Positive deviants and failure. Part 1

Somewhere in your community or organisation, groups of people already doing things differently and better. To create lasting change, find these areas of postive deviants and fan their flames.

At the moment, there’s a couple of  interesting discussions going on on (my favourite community) KM4Dev, and I think they’re related. They both started on 19 September: the first was initiated by Sebastiao Ferreira on learning from failure and the second by Ewen Le Borgne on positive deviants. I’m going to start with positive deviants and then look at the link to failure in a couple of blog posts because I have a lot to say on this subject…

A couple of years ago, Laxmi Prasad Pant and Helen Odame wrote a paper, The promise of positive deviants, for the KM4D Journal which had a big influence on me. I thought about this paper – like a dog chewing on a bone  – off and on for quite a while and even changed IKM Emergent’s communications strategy to reflect their insights into positive deviants. In particular, they highlighted the importance of positive deviants in the sphere of knowledge.

Pant and Odame considered that (agricultural) knowledge is managed in highly contested environments where uncertainty characterizes stakeholder interactions. One dimension of this this disorder are so-called positive deviants who act out against the structures and ‘rules of the game’ in knowledge creation, application and regeneration. Positive deviants as powerful agents of change and are, for example, able to bridge the divides between expert and local knowledge systems. However, positive deviants have not yet been recognized in terms of their potential in international development because the legacy of deviancy theory lies on negative deviants, such as addicts and criminals.

Pant and Odame argue that positive deviants initiate change in spite of difficult social and organizational  environments: full of unpredictable obstacles or interferences. Moreover, they believe that challenging the status quo is one way to harness individual creativity and innovations in spite of constraining social structures and institutional-setups. In other words, social structures impose constraints to individual agency or action, and that structure and agency are a duality that cannot be conceived separately from one another (Giddens, 1984). This resonantes with IKM Emergent which, on the one had, is trying to bring about change within development but, at the same time, is part of the strucutre which it is trying to change.

I think that the members of IKM Emergent – and those interested in IKM Emergent – can largely be identified as positive deviants. But this goes wider and I think many members of KM4Dev are positive deviants as well:

This is because positive deviants challenge existing organizational structures and institutional set-ups, and promote alternative approaches to solve seemingly intractable social problems, either playing direct role of a boundary spanner or indirect role as activists.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at the link between positive deviants and failure…

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Linking knowledge domains

The new weblog on Linking knowledge domains

I’ve created a new blog on Linking knowledge domains: knowledge integration across boundarieswhich aims to act as an access point for work on cross-domain knowledge integration which I’ve been doing for IKM Emergent over the past few years in collaboration with Josine Stremmelaar of Hivos and Wenny Ho. In particular, it will link to the seminar which took place on 23-24 January 2012 in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Adaptive pluralism and intentions…

In a recent meeting on Practice-based change for development, which took place in London, UK, on 20-21 February 2012, and blogged about earlier here by Ewen le Borgne, we discussed Robert Chambers’ work on Paradigms, poverty and adaptive pluralism. Chambers compares the dominant paradigm of neo-Newtonian practice in international development, oriented to things and ‘imposed by powerful actors and organisations’ (2010, p. 3) with the paradigm of adaptive pluralism, oriented to people. Chambers defines adaptive pluralism as:

Paradigmatic elements and relationships associated with people as adaptive agents, with eclectic and participatory methodologies, and with ontological assumptions of complexity such as non-linearity, unpredictability and emergence. (2010, p. 7)

Many of the distinguishing characteristics of IKM Emergent fit within this tradition of adaptive pluralism such as its methods and procedures which are ‘pluralist, iterative adaptation, a la carte and combinations; which have ontological origins and assumptions based on people, the social world, complexity science, emergence, and non-linearity; and which involve goals, design and indicators which are negotiated, evolving and emergent (2010, p. 44). IKM Emergent has been taking place in a context in the development sector which is largely dominated by the neo-Newtonian paradigm which are ‘supervising, auditing, controlling, conforming, complying’. But in agreement with Chambers, we understand that:

