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As part of my consulting work for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, I have been bringing people together to do Peer Assists. Here below is a version of what I just posted on an internal FAO blog on Peer Assist, to tell people about it, and create conditions for them to reflect on whether they can use Peer Assist in their work.

Peer Assists: Can they be useful?

In organisations that are bureaucratic, hierarchical, silo-ed and with little trust, it can be common to be faced with a problem and to not know whom to turn to for advice and solutions. It can also be common to know whom to turn to yet find it difficult or impossible to approach them. Not fun, right?

In such situations, Peer Assists are a simple way via which to reach out to others we need the advice of. Peer Assists can break down organisational barriers creating conditions for what we know to be accessed by those who need it and when. Peer Assists can be useful, yes!

3217755818_165817673d_big and nice

Peer Assists: What are they, really?

Some of you would already know about Peer Assists: Peer Assist is a knowledge sharing technique which can be used within and across organisations, groups and teams. Central to a Peer Assist is that a peer (i.e., a colleague, a team-mate, a friend) is faced with a problem to which she/he can not find a solution. (Sounds familiar …?) This is why a Peer Assist is organised during which a group of assisters (ideally not more than 8-10) brainstorm perspectives and solutions to the problem of their peer. Simple, right? Yes, it certainly is not rocket science, just common good sense. Then why not do more Peer Assists …? Here is how:

Peer Assists: How to do them?

  • Do you have a problem that seems unsolvable? Do not despair. First, articulate your problem clearly. The more specific you are, the better.
  • Discuss the problem with your peers and/or your informal network. Be practical in whom you approach. Explain that you need to find people who may have perspectives and/or could be able to offer solutions to the problem. Is it about putting together an intranet for your department? Or is it about creating a newsletter for your network? Or is it about training your staff in and/or sensitizing your managers to a particular skill/approach?
  • Search for people (in other departments, and partner organisations) who may have tried something similar (be it successfully, or not). Use your judgement yet also heavily lean on your intuition in who would be a good assister for your to consult. Be proactive, ask for help, and listen.
  • Once you have found and approached your assisters, find a facilitator for the Peer Assist. (It is important that this is not you!) Anyone who has had experience facilitating and/or is a good facilitator can facilitate the peer-assist. They would just need to be familiar with the process. One key thing for them to know is give all assisters a voice during the peer-assist discussion. (A good description of the process is given by this short video:www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObmQyW3EiiE
  • Bring everyone (yourself, assisters, facilitator) together at a particular time. Do not allocate more than two hours for the exercise (maximum time for people to stay focused and contribute).
  • Do the Peer Assist: At this point, the facilitator will take over from you. She/he will ask you to explain your problem, after which she/he will enable a discussion take place among you and the assisters on how to possibly approach and solve the problem. If all goes well, you will get a lot of practical ideas and suggestions, energised by the fact that all assisters have been discussing their approaches and perspectives not only with you, but also among themselves.
  • Ok, you’ve done it! Now implement the ideas and suggestions that are best for your case.

Peer Assists: Examples?

Here are a few examples of Peer Assist being used at the Food and Agriculture Organisation:

  1. In May 2008, a group of colleagues from FAO assisted the Right to Food team in whether and how to organise an e-conference prior to the Right to Food conference.
  2. In October 2008, a group of colleagues from FAO, FAO RAP, ILO, CGIAR, and external consultants, assisted colleagues in the FAO Trinidad and Tobago regional office on how to go about organising a knowledge fair.
  3. In November 2008, a group of colleagues from FAO assisted the EasyPol team on how to market the EasyPol service to interested users.
  4. In January 2009, a group of colleagues from and outside of FAO assisted the Cashmere Forum team on how to go about enabling and sustaining a geographically distributed knowledge community. This happened during the Share Fair: http://sharefair2009.blogspot.com/search/label/peer-assist

Peer Assists: More information

A concise yet full description of Peer Assist can be found on the ks toolkit wiki, here: http://www.kstoolkit.org/Peer+Assists

Now go Peer-Assisting/Peer-Assisteeing!!

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As part of my consulting work with FAO, I participated in the organisation and delivery  of a Knowledge Share Fair jointly organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP), the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and Bioversity International. The Share Fair took place on Jan 20 – 22 2009 in the FAO HQ in Rome. The purpose of it was two fold:

1. Create conditions for the people in the participating organisations to see what others are doing within their own organisation and also across the organisations. In this way, people would see linkages between their own work and that of others, and, if they are so willing, build on shared visions and eliminate duplications.

