Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.

Missed opportunities (2): How one selfish learner can undermine peer learning

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

The idea that adult learners have much to learn from each other is fairly consensual. The practice of peer learning, however, requires un-learning much of what has been ingrained over years of schooling. We have internalized the conviction that significant learning requires expert feedback.

In a recent course organized by the Geneva Learning Foundation in partnership with an international NGO, members of the group initially showed little or no interest in learning from each other. Even the remote coffee, an activity in which we randomly twin participants who then connect informally, generated only moderate enthusiasm… where in other courses, we have to remind folks to stop socializing and focus on the course work. One participant told us that “peer support was quite unexpected”, adding that “it is the first time I see it in a course.” When we reached out to participants to help those among them who had not completed the first week’s community assignment, another wrote in to explain she was “really uncomfortable with this request”…

That participant turned out to be the same one demanding validation from an expert, speaking not just for herself but in the name of the group to declare: “We do not feel we are really learning, because we do not know if what we are producing is of any quality”.

Yet, by the third week, other participants had begun to recognize the value of peer feedback as they experienced it. One explained: “I found reviewing other people’s work was particularly interesting this week because we all took the same data and presented it in so many different ways – in terms of what we emphasised, what we left out and the assertions we made.” Another reported: “ I am still learning a lot from doing the assignments and reading what others have done [emphasis mine].”

Here is how one learner summed up her experience: “Fast and elaborative response to the queries. […] The peer system is really great arrangement [emphasis mine]. The course is live where you can also learn from the comments and inputs from course participants. I feel like I am taking this course in a class room with actual physical presence with the rest.” (She also acknowledged the “follow-up from the organizers and course leaders in case of any lag”.)

This is about more than Daphne Koller’s 2012 TED Talk assertion (quoted in Glance et al.’s 2013 article on the pedagogical foundations of MOOCs) that “more often than not students were responding to each other’s posts before a moderator was able to”, which addresses the concern that peers may not be able to find the one correct answer (when there is one). It is not only about peers learning from each other, but also about the relevance of artefact creation for learning.

Week after week, I observed participation grow. Discussion threads grew organically from this shared solidarity in learning, leading to self-directed exploration and, in a few instances, serendipitous discovery. This helped above and beyond my own expectations: “The more we work with peers and get validation, [the more] confidence grows.” After having peer reviewed three projects, one participant wrote: “This is a great experience. Every time I comment to a peer, I actually feel that I am telling the same thing to myself.”

And, yet, that one lone wolf who displayed negatives attitudes stuck to her guns, reiterating her demands: “I would really like to get more feedback on the assignments. I know individual feedback might not be feasible but it would be great to see a good example to see what we could have done better. I would like to learn how I could improve.” Furthermore, she then ascribed her negative attitudes to the entire group… while completely ignoring, denying, or dismissing the group’s experience. (A request for expert feedback is entirely legitimate, but this does not require disparaging the value of peer feedback.)

Admittedly, for various logistical reasons, the course’s subject matter experts were not as present as we had intended in the first three weeks of the course. This, combined with aggressive, negative clamoring for expert feedback, put the course team on the defensive.

That led to a week in which subject matter experts impressively scrambled to prepare, compile, and share a ton of expert feedback. That they were able to do so, above and beyond expectations, is to their credit. As for me, it was startling to realize that I felt too insecure about peer learning to respond effectively. There are substantive questions about the limitations of peer learning, especially when there is only one right answer. “Peer learning” sounds nice but also vague. Can it be trusted? How do you know that everyone else is not also making the same mistake? Who would rather learn from peers with uncertain and disparate expertise rather than from an established expert? Doubts lingered despite my own experience in recent courses, where I observed peers teaching each other how to improve action planning for routine immunization, analyze safer access for humanitarians, improve remote partnering, or develop sampling procedures for vaccination coverage surveys.

