KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

To blog or to microblog? – that is the question

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People who are “on the brink” of trying out social media at my work often ask me “should I blog or use twitter, or something else? – I’m too busy to do more than one so which is best?”

The answer to this question is of course “it depends”, so I’ll start out by explaining my own path.

A few years ago I decided I wanted to get active on social media to investigate first hand its potential to support my work and that of the organization I work in. The problem was, how would I find the time to do it?

We were able to get a rough blogging platform up on our intranet using  Lotus Notes (back in 2005/2006), so a few colleagues and I started blogging about interesting developments in aid for an internal audience. But blogging regularly is a challenge – and doing it externally is even more daunting (see how infrequently I’ve been posting these days!), while my experience with blogging internally made me wonder if I was mostly talking to myself.

So my first foray with externally facing social media was with Twitter at the web4dev conference in 2009. I was initially very skeptical thinking, like many skeptics, that is was all about what I had for breakfast. But I quickly saw that you could use Twitter to follow a meeting or reach out to participants and even speakers very quickly, and in the early days there was a natural camaraderie among tweeters who were keen to meet and interact with one another.  I’ve been hooked on it ever since. But in the end while 140 characters was quick and easy, it was never enough to really get into the meat of an issue, and so I eventually decided to set up my own blog to allow me to express my own options and share my knowledge rather than to link to others or share using only soundbites.

So how do blogging and microblogging (i.e. tools like Twitter) compare? – what are the advantages for each?

For me the strengths of Twitter (or microblogging in general) are:

- It’s quick and easy get started, and there isn’t any programming to learn or complex interface to use
– It’s real-time – you can immediately share or respond to an event and you can hold a close to real time conversation with multiple people
– It’s a good quick way to share resources such as articles, news etc.
– It’s a shared platform so it’s easier to find and connect with others
– It has a rich network of plug-in applications and tools
– You don’t have to spend ages agonizing over saying exactly the right thing or checking your spelling and grammar

So if you want to dip your toes into social media then microblogging (and particularly Twitter) is a good place to start. But while it is quick and easy there are a few things that microblogging alone can’t do for you, and  blogging is complementary in a number of ways including:

- Blogging is much better suited to exploring topics in more depth, both in terms of word count and explanation, and also in terms of being able to share more of your personality and story.
– You can also interact much more deeply in the comments on a blog because you have more space to do so
– A blog is also more customizable – it’s your space so you can (depending on platform) customize the design and organization and make it personal to you. You might also be able to add widgets and features and other tools that twitter can’t such as rich media content.
– Blogs are less ephemeral. Microblogs may work on a shared platform with search but it’s really hard to find a conversation or like you posted if it’s from more than a few weeks ago – they thrive on the now, but are not a great place to capture and organize your knowledge or the “outcomes” of your conversations.

Basically a blog is better for a more in-depth, personalized interaction. A blog is technically harder technically harder to set up and maintain (although with free tools like and blogger. It’s not that hard – but still perhaps more than some are willing to do) and you have to work harder to keep producing content – so it represents more of an investment than microblogging. It’s more infrequent, it’s more effort to do usually reaches a narrower audience (I probably have over 10 the number of twitter followers than I have blog subscribers) but its worth it when you want more depth and you want to be able to capture things for reference and reuse.

If you have the time (and that might be a big if), I’d argue that to get the best out of online interaction it’s better to expoit the synergies between the two and have both rather than pick one. In fact there are lots of synergies between the two. Microblogging is a good way of promoting your blog and also to quickly share and respond to other people’s blogs. It allows you to do your quick sharing leaving the meatier stuff for your blog, or the comments section of others’.

