Exploring the potential for collaborative meetings and products at the World Health Organisation

Work-learning with the W.H.O.


Over two years in 2010 and 2011, the CE team, led by Sparknow, worked in collaboration with WHO to devise, facilitate and record a unique blended work learning programme in six, spaced, face-to-face modules. Work in between those modules explored the theory and practice of analogue and digital collaboration, both through examining and working with the immediate concerns of participant practitioners and by introducing prompts from the portfolios of the facilitation trio. The work was intensely recorded and curated and translated into a guide, Collaborative Encounters.


In his foreword to the Collaborative Encounters report that went back to participants, Alim Khan outlines two potential challenges for this kind of project:

Stuck on the surface. In organisational learning programmes, its often easy for participants and teachers alike to focus upon simple tools - rehearsing the often heard assumptions that collaboration is a tool for improved effectiveness and efficiency. Throughout this work, we knew we needed to balance such tactical efforts with a deeper consideration of the dynamics of collaboration. 

Sitting in the challenge. We thought of building upon earlier experiences in moving through modules, mirroring how expertise is built: iteratively, varying, with feedback and practice, through modeling successful patterns, experimenting, explaining to others, reporting back, translating for others and outcomes in advance. To reap real benefits from this kind of process meant that both participants and educators would need to resist the need for easy, quick answers and to tolerate levels of uncertainty and discomfort. This is particularly counterintuitive to participants whose experience of 'training' tends to being very directed rather than constructed together.

Patterns and techniques

During this project we developed our initial thinking around the idea of patterns, and created a short list of patterns that seemed particularly relevant during this project. A few of the most important of these were:  initial series of patterns  work led to the first evolution of five patterns that we’ve further redeveloped since:

Build out the Edges. Given the levels of fluidity we sought to include each module, it became vital that we established clearly defined boundaries throughout that provided participants with a sense of safety and help them frame, inhabit and contribute to shared experience. We did this through a variety of techniques: including repeated use of Paperspaces to help structure and mediate enquiry, presentations ordered with Pecha Kucha principles. 

Weave the Red Threads. Ensuring that each module was not seen in isolation, but embedded in the context of a broader journey - both within the overall programme and the broader careers of each participant. Techniques here included: reincorporation of material and examples across different modules, and across 2011 and 2012 modules, repeated use of live projects rather than theoretical examples, narrative worksheets to re-examine and interpret live projects, beginning rituals to annotate personal portraits at the start and end of each session - these also operated as a McGuffin to strengthen the placing of future memories of the experience.

Although we didn't articulate it to each other at the time, Curate Everything was also vital throughout. As the introduction to our final handbook says:

The guide sits somewhere between a practical handbook and a reflective fieldnote and this choice is deliberate. We decided together to limit what is here to theories, practices, examples, images, correspondence and experiences curated from our joint interventions over the past few years and any work shared by collaborators shortly thereafter. If we didn’t use it, or explore it, it’s not here.

In the final analysis it was quite a radical approach - the final booklet consisting only of voice, image, text, interaction, using hipstamatic pictures, googledox, detailed fieldnotes. Not only did this create a final handbook with the very definite aura of particular time and place, but it also changed our own psychology as participants - fostering a heightened sense of our own awareness of the process, and the kind of self-reflection we wanted to cultivate throughout.


Gongs and harmonicas, Polaroid camera, ostentatious shoes, Storycubes, a child's desk, GoToMeeting, Hipstamatic iPhone app, Sharpie pens, glass windows and mountain views, NOT the very heavy leather chairs of normal W.H.O. meeting spaces.