Learning technologists‘ interest in peer review is premised on the need for a scalable solution for grading. They have mostly failed to acknowledge much less leverage its pedagogical significance. Reviewing the education research literature, I find mostly anecdotal studies on K-12 schooling, interesting but unproven theories, and very little evidence that I can use. This is strange, given that peer education is nothing new.

This reinforces my conviction that we are breaking new ground with #DigitalScholar. Building on Scholar’s ground-breaking system for structured, rubric-based peer review and feedback, we are adding new layers of activity and scaffolding that can more fully realize the potential of peers as learners and teachers. I do not know where this exploration will take us. It feels like uncharted territory. That is precisely what makes it interesting and exciting. And, following this most recent course, my own confidence has grown, thanks to the audacity and invention of those learners who learned to trust and support each other.

Image: Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.



Mother and child. Fountain on the roundabout, Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (personal collection)

Missed opportunities (1): making a dent requires rethinking how we construct medical education

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

“We are training 30 people to become doctors. My focus is on developing content for open educational resources (OER) that we can use to transmit foundational knowledge.”

Training 30 people at a time is not going to make a dent. Cost and scale are related. Quality does not need to diminish against lower cost or higher scale.

OER are obviously about producing knowledge, but seldom question agency in epistemology. How do we know what know? Who knows how we know? Is the democratization of learning about producing new resources by conventional means, albeit in an African context in partnership with a U.S. university?

I realize then that we understand the content trap in very different ways. For me, it is avoided by embracing pedagogical transformation from transmission to knowledge co-construction. The trap is to remain mired in transmissive modes in a world of content abundance. For various reasons, some people cannot see this distinction or its significance.

“Imagine if you could convene 1,000 doctors,” I say, “to take this foundational knowledge and develop localized guides, grounded in their indigenous expertise. In four weeks, they would produce hundreds of high-quality, peer-reviewed guides with the synthesis of their collective, practical experience of how to challenge health inequity in practice, in situ…”

They know what others do not know. Imagine connecting medical students to such a global network of practitioners who find it immoral that they can only treat those who can pay – and who are already doing something about it. The standard of care may be the same everywhere, but how you drive change to achieve it is so dependent on context. Surely, he will grasp how transformative this could be?

“You may want to speak to our colleagues who do in-service training. They do a lot of that. They may have a real interest in what you are doing here.”

We have already done this with topics completely disparate from each other: pre-hospital emergency care, safer access for humanitarian teams, immunization… But this confuses those who still think in silos of subject matter expertise. There is no topic specificity to what I am proposing. Yes, my proposal breaks with the conventions of medical education. You do not connect students to global action networks. You confine them in a controlled environment to train them, tell them what they must do and how they must do it in order to avoid killing people who are sick, and ensure that they can recall (or look up) the information they need to do this without you.

Is that really all that we can do? Is that really all that must be done?

He ends by boasting how the new campus will have fiber optic. By this point, I can only smile wrily. Fiber enables two-way knowledge flows. Ideological or epistemological limitations confine us to using only half of this potential.

Changing medical education is more than changing locale, revising enrollment criteria, producing “free” resources (subsidized by university endowments), or considering political economy as part of medicine. It requires a change in education as a philosophy.

Image: Mother and child. Fountain on the roundabout, Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (personal collection)

Efteling gold fish. Personal collection.

Why learning professionals should strive to be leaders, not just service providers

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar, Leadership

The learning landscape is changing fast. Even the most jurassic face-to-face trainers I know are now embracing the digital transformation or at least trying to. Ephemeral fads such as the Social Age or gamification are proliferating alongside newer, more sustainable and productive approaches that match the learning contexts of humanitarians and support the development of their capabilities in a volatile world. Everyone in workplace learning – save a few proverbial ostriches going the way of the dodo bird – is trying to learn the new skills needed to operate in new ways to do new things. This is like a dream come true.

But rethinking our roles, I believe, is going to be far more important than learning to run a webinar. Are we service providers? Are we a support service (like HR, security, and finance)? Who are really our clients, when those who pay are seldom those who learn? Can the business models of the past sustain us in the future?

