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FEATURE: Trains or ponds – pick your metaphor for knowledge sharing

As he prepared to lead a session at the 2012 Climate Knowledge Brokers Workshop last weekend, Geoff Barnard, Knowledge Management Strategy Advisor for CDKN, found himself searching for a metaphor for what the group was trying to achieve together.

Laying down the knowledge tracks or building a pond?  Which best describes the collaborative work of climate knowledge brokers?

I was sitting on a high-speed train on the way to Bonn, so the train metaphor jumped easily to mind. Taking advantage of the on-board wifi, I set to with my powerpoint slide.  I googled an image of the German railway network to illustrate what an effective ‘knowledge infrastructure’ might look like.  It’s not just about the tracks, so I pasted in a photo of a high speed train and a screen shot of one of the online booking sites you can use to check timetables or book a ticket.  I could have added coffee shops, connecting bus services and more.  The point is that if you want to get from A to B in Germany the infrastructure is pretty impressive. All the pieces are in place, and they have thought hard about what the customer needs (including us easily-confused travellers who don’t speak German).

The finishing touch was to add in a grainy photo of a 1903 German tram to emphasise that this infrastructure didn’t come about overnight.  It had to be built, and when it comes to climate knowledge infrastructure the same is true.

If you tried to draw a map of that infrastructure you’d show some excellent websites and knowledge resources here and there, many more quite limited ones, and big gaps in between – especially when it comes to country-relevant information.  There’s a lot of duplication, too, and quite poor connectivity between the emerging components.

For a decision-maker or policy advisor struggling to make sense of today’s climate and development challenges, where do you start?  What sources can you trust? And how can you be sure you’re getting the full picture? Point made, I hoped.

The problem with metaphors is that they tend to oversimplify.  Seeking reliable information to inform a decision-making process, or looking for ways to exchange your views with peers, is not the same as booking a train ticket.  It’s much more complex and nuanced than that.

So I picked another metaphor as an alternative; building a pond.  I’ve used this before to illustrate a talk on research communication. Having dug a pond in our garden a few years back, we were amazed by how quickly it came to life.  Within three months we had a flourishing mini-ecosystem, with dozens of species of water plants, insects, and even a visiting pair of ducks checking it out as a potential nesting site.

I used this to describe the concept of a ‘knowledge ecosystem’.  A picture of my pond tried to captures the multiple players involved, the evolution of the system, the balance of competition between the elements and symbiosis.  It’s a more organic metaphor, less engineering.

My point was that if knowledge brokers work together we can help to build a more effective infrastructure, or ecosystem – choose which metaphor works best for you.  Personally I think we need something in between.  An entirely organic process would leave too much to chance, but an over-engineered one would be too prescriptive and miss the element of serendipity and creativity that can spark real innovations.

Looking around the room as I gave my intro presentation I could see a glimmer of recognition for both metaphors.  By the end of the workshop we had made some good progress.  Among the 20-plus online initiatives present there was a real recognition of the benefits to be gained by working together more closely.

Just being aware of who else is in the pond helps. Having a mechanism to share ideas and challenges was also welcomed.  And beyond this a whole series of concrete collaborations are springing up – testing out innovations and connecting up different knowledge brokers so users can link more easily from one to another.

One ‘connecting’ mechanism that’s already in place is the Reegle search tool.  You’ll see this working on the CDKN website.  Type in a term on the top right of our web pages, click the ‘Recommended Sites’ button, and you can search over a 1000 selected energy and climate-related websites in one go.  This is powered by the Reegle search engine, and is available as a ‘widget’ for others to add to their sites.  The clever part is that the search is backed up by a specialised glossary, so related terms are recognised.  This allows you to drill down or widen the search as you need.

Another tool under development is the ‘Climate Knowledge Navigator’ being developed by team led by the Institute of Development Studies.  This will allow users to type in their interests, and be directed to the most relevant knowledge portals for them.  It’s due to launch this autumn.

Tools like these are beginning to make it easier to navigate that confusing knowledge pond.  There’s some way to go before we can match the efficiency of the German train network.  But with knowledge brokers now working together it feels like we’re on the way.

Please add your comments below on which metaphor you prefer.

The 2012 Climate Knowledge Brokers Workshop was held in Bonn, Germany, from 18-20 May, and was co-sponsored by CDKN and GIZ.

For a summary of all the collaborative knowledge broker projects being supported by CDKN, click here.

Read an earlier blog on ‘portal proliferation syndrome’ and the inaugural 2011 CKB Workshop.

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One response to “FEATURE: Trains or ponds – pick your metaphor for knowledge sharing”

  1. Geoff, certainly the pond (if we have to choose!) Trains smacks of the period when IT invaded learning and called it Knowledge Management, leading to gazillions of over-engineered knowledge retrieval systems, which didn’t work and set back the cause of organisational learning by years. We retreated to the term Knowledge Sharing, which is an uneasy compromise, as your pond metaphor. Ponds, by definition, are isolated (often private!): I live in a river city so I think you need to expand into river basin, complete with long and short-lived ponds, marshes, water-meadows and the many smaller water courses alongside the main river