If you are sitting on the fence there are also now a number of hybrid tools that attempt to get the best of both or at least the middle ground. A notable example is Tumblr which allows you to very quickly share photos, quotes, links and short updates in a simple blog like format. It’s easy to share or reshare content and so it has the immediacy and ease of microblogging while allowing greater length and interaction and better incorporation of rich media – although it still feels a little siloed to follow people compared to twitter.
Another notable example is Google plus which is a twitter/facebook like social networking tool but which allows longer contributions and better incorporation of rich media as well as tools such as chat and video hangouts while still being in one place and having a quick sharing feel.
Inside UNICEF we are also using Yammer which was originally conceived as a microblogging tool for inside the enterprise, but which has now incorporated a number of additional features for adding attachments, longer contributions and collaborative features which go beyond what tools like Twitter can do. Last year Yammer was bought by Microsoft and is now part of Office365 and is being gradually technically integrated too. This means there is great potential to combine the immediacy of Yammer with the document and workflow capabilities of SharePoint and everyday office tools such as Word, Excel and Outlook to get the best of both worlds for interaction inside the organization (we are working with our IT colleagues on how best to do this which will no doubt be the topic of many future blog posts). That said – Yammer isn’t a great format for a fully fledged blog, and so we will need to think about how to allow for longer contributions from those who want to do this.
In the end while I love Twitter and it is a great place to start interacting and sharing – I think there is still a place for the blog for those who want to get into more depth. Not everyone will want to write blogs, but I think most people will want to read them and online knowledge exchange would be much poorer without them, so if you have something to say or some knowledge to share then you should try blogging.
Note: I started this blog a long time ago but it has been stuck in the draft folder – showing how much more deliberative it is than a tweet. In the meantime the UNICEF digital team has launched a public blog where staff can share their work – a great step forwards. We now need to more people to use it to share what they know!

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

Why should we work out loud and how to get started

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I recently rejoined UNICEF to head up a small team with the “modest” aim of developing an approach and systems and tools to support more effective knowledge exchange within the organization and with partners. 

One of the biggest challenges is that there is not a strong culture of sharing knowledge and experience within the organization – and most exchanges are either through hierarchical and official channels or are informal through personal networks (and largely invisible). 

As decentralized organization working globally there are often many similar parallel projects taking place in different parts of the organization – but the people working on them are often unaware of each other, or at least unaware of the opportunities for collaboration and experience sharing.

One element we want to try to introduce is the idea of “Working out Loud”.

Bryce Williams coined this term some years ago (and here is an early blog where he elaborated on the idea), Basically:

Working Out Loud   =   Observable Work   +   Narrating Your Work

I.E. i) sharing your work as go it while it is still in preparation (rather than when it is close to being finalized or already final) and inviting people to comment or contribute throughout the process and ii) talking about your work, your observations and experiences as you do it through blogging, yammer posts, twitter etc. 

The aim of this is to allow people to see and and provide inputs on what you are doing before it is fully cooked. That way you can see earlier if it will really meet the needs of those you are doing it for, and if other colleagues can strengthen your work by providing inputs and suggestions – and can help you to avoid pitfalls they can see but you can’t. Another benefit is finding other people who are working on similar projects with whom you might collaborate with (instead of duplicating their work) or learn from – or who you might be able to influence in how they go about their work. A third benefit is that it helps publicize your work and engage and interest people in it and thus make it more likely that it will be used (plus potential personal fame and fortune)

The big challenge with this is getting people started in doing this when it is not the usual way we do business. People are often reluctant to share early work when it may still be rough in terms of quality, presentation and also political correctness. There is particular resistance to doing this with external partners as there is a fear that showing anything less than thoroughly polished and fact checked material might damage our credibility and brand. 

I personally think these fears are overblown, and the benefits of engagement outweigh the risks of not appearing polished enough – especially when we are clear that this is work in progress and we are seeking feedback to make it better. Greater openness in our work also goes along with the move towards greater transparency – i.e. explaining what we are doing while we work to accompany/narrate our open data and financial information, not only in a nice glossy edited end of project donor report. 

But rather than simply making the case that this is so, I believe the only way to convince people that this is possible and highly valuable is to just do it and share what happens. Right now our team has taken the step that in our work on developing systems, tools and approaches for knowledge exchange we will practice what we preach i.e. we will do it all by working out loud ourselves – by sharing things at an early stage and sharing our reflections and learning as they happen. Apart from this we are identifying a few organizational processes (with willing process owners) that should be collaborative by nature but often aren’t (such as collecting inputs and comments on technical policy positions) to prove our point. To make this safe we are still doing this internally for the moment – but I’ll also be sharing what I can on this blog (rather than pontificating which was more frequently what I was doing on the blog before!).

Wish me luck and stay tuned as I let you know how it is going.