The relevance of training is being questioned. In Profit & Loss (P&L) terms, we represent a cost center with often intangible return and consequently shrinking budgets. Cooking up a new evaluation framework is not going to change that. There are more people learning in the workplace than in universities. Yet it is higher education that remains a juicy business with 60% or more gross margins and lush endowments. (How did you think universities erect all these buildings?)

Years ago, a defrocked high priest of corporate learning called me a learning leader. Conflating leadership and authority, I had never been pretentious enough to see myself as a “leader”, much less one for learning. Yet, within my organization, I had become an advocate of learning innovation, building the case, gathering evidence, engaging with stakeholders, and doing everything else I could think of to help the organization improve how it learns.

The idea of learning leadership initially seemed merely inspirational and aspirational. That changed once I met Karen Watkins and discovered that her research over the last three decade has demonstrated that the strongest correlation to strengthened learning culture is exercising leadership committed to learning.

Thinking in leadership terms enabled me to see beyond my narrow job description. To truly serve the organization’s mission, I had to transform from a technical manager overseeing a procurement pipeline of over 80 dull, single-loop e-learning and find the courage within myself (there was none in management) to stop the assembly line. As the first Ivy League MOOCs made headlines, I struggled to figure out what these changes in higher education might mean for humanitarian workers and communities strengthening their resilience. Increasingly, the realization came that I would have to challenge the boundaries, to explore new approaches. And then George Siemens‘s clarity in describing what the changing nature of knowledge means for learning blew my mind.

And so I took a webcast lecture series and was astonished by how easy it was to transmute it into an open, scalable learning experience connecting a thousand staff and volunteers from over 100 countries. The hard part had been to overcome resistance from the gatekeepers and then helping stakeholders grapple with the significance of both the economy of effort and the potential of impact. This drew on what we were already learning from MOOCs, but without mimicking a higher university model that is not directly transposable to our context (as some are trying to do now, six years later). It cost nearly nothing and was more inclusive and productive than the face-to-face, three-day event that happened concurrently. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis visited me in Geneva shortly thereafter.

It became morally wrong to do what I had been tasked with by a clueless manager. I left the relatively-comfortable seat and position I held to jump into the unknown. The rate of internal change was simply too slow.

By then, I had found like-minded leaders and innovators to forge a new, unbeaten path, leading me to create LSi and then, in March 2016, the Geneva Learning Foundation. Along the way, my understanding of the significance of leadership for humanitarian work in general and for learning in particular grew tremendously, mostly thanks to the vision and clarity of others walking on the edges.

I understand that instructional designers and other learning professionals need to eat. Acquiescing to a client who has, for example, become a gamification zealot may be easier than challenging them to consider other approaches. Requests for proposals (RFPs) may leave no room for suggesting quality improvements, to put it mildly. Some people prefer to bet on slow career progression, hopping from one role to the next, biding their time. These are very individual choices. Not everyone can afford to be a risk-taking maverick. There are many ways to exercise leadership for learning, regardless of position, rank, or experience.  I do question, nevertheless, whether slow-and-steady survival strategies remain as viable today as they were in the past, given the volatility and uncertainty of change.

In 2016, during the Foundation’s first #DigitalScholar experiment, tutoring a young learning leader quickly morphed into mentoring. She initially described her role as figuring out which tool to use for e-learning production in relation to the learning needs she had identified, to then apply sound principles of instructional design, and finally to deliver a high-quality learning product. There was nothing wrong with her thinking, except for a startling lack of imagination about her own potential. Within ten or 15 years, she will be in a decision-making role. If the learning function is to achieve relevance and impact as a strategic business partner, she needs to think critically beyond her own role and explore what future roles are likely to demand. She needs to make her best effort to see look around the corner, to anticipate what is coming next while managing the unknown. And she needs to challenge her own capabilities by looking beyond her current but obsolete learning technologist role to a more holistic view of herself as a leader for learning, growing her skills to wield multiple lenses that can shape learning culture to not only drive performance and results but also help her blossom and thrive.

