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Peer learning, Knowledge Hub and a ‘wiki-database’

Learning from each other is important – across local government, the rest of the public sector and beyond.  It’s how we improve.  Without it, the relationship between inputs and outputs remains the same and there are few opportunities to make savings apart from cutting services.

Such learning can take place in various different ways, such as:

  • Face to face vs online
  • Top down expert advice vs peer to peer
  • Taught or facilitated vs do-it-yourself
  • Given information vs finding what you need

Some people think just one way is best.  For instance, this King’s Fund blog on improvement in the NHS says that what really makes the difference is skilled facilitators working face to face with practitioners.  This report from the Institute for Government says, (1) people need real time learning, (2) they need opportunities to dig deeper into the messy reality of implementation, (3) the best way to do that is through face to face conversations, and (4) sector and peer-led approaches build trust and credibility.

From my experience at the IDeA (Improvement and Development Agency) I recognise the importance of learning from peers rather than assuming people at the centre can be experts.  However, the skills required for collating and communicating good practice are not necessarily the same as those for ‘doing’.  So, theory and practice should be closely tied together.  I always thought the IDeA consultants, out in the field, should sit (physically and organisationally) alongside the people drawing up good practice guidance. Another approach would be to have people working part time in local authorities and elsewhere and part time doing the advice and guidance role.

Another reason that ‘peer-to-peer’ is not always right is that you sometimes need consolidated, heavy weight research to provide evidence on what works and how.  The question then is how to ensure that research feeds into practice – but that’s maybe a subject for another day.

I don’t doubt all those views are right to some extent, but the question of what works best is contingent – as so often, ‘it all depends’.  Particularly, it depends on:

  • the problem – for instance, how standardised, how simple, how transferable are ideas from one place to another.  Just think of all the things you can get help on from Youtube.
  • the individual(s) – preferences, learning styles, etc.
  • the organisation – particularities of the place, attitudes (e.g. ‘not invented here’ syndrome), infrastructure for learning
  • the context and circumstances – e.g. cost-effectiveness of different approaches, the ability or not to invest for future improvement (can you afford to train fares to meet face to face).

All of which means that there is an important place for online community of practice platforms such as Knowledge Hub [this blog also appears there].  Face to face is great, but it’s not always possible or affordable.  However there is a lot you can usefully do online.  (You still need to work things out for yourself, but then that’s the case even if the initial communication was face to face.)

There is a further question, though, of how you find the information you want, and how you store what information you collect.  KHub, like other platforms, offers lots of ways to do that – you can ask questions and hope someone will answer.  Post your documents.  Work collaboratively on a wiki.  But how do you find just what you want?

There is an argument (advanced here by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian) that you shouldn’t bother trying to collate and organise things – there’s just too much information out there for that.  Just keep and store everything (from photos to emails) and rely on search facilities to find what you want when you want it.  There is some truth in that, and in a way it’s quite liberating.  However I think we’re still at a point where there is a role for ‘human curators’.  I think there is still benefit to be had in saving some things you think are important and classifying them in various ways so that you can: filter them to produce lists of relevant things; arrange them in order according to different characteristics; and find just what you want.

That just means storing the information on a database.  However what makes that much more powerful is collaboration.  We’re used to the benefits of collective scoring on TripAdvisor, Amazon or app stores.  But there are also opportunities not just for collaborating in the scoring, but also in collecting and collating the information in the first place.  Once you’ve set up the infrastructure of collaborative databases you could use them for all sorts of thing.  Off the top of my head:

  • Case study examples.  Lots are already written up, but you can’t necessarily find what you want when you want it.  Classify by topic, nature of problem, service area, lessons learned, geography (e.g. you might to find ones near by that you can visit), people’s scores of how useful they are.
  • Publications and reports.  There are already such databases, but not covering all aspects of local government or other public services and not always easily accessible.  As well as basic biographical details and scoring for, say, interest or importance, you could include summaries of documents.  There are already policy officers all over the country producing summaries in various forms (e.g. for briefing notes or committee reports) so why not share them and save ourselves a bit of time.
  • Glossary of terms and abbreviations.  Wouldn’t it be useful not just to find out what a particular abbreviation stands for (Google’s not bad for that) but to get a list, say of all the jargon relating to a particular specialist area.
  • Freelance consultants, trainers, suppliers – what they do, what they’re good at, how well they performed.
  • News items.  Short summaries so you know enough to decide whether to read the reports themselves (e.g. from news outlets or press releases) classified by topic and importance so you quickly pick up on the day’s or week’s news (for instance if you’ve been away or tied up with other projects).

I have to declare a (non-pecuniary) interest in the last item.  I produce such a database (and have recently been making it available on KHub).  But it’s time consuming and I’d like to share the load of producing it so I can spend more time on other, more interesting things.  Producing it collectively would not only share the load but enable a much better product.  You could cover more service areas (I do ‘health and wellbeing’.  Housing is relevant to that, but I just haven’t time to check all the housing items).  You could search more sources.  And of course many people scoring how significant the items are would give you a much better idea of what’s worth looking at, to make sure you don’t miss out on important developments.

To make it happen you would need to get people interested and contributing.  Before that, though, you would need the infrastructure on which the collaboration could take place.  A “database-wiki”.

There are already databases underlying KHub (such as allowing you to search library items by date, size or number of downloads).  You would just need the flexibility for users to be able to create new databases with the relevant structures of fields and categories.

Is this something other people think would be useful?  Is it worth exploring for potential inclusion in a future development of the KHub platform?

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