When people interested in agricultural research get together – including farmers, NGO representatives and donors as well as scientists and research managers from around the world – they have a lot to talk about. And it isn’t easy for them to cover all the ground they need to in just a few days.

The organizers of the Triennial Conference of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) understand that, because they recently held the third such event since the Forum’s establishment in late ‘90’s. This time, though, they got some help from their friends in the CGIAR’s ICT-KM Program, which organized one of nine parallel working group sessions, in collaboration with colleagues at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

During a 3-hour session entitled “Blending Knowledge Systems for an Inclusive Approach to Innovation,” the Program experimented with knowledge-sharing methods, which show much promise for enhancing communication between participants in such events. Though still new in the somewhat conservative world of international agricultural research, these methods could soon bring about important changes in the dynamics and vocabulary of selected gatherings. If that happens, items like “chat show,” “world café” and “open space” could come to occupy a central place on conference programs of the future, along with more conventional terms, such as “opening ceremony,” “keynote address,” “panel discussion” and so forth.

The knowledge-sharing approach was introduced at the GFAR Conference, not just for the sake of change, but because this new medium, emphasizing maximum participation in open discussions of important issues, closely matched the key issues of the session. These emerged through a chat show – a refreshing alternative to formal presentations by one or a few experts – in which a moderator posed provocative questions to four invited guests, while also receiving questions from the audience.

One strong message conveyed in the process was that much agricultural research is still carried out in relative isolation. Moreover, sharing of the knowledge that results from research too often comes as an afterthought and is restricted to publishing in scientific journals. This pattern is reinforced by the “publish or perish” mentality prevailing in the management of many research organizations.

The guests and audience together painted a picture of a more collaborative approach, in which the diverse stakeholders in research have ample opportunities to share knowledge, beginning in the early stages of research and continuing throughout the entire process. Such an approach, they argued, leads to greater recognition that farmers have, not just problems, but valuable local knowledge, and it increases the likelihood that new knowledge resulting from research might be put to good use.

Farmers participating in the session vigorously endorsed the knowledge-sharing approach to research, and they expressed frustration about the lack of progress in making this the norm rather than the exception. “We’ve been hearing about ‘bottom-up’ approaches for years, but nothing changes!” said Egyptian olive producer Mohamed El Kholy. “The researchers keep going to conferences and talking about yields. My olive yields are high enough. What I need is more help with market access!”

In the afternoon, participants were first invited to prioritize the issues identified during the intense chat show discussion by voting with “sticky dots.” Then, they got down to the business of hammering out recommendations to address the four issues the group considered most important. For this purpose, the session’s facilitators introduced a world café format, in which groups of four or five participants sat at round tables and shared views in a relaxed café-type atmosphere on one of the four issues, recording their thoughts on paper tablecloths. At a signal from the facilitators, all but one participant moved to another table for a second and final round of discussion on another of the issues. The person staying behind conveyed the gist of the opening round to the new set of participants and invited them to build on the ideas already recorded by sharing their own views.

By the end of the session, the facilitators had a detailed set of recommendations, reflecting input from all participants. On the issue of local knowledge, for example, the group recommended, among other things, renewed efforts to “institutionalize” farmer participatory research, strengthen farmer organizations and create “living documents” to record instructive uses of local knowledge. With respect to the design of research, they urged the introduction of new mechanisms, such as “outcome contracting”. Through this process, explained IWMI Director General Frank Rijsberman, researchers identify “impact pathways” in consultation with partners and end users, define the impacts for which they believe they can be held accountable and then enter into performance contracts, in which funding is tied to the delivery of those outcomes. To reinforce such mechanisms, it was also recommended that research managers modify performance incentive systems to include clear indicators of successful knowledge sharing, ones that include more than just scientific publications.

Participants in the session were thus clear about what they thought should be done to foster knowledge blending in agricultural research. But what did they think about the knowledge-sharing approach that offered them this opportunity to share ideas? According to the results of a quick survey, many felt the meeting was well organized and facilitated. Others stressed that it was “fun,” “enjoyable,” “dynamic” and “interactive.” Most important, though, they appreciated the opportunity to view the issues from multiple viewpoints and then move from talk to action through collective formulation of recommendations.

“It was one of the best workshops I ever attended,” said El Kholy. “We have to promote a forum in which all can express their views. Otherwise, we’re wasting our time.”

More information about the CGIAR Knowledge Sharing initiatives can be found here.

Nathan Russell, Senior Communications Officer, CGIAR Secretariat