We just put out a consultancy announcement to hire someone to work on a knowledge exchange toolbox for UNICEF. Creating a flexible set of simple tools that staff can use for different challenges they have with knowledge sharing is part of our overall approach to foster a culture of greater knowledge sharing and to give them the means to do it.
The consultancy advertisement was widely retweeted (many thanks to all) – but I was also called out for trying to reinvent the wheel.
A good question – why try to create our own toolbox when there are already a number of other perfectly good toolkits in existence already? UNDP, Swiss Cooperation, OHCHR and IFAD and many others have already produced some sort of knowledge toolkit and UNICEF is even a partner in the Knowledge Sharing toolkit which Nancy links to in her tweet.
But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.
People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.
The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:
- It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
- It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
- The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
- The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
- The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.
Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.
I’m a big fan of crowdsourced tools like the KS toolkit but it isn’t sufficiently adapted to meet our organizational needs – precisely because it is for everyone – and it’s not clear how to get help on when and how to use some of the tools in the UNICEF context. I’ve actively tried to promote use of the KS toolkit within the organization but with limited success – it’s a very valuable resource and reference, but not something that most of our staff seem willing to use as a daily guide.
I’m also a big fan of some of the existing agency toolkits but again they are not adapted for us and it’s not always clear how to apply them or where to go for help.
But to be clear, this doesn’t mean reinventing the sake of it. A lot of good work already exists, the key is to reuse it, build on it and adapt it where needed (and not just because). Much of the work will be in packaging or repackaging existing approaches, testing them out in practice in our organizational context and then adapting them to meet our needs. Quite a lot like regular knowledge management and sharing work in fact!
An additional element is to continually improve the tools based on experience in using them, and to slowly add to the tools over time as different approaches are tested. This will include the creation and prototyping a few new approaches but will mostly be incremental learning on the use of existing ones. A final point with all of these is to make the tools publicly available so anyone else can copy them share them – or more likely re-adapt and reconfigure them for their own use rather than just taking them “as is”.
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 wordpress.com 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.