How many workshops does it take to turn on a light bulb?

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Robyn Johnston reflects on her recent two-day workshop on AgWater directions for Cambodia.

Last week the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) jointly hosted a two-day workshop on agricultural water (AgWater) in Cambodia.  It has made me think more about how and who we consult in our research.

The typical workshop format is to corral the participants for one, two, three days and subject them to a repeating series of powerpoint presentation /  5 minutes discussion /  presentation /  5 minutes discussion / small groups /  report back. It’s almost as if we feel that having gone to all the cost and effort of bringing people together we must now organize how they spend all their time.  There is not much room for genuinely new discussion.

In the AgWater directions workshop, we broke with this tradition. Participants were invited to attend any one or more of four two and half hour sessions over two days. There was a short (15 minute) presentation outlining the research we had done along with four or five main questions designed to frame the discussion (draft discussion papers had been circulated in advance). The bulk of the remaining two hours was left for discussion.  Our thinking was that since the people we invited were invited on the basis of their knowledge and experience, it would benefit us to let them share that knowledge and experience.

And they did share, generously and openly. Although the number of participants dwindled after lunch, the quality of the discussions remained high. I think we did achieve our goal of “being informed” by local experts.  The more open-ended nature of the discussion promoted a free exchange of views, and the discussions did not always go in the direction I had anticipated. In one case, the discussion on groundwater potential, the session resulted in significant re-orientation of our thinking on how to carry the research forward. Participants pointed out that we were thinking narrowly within the agricultural sector; but that within the domestic water supply sector, the local well drillers have a pretty good idea of where there is viable water.  So, we are rethinking our proposal for a groundwater resource assessment to include an initial study where we go and interview all the well drillers and collate their information.

Would I use this format again?  Probably yes: rather than convening workshops, I think there may be more merit in organizing focus group sessions like this. But two things continue to trouble me.

The first is who we consult: sessions like this work best with a small group of experts.  In theory, with most of the research we do, it’s not that difficult to identify the main players; but such an approach risks entrenching existing cliques and makes it hard to link up with emerging players and those with alternative viewpoints.

The second issue is the extractive nature of consultation.  I am always a bit surprised that busy people – particularly community leaders, and government officials with other priorities than research – will make time for meetings and workshops which may offer them little benefit in the short term.  The importance of the discussions from the research team’s perspective is obvious, but I am not sure what we have to offer in return.  As we move more and more into participatory forms of research, I think this is something that we need to think about more.

We plan to follow up these discussions with one or more concept notes on potential research opportunities. I’d like to thank Evan Christen and ACIAR for funding this initiative. I also want to thank Sanjiv de Silva and Thuon Try for assistance in preparing and presenting the workshop; Elizabeth Weight for helping to guide discussions; Martina Mascarenhas for keeping meticulous notes and Terry Clayton for facilitating the workshop.

Learn more about the agwater directions for Cambodia meeting:

Read/download the draft issue papers (revised and Khmer versions forthcoming)

View the PowerPoint presentations:


Thanks, Robyn, for this informative blog -- the presentations provided much food for thought!

Great to hear this and it is certainly well worth considering as WLE moves towards the development of three focal regions this year. This may be the most efficient way of identifying researchable issues that have a direct impact on the development agenda. Thanks Robyn.

Hi Robyn - I agree totally.... A friend uses the phrase "death by powerpoint" to emphasise the mind-numbing process of subjecting an audience to yet another pile of information via powerpoint. It is far better to adopt the more Socratic process of dialectic - which is an amazing way of approaching real understanding with a group of people. However it requires a confident leader - someone who is confident in themselves and who does not pretend to know everything. Only in this way can the discussion really flow into uncharted waters..... People only really absorb new knowledge when they talk and participate in it - indeed the etymology of the word education is to "draw out from..." or something to that effect... It does not suggest feeding them with information!

Good blog! How did the people you consulted respond to your new workshop format -- both during planning and at the event? I think I would hesitate to suggest such a "lose" format, not because I wouldn't think it could work, but because I would expect resistance from organizing partners (government) and participants... Thanks for sharing.

Hi Marianne. In response to your question - there was no resistance from partners in the planning / invitation stage, and in fact we had much strong registration than I expected (50 people in total from a starting invitation list of about 50 - not all the same people, quite a few emailed to ask if they could join; about 75% registered for all sessions). But I think it is true that some people found the format disconcerting - as I said in the blog, we lost quite a lot of people at lunch, so that the afternoon sessions were much smaller - for the last afternoon, only about 15 people. But this smaller session was probably the most active discussion (groundwater) - I think the format works best with a smaller group. If I were doing it again, I would target the invitations much more carefully, and try to keep the groups to about 20 - 25 or less. If anyone has any suggestions as to how to get round the problem of people registering and then just not turning up, do let me know!

Really interesting blog post about an even more interesting idea for getting away from the usual approach.

One thing that interests me about this is how you capture and share all the interesting discussion. You worry about the "extractive" nature of the consultation, and it seems to me that one way to make this less extractive would be to share the results -- probably after considerable clean-up and filtering -- so that others are as well informed as the participants.

Hi Robyn

Great blog and 100% on the mark as always.

For the past couple of years we have been structuring ADB water events round the idea of not more than 50% of time for presentations (and generally aiming for less than 40%) to give the well experienced participants the chance to share their views and exchange.

We have also focused hard on getting presenters to prepare short (8-10 page) papers and PowerPoints that are readable throughout the room and restricted to a number of slides that is consistent with the time allowed for the presentation.

Link all this with a effective facilitators and raportuers and informative and productive exchanges happen - which leads to new knowledge.