Knowledge Ecology revisited

Riff Fullan, 17 October 2014
Image: Tomás Saraceno

Image: Tomás Saraceno


As Helvetas is about to develop a new Knowledge and Learning strategy, and I am meant to facilitate its production, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we approached things in the past, about what should be changed, what should be gotten rid of, and what should be kept. Today I’m focused on the learning element, to try to get a better feel for how we might contextualize our approach to learning within the broader strategy.

In a 2010 think-piece on information, knowledge and learning, I wrote about the evolution of KM from an information-centric approach to one of Knowledge Ecology, two elements of which I mentioned being:

  • Knowledge is dependent on giver and receiver contexts
  • Knowledge sharing is social and occurs in multiple ways

In preparation for working with colleagues to develop a new strategy, I (re-)discovered an interesting paper on Monitoring and evaluating development as a knowledge ecology, which resonated a lot because of its interest in taking multiple ‘knowledge cultures’ into account, and in doing so with a complex adaptive systems lens, two implications of which are: you need to approach M&E (and, I would argue, any learning process) in participatory ways that engage key actors from the design stage forward, and: you need to adopt an evolutionary approach, building the inquiry/learning as you go.

To put it differently, you can’t just jump into the future, you need to take the steps that will lead you to it. For an interesting take on this, see the TedxTalk on Complex Adaptive Systems by Igor Nikolic, which takes me to another piece of the learning puzzle. I would argue that complex adaptive systems are typical contexts of our work, where multiple actors do things, influence others, are influenced themselves, and the overall picture is one no one can fully understand, let alone control. In talking about how to pursue sustainability in complex adaptive systems, Nikolic suggests – among other things – that we need to be able to ‘gracefully fail’.

This is not something we have explicitly tried to do (ie. learning from failure), even though there is increasing consensus that some of our best learning opportunities are when things do not go as we expect (sometimes perceived as failure).

One of the things that Helvetas would like to give more attention to in future is innovation, and I am convinced that an organisational culture that cleverly embraces learning from failure will be quite successful at innovation. I say cleverly because:

1)      not every failure is a learning opportunity

2)      we need to overlay our work with a system of quality management that promotes consistency, diffusion of good practice, AND recognition of useful innovation

3)      we are not only talking about what happens within an organisation, but also about various partners working together and interacting within – again – complex systems with multiple other actors

My question is, does a notion like knowledge ecology help us understand how to learn in such contexts, and provide pointers on how to proceed, how to operationalize what is still at a relatively abstract level so that our staff and partners can usefully apply it?

Riff Fullan

Riff Fullan

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2 Comments for «Knowledge Ecology revisited»

  1. Hi Riff

    Thanks for getting in touch. I found your post really interesting – and your paper from 2010 which I hadn’t come across before. Although I totally agree with what your write – about the sticky nature of knowledge and the context dependency, and many other things – my perspective on the knowledge ecology – and I think this may be shared to some extent with Val Brown, Ewen LeBorgne and Simon Hearn, and has certainly been heavily influenced by them but also by Mike Powell, Sebastiao Ferreira and Jaap Pels – tries to be more systemic. It’s more about the connections between different types of knowledge and how the development knowledge system should be more linked. For example, published academic knowledge is in a silo and is largely out of reach of academics in the global South. However, I would agree with your ideas too so possibly there are similar implications at micro, meso and macro level

    I wrote a paper with Mike and Jaap on this subject that you can see here:

    Let’s keep discussing on this subject, and thanks for sharing. I also plan to sahre on KM4Dev: hope that’s OK.



    • Riff Fullan

      21 October 2014 at 09:04

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sarah, very useful. I take your point on the systemic understanding of knowledge ecology, and at the same time I try to understand how it can be seen at sub-system levels. Digging dangerously far back into an old memory, I am reminded of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. One thing that struck me was Gramsci’s writing about people’s worldviews as being fragmented and sometimes contradictory, but he also wrote of an overall cultural hegemony as being a necessary element for elites to assert control in complex societies. If I recall correctly, such a hegemony would offer an explanation of ‘how things work’ in a given context, of course to the advantage of the existing elites, but also needing to be continuously negotiated in various ways.

      Could this be analagous to the notion of a knowledge ecology? For example, that there must be multiple dialectical relationships between people, organisations, knowledges, etc., that together can be said to make up a given system. Some of these things could be mapped relatively clearly, but others would be very difficult. Although it is also difficult to gain a clear insight into how macro, meso and micro levels might be articulated in such a system, I have a feeling the attempt is important to point the way to practical action.

      More on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks

      More on his concept of cultural hegemony