Image: Goldfish in Efteling. Personal collection.

Partially-melted chocolate

Hot fudge sundae

Reda Sadki Writing

Through their research on informal and incidental learning in the workplace, Karen Watkins and Victoria Marsick have produced one of the strongest evidence-based framework on how to strengthen learning culture to drive performance.

Here, Karen Watkins shares an anecdote from a study of learning culture in which two teams from the same company both engaged in efforts to reward creative and innovative ideas and projects. However, one team generated far more ideas than the other. You won’t believe what turned out to be the cause of the drastically disparate outcomes.


I recorded Karen via Skype while she was helping me to perform my first learning practice audit, a mixed methods diagnostic that can provide an organization with new, practical ways to recognize, foster, and augment the learning that matters the most.

Recognizing that the majority of learning, problem-solving, idea generation, and innovation do not happen in the training room – physical or digital–, is a key step in our approach to help organizations execute change.

Karen is a founding Trustee of the Geneva Learning Foundation.

Sinistar Wallpaper – Beware — I Live! (

Why gamification is a disaster for humanitarian learning

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

Is gamification an advantageous strategy that can help increase knowledge and application when it comes to humanitarian responses? What are these advantages? Can gamification contribute to better humanitarian preparedness?

Certainly, if you have been forced to maniacally click through 500 screens of a boring “e-learning” from the past – dressed up with multicolored bells and whistles or cute little Flash animation – to finally get to the stupid quiz that is insulting your intelligence by asking you to recall what you will have forgotten tomorrow but that you need to pass to earn your stupid gold certificate before your field deployment, “gamification” sounds enticing. After all, you figured out how to game that e-learning module… so maybe games are the key to the future of humanitarian learning? Not.

Is gamification one of the “current innovations in the field of learning”? Well, arguably, this may have been the case… over a decade ago. And it has long since been debunked. Can gamification help tackle some of the challenges we face in humanitarian learning? These challenges include scale (we need a lot more people ready to face disasters and volunteering to strengthen their communities’ resilience), reach (all the way to the last mile to people on the receiving end of aid), strategic relevance, and using new learning methodologies that model how humanitarians work together with and within communities, solve problems, and grow as leaders.

Is there potential in using game elements for increased engagement and effective training of humanitarian staff? Often, “gamification devolves to just creating competitive experiences based on some sort of point-scoring model that is at-best glorified industrial psychology and not necessarily a great, giant outcome of innovation or game design,” explains Ben Sawyer, the founder of Games for Health. (Ben convinced me five years ago that serious games not gamification are a viable approach for some needs – just an incredibly complex, costly one.)

My twelve-year-old son is a gamer. I observe and ocasionally participate. The immersive qualities of recent games are amazing, and the way they work your psychology is mind-blowing. Game studios understand the intricacies of human behavior and motivation at least as well as casinos do. So, yeah, imagine if we could put that power to use for the good of humanity…

There are three obvious problems.

The first problem is that building quality learning experienced as a game is very expensive. Creating a fully-cognitive experience with a more encompassing model of engagement and interaction starts at 50 million U.S. dollars (Final Fantasy XII) and there is no upper limit (200 million for Star Wars: The Old Republic).

What could you do with the shoestring budgets available for learning and capacity building in the humanitarian sector? At best, try to short circuit the experience and use just a few elements in hopes that creating a ‘game’ or an experience that instills some of the core ideas of what a game is by definition will generate a bump in engagement. And that, my friends, is a recipe for failure in so many ways, but above all because it is disconnected from humanitarian learning needs.