 So in the name of rigour and accountability what fits and works better in the controllable, predictable, standardised and measurable conditions of the things and procedures paradigm has been increasingly applied to the uncontrollable, unpredictable, diverse and less measurable paradigm of people and processes. The misfit is little perceived by those furthest from field realities and with most power. (2010, p. 14)

In one of Robert Chamber’s blog posts on this subject Whose paradigm counts part 2, he has made two figures which describe different aspects of the two paradigms: concepts and ontological assumptions; values and principles; relationships; methods. procedures and processes; and roles and behaviours. I have also tried to do the same for IKM Emergent. From this exercise, I realsied that although IKM does fall in the general category of adaptive pluralism, some of its specific emphases are quite different.

IKM mindsets, orientations and predispositions (adapted from Chambers)

A discussion about this figure (left) led us to the conclusion that values are very important to our work but that we very rarely talk about them or even consider them explicitly. One of the really good things of taking this lense to examine your work is that implicit mindsets, orientations and predispositions suddenly become much clear, and can even be part of a process of negotiation.

Jaap Pels was present at the meeting via skype and I know he had some additions to this figure so this is an invitation for his comments :-).

Mulling over these issues after the meeting, as one does, I was thinking that there should be another circle in the figure called ”Intentions” because that is at the roots of everything we are doing. For IKM, and myself, I would think that intentions would be: reforming, more pluralistic, more open, more inclusive, more respectful, more creative. In fact, I’ll have a go at re-drawing this figure with the new circle when I’ve had Jaap’s reflections on what still needs to be added.

Now I have started thinking about the ”intentions” circle for the neo-Newtonian paradigm and I am worried that they might be the same as the ones I’ve listed here. But, then again, I think they’re more likely to be: value for money, control, efficiency. Not that I don’t think these are important, they’re just not my core intentions.

From the editor’s desk

On 22 September 2011, I took part in a panel ”From the Editor’s desk”, convened by Wendy Harcourt and Kees Biekart at the EADI/DSA General Conference in York, UK. The session was conducted as an open discussion among 6 journal editors on the new publishing arrangements with the coming of the digital age among development journals looking at both the opportunities and the current squeeze for resources.

There were 6 editors who took part in the exchange, five of whom are journal editors:
Wendy Harcourt – Development
Kees Biekart – Development and Change
Brian Pratt – Development in Practice
Caroline Sweetman – Gender and Development
Robert Cornford – Oxfam Books
me – Knowledge Management for Development Journal (KM4D Journal)

When it was my turn to talk, I introduced the KM4D Journal and gave some background on how the journal has developed. It is the youngest journal of them all – then in its 7th volume – and it has, unusually, gone from being an Open Journal System journal to one published by the commercial publisher, Taylor and Francis.

After introducing the journal, I very briefly presented some research on development journals that I’ve been doing with Iina Hellsten of the VU University. Iina and I are doing a scientometric analysis of top development journals. As part of this, I presented a few slides showing our preliminary results in which we had considered the institutional and country location of authors of three development journals, based on a sub-set of articles concerned with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the years 2005-2008: namely World Development, the Journal of Development Studies and Development and Change.

This first slide reviews the institutional affiliations of authors. It shows (and I hope you can read it) that these journals are dominated by Northern institutions, both universities and international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Of the institutions listed here, only one, namely the University of Delhi, could be described as a Southern institution.

Our next slide is concerned with the location of the authors in terms of country. Here, you can see the dominance of authors located in the North, and particularly the USA (green) and the UK (blue). This dominance becomes even clearer when we look at the third and final slide in which the authors for World Development are divided between the developed and developing world.

These slides show a reality of development journals being dominated by Northern interests and authors. As I then concluded, this picture makes me doubt the role of development journals as being developmental.

Not for the first time when I’ve presented these results, I received some angry reactions. One participant argued that this was not a problem because authors in the South have their own journals and didn’t need access to the journals in my study. Another argued that although most of the authors are located in the North, they may well be Southerners, and that this undermined my argument. And that my approach was patronising to Southern academics.

