivation of others. That is more difficult than it sounds. How does it work say with a group of 800 climate change adaptation practitioners who meet each other at an international forum?

I have worked with many development practitioners over the years. At the start of professional development programs I often ask them to remember an important learning moment in their life. Nobody ever refers to a conference speaker as the trigger of learning. Practitioners refer to times when they struggled and opened up to others. The Barefoot guide 2 points at the fact that practitioners relate more openly to peers than to experts, that multi-stakeholder groups learn best when they face a common set of problems, talk about what’s working and what’s not. Unfortunately, most international gatherings still use ‘eminent speakers’ as the dominant form of exchange, even when they want to ‘facilitate experiential learning’.

There are some international gatherings who attempt forms that facilitate learning, see for instance the interactive ShareFairs organised by IFAD, and see the international initiative to share facilitation tools (thanks to Bonnie Koenig for sharing the links).

It is promising that the ‘learning’ jargon is there, even though the practice in international events is still lagging behind. At least I have space to be creative with my own participation. Here’s what I’m planning to do at an international event end of this month, not just for my own learning, but hopefully for the learning of a few others as well.

We run a Social Network Analysis | SNA of the forum participants (more about SNA in a next blog). The SNA should show how participants are currently related; how knowledge is shared and how likely they are to learn from each other. I hope that the findings will be exciting enough to be used by the speaker of the final plenary session, who is already open to the idea. I hope this speaker will also dare to try one inspiring question that makes the audience do something with this knowledge: consider their own experience with collaboration and learning, and identify something to do differently after the event. I hope that the idea of a quick audience buzz is not too outrageous in this international setting.

We have also created a market place booth, where we hope to build new relationships, and where I plan to spend a lot of my time. There are a few panels I’d like to attend, but otherwise I plan to read speaker notes after the conference. I hope there will be others like me hanging around in the market place (if not I’ll have to go where they do hang out…). Visitors can learn about us by playing with a Prezi, a presentation tool which I hope will create some additional interest through its novelty. ‘Playing’ gets the left and right brain engaged, which is good for learning. Visitors can also take an instant SNA survey and look at the results (mechanics of that almost done, will explain in the SNA blog later). If visitors are interested, I will have a practical and real story about collaboration and learning that may create interest among practitioners and their organizations (Thanks Ray Gordezky for helping me figure this out).


Wondering why I trust these unknown visitors to help make learning happening? From many years Open Space Technology experience I have learned that “whoever comes are the right people”. Let’s see what we can learn about promoting more collaboration and learning in the CCA community.

Views: 125

Comment by Edcanela on October 18, 2011 at 14:24
Very nice article. Yes, there is a difference between process and info types of facilitators. The process types tend to be more effective and creates long lasting impacts compared with the latter. It needs some specific competencies to be a process facilitators. They build links and connections that linger long after the course have ended. Thanks.
Comment by Nicolette Matthijsen on October 24, 2011 at 7:15
Very useful Lucia! And of course because one of the two guides is in French (my reference are still far to English oriented!) Thanks!!

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