That, in fact, is the second problem. “For all staff, the abilities to learn, to reflect, to negotiate, to critically examine and analyse what they are seeing and hearing, are crucial,” wrote Connell Foley in 2008. Creating a game that is about more than stimulus-response is difficult (requiring talent that does not exist in our sector), costly, and therefore unlikely. As a learning approach, it is not the one you choose if you want to support the development of analytical capabilities or critical thinking.

Increasingly, humanitarians, like other knowledge workers (cf. Robert Kelly’s longitudinal study), can only get things done through collaboration, because the knowledge they need is no longer stored in their brains. This is not the “Social Age” (another dead end I have previously debunked) but part and parcel of the Second Machine Age. Many video games are self-contained worlds, closed systems that fail to model the very complexities that matter the most in the messy real world that we live in – and that can make the difference between life and death when you are working on the edge of chaos.
Robert Kelly: % knowledge stored in your brain needed to do your job from 1986 to 2006

Robert Kelly: % knowledge stored in your brain needed to do your job from 1986 to 2006

The third problem is that the diverse culture of video games contains a dominant strand that is just awful – full of racism, sexism, and violence that is deeply ingrained. The hottest video game right now is called Battlegrounds. It is a Battle Royale where the ultimate purpose is to kill the other 99 players and be the sole survivor whose reward as a “Winner Winner” is to earn a “Chicken Dinner”. Is this really a culture that can be reshaped to serve humanitarian needs, where a lone individual may be trying to save 99 others?

We undoubtedly need new ways of learning and thinking for humanitarians. This has to include both core abilities and value skills. Gamification cannot deliver either of these, and forces us to work from a culture in which the dominant values are difficult to stomach.


New ways of learning and thinking

New ways of learning and thinking

Gamification is about behaviorist rewards for selfishness, where you earn points for killing others. It is often innately, to the core, about competition – and contortions to make friendly, peaceful, collaborative forms of gamification are lipstick on the ugly pig of behaviorism that hides beneath the supposedly “innovative” character of gamification.

Behaviorism is a widely-discredited learning theory. It might be relevant for humanitarian workers only if the nature of the work was “do this-do that.” It is not. Problem-solving, navigating the unknown, strengthening the connections between us, developing contextual knowledge that we can use… gamification cannot do any of that. And that happens to be precisely what we need the most.

This brings us right back to the boring e-learning of the past. Clicking through screens and taking a quiz also contains behaviorist assumptions. And, in fact, some of gamification’s strongest advocates in the humanitarian space spent years building boring, one-dimensional, and ultimately ineffective media-heavy content before becoming enthralled with gamification.

The fascination with the video games industry is easy to understand. This industry is already bigger than Hollywood and growing much faster. The potential of virtual (VR) and augmented (AR) reality, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies show that this it just the beginning. But “gamification” is precisely not what will help us harness this potential to support humanitarian work.

The fetichization of gamification in learning is akin to that for “story-telling” in communication. Yes, humans play games and tell stories. That both are part of our experience and cultures poses a challenge for learning leaders, certainly. But gamification zealots seem to see every problem through their single, reductive lens – and what was originally an innovative idea full of potential becomes one more rote, knee-jerk response set of blinders.

We need to say “game over” to gamification and commit resources to approaches that foster new learning and leadership to support humanitarian work – not sink precious resources into what was once a fad in the corporate learning space, more than a decade ago.

Featured image: Sinistar Wallpaper – Beware — I Live! (

Submarine control panel. Bowfin Submarine Museum, Pearl Harbor. Personal collection.

How do we measure the impact of informal and incidental learning on organizational performance?

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Evidence from learning science clearly identifies how to strengthen learning culture in ways that will drive performance. However, in a recent study conducted by Learning Strategies International (LSi), we quickly found limitations and gaps in the data available from the organization examined, despite the best effort by the organization’s staff to answer our questions and requests.

We found two gaps that needed to be addressed before the most effective approaches to develop capabilities could  be applied usefully – and their impact measured:

  1. The gap between a commitment in principle to learning and skepticism about its actual value. (This gap surprised us.)
  2. Gaps in data and reporting needed to measure internal learning (and how to improve it).