Written by Ian Thorpe

July 22, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Learning how to redesign a successful product

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[I know I've been terrible at posting lately, ever since I started back in UNICEF - I'm going to try to post more and shorter pieces, also within the idea of "working out loud" or sharing what I'm working on - whether or not it's a complete piece of work to share - let's see how it works]
On Monday I was asked to facilitate a workshop organized by the UN Millennium Campaign to help redesign MyWorld2015 (the global poll on what should be in the #post2015 development agenda). The aim of the workshop was take in lessons learned, but more importantly to figure out how Myworld2015 can become a citizen feedback and engagement tool for the #post2015 development agenda after the priorities and targets have been agreed (and so the current question no longer makes sense).

What I wanted to share here is not the insights from the discussion itself (which I hope the MyWorld team will share themselves), but the methodology for the meeting which I think could be a useful approach for other similar situations when you need to stop, reflect and redesign an existing product or process.

The workshop was titled as a collaboratory, but I think it’s more accurate to say it was a reflect and redesign session. Basically the workshop brought together all the different stakeholders that have an interest in the tool and in the process of mobilizing people to vote and to use the results (primarily civil society, parliamentarians/politicians, policy wonks/data nerds, UN staff and a few private sector).

We started with a couple of very brief (5 minute) presentations to set the context – what  MyWorld is, and how it sits in the broader post-2015 accountability discussion.

This was followed by group work to identify the key lessons learned – particularly i) what worked well, ii) what didn’t work well, and critically iii) what was the core essence or unique value of the project that needs to maintained.
In this and subsequent sessions participants were asked to think of the whole process not just the tool i.e. the technology and platform, the questions and methodology, the outreach and communication, the partnerships developed, the resources used and needed – the management and governance aspects as well as how the results were used, by whom and what their impact was on the political process.

The next session people were asked to work in their stakeholder groups to identify what the  specific needs were and how they could best benefit from a revised MyWorld2015, what their needs/requirements were and what they would be willing to offer to support it.

After that people were randomly assigned to cross disciplinary groups and were asked to  develop a “pitch” or design concept which was a 3 slide/page presentation, a headline of what they want to achieve a couple of years into the future and a visual representation of their idea (using play dough, model cars etc.). Kind of like a rapid prototyping but with the idea of creating a business pitch.

Each team then presented their ideas to a “shark tank”/”dragon’s den” i.e. a panel of senior experts who ask difficult questions and challenge their ideas. At the end of this the panelists were each asked to select their favourite proposal and we also did a “people’s choice” to identify the most promising concepts based on expert and crowd views. Finally everyone was invited to write down on a card one idea they heard the day that they think will either be critical to the success of the project or something they think would really add value in the project.

I really liked this approach because

i) it created a good reflection on the current process
ii) it clearly identified the different perspectives of different stakeholders including contradictions iii) it got different constituencies to work together to create solutions based on the reflections and lessons learned
iv) it created an element of friendly competition (gamification!)
v) it was fun and people were very engaged
vi) in the end we were able to identify some of the best ideas from each proposal which will be taken forward in a smaller redesign group. 

I intend to write this up more thoroughly as an approach to be part of a “Knowledge Exchange” methodology toolkit we are working on, but I wanted to share it now because it worked really well and I think this would have a lot of potential application as an approach to get stakeholder input and buy in when there is a need to redesign a project or approach.

Interested to hear your comments, and from anyone who has used similar approaches.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 16, 2014 at 10:48 am

Organizational lessons from youth advocates

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UN Live United Nations Web TV     New York Activate Talk  Innovative Approaches to Advocate for Child Rights

A couple of days ago I listened to an interesting webcast organized by UNICEF in its “Activate” series of talks – in this case on innovative approaches to advocate for child rights.

In a refreshing style, rather than asking some seasoned experts on how to advocate on youth issues they asked actual successful youth advocates themselves.

The speakers all had interesting and inspiring stories to tell about their own advocacy projects which carry a lot of useful insights for other would-be youth advocates and the organizations that seek to work with them and to support them.

But what struck me most as a person working on knowledge sharing, with a side interest in transforming the UN, was how relevant some of the key ideas were to our continual discussions on how to improve development organizations themselves.

A few relevant take-aways:

1. Not being afraid of failure. One of the speakers Erik Martin (@Eriklaes) spoke about how education often discourages failure but should instead encourage children to experiment and take risks and how it is important to have a safe space to fail in order to learn. But this too is a challenge for aid organizations where the pressure is to deliver consistently, but not to risk failure in order to achieve greater gains.