2. Show those who were at the Fair how different knowledge sharing methods, and tools, can be applied to the work that they do. These methods (like chat shows, peer-assists, after action reviews, fishbowls, etc.), and tools (like blogs, discussion forums, RSS, wikis, etc.), if they are used, introduce more of a dynamic set up to how people work. They encourage thinking together, discussion, and dialogue. They also encourage lateral thinking, collaboration, networking and leadership. (All of which are prerequisites for innovation.)

It was all about: ”We create the conditions for you to construct your own meanings.”

Throughout the weeks approaching the Fair, we were in a big heat preparing it:

– We went through 160 cases people at the participating organisations had submitted in order to share with others at the Fair. Based on this we combined the cases in an agenda. These cases were projects and ideas having something to do with knowledge sharing, according to how the person, or group of persons who is behind the case, understands knowledge sharing.

– The domains and cross-cuts of domains from where the projects and ideas came were incredibly various which we could nevertheless group under eight general Share Fair themes. Looking at these shows what the sharing of knowledge, as a concept, was being referred to in the cases we received. Sometimes this would be down to databases and information systems. In other cases, this would be down to development of institutions and partnerships. In yet other cases, this would be down to empowering local communities. We extracted those themes in order to make easier the communication of the rich content that underlied the Fair.

– We created a brochure summarising key information about the Fair which was sorted by theme.

– A key aspect to the Fair was FACILITATION. We invited a team of experienced facilitators to help with the flow of the Fair in order to achieve on the purpose I explain above.

– We worked on the logistics of organising the Fair on the FAO premises, in terms of planning and setting up the Fair space layout (booths, information points, registration, bar, cosy corners). We also booked meetings rooms and assigned sessions to each.

– We recruited, trained and coached more than 40 volunteers to help with the running of the Fair throughout its three days.

As I guess you can see, all of the above were quite a task that a group of key people and the Share Fair Steering Committee had to meet. Did we succeed? I think we did:

What worked well?
– at least 700 people participated in the Fair, in the end;
– all sessions were full with the sessions that introduced to and trained people on how to use knowledge sharing tools being the most popular;
– some people made useful connections by going to sessions that interest them and/or seeing people at the bar;
– some people have discovered that others in different divisions and/or organisations are working on very similar projects!
– people have now asked for more Share Fairs;
– some people have got feedback on their work and projects which has helped to put them on a better track;
– some people have decided they could run their events, and meetings, differently from mere conferences and/or power point presentations;
– in addition to the planned agenda, there were sessions that were planned ”on the spot” as part of an open space, thus encouraging sharing and learning from the bottom-up even beyond what we had planned.

Why did it work well?
The team spirit that we had was incredibly good. Everyone took leadership in what they did. Volunteers, Facilitators, Steering Committee: all did a very good job.
– The facilitation which was a key aspect to the event was excellent. For the most part, we had very good facilitators who, through their style, approach, and curiosity, helped to push people to talk and do things differently and pull perspectives and opinions out of them that they may have not otherwise thought to share.
– Those who participated in the Fair were incredibly positive and open about what they know, in addition to enjoying the experience! They were curious, constructive and critical and willing to emerge themselves in different way of working that is more fun.
– The leadership of all organisations endorsed the Fair and encouraged all their staff to actively engage and participate, explaining this is both work, and fun (and so better work!).

Concluding thoughts
The Share Fair was not top-down and/or orchestrated, just enabled.
As a way of follow-up, there is still to achieve the following:

– Show the organisations a path of continuous learning and, importantly, innovation.  Encourage people to start walking that path.

– Enable a ”shift” in how the participating organisations do business, a shift  following on which they are better equipped with skills and approaches helping them do what they do better and be more relevant.

– Understand that individuals, and their interests, are of increasing importance to the business of any organisation. The way in which organisational systems can support the evolution of individuals’ interests is by having organisational systems that are organic, like communities of practice.

– Flatten hierarchies and communication structures.

– Encourage facilitatory leadership (coming from the top) and distributed leadership (coming from the bottom, and everywhere!).

– Bring about culture systems that support knowledge sharing and organisational learning.

– Change the focus from ”command and control” to ”initiative and innovation”.

– Encourage the collective building of a business case for knowledge sharing, and networking.

– Change the focus of monitoring and evaluation from outputs and outcomes to processes and structures.

What’s next?
Follow-up!

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