We believe that the first gap (skepticism about the value of learning) is the direct result of the second (lack of measurement).

Without a measure of its impact on performance, internal (staff) learning is likely to be seen as a “nice-to-have” rather than a strategic priority.

Measurement is needed to demonstrate the correlation between internal learning and performance.

Measurement in learning is notoriously difficult. We recognise that although internal learning is critically important, many other variables determine organizational performance.

It would be wonderful if it were possible to draw a straight line from internal learning to specific business outcomes, but it is not.

Recognizing the value of informal learning further complicates measurement: self-directed learning, coaching, mentoring, and other informal learning strategies have this embedded capacity to allow us to learn much more than we intended or expected at the outset.

This makes such learning more difficult to measure, but far more valuable to the participant, team, and organization. This is why we recommended:

  • the use of knowledge, mission, and financial performance of an organization or network as key metrics to correlate with learning culture; and
  • an evidence-based approach (already deployed in over 8,000 organisations and adapted by LSi for global, complex humanitarian networks) to measure these three performance variables and correlate them to the dimensions of learning culture.

Featured image: Submarine control panel. Bowfin Submarine Museum, Pearl Harbor. Personal collection.

Painting at Trigonos (25 January 2017). Personal collection.

The future of learning that could have been

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

In June 2017, the Institute’s president, together with its Chief Learning Officer (CLO), convened an all-hands-on-deck meeting to announce the Institute’s commitment to strengthening its learning culture of innovation and change through an innovative, evidence-based internal learning strategy. Staff were invited to nominate and then elect representatives to the Learning & Development Committee (LDC), mandated with the challenge of ingraining learning “karma in the walls and halls” as key to delivering on its promise to prepare a new generation for the coming humanitarian challenges.

In July, the Institute performed its first benchmark of learning culture and performance. This demonstrated that staff learning is key to mission, financial, and knowledge performance (ie, to delivering results). This benchmark was followed by a learning practice audit in August that woke both managers and staff to their existing strengths and the amazing ways in which they were already continually learning at the point of work.

By the end of 2017, in response to this evidence, DFID and other donors agreed that 5% of budgets be used to support internal learning. In 2018, the LDC’s first elected chair, supported by senior management, staff, and managers, began investing in learning events that recognised and reward on-the-job innovative ideas, problem-solving and significant break-throughs. Staff rapidly learned to rely on these new approaches rather than costly, formal training.

Invited to participate in these learning events, partners expressed growing interest in adopting this methodology to their own contexts, significantly raising the profile of the Institute as an innovator and sector leader for learning.

Staff capabilities grew rapidly and engagement soared in 2018, as managers worked with their teams to define one development objective as part of their performance objectives. Each member of staff added to their personal learning dashboards the activities (both formal and informal) that reflected the diversity and productivity of their learning practices. People inspired each other to go further, sharing and collaborating in new ways. Staff were encouraged to take on stretch assignments, with the assurance that they would no longer be penalised for failure.

By 2019, retention remained impressively above the sector average, as managers adopted the practice of “stay interviews” to mitigate turnover, working within a strong HR system that recognised the need for clear career progression pathways that reward positive behaviours and leadership for learning.

Given the strength of HR and learning systems, this rapid growth in capabilities and leadership was visible to all, shared internally and externally, and directly benefitted the Institute’s partners. High-performing teams were recognised and rewarded during memorable all-staff learning events. External partners asked to join these events, as many of the innovative practices and outcomes were directly relevant to them.

Starting in 2018, new staff reported feeling positively transformed by their induction into the Institute. Formal onboarding was limited to essential information found in the new shelf of crowd-sourced, curated resources for staff learning. Instead, new people were quickly assigned a guide – both a peer and a mentor – from another team or centre. They were invited not just to consume content about the Institute, but to feed back on what they need to function effectively.

