Friday, February 11, 2011

Facilitating a culture of innovation - NRCan Knowledge Share Fair - another story of impact!

Often I get asked, so what's the impact of all the Share Fairs (and in general the KS work I do!)? Impact assessments are difficult, especially for interactive events such as the Share Fair - how do we know who met who? what was learned that results in innovation, etc. One visible impact, however, is the adaption of the "Share Fair" format! A format that promotes networking, trust building, sharing and learning in an informal yet interactive format.

I recently read Simone's example of Central American A4N Project Share Fair – A story of impact where Enrica rightfully comments "good ideas travel", I thought of asking Simon Bridge, whom I only know through his twitter account, to tell us a little bit about a Share Fair he organized in January 2011. I was curious to know more about it as we had been "tweeting" to each other since some time about Share Fairs. Motivated by Simone's post, I asked him a few questions about the Share Fair he organized:

1) How did you come about o
rganizing the “Share Fair”?

At Natural Resources Canada we have invested significant resources into developing technological tools to share knowledge. We have internal blogs, a wiki, discussion forums, and other tools to share what we know. But sharing knowledge - our information, skills and expertise - requires more than technology. There must be a culture of sharing and trust within the organization as well.

There are also numerous communities of practice (CoP) in Natural Resources Canada - groups of individuals who share a common interest in a specific area of competence and are willing to work together. These communities exemplify the culture of sharing and trust, but in most cases, members in these communities are working off the side of their desk. They are doing work that is not part of their regular work duties, but are nonetheless contributing to the goals of the department. Within these communities there are many different models for how they manage themselves and the value they bring to the organization. As a member of several communities of practice, I felt that there was value to be gained from just bringing communities together to share experiences in how they formed, sustained themselves and, in some cases, dissolved. I wanted participants to have the opportunity to find and connect with communities, to share their knowledge and experience about being in a community, and to demonstrate the relevance of their community to Natural Resources Canada.

I first read about the idea of a share fair in a book about knowledge management. The book referred to a marketplace with booths set up by employees of The World Bank in the atrium of their building in Washington. As staff arrived at work in the morning, there was no way to avoid walking through the market and finding out about all the innovative work going on in the bank. As I researched the idea further, I came across the Share Fair Website and similar innovative events hosted by the UN, FAO and others. I felt the time was right to bring this idea to Natural Resources Canada.

2) How was the event organized?

I had no mandate or budget for this event, I just thought it was a good idea. But when I started talking to people about it, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive and people were ready to pitch in with time and money. A planning team of about 20 people from the various communities of practice in the department was created. Effectively, we created a small and very ephemeral community of practice to organize the event. We wanted an event planned by communities for communities.

We followed the advice on the Share Fair website and broke the planning team into four sub-groups: Content, communications, logistics and training/facilitation. We started off with a vision for the fair based on suggested formats on the Share Fair website, but we built on peoples expertise to shape our own version of the event.

The bilingual morning session, which was also webcasted, featured a keynote presentation by Dr. Kimiz Dalkir – an expert in knowledge management from McGill University – and a panel discussion featuring three leaders from Communities active in Natural Resources Canada: Philippe Dauphin (Learning Organization CoP), Mark Kennedy (Managers’ Community) and Douglas Bastien (Web 2.0 Practitioners CoP). These speakers touched on the short-term and long-term value of CoPs and networks to both the organization and individual members – values that include improving business outcomes, developing organizational capabilities, improving the experience of work, and fostering professional development.

In the afternoon, participants broke into focused discussion groups to identify “quick wins” to maximize the value of CoPs and networks for both the department and the individual members. Quick wins were defined as things that could be done right away, with existing resources and that would have an impact in the next 6 months. Dozens of ideas were generated such as using collaborative tools and Share Fairs to share, learn and grow; incorporating CoP membership into learning plans; and telling success stories via our internal newsletter, at the management table, or via social media. Of particular note was the call by communities of practice for senior managers to more explicitly recognize the successes of CoPs and support practitioners’ participation – in essence, to create the space for CoPs to flourish.

There was also a community market place containing booths set up by CoPs to demonstrate their work and connect with staff, training sessions offered by communities, a "classified ads" wall where participants could write what they had to offer or what they were looking for, a giant calendar where communities could write down their upcoming events and a twitter wall where tweets from the event were projected.

3) What were for you the successes for the event? What would you do differently next time?

Based on feedback we received, the Share Fair was a resounding success, bringing together 80 registered participants, 16 diverse communities active in Natural Resources Canada, and four guest experts. We identified many ideas for CoPs to connect with new members, to collaborate with one another and to raise awareness about the relevance of CoPs to the department. On that last point, the Deputy Minister has since acknowledged the Share Fair and CoPs for their contribution to creating an collaborative and innovative workplace.

For me, the discussions and outcomes from the Share Fair reinforced a view that despite all the technological tools at our fingertips, public servants are, more than ever, clamouring to be connected to one another in meaningful ways. This, for me, is the longer term legacy of CoPs. They help foster a culture of collaboration by forging relationships that produce results and that integrate a diversity of experience and perspectives. They help engage employees by connecting people’s passions to their work and by fostering professional development and leadership experiences beyond the sector level. And they strengthen knowledge management by enhancing and deepening skills and expertise in the workforce and strengthening a culture of sharing that complements our wiki, blogs, forums and other knowledge sharing tools.

If there is one thing I would like to do differently next time, it would be to better involve off-site participants. Natural Resources Canada has offices across the country and there was also an opportunity to engage staff from other government departments. While we did webcast the plenary session and used twitter and our wiki to encourage off-site contributions, we still need to better engage those staff who are unable to physically travel to the event.

4) Where can we find more information?

Anyone seeking more information about the event can contact me directly by email at sbridge [at] or contact him via twitter @srjbridge!

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