2. The need listening to and engaging with the people you wish to influence or to advocate for in order to better understand their needs and constraints, and to involve them in producing solutions that will be relevant and effective for them. This is a good practice for all parts of aid work not only youth advocacy, and something that aid agencies need to do more systematically. But this lesson also applies to internal organizational issues – when you are making strategic plans or carrying out organizational restructuring, or pondering about the future of the organization in the post-2015 world, it also makes sense to listen to and engage the staff of the organization who are the ones who will be expected to make these changes happen – but too often the engagement is only superficial.

3. The importance of building networks of people for mutual support as well as to work together and share their insights and experience, particularly across different locations or groups of people. Just as international youth networks can be stronger through the creation of large diverse networks of supporters, similarly for professional aid workers there is a lot of benefit to having strong networks of peer professionals with whom to share ideas, get advice and provide mutual support – and yet often this is left to  individuals when it is in an organization’s interest to support and strengthen these networks to help their staff be more effective. An important element that came up in the discussion was the benefit of bringing a diverse group of people together from different backgrounds and expertise in order to generate innovative ideas. Subject matter silos which stifle new ideas are also a well-known phenomenon in organizational culture and finding ways to create cross-sectoral networks and connections is also something we need to pursue.

In this blog I’m just picking up on those points that were particularly resonant for organizational change and knowledge sharing, but there were a lot of other interesting points on youth engagement and advocacy so if this interests you I’d recommend the whole webcast which is available on UNICEF’s Activate talks site here, and on the UN webcast site here.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 13, 2014 at 10:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

World Bank TL;DR

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I know I’m a bit late commenting on the discussion of a recent World Bank paper that found that a third of all World Bank reports are never downloaded (I just switched jobs), but I’m fascinated by some of the challenges of use of evidence that it brings to light.

At least some of the non-blogged conversation that I’ve heard about this  seems to be i) what a scandal, think of all that waste producing research that no-one reads and ii) aren’t we glad that we are so much better than that.

But not so fast…


First of all it’s commendable that the Bank did this analysis and was then willing to make the results public. Many organizations have not asked themselves the same questions and done research to answer them, and I imagine of those that have, few would be so public about the findings.
Secondly I’m not that surprised by the results. I suspect this is common for a lot of potentially important (and not so important) research and policy papers, whether by done by development organizations, or by individual researchers.
Yet the implications of this are far worse … imagine if only 70% of papers are ever downloaded – how many are then actually read at all, and of these how many are fully read and understood, and for those, what proportion have caused the reader to reflect and change their point of view or more importantly have influenced their actions.
So what could be about this?
I wanted to briefly touch on three areas where we can all do better in terms of getting our reports read and use.:

1. Packaging
Presenting research in long PDFs in black and white with dense text is unreadable fonts without a decent summary is always a great way to hide potentially useful information.
By contrast – spending a bit of time to develop a good summary that highlights the key findings and their relevance in non-technical language is an invaluable investment since people usually look at the summary first before deciding whether to read further. Putting the summary on it’s own web page rather as well as in the PDF itself also increases the chance it will be read. It may be even better to produce a separate document with all the key take-aways for advocacy and decision-making with a link back to the technical sources for those that need them.
It may seem more trivial but another important factor in whether or not something gets read is the design and layout. Something with attractive layout and colour as well as helpful diagrammes and appealing images is a lot more likely to be read. Making the document in easier to browse formats  such as  HTML or e-reader versions can also help. Using internal navigation aids such as meaningful section headings and a table of contents makes it much easier for people to scan a document to find what interests them (you didn’t imagine that someone would really read it all from beginning to end did you?). Finally if you don’t have a good catchy title that gives an idea of what the reader can gain from the document then it might not be opened at all.

