Reprising a role in a previous life at Bellanet.org, I gave a presentation last week in Maputo to the Knowledge Sharing (KS) community within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Actually it started out that way but because the CGIAR’s Annual General Meeting is such a confluence of actors and agendas, the KM workshop was combined with another workshop organised by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) and the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) focused on agricultural education and farmer to farmer learning through collaboration.
You may already have a sense of the complex and acronym-friendly environment of the workshop. My job was to open the workshop with a talk about how our understanding of knowledge sharing has evolved over the last ten years. You can see the presentation on slideshare.net. FWIW, it is my first presentation since reading Presentation Zen.
My talk built on many of the ideas in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. I tried to get across the idea that the impact of connectedness eclipses in scale the substantial changes that we have seen since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This was well-received by some and others felt that it was taking too technological a slant on knowledge. It is hard to not talk about technology when it is the key enabler but connectedness is not really a technological issue, it is an essentially human issue. Connectedness offers the possibility of increased human connection, conversation, innovation, knowledge creation, call it what you like. It increases the possibility of talking to that one person who is holding the piece of the puzzle that you want to solve.
As we came to the end of the workshop, we had a closing circle in which each participant had the opportunity to reflect on what they were taking away from the workshop. By coincidence, twenty minutes earlier I saw a tweet from @whiteafrican pointing out a recent essay by Paul Graham on the future of large organisations. Graham argues that we may be seeing the end of the dominance of large organisations because, in the connected world, it is impossible for them to be nimble enough to compete with start-ups. He suggests that a start-up mentality is increasingly the norm, at least in the high tech sector in the U.S.
In the closing circle, I made the point that perhaps, in spite of the tirelesss and inspiring efforts of the likes of Enrica Porcari, Simone Staiger-Rivas, and others, the CGIAR is like a huge supertanker that even vast forces can only turn a tiny bit at a time. I wondered aloud whether the supertanker nature of the CGIAR meant that it was increasingly out of place in the world we live in now.
Someone in the group piped up that some pirates ought to hijack that supertanker. Everyone laughed… but after reading Paul Graham’s essay, I think this is exactly what the CGIAR needs. It needs some agile agricultural researchers to start forming smaller startups that threaten the work that it does, that hijack some of its work, and shakes up some of the inevitable inertia of a large organisation like the CGIAR.
In fairness, this assessment is based on a one and half day workshop in which I gained a necessarily imperfect sense of the challenges the CGIAR is dealing with and how well it is succeeding. Just my impressions.