We are engaged in a dynamic, iterative and experimental process to make real time learning, sharing, and engaging with others in our problem-solving network a core part of our work.

Almost three years ago, Living Cities set out on a course to experiment with “open sourcing social change”. We asked ourselves, what would happen if we in the social sector took two familiar disciplines - communications and knowledge management - and flipped them on their heads in an effort to help us exponentially accelerate and extend our impact?

Since then, we have been engaged in a dynamic, iterative and experimental process to make real time learning, sharing, and engaging with others in our problem-solving network a core part of our work. The questions I’m most commonly asked - both internally as we undertake this major change management process and externally by partner organizations interested in pursuing a similar approach - are: what’s the difference between knowledge and communications? And, what does this look like in practice? We don’t yet claim to have cracked the code on any of this, but three key reflections, and some practical tools, from our early experimentation and implementation are below:

  • Knowledge and communications are two distinct functions, but they’re inextricably linked _. Living Cities is intentionally adapting the traditional knowledge management frame to best support our ultimate outcome: improving economic opportunity for low income people in cities. The core tenets - knowledge as a strategic asset, making the implicit explicit, regularly mining and sharing, using this intellectual capital to make informed decisions - remain, but the boundaries have changed. We have essentially interwoven our knowledge efforts with what might traditionally be considered more outward-facing communications strategies so that the outputs/learnings stretch well beyond our own organizational walls. To do this, we focus our strategy on two core components:

    • Content_ (Identifying and Synthesizing our reflections and learnings in an ongoing way) and
    • Production _ (developing and sharing that content through various product types and channels internally and externally). The Production (communications-oriented) side is not an end in and of itself or a standalone activity, but rather a vehicle for engaging around – and extending the impact of - our (and others’) knowledge and learnings (Content).
  • This is a WAY of working - an organization-wide culture shift - not a side initiative or additional staff member _: This is a major undertaking. Deliberately open-sourcing social change entails fundamental culture change for most organizations; involving new working norms and resetting expectations in almost every role. It certainly was/is for Living Cities. For us, it was crucial to have the buy-in and leadership for this at the very top as well as at the more “grassroots” level early on in the process. Our CEO set the vision and gave me, as a senior team member, the responsibility of executing on this charge. In order to do so, I initially established a time-limited task force with representation from across the organization. This task force helped envision what this kind of “rapid pro-typing of knowledge” could look like in practice at Living Cities (given our existing culture and priorities) and where the “rub” might be along the way. These elements helped ensure that the vision and responsibilities were distributed, not centralized early on. But, the task force approach also led us to our first trap: the notion that this was a separate special project not part and parcel to everyone’s everyday work. Meanwhile, we realized along the way that the knowledge and communications functions couldn’t be entirely distributed - some central components were necessary to keep driving and supporting this work over the long term. So, after some trial and error we have found what we think is the “right” balance for us:

  • Reset expectations across the organization so that it is clear that identifying, synthesizing, and finding opportunities to continuously engage around key takeaways and learnings from your day-to-day activities is a fundamental aspect of everyone’s work. It is not an “add-on” or a “nice-to-have,” it core to our theory of change.

  • Centralize Some Elements . I manage a central Knowledge and Impact team, with lead staff member(s) assigned to Content and Production. They are not responsible for doing the actual reflecting or production – the people closest to the work (our staff throughout the organization) are best positioned to engage around it – but my team’s job is to help others throughout LC build those muscles and to support the ongoing execution.

  • Institutional brand as a means to an end, not the end itself: _ No one wants to hold a press conference to explain how things didn’t work out as expected or how goals weren’t met - Living Cities included. But engaging with our problem solving network throughout our learning journey by making meaning of failure/hiccups/stumbles/pivots has been as (if not more) valuable than just sharing what worked. People are getting massive amounts of information from a million places on a daily basis. In order to stick out amongst all that noise, we’ve found that we have to make contributions to them and their work that add value or provoke thought in an ongoing way – a white paper every few months, a press release or a few quotes in a major newspaper no longer meet that need. We need to:

  • Engage continually , recognizing that openly sharing our reflections and questions about our own work can/does add (even unanticipated) value to the work of others.

  • Reorient our conception of branding. Taking a page out of our evaluation adage, we focus our knowledge and communications efforts on “contribution, not attribution” within our problem-solving network. We do still seek to strengthen our institutional brand, but only in service of our ultimate goal: accelerating behavior change and, ultimately, impact (improved outcomes for low income people in cities). Brand-building is, therefore, accomplished by raising the profile and reach of our ideas. In practice, this means that not only is our content being produced and shared by a number of disparate people through a number of different channels, but we are also accepting – even encouraging! – transparency into our own organizational learning journey all along the way: what worked about our approach? What didn’t? What are the learning questions I’m grappling with right now? We have found that this type of continuous and open engagement - whether on twitter, our blog, through webinars, or at a major convening -is most valuable to others in our problem solving network in \"real time\”.

This approach to knowledge and communications is certainly risky - staff across the organization are openly sharing what could be considered \“half-baked\” or untested ideas on a regular basis unmediated by a central communications gatekeeper. However, for Living Cities, leadership in the 21st century requires leading with our ideas and the trade-off is that our brand is now shifting, engaging, and contributing to so many more conversations in a consistent and robust way. It’s a risk we’re willing to take; albeit with some guidelines on tone, and voice, clear framing about which ideas and contributions are at which stages of the knowledge life cycle so audiences can give it it’s due weight, and with ongoing support from the Knowledge and Impact team.

As we increasingly think about open source, real time, knowledge sharing as central to everything we do and as a key contributor to the change that we want to see in the world, we have committed to telling the ‘story’ of this work in the same way that we share the learning from across the rest of our portfolio. And, we’d love to hear from others who are engaging in similar processes. Have you/your organization been experimenting with “open sourcing social change”? If so, what key reflections and tools have you found most valuable along the way?