2. Dissemination
Uploading a PDF on a website is not enough to get people to notice it let along download it. Getting research into the hands of people who can use it requires targeted dissemination.  It’s useful to think first about who are intended audiences of a paper (too often there aren’t any) or at least who ought to be interested in the results.
One obvious way to do this is to draw up a list of people to whom the list should be disseminated and then send it to them. But this requires some work on building up a good mailing list. It also requires a well written message that will attract the attention of the reader among the many messages they receive.
Although targeted dissemination is probably most effective, it’s also worth spending some time making it easier for people to find your stuff by chance too.   This means having papers easily findable on your website by having a clear place to find your research including having content tagged by relevant topic terms and ensuring your pages are search engine optimized with internal and external search.
Another important strategy is to get other people to do your marketing for you. Asking someone else to recommend a paper and forward it to their networks can be very effective since people are often more influenced by personal recommendations than by corporate dissemination. And at the very least you will have encouraged at least one more person to look at your report, even if they didn’t pass it on.
Similarly social media can be another effective way of spreading your work through social media such as through blogging about the main findings and their relevance or encouraging others to do so, or encouraging discussion via twitter or in online discussion forums (one wag suggested that the bank producing and blogging about a paper showing no-one downloads many of their reports was in fact an elaborate ruse to boost readership).
Another key tactic is to link a paper to events, whether its relevance to current hot topics of debate or linking it to a specific event (an academic conference, a UN day etc.). This should be done not only when a piece of work is produced but continually as new relevant opportunities arise.

3. Relevance – probably most important is whether the research actually speaks to an actionable need. Does the research design and results help lead to decision-making or does it answer a relevant policy question? While many things are interesting to know, it’s useful to reflect on how a piece of research or policy work is intended be used by whom and what we might expect them to do with it before the work is started, let alone before the paper is written. Ideally any work is driven by a specific knowledge need, and one that has actionable consequences.
A final comment is that monitoring the impact of the research programme, while extremely challenging is also extremely important. Large sums of money are spent on commissioning and publishing research, and in times of scarce aid budgets there is an increasing need to demonstrate the results of this. This monitoring should not only look at how many times a paper is downloaded or linked, but also try to track how it is contributing to policy debate and improved programming (I couldn’t finish a blog about research without saying more research needed!).

In summary – while research needs to be rigorous that is not enough to guarantee it will be useful. It also needs to be relevant, well presented and well disseminated – and we need to measure not just the production but also the use.

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 22, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Making the United Nations fit for the post-2015 world

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While the consultations and negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are ongoing, inside the UN discussion is already moving to whether or not the UN is ready and able to support this new agenda. This discussion has been labeled internally as the “Fit for Purpose” discussion the general gist of which can be seen in this statement by the Deputy Secretary General.

As a core member of the UN Transformation Network I’m very happy to see this internal soul searching. I have been marginally involved in some of the discussions (I was co-drafting an issues paper based on a high level meeting – which has since gone into another part of the internal policy machine) but wanted to share a few thoughts of my own about some of the things can and should think about in order to stay relevant and effective.

[huge disclaimer: this next part is a few of my own thoughts on how to make the UN fit for purpose, it’s incomplete, and doesn’t in any way represent any official UN position – although I do hope they take some of these ideas into account] So here goes….

The UN was created over 60 years ago in a very different world from the one we are in today. It continues to change rapidly with a number of key trends to consider including the increasing number of middle and higher income countries, increasing disparities of wealth and access to rights and resources including in those higher income countries, an increasingly pressing need to deal with environmental sustainability and climate change, increasing availability and use of new technologies (for good and ill) and an increasingly crowded and diverse field of development actors.  Given that a new development agenda is also in the making, and one that is likely to be more comprehensive and universal than the MDGs it makes sense for the UN to reexamine its role and current business models.

Although UN was designed for a different world, it has gone through several rounds of reform during its history and continues to do so now. Unfortunately change is often slow in any bureaucracy, but in the UN this is made even more difficult by its complex governance structure, and the large degree of consensus that is needed among agencies and UN member states for change to happen, something that is often lacking.

So what are some things that can be done? Much of recent UN reform has focused around increasing efficiency and effectiveness through strengthened accountability and reporting and administrative reforms, and to a certain extent on improving “coherence”  – which in everyday language is the extent to which different parts of the UN work together effectively, or at least do not duplicate or contradict one another.   While these three are important, I’d argue that the most pressing challenge the UN faces right now is to ensure it remains relevant to a changing world and a changing agenda.

One way to remain relevant is to try to predict the future and then to adapt the organization to be best suited to it. However rather than tying change to any specific demographic, ecological or economic shift I’d suggest three approaches the UN might use to be better able to stay relevant whatever the content of the new development agenda.

