Learning from experience: A manual for organizing, analysing and documenting field based information
This guide looks at documentation as a process which seeks to organise the available information, analyse it in detail, draw conclusions and generate new knowledge, and share these results. A main objective is to show that a documentation process does not need to be complicated, and that it does not have to be run by an external consultant. It presents some basic principles (like the importance of involving as many stakeholders as possible) and some general conditions needed (such as institutional support). These ideas, as well as the methodology that follows, build on the work of several authors and on the efforts of different organisations.
The process starts with the selection of the experience to be documented, determining who will participate in the process, who will co-ordinate it, what are the available resources, and what exactly is this process aiming at. These definitions are followed by three separate stages. The idea is to organise the information available through a set of charts, which are continuously improved on during the process.
Setting the boundaries
The objective of this phase is to specify the project to be documented, separating the main items that must be taken into account from those that can be set aside. This means looking at the project’s location, identifying the main stakeholders, and determining the starting date and duration. It is then important to consider the objectives (what did the project want to achieve?) and the main strategy followed.
A next step looks at the “components”, as the way the workload was structured or divided during the project. This is also the stage where the chosen project is put into context, adding three more columns to the previous chart: the general context, the “problems” that were to be solved, and any earlier activities carried out in an attempt to tackle these problems.
Describing the project
At this stage those documenting the process describe everything that was done and achieved during the period of time chosen, including the unexpected results, the main difficulties faced, and the results or targets that were not reached.
As in the previous stage, a simple chart can be used to organise the information that is already available. This chart can also help in identifying what information is still missing but which would be good to include. The completed chart gives a full description of the selected project, identifying everything that was done and everything that was achieved through it, with all activities organised sequentially .
This stage serves to compile and present opinions, criticisms and value judgments about all that was done and achieved. First it is necessary to define some criteria to assess the project as a whole, on the basis of the objectives and strategies outlined in the first chart (considering, for example, its relevance, impact, or sustainability). For each criteria, it is then useful to identify some indicators. These are used to measure an idea in detail, and to present the most relevant aspects of each criteria. Each indicator is used to look for “causes” or “reasons” behind the results.
Everything that has had a positive influence or has contributed to the achievement of a target, as measured by one indicator, is considered to be a “positive aspect”. In the same way, everything that had a negative influence or kept the target or objective from being attained, is considered to be a “negative aspect”. The advantage of a chart such as this one is that it forces whoever is doing the analysis to consider all aspects, resulting in better conclusions.
Having completed the analysis, the next step involves identifying the main lessons learnt. This is helped by looking at the positive and negative aspects mentioned for each criteria, and is then followed by the identification of specific recommendations.
The next step is to present the results of the whole documentation process. This can be done in many different ways: posters, photographs, a video or radio presentation, or as an article or book. This implies a fair amount of editing work, design and printing, and making the final product visually agreeable. But before all that, this implies a process of writing up the information.
Considering it impossible to provide a recipe which, when followed, will guarantee a well written text, the guide only gives a few recommendations that may help those who will be presenting their ideas, to do it in the best possible way. This is followed by a “real life” example: an experience documented using this set of charts and then presented as an article.