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Learning in Networks — The Value of Intangibles

December 13, 2011 | LND | Methods & Tools |

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By Dorothee Lötscher, Agridea

Dorothee Lötscher“We learn from suffering together” – this statement of a regional focal point of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) expresses some of the key elements of learning in networks: multi-directional exchange between peers, collaboration based on trust and encouragement, and learning from cases. Networking is challenging and time-consuming, but leads to members’ moments of success, motivation, and finally sustainability. Intangible outputs play thereby an important role. Find below how GFRAS regional focal points and the GFRAS executive secretary experience their networking activities, how they deal with tangibles and intangibles, and what this might mean for networks in general.

On November 13-14, the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) had its second annual meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. Since 2010, not only GFRAS but also six new regional and sub-regional fora have been established. Together with the two existing fora in Africa and the Pacific Islands region and several country fora in Africa, a real network emerged that actively promotes improved rural advisory services from national to global level, and vice versa. GFRAS took the opportunity for experience sharing between the young fora and set the focus of the first meeting day on networking, starting with a panel discussion on challenges and success factors for network managers and coordinators.

It was impressive to see the enthusiasm and commitment of GFRAS’ regional focal points during the panel discussion. It showed that learning in networks is not limited to an academic debate but touches the work of the panellists on a daily basis. This became especially apparent as GFRAS regional focal points – as most professionals in rural advisory services – were formerly isolated and lacking peer exchange.

The panel discussion illustrated that working in networks contributes to more than improved access to information, knowledge, peer examination, and feedback. Encouragement from peers and motivating momentums are as important for increased learning and for putting the learning into action. When acting in a challenging environment, moral support can be a key factor that makes network managers and other actors continue their efforts. This is especially true for leading personalities in very young networks who carry a big responsibility. Virginia Cardenas from the Asia and Pacific Island Rural Advisory Services Network (APIRAS) considers “being part of a family” to be the most encouraging factor for her work in promoting learning on RAS. For Virginia, the invitation to the GFRAS steering committee acknowledged her efforts and motivated her to move ahead. Other focal points agreed that the commitment from development partners, also on global level and with regards to content, helped them to continue their efforts in difficult situations.

Following those statements, networks – if supporting existing activities and structures – contribute to the sustainability of learning and development efforts in general by encouraging their members. However, the intangible output “motivation” or “encouragement” is difficult to measure and is unlikely a key argument in fundraising. At the same time, without motivation more tangible outputs can rarely be reached, used, and converted into outcomes. A way to handle this dilemma is to complement the encouraging networking function with quick wins and visible tangible outputs such as websites and studies, which attract both donors and members.

The panel discussion at the 2nd GFRAS annual meeting showed also the importance of inclusiveness. The participation of a range of stakeholders increases the network’s outreach and quality. However, from the experiences of the GFRAS focal points it is obvious that working in inclusive and functioning networks is time consuming and complex. As Kristin Davis, the executive secretary of GFRAS, mentioned on the panel, working in different time zones and regions require expensive logistical efforts, translation, and social skills. Besides contributing to the forum, members have different duties to fulfil. Inconsistent ideas meet and initiate fruitful but time-consuming discussions. Taking inclusiveness seriously represents therefore another challenge for the production of quick and tangible outputs and for fundraising. Still, inclusiveness is worth its efforts, as an African proverb says: “if you work alone, you go fast, but if you work with others, you go far.” A participant of the 2nd GFRAS annual meeting reformulated this statement for sustainability into a recommendation to network coordinators and development partners: “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, wait for your members.” Going far hence requires development partners’ patience and sensibility for other actors’ pace, contexts, and situations.

A lesson for networks and donors to learn from the panel discussion at the 2nd GFRAS annual meeting is hence that quick and tangible outputs are important to attract affiliates and funds, but intangible outputs such as encouragement, motivation, and learning from the process of working together should also be considered when deciding on financial support and on the design of collaboration. Adapting the pace of the network to members’ abilities might lead to better outcomes than pushing networks too fast to tangible outputs, which might exclude the majority of a network’s members. Commitment from development partners has contributed a lot to GFRAS’ success – a good lesson for other cases.

Find more information on GFRAS at g-fras.org/. A video of the panel discussion will be available the end of January.

 

Comments to“Learning in Networks — The Value of Intangibles”


  1. ADRIAN GARGICEVICH says:

    Interesantes comentarios de los aprendido en la RED, Dorothee Lötscher.

    Para conseguir más participantes y donantes, también es interesante considerar que las redes no necesariamente se miden por los resultados (productos) tradicionales.

    En los enfoques de “redes” como el que usa GFRAS no tiene sentido preguntar cuál es la estructura sino, en todo caso, cómo llegó una configuración determinada a concebirse como estructural, qué le ha dado consistencia, qué se le resiste, cómo es su modo de existencia y su modo de cambiar. Desde la perspectiva dinámica que es necesaria para el trabajo en “redes” es preciso distinguir entre diferentes “estados de agregación” (mayor o menor cohesión), ser capaces de visualizar las diversas velocidades de cambio (desde muy estables a efímeras), de detectar los diferentes ritmos de transformación, así como de percibir los cambios en los que se conserva la pertenencia a una clase de aquellos que implican una transformación o mutación. Como toda organización dinámica, la “red” están en intercambio activo con su medio, por ellos también es importante aprender a ver las configuraciones que adquiere a diversos niveles, explorar las conexiones y desconexiones y las circulaciones que la atraviesa, y no conformarse con la descripción de lo que produce.

    Que bueno que exista este espacio!

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