Five takeaways from a KM training in Mali

Feza Kikaya

Communications and Social Media Coordinator, USAID ASSIST Project/URC

In May, I had the privilege of traveling to Bamako, Mali, to co-facilitate a knowledge management (KM) training for our ASSIST Mali team. The two and a half day training involved 19 technical staff that work at the national, regional and district levels in Kayes region and Bougouni district of the Sikasso region. While four of the staff had some background in KM from a training that we held in Cote d’Ivoire a few years prior, the majority of participants entered the training with a clean slate, eager to learn about how to integrate KM into their improvement work.

Group photo at Mali KM training, May 2015

Participants of the Knowledge Management training held in Bamako, Mali, May 12-14, 2015. Picture by Lazare Coulibaly, URC.  

As this was my second experience facilitating a KM training for some of our francophone Africa staff, I embarked on the journey with a general idea of how things would go, and with the expectation that I would emerge from the experience with a greater love for our team and a deeper understanding of our work in Mali. While my expectations were certainly met, I underestimated just how much I would actually learn. Thus, I share with you five main takeaways from my experience in Mali.

  1. Learning requires deliberate reflection. Yes, this is one of the seven simple rules of KM, and I am not simply declaring it as one of my takeaways so that I can make my wonderful boss happy. As I compose this blog, I am forced to think about what took place at the training, what I learned from the staff, and what valuable insights I would like to share with you. Similarly, throughout the week, the Mali team illustrated their comprehension of the training by reflecting on how KM can be applied to what they do on a daily basis. The training was a success because this idea of intentionally thinking about how to improve our work using KM yielded a plethora of lessons that will benefit the team. Thus, this principle really resonates with me because it is so applicable to every aspect of life – both personal and professional. 
  2. Everyone is an expert in something, so learning is always mutual. Although the Mali team graciously considered me as one of the KM experts in the room, I felt far from it given their extensive experience in improving care. Funny enough, many of the staff were humbled by the notion that I considered them to be experts in their respective areas of work. Regardless of how we viewed ourselves, it was clear that we all had something to learn from each other. As the KM backstop for Mali, the training allowed me to gain a greater sense of the team’s achievements, challenges and opportunities in the areas of essential obstetric and newborn care in Kayes, and anemia prevention and control in Bougouni. However, the training also allowed for the staff to learn from each other. It is not every day that the entire team is gathered in this way for the purpose of reflecting on how they can better collect, synthesize and disseminate the learning taking place in their respective settings. This training allowed for that to happen.
  3. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. This is something I already knew, but this truth was reinforced at various times throughout the training. In particular, while working with Dr. Lazare Coulibaly, the KM Advisor for ASSIST Mali, I learned that the standardized photo permission form that we use at our organization needed to be modified for implementation in Mali. Given cultural norms, the practice of asking a person that is the subject of a photograph to sign a document verifying his/her approval of its use in our materials would be regarded as offensive if the person had already given verbal consent. Thus, by talking through the possibilities, Dr. Lazare and I settled on an alternate arrangement that better suited the cultural context. This is just one of a few examples of instances where I was reminded of the need to actively seek feedback from our country teams on the applicability of procedures that we in the U.S. context consider standard practice.    
  4. Culture matters. While discussing the importance and value of convening groups of people together to learn from each other, Dr. Houleymata Diarra, ASSIST Mali Chief of Party, remarked that from what she has observed, it is often difficult for Malians to articulate how they arrived at a success because culturally that is considered boastful. This inclination towards being modest in expressing the steps taken to arrive at achievements hinders the learning that takes place between people, and reinforced for us the value of KM in creating a comfortable environment that facilitates this level of sharing. This seems to be the case in Mali, and I am sure it is the case elsewhere. 
  5. KM is life-changing. The techniques are more than concepts. KM facilitates conversation, which builds relationships, and allows for a greater ease in sharing that inevitably improves the quality of our work. During the close of the training, many participants commented that they realized that many of the KM concepts and techniques were things they already do in their lives, and that KM is a behavior change. For me, having the opportunity to put faces, voices and personalities to names that I previously only knew by email address has greatly increased the ease of communication between me and the staff, and has decreased the timidity I previously felt in picking up the telephone or logging into Skype to facilitate a quicker and perhaps more effective exchange of information and support.   

Much more resonated with me over the course of my two weeks in Mali. While most of the knowledge I gained had to do with ASSIST’s work to strengthen health care systems globally, the trip also reminded me of the amazing staff that are involved in these efforts. Behind all of our great results are hardworking, knowledgeable people that are passionate about making care better. It is a true privilege to work with such remarkable people on a consistent basis. 

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