posted 19 Dec 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 4
Case report: FAO becomes ‘knowledge organisation’ through forum on food
A key architect of a global forum on food security and nutrition policies and strategies tells of the importance, development and outcomes of a knowledge exchange in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
By Huyen Tran
The last decade has seen the role of knowledge communication and management increasingly recognised by major development organisations including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Developing a more focused role for FAO to perform as a ‘knowledge organisation’ is a key objective in the organisation’s current reform. Certainly, the organisation possesses an enormous amount of explicit knowledge in various formats (digital, paper, films), as well as the experience gained by staff members in their technical work (tacit knowledge), which resides with them.
However, it clear that without effective knowledge sharing, the impact of FAO’s knowledge and actions will achieve only limited impact.
Within FAO technical units, in particular the Agricultural and Development Economics Division (ESA – http://www.fao.org/es/esa/), it’s increasingly understood that knowledge communication should not be separated from knowledge generation. Moreover, technical units should take the lead in communicating their work, without relying heavily on centred communication units as has largely been the practice.
As the focal point for FAO’s economic research and policy analysis for food security and sustainable development, it is felt that ESA should be more proactive in taking the lead in bringing together knowledge centres in this field.
In this context, a knowledge sharing initiative was started by ESA in May 2006. A preliminary research – including needs assessments of targeted audiences (academics, researchers and development practitioners) and potential stakeholders – was carried out to identify the best ways to achieve these purposes and led to the concept of a knowledge network. The network focuses on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN) policies and strategies, an area of expertise of ESA which has been selected through surveys as the topic of highest interest to the targeted audiences.
The network’s concept was refined in consultation with potential stakeholders throughout the organisation. In March 2007, it was decided to build an online thematic knowledge network called the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition Policies and Strategies (FSN Forum). ESA would facilitate the network building process in close collaboration with the Knowledge Exchange and Capacity Building Division (KCE – http://www.fao.org/kce/).
After thorough preparation, the FSN Forum was launched on the World Food Day 16 October 2007.
Bridging the ‘knowledge divide’
Knowledge gaps exist between North and South and also between researchers, academics, development practitioners and other actors involved in FSN fields.
A knowledge network on FSN policies and strategies that brings together researchers, lecturers and other actors in policy analysis/policy making (e.g., government and non-government officers) can play a role in (i) strengthening research capacity, (ii) building national capacities on a long-term basis through enhancing the training and (iii) better collaborating or coordinating works related to FSN policies and strategies, especially at national level and pooling relevant information/research findings for policy makers.
The FSN Forum is an on-line community where members can share experiences, identify resources, provide peer coaching, support and find collective solutions to issues related to FSN with a special focus on policies and strategies.
The community is expected to bridge the ‘knowledge divide’ between different communities involved in FSN such as academia, research, development communities, policy makers, civil society actors etc for better cooperation and improved impact. The network is free, voluntary and open to all and is driven by the needs of participants.
The belief supporting the FSN Forum is common to most knowledge networks: Knowledge and innovative thinking on FSN issues are only effective if they are being shared, leveraged and applied by a large community of people. The Forum’s vision is to move beyond information sharing to problem solving and the creation of new knowledge products.
To achieve its mandate, the FSN Forum offers the following services:
Online discussions on FSN related topics;
Participatory database of relevant resources hosted by the website, including reference papers, capacity building materials, relevant weblinks, pertinent news, etc.;
Bi-monthly newsletters, annual CDs of key resources and free provision of publications when available;
Annual face-to-face meetings of members.
The FSN Forum is a closed community, i.e., the participation to the forum’s discussions is limited to members, but resources and information on the website, including proceedings and summaries of discussions – are available to all.
Everyone in the Forum is a member of an e-mail-list and of a web-based forum. When a member has an issue and would like to have ideas from the group, he or she sends the query to the moderator or posts it in a specific conference in the web-based forum.
The moderator helps the question-poser to elaborate the query in the most compelling way possible and posts it to the community at an appropriate time. Other members contribute their advices, experiences, contacts and suggestions. After three or four weeks the facilitation team prepares the proceedings and a summary of the discussion.
