Knowledge Designs to Change

Knowledge Designs to Change grows out of years of curiosity and work in the design and application of knowledge processes in change initiatives. It emerges from my deep belief that knowledge-integrated strategy – where knowledge processes are understood and nurtured as an aspect of change itself – is essential to enduring change.  One story illustrates the emergence of this commitment.

While serving as knowledge officer in a mid-size family foundation, I found myself managing a third-party evaluation in one of the most engaged, value-driven organizations that I had ever experienced. Grantees were respected. There was an acknowledgement of the value of personal and community story. Collaboration was viewed as the way toward change. The philanthropic strategy was long term, multi-faceted, complex, and ever evolving.

An evaluation had been clearly designed and had yielded valuable information. Yet every time the board and staff talked about the evaluation results, the conversation inevitably shifted to the value of evaluation itself – and some version of comments like:

“Yes, but what really changed?”
“Why can’t we capture the change that we know is happening?” And very politely,
“What does all this costly data mean exactly — how has evaluation helped the strategy?”

The room would seem smaller as I watched exciting change ideas turn into circular conversations about data. I had seen it before in other venues.  I had been part of it before as an evaluator and read many community change reports. I had even conducted doctoral research on creative change evaluation approaches. Nevertheless, it always seemed that foundation and nonprofit evaluation processes began with questions seemingly aligned with strategy but that had been created in a vacuum and were not reflective of community experience and reality. Years of data collection often led to fine reports responding to initial questions. Sometimes the processes even included participation of staff and grantees in learning through a process of identifying a theory of change.

Yet, too often, the experience of learning seemed to wither. The messiness and depth of change initiatives — with multiple perspectives, and intriguing connections –was easily lost, despite the best intentions. Still, reliance on linear forms of inquiry have been considered the standard for credibility. The ways in which participants frame their experience, construct meaning, and account for their own learning, are rarely captured or valued in the process or in the reporting.

One day, I wondered:

  • What would happen if we truly embraced the ideas of knowledge development in its many forms?
  • What if attention to power, voice, and access was just as critical as the traditional focus on data, measures and indicators?
  • What if we contended with ideas of shared power from the beginning, and through the interpretation and reporting process, rather than just at singular points in a process?
  • Could we maximize investments in both strategy and knowledge if we saw them as integral to each other instead of separate?

I believed that this proposition, could happen in the civic arena of social change efforts. In the social sector, and with the support of philanthropy, we have the greatest opportunity to experiment, to embrace flexibility, and to invest in strategy over the long term. Change efforts, however, often lack access to the concepts, tools, and support of rigorous approaches to knowledge development itself.

These thoughts shifted my philanthropic engagement and led to the creation of projects of parent engaged inquiry and network building through investments in engaged research.  Together, these experiences prompted the creation of Knowledge Designs to Change. as a development and support for change initiatives.