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Leveraging Collective Knowledge at the SEEP Annual Conference

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Every organization naturally engages in informal knowledge management through interaction and communication among its members, but in the last decade, the development community has been learning how to be more deliberate, strategic, and effective about this process. Drawing on the power of collective knowledge, knowledge management aligns information, people, technologies, and processes to learn from experience and optimize organizational and project outcomes. On September 22–25, 2014, over 70 contributing organizations came together at the SEEP Annual Conference to leverage their collective knowledge around the theme “Scaling Impact in Inclusive Market Systems.”   

“The real power of a network is in the ability to leverage collective knowledge,” explains Sharon D’Onofrio, SEEP’s executive director. SEEP is a global learning network with 128 member organizations active in 171 countries. This year’s conference participants included SEEP members as well as a diverse array of representatives from public agencies, donors, and the private sector. There was heavy representation among practitioners. SEEP selected contributors who are capable of sharing from the perspective of practical experience because, D’Onofrio explains, “We know that people are most influenced by their peers. When they can identify with the experience of others, they are most open to acting on new ideas.”  

Keeping Learning at the Forefront

Rather than aspiring to deliver all the right answers, the SEEP conference aimed to bring practitioners and experts together around the right set of questions, D’Onofrio explains. Each session featured an explicit set of learning questions and aimed to actively engage participants in the learning process. “We know the experts are not just the people at the front of the room, but all around the room,” D’Onofrio adds. 

In conversations with the Knowledge Driven Agricultural Development (KDAD) Project, Craig Redmond, senior vice president of Mercy Corps; Alberto Solano, CEO of Grameen Foundation Americas; and Brian Ssebunya of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) discussed the effectiveness of the SEEP 2014 conference as a knowledge management platform. As Craig Redmond explains, the effort to create new and better opportunities for vulnerable populations is spearheaded by “big-hearted, big-brained” experts who may be competitors in the field of development but are also partners in an effort to create meaningful change.

The SEEP conference provided a platform for practitioners to share common problems and discuss solutions. Effective utilization of data to institute meaningful change has been a consistent challenge for practitioners working at the intersection of knowledge management and international development. For example, the session entitled 'Big Data' Revolution: Risks and Opportunities for Inclusive Market Development” found that managing organizational data is a common challenge in the SEEP community. In an interview with KDAD, John Sauers of Water for People explained that he received a “wake up call” when a live survey revealed that only 14 percent of the SEEP conference’s participants had been using organizational data to drive programs. Sauers called on the development community to change this paradigm. At the SEEP conference, Max Richman of DataKind explained that failure to use organizational data to its full capacity is a common knowledge management problem in all sectors, which can be resolved first by taking full stock of an organization’s internal capacity and second by reaching out to local technology communities.

Sustaining Ongoing Conversations

D’Onofrio notes that SEEP’s annual conference is not a one-off event but a continuation of ongoing learning initiatives. While the SEEP conference allowed the community to break the ice on topics such as the use of big data, ongoing conversations also allowed participants in the SEEP conference to delve deeper into topics such as measuring change in market systems. For example, the Building Effective and Accessible Markets (BEAM) Exchange led a session called Taking Stock of Transformation: Measuring System-wide Changes in Markets. D’Onofrio explains that this session was the fruit of lessons from previous years’ conferences, SEEP publications, and consultation facilitated by Microlinks. The Market Facilitation Initiative (Mafi), an active SEEP learning community, contributed a great deal to the BEAM exchange conversation, she adds.  

Conversations are at the heart of collective learning. In a community that spans the globe, maintaining those conversations is both a challenge and an opportunity. While it is difficult to frequently bring experts together in person at the same time, online communities, virtual events, and information platforms can make ongoing collective learning possible, drawing upon a world’s worth of experience and expertise. Online platforms such as Microlinks and the BEAM Exchange allow professionals from time zones around the world to share knowledge on an ongoing and consistent basis. They bring together a globally engaged group of professionals and incentivize collective learning.