As you can imagine, I was getting very worried and upset at this point, wondering if I was indeed chasing an irrelevant red herring…

But then, fortunately for me, Olivier Sagna of CODESRIA was in the audience. He argued that the difficulty of publishing in international journals was perceived as a huge problem by many African academics. He was also of the opinion that the fact that some of the authors were Southerners based in the North did not change the overall impression of bias. He noted that the brilliance of some Southern scholars was not recognised until they caught international attention by attaining senior positions in the North. When this happened, they found it easy to publish in international journals but before this, they had been just as good but had not been recognised.

Please see the full report of the panel, written by Wendy Harcourt.

What do we mean by development?

I’ve been thinking about that we actually mean by development, and came across this really good presentation on Slideshare which, I think, sums up the main issues and approaches commonly used to define development:

View more PowerPoints from Ecumene
According to Kurt Maton’s 2003 article Pierre Bourdieu and the epistemic conditions of social scientific knowledge, Bourdieu argued that there are three potential biases in knowledge claims: social origins of the researcher; the researcher’s position in the intellectual field; and viewing the world as a spectacle which in the figure below (Source: Maton 2003, p. 57) is expressed as the objectifying relation between the knower (in this case the external development actors) and the known (the development process or population).
In a nutshell, I think this aspect of ‘viewing the world as a spectacle’ is one of the reasons why I have a basic dislike of traditional definitions of development, covered in the presentation above. Many of these approaches and definitions are technical and fundamentally objectifying. In a different league is Amartya Sen’s definition of development in his book Development as freedom as:
..a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialisation, or with technological advance, or with social modernization.

For me, my preferred definition is the one in the 2009 paper The New Enlightenment article by Sebastiao Ferreira, a Brazilian citizen living in Peru who I had the great pleasure of meeting at a conference in September 2011. He argues that:

Development is, most of all, the result of the synergy among millions of innovative initiatives people take everyday in their local societies, generating new and more effective ways of producing, trading, and managing their resources and their institutions. The work of policy makers and development agencies may contribute greatly to the success of those initiatives, may shape them, or may undermine those efforts.

This also relates to Robin Mansell’s vision of development in her 2010 publication Power and interests in developing knowledge societies: exogenous and endogenous discourses in contention which proposes the need for an endogenous, internally generated development as opposed to external, exogenous one:

…an endogenous model of development, one that focuses more directly on human beings and their resources and aspirations. The endogenous model is greatly overshadowed by the exogenous model in policy discourses. This has serious consequences – socially, culturally and economically – because the exogenous model (and indeed some versions of the endogenous model), cloaks the interests of investors in the global North‘ whose principal ambition is profits from the sale of digital technologies and the content that is hosted on or circulated through them.

At the IKM table: linearity, participation, accountability and individual agency on the practice-based change menu (1)

(Originally posted on KM for me… and You?)

On 20 and 21 February 2012, the  London-based Wellcome Collection is the stage for the final workshop organised by the Information Knowledge Management Emergent (IKM-Emergent or ‘IKM-E’) programme. Ten IKM-E members are looking at the body of work completed in the past five years in this DGIS-funded research programme and trying to unpack four key themes that are interweaving the work of the three working groups which have been active in the programme:

  1. Linearity and predictability;
  2. Participation and engagement;
  3. Individual agency and organisational remit;
  4. Accountability

This very rich programme is also a tentative intermediary step towards a suggested extension for the programme.

In this post I’m summarising quite a few of the points mentioned during the first day of the workshop, covering the first two points on the list above.

On linearity and predictability:

Linear approaches to development – suggesting that planning is a useful exercise to map out and follow a predictable causal series of events – are delusional and ineffective and we have other perspectives that can help plan with a higher degree of realism, if not certainty.

Linearity and predictability strongly emphasise the current (and desired alternative) planning tools that we have at our disposal or are sometimes forced to use, and the relation that we entertain with the actors promoting these specific planning tools.

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Development and the private sector

At a recent meeting of IKM Emergent, we discussed what we mean when we’re talking about the private sector. The reason for this is that there is a general expectation that the private sector should be at the table when there are multi-stake holder processes related to development. But there seems to be a great vagueness about who and what the private sector is…

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