By the end of 2019, the LDC repeated its learning culture and performance measurement. The results highlighted a dramatic improvement in performance correlated with the growing strengths of its learning culture.

By 2020, the Institute was recognised by its donors and partners as a model for how to organise and strengthen staff learning to drive performance. Institute branches worldwide reported a growing number of requests from partners – humanitarian organisations but also firms from technology and other industries – who, in the past, may have been reluctant consumers of its learning products. They began to request that the Institute advise them on how to adapt this new internal learning strategy to their own context. Conversely, demand for high-cost, low volume formal training (both digital and face-to-face) diminished as partners begin to recognise that the most significant methods to improve preparedness and response for humanitarian crises are to be found in the day-to-day activities of their staff, volunteers, and the communities they serve.

Image: Painting at Trigonos (25 January 2017). Personal collection.

It's a dead end baby (Andrew Mason/flickr)

Debunking the “Social Age”, a dead end for humanitarian leadership practitioners

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

“And I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still … put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster.” – Joseph Campbell, Foreword to The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969

Humans are social beings. If there is one constant in our experience, this is it. Of course, the tidal waves of digital transformation are reshaping the cultures of how we learn, share, communicate, and grow. But this constant remains.

Claiming that our entry into a “Social Age” is the key to grappling with change is akin to clamoring that we are entering a new “Age of Transportation”. There are obviously new means such as electric cars. But to try to understand what is changing – and how we can learn, grow, and lead to harness change – through such a narrow lens is likely to lead to reductive, myopic approaches. It confuses both symptom with cause and effect with intent.

Anyone who values peer-reviewed evidence will find nothing to discern whether the “Social Age” is a valid concept. Zero articles in Google Scholar and just one book written a decade ago by IBM’s vice president of cloud computing enablement. There is no science to describe or theorize the “Social Age”. Stripped of its marketing collateral, the pretty pictures painted by the “Social Age” reveal themselves to be hollow of meaning.

There is no denying the constance of change. It is a truism by definition. The need to adapt is true by necessity. One should be suspicious when a concept appears to be premised by not one but two tautologies. Stating the obvious is a wonderfully effective way of reassuring those who maintain the status quo that only need to adopt a new vocabulary, distinguishing themselves from the “usual suspects”… when in fact they should be front and center in the line-up.

There is no spoon

There is no Social Age.

So why is the “Social Age” concept a dead end for humanitarian practitioners, and especially the learning leaders amongst them who work on the outer cusp of chaos in emergencies, disasters, and toward greater community resilience?

First of all, the humanitarian space is already littered by amorphous, vague, or empty concepts that, combined with opaque jargon, lead to analysis paralysis or just produce more litter. We need tools and approaches that help us clear the rubble, not add to it.

Second, there are evidence-based approaches to understand and harness the sweeping changes we face, how they impact our work, and how we can build on them to strengthen how we learn and how we lead. Yet, given the dearth of impact measurement in humanitarian capacity-building, this not the first time that we have observed senior managers seduced by an imported concept with no sector-specific evidence to back it up, for reasons that have more to do with their own identity and moral quandary than with the actual relevance and usefulness of such imports. There is a need to resist our own insularity, but this should not lead to embracing obscure concepts as an end unto itself. The vocabulary of the “Social Age” proponents may be different, but how is it different from failed attempts of the past to build capacity through training?

Third, nothing in the amorphous relativism of the “Social Age” explicitly recognizes the unequal power relations that are the heart of the contradictions in a humanitarian system that preaches localization from the center to the periphery, but lacks effective mechanisms (and, in some countries, domestic political will) to shift the balance of power. There is a growing number of promising projects that are already helping us find new, authentic and meaningful ways of growing collaborative leadership from margin to center. These are increasingly often being driven and led by those on the periphery. They are about inspiration, innovation, and collective responsibility to progress through self-directed growth and development. By contrast, the “Social Age” seems to be about renting and delivering the policies of others, rather than shared ownership and development around a compelling purpose. (Yes, I am paraphrasing Hargreaves and Shirley’s distinction between Third and Fourth Ways in their book about inspiring future for educational change.)