1. Listening to the people we work for – If the UN is to stay relevant it needs to listen more to its clients. Traditionally the UN’s key partners are member states  – donors and programme countries. But we also need to listen more to the beneficiaries themselves – to know better what they want and need, and also to get feedback on how we are doing and what we need to improve. The post-2015 dialogues are a good example of this, and the current discussion on participatory monitoring for accountability could help inform how the UN (and governments and other partners) do this more systematically and effectively in the future.

2. Listening to staff – Typically in the UN when we face a systemic issue we form a task of senior level officials or a high level panel of external experts. While this approach can have the value of credibility and representation, it can also miss out on the wealth and breadth of experience and ideas within the UN system. Some of the best sense of what is needed in day-to-day work, as well as some of the most practical and innovative answers on how to address them are most likely to come from frontline staff. We should think therefore how we can better listen to staff when we are looking for ways to improve how we work, and what we work on.

3. Acting as a knowledge broker – connecting development partners to relevant knowledge and expertise from wherever it comes from, not just from within the ranks of the UN. The UN is uniquely placed with its global presence, normative role and technical mandates to be able to bring together expertise from diverse sources and help make this accessible to partners (although we still struggle to share knowledge internally between agencies at present). This includes doing more to foster South-South knowledge exchange as well as North-South and South to North. This role is unique and is needed whatever the content of the post-2015 development agenda and whatever constellation of country typologies we have.

All of these three approaches are actually part of a broader strategy that I believe the UN needs to take which is  to find ways to be more nimble and quicker to respond to emerging issues whatever they are. Right now change is often slow and thus we can be quickly overtaken by events, and sometimes we can’t find agreement to make changes for the most important challenges. Rather than preparing the UN for any particular future it might be better to make the UN better equipped to reinvent itself and change course more easily both substantively in terms of the issues it is addressing, but also to be able to quickly make the necessary changes in policy, structure, budgets and particularly human capacity in order to be able to adapt to any possible future. In a rapidly changing world, we need to be able to change rapidly too, if we are to remain relevant.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 16, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had

Scaling up: how to spread good ideas

with 5 comments

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with colleagues at UNDP who are organizing an event about “scaling up”.

The idea of scaling up successful pilots or innovations has long been one of the holy grails of aid work, and it seems we’re still quite not sure how to do it, or at least how to do it consistently, or how to “pick winners” i.e. ideas that can be scaled successfully.

The conversation reminded me of a presentation I attended and an internal blog I wrote some years ago about how to spread good ideas when I was back with UNICEF. It occurs to me that quite often in looking at scaling up a successful pilot or prototype we tend to focus on i) identifying those ideas which have been successfully piloted and ii) for which we can use the evidence of success to mobilize resources from donors and domestically.

However even when new ideas have been shown to work in a successful pilot or prototype (or have even been “proven” through extensive research and clinical style testing), i’s not a guarantee that they will scale. A big challenge is the issue of “adoption” i.e. how can you persuade others to apply them other than with scientific evidence and cash – because those are not enough.

Below is a slight reworking of my old blog post that looks at some of the challenges of spreading (or diffusing) good ideas:


Have you ever wondered why people don’t readily adopt new ideas, despite their seemingly obvious benefits, or why the same idea might flourish in one setting and wither in another?Today I attended an excellent presentation by Nancy Binkin from Health Section who very neatly summarized some of the main observations coming from the paper “Diffusion of Innovations in Service Organizations: Systematic Review and Recommendations“. This is a wide-ranging literature review of research around how innovations and new ideas are spread in the public sector, especially in health which was commissioned by the UK National Health Service. The full paper is well worth a read if you have the time.
The paper looks at what characteristics of innovation are more likely lead to them being adopted, what type of people are more likely to adopt new approaches, what kinds of organizational factors affect likelihood of adoption, and what are some strategies to help promote adoption. The focus of the paper, and the presentation was to explain why certain key health interventions have not been adopted, or have been adopted only slowly – for example why has artemisinin based malaria treatment taken so long to be adopted when the benefits so clear, or why do some families and communities still refuse to vaccinate their children against polio- and there are many more from the across UNICEF’s areas of work.What was striking for me was that although the focus was external, all these same issues were strikingly true for our work on knowledge management within UNICEF. We face many of the same challenges in identifying promising innovations, sharing and scaling them up within the organization (for example getting people to assess and use innovations and lessons learned in one country and then adapt and applying them elsewhere). Similarly many of the more successful approaches from the paper would be extremely relevant to take on board when planning our innovation and knowledge management/sharing work.Many of the observations from the paper will be very familiar to those working on KM such as the need to adapt, build on and localize solutions to the local context and to build local ownership, the importance of social networks for sharing ideas, the need to prove the relevance of the idea to people’s daily reality, the need for involvement of opinion leaders and champions, and the need for a “learning culture” to name just a few.