While discussions are in English, the summary is available in three languages (English, French and Spanish). The summary will then be circulated to the Forum and made available on the website
If a member has any relevant information or resource to share, he or she can add it to the website directly using a participatory tool on the site or by sending it to the moderator.
Forum’s main principles
Since the start of the Forum, four main principles have been guiding its activities and development. These include: the Forum is (i) participatory and collaborative; (ii) demand-driven; (iii) voluntary and (iv) facilitation is the key and technologies are used as important enablers to the participation of members.
The first principle is about participation and collaboration. Indeed, members’ participation is essential to every activity in the Forum, such as contributing to Forum’s discussions, to the participatory pool of resources on the website, as well as facilitating discussions and producing knowledge products (i.e., Forum briefs, Forum’s journal).
On the other hand, the development of the Forum is based on collaboration with partners, both inside and outside FAO. KCE and the FAO’s Nutrition and Consumer Protection (AGN – http://www.fao.org/ag/agn/) have been closely collaborating with ESA in building the technical platform and facilitating discussions respectively. At country level, FAO Country Offices (COs) have been involved from the start of this project. Thirty-one
Moreover, the FAO office in
Secondly, the Forum is a demand-driven platform. The concept of the Forum is the result of different surveys of the targeted audiences and potential stakeholders as well as a desk review. All activities and the development of the Forum are guided by members’ needs and feedback, which are channelled through different tools such as a conference for members’ feedback on the web-based Forum, e-mails and online surveys. Plans of action or any other important decisions are systematically made available to the whole Forum to collect feedback. After-Action-Reviews through online surveys are used to evaluate performance of the Forum, and adjust activities and the working modality according to members’ needs and context.
Thirdly, participation in the Forum is entirely voluntary. After joining the community, members can participate in different ways. Non-members can also participate as discussion facilitators. Partners have joined also on a voluntary basis. For instance, the collaboration with
Besides permanent participation as members, the Forum allows also temporary participation in a specific discussion, which increases the number of people to benefit and helps wider the topics addressed within the broad domain of FSN. The quickly increasing number of members shows that people see the benefits in joining the Forum, which include opportunities of learning and sharing with peers and open access to updated information and resources. The fact that members understand the benefits of the Forum and feel motivated to participate is essential to the sustainability of this platform.
And finally, the last principle is that facilitation is the key and technologies are enablers to the participation of members. The Forum is strictly moderated and actively facilitated. The moderator checks messages before posting to the platform and makes digest e-mails when necessary to regulate the traffic on the mailing list: never more than three messages per day. Each discussion is facilitated by an eminent expert on the subject which ensures discussion content quality.
Besides the discussions, the moderation and facilitation team keep constant contact and build close relationships with key members. Additionally, the Web 2.0 technologies make the platform very user-friendly and participatory.
The website is dynamic, being built on a content management system called TYPO3. The site offers different participatory tools allowing members to add resources and information online, a user-friendly searchable database and survey tools.
The moderation team has full access and capacity to manage and update the website. More functions can be added to the site according to members’ requests. However, keeping in mind that a large part of members have limited internet access, e-mails and an e-mail-list have been used in parallel to all web-based tools, giving members choices according to their communication context.
Performance so far
One year after its launch, the Forum currently brings together nearly 1000 people from 125 countries, with around 140 people actively participating in the Forum’s debates and sharing resources. The Forum has an ever-growing team of voluntary facilitators, which now includes 18 experts in different fields related to FSN from both inside and outside FAO.
Concerning Forum’s activities, as of October 2008, a significant database of relevant resources has been pooled with over 480 resource papers, 40 useful web links and 150 news and events. There have been 26 different discussions addressing a wide range of issues related to FSN, such as food security analysis and communication, biodiversity and small farmer holders issues, nutrition education, right to food, etc. Contributions per topic range from 10 to 50. Inputs of the Forum often serve concrete actions or lead to concrete actions.
The first Forum brief, ‘Nutrition Education for the public is essential’, was developed from the insights and recommendations shared during a discussion and with great contribution from the Forum’s Editorial Board. The brief was distributed at the 2008’s session of the Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN – http://www.unsystem.org/SCN/). Besides, five newsletters have been issued to inform on Forum activities.