Barbara W. Tuchman, in her analysis of why governments pursue policy contrary to their own aims and the needs of the people they serve, asks why we should “expect anything else of government”, answering that “governments have a greater duty to act according to reason” because “folly in government has more impact on more people than individual follies.” This echoes the peculiar responsibility of those who are in the business of transforming the aid business. Imported gimmicks are not where we should be expending time and effort. Staying silent is not an option.

Yet, inertia remains a powerful force in our peculiar, mission-driven corner of the universe. Once an idea somehow gains currency, it breathes a life of its own. Lip service to failure tolerance has not changed the reality that once you have promoted a clunky concept, chances are that you will feel offended or threatened or both when challenged, especially if you lack the evidence for a rebuttal. There is little or no reward for critical reflection or questioning, for taking a necessary step back to reconsider, especially when scarce sector resources are being expended at for-profit corporate rates in the name of doing something different. This is unfortunate because stonewalling equates to lack of accountability – no matter how stringent the logframes and other formal mechanisms that may be in place. Is dissent ignored, tolerated, or does it open up to potentially nasty reprisals?

La critique est facile, l’art est difficile. It is really easier to tear down than it is to evolve and/or reconstruct?  In fact, my perspective is shaped by substantive collaborative leadership work that I admire or the digital learning that I see transforming people and strengthening their individual and collective capabilities. Few blog posts about this work ever get written. I consider this failure to self-promote to be consistent with the modesty and authenticity of practitioners who are truly pushing the boundaries. We need a space where such stories can be told, not for competitive advantage in the marketplace of ideas for rent, but to strengthen and deepen the bonds of our yearning for a better future.

Image: It’s a dead end baby (Andrew Mason/flickr)

Aboard the USS Bowfin (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, United States of America). Personal collection.

Implementation of guidelines, officially

Reda Sadki Global public health

This is everything that the World Health Organization’s Handbook for Guideline Development says about implementation. 

Implementation of a guideline should be taken into account right from the beginning of the guideline development. Implementation is generally the responsibility of national or subnational groups, which explains why their participation in guideline development is critical. WHO headquarters and regional and country offices can support implementation activities by promoting new guidelines at international conferences and providing guideline dissemination workshops, tools, resources and overall coordination [emphasis mine].

Implementation strategies are context-specific. The basic steps for implementing a guideline are:

  • convene a multidisciplinary working group to analyse local needs and priorities (looking for additional data on actual practice);
  • identify potential barriers and facilitating factors;
  • determine available resources and the political support required to implement recommendations;
  • inform relevant implementing partners at all levels; and
  • design an implementation strategy (considering how to encourage theadoption of the recommendations and how to make the overall context favourable to the proposed changes). Implementation or operational research can help inform field testing and rollout strategies to promote the uptake of recommendations.

There is a range of derivative documents or tools that can be developed to facilitate implementation. These can be distributed with the guideline, or local guideline implementers can develop them. Such documents or tools may include a slide set re ecting the guideline content; a “how to” manual or handbook; a flowchart, decision aide or algorithm; fact sheets; quality indicators; checklists; computerized applications; templates, etc.

Source: World Health Organization. WHO Handbook for Guideline Development, 2014.

Image: Aboard the USS Bowfin in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, United States of America. Personal collection.

Keys abord the USS Bowfin

I want them to read it

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

“So… can you tell me how you would like people to use the guidelines?”

“Well… it is difficult to say… I am not sure.”

“What is the change that you are hoping to produce?”

“Well… I don’t know. It was so much work putting these together already! Now they are available and people in countries just need to start using them.”

“So… what do you mean by ‘using them’? Can you tell me what that looks like…?”

“I want them to read it.”

That is our point of departure.

Image: Aboard the USS Bowfin in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, United States of America. Personal collection.