Colleagues working on communication for Development (C4D) at the meeting also felt that the conclusions of the paper were highly relevant to their work, and it seems there could be a promising common interest in different parts of the organization to pursue these ideas further. One obvious challenge both within UNICEF, and in disseminating innovations externally is that often quite a few of the ideal conditions for successful diffusion are not present, and we may have a varying ability to foster them. We therefore also need to do some thinking about what we can do that is useful even when we know we are not able to create the kind of environment that we would ideally like in order for new approaches to be adopted.

One particularly resonant issue that was raised is that ideas spread more effectively in organizations where people have some “space to think”, and the perceived lack of this in the UN due to some of our current working practices. For example, I almost put off attending this meeting so I could finish my outstanding Performance Appraisals. I’m so glad I didn’t!


From the paper, one important aspect of whether a new innovation or approach is adopted is the nature of the idea itself. Below are highlighted some aspects of an innovation which can have an important impact on whether it is adopted (The text below is adapted from Nancy’s presentation with some added commentary from my side).

Relative advantage
Is the new approach more effective than the current strategy? Is it more cost-effective? If it is not perceived to have an advantage, it could be dead in the water,  though even having an advantage does not guarantee adoption. (Note: this benefit needs to be clear to the adopter and the benefit for the adopter might well be different from the perceived benefit to management or to the promoter of the approach) 

Is it compatible with user’s values, norms, ways of working, and perceived needs?


Simple is good! If it is complex, can it be broken down into smaller bites? The perception of complexity can also be partly overcome with demonstrations and hands-on experience.


Is there space given to try it out on a limited basis?

Are the effects of the innovation readily observable? (and preferably measurable)

Is there room to adapt it to local realities or to refine it? This seems particularly important for dissemination of “good practices” spread through horizontal networks (and is very relevant to our work on lessons learned – and would seem to imply that these should be seen more as an idea bank than templates or how-to guides)

Fuzzy boundaries (related concept)

i.e. an innovation should have a fixed core of common elements used in all cases, but with other elements that can be adapted around the edges to meet different circumstances and needs. These should preferably emerge from repeated trails in different contexts. What’s is important here is that there is a set of core principles to the innovation that make it successful, but a n accepted range of modifications that make it suitable for different applications.

If there is a high degree of uncertainty in adopting the new approach, then it can be perceived as personally risky and thus it is less likely to be adopted (especially in a risk-averse environment).

Task issues
If a new approach is relevant to user’s work and improves their performance, it is more likely to be adopted, especially if it is feasible and easy.

Augmentation support
To spread an idea you need a support system for new implementations  – help desk, training, customization, implementation advice (even if you can see the benefit, it’s hard to do something new if you don’t know how – in this context I’d also add that being able to be in contact and share experiences with others who are have tried or are also trying out the new approach can be invaluable).

An implication of this seems to be that incremental changes are easier to promote than radical ones – since they fit more easily into existing norms and values and the benefit can appear more tangible, even if the potential improvement is less. At the same time just because and idea is easier to spread, it doesn’t mean that it is better. There are some interesting trade-offs here between ideas that can be easily implemented and spread and those which might have a more profound impact.

So, what do you think of these?
Do they hold true from your own experience?
What do you think are the lessons we can learn for our own work in trying to share new approaches between offices, for adopting good ideas from the external world, or in getting our partners to take on proven approaches that for they themselves are new?


Post script: back when I wrote this I had planned to write something about the types of people and organizations that effectively spread new ideas. I never got to this but I’ve now put it on my list for a future blog post.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 11, 2014 at 9:00 am


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