Until October 2008, two After-Action-Reviews, one by the Forum’s Secretariat and the other by KCE, have been carried out. Both reviews concluded that the Forum was greatly appreciated by FAO and non-FAO members1 and have actively facilitated members’ work as well as knowledge sharing inside and outside FAO.
Concerning the next steps, the first face-to-face meeting of members planned for 2009 will be complementary to on-line interactions and a great opportunity to strengthen linkages between members. It is also envisaged to establish sub-forums on specific topics related to FSN. The sub-forums may be moderated and facilitated by FAO’s units other than ESA or by other organisations. This would enlarge partnership and help better address members’ wide array of interests.
Obviously, the Forum has to deal with challenges, most of which concern human and financial resources. To maintain this comprehensive platform and continue with an active facilitation, a fixed team is needed. So far the team is composed of a moderator, an assistant moderator and a volunteer. It is not an expensive project, since the technical platform was set up with a quite modest budget ($8,000 USD) and the cost required to maintain and update it is low. However, for the Forum to be maintained and developed with the same standard, continuous commitment and provision of resources is certainly essential.
Although the FSN Forum is still very young, it has obtained substantial results and been heartily supported by its members. It is still early to say that it is a success story in knowledge communication but it is safe to say it has been an excellent and promising start for a global community working towards improving food and nutrition security.
The discussion ‘A website on household food production’ raised by George Kent, professor at the
Another example is the discussion ‘Food Price Rise as a Motive for Action Against Hunger and Malnutrition’. The topic was raised and facilitated by the International Alliance Against Hunger (IAAH) Secretariat. The inputs consolidated by the Forum have been considered by the IAAH Secretariat in its contribution to the international debate on what needs to be done to turn the current crisis into an opportunity, and were used to revise the scope and content of the IAAH’s website in April 2008.
… Some 65 per cent of members stated that the Forum definitely contributed positively to their work; 28 per cent stated that it contributed somewhat.
Members have indicated that the Forum’s benefits have been:
Access to up-to-date information on current priority issues;
Access to diverse practical expertise from many countries;
Guidance from experts on policy/technical issues; enhancement of their awareness of key FSN issues and stakeholders’ opinions;
Understanding of the complexity of FSN’s challenges ‘on the ground’.
Source: KCE’s case study on the FSN Forum, May 2008, FAO
Actually, the Forum has not invented any new mechanism or technique. Nevertheless, in some way the Forum has combined innovatively different principles and practices in knowledge communication.
The Forum is a kind of community of practice whose members are individuals and participate mainly for their own professional interests. However, unlike most communities of practice, which are rather informal and not systematically facilitated, the FSN Forum has a more formal structure with a fixed Secretariat and a facilitation mechanism, which ensures that activities are well organised, archived and facilitated.
Secondly, the mix of basic and advanced technologies (e-mail-based and Web 2.0 tools) has made the platform very user-friendly, as mentioned above, which enables smooth interactions and trust building within the community. Similarly, different mechanisms have been set up to ensure members’ involvement: a participatory database, shared news, a facilitation team and an Editorial Board.
The last key to success is that the four main principles have been closely followed. As long as these are respected and reflected in the Forum’s development, the Forum is ensured to maintain its direction on the right path.
Most important of all, the Forum moves beyond knowledge sharing to taking joint actions, such as producing forum briefs, and at a later stage, Forum journals or booklets, to further enforce the impact of Forum’s debates. The Forum is also expected to be a platform to promote more joint actions such as research and partnerships amongst members.
FAO as a knowledge organisation, Director-General’s Bulletin No 2006/35.E. FAO
ESA networking initiative – Preliminary research report, H. Tran, 2006, FAO. Forum’s site http://km.fao.org/fsn/
Huyen Tran is FSN Forum moderator and focal point, Agricultural Development Economics Division (ESA), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, website www.fao.org
1. See results of the first After- Action- Review (December 2007) at http://km.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/fsn/docs/Results_of_the_first_survey.doc