KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Smart Aid – what’s KM got to with it?

with 4 comments

While this blog is mainly about knowledge management, those of you who follow me on twitter will know that I’m also very passionate about improving aid effectiveness or #smartaid.

Over on Good Intents (an excellent blog for those interested in smart aid and donor education) Saundra recently asked “What is Smartaid?

In my mind at least smart aid has quite lot to do with knowledge management. While this  doesn’t cover everything that goes into smart aid, there are a few areas where good knowledge management can make a significant contribution to smarter aid.

If I were to summarize the link between knowledge and good aid in a single word it would be “learning”. Improving aid is as much a journey as it is a destination.

Here are a few areas where knowledge and learning is critical to improving aid:

1. Collecting Evidence – before starting a program you need to collect evidence in order to understand the problem you are trying to address and what are some of the possible approaches to tackling it.

This includes – collecting data about the situation you are addressing it, but also about the local context including cultural and political factors. It includes looking at existing research to help explain a situation and its underlying causes and looking at evidence about the effectiveness of different approaches to tackling the situation. This should include not only “scientific” research, but also getting inputs from key beneficiaries and actors.

2. Reflection and feedback – learning lessons from our own experience. Even with all the evidence in the world, nothing judges your actions  better than what happens in reality. It is important to look at your programmes while you are implementing them to see if everything is working according to plan, whether there are any things that could be going better, whether there are any unintended consequences, and even whether there are unexpected benefits. If so what can you learn from this – can you make changes to improve the project, are there general lessons you might apply to other circumstances?  To be useful this feedback process needs to be continual (not just at the end), and also needs to include “objective data” on the situation, but also feedback from beneficiaries and partners and self-reflection.

3. Capturing and sharing what you know with others – part of good aid is sharing what you have learned with others so they don’t have to repeat your own mistakes – both the successes and the failures, and an honest account of how much or little we know about what we did that was successful and why (touting our successful projects as models that should be immediately adopted by others isn’t helpful if we really want to get results). Ideally we should also synthesize experiences and compare them in order to be able to help identify those things which are more easily transferable and those which are not.

4. Something that underlies all this is networking and collaboration. Although data, research papers and formal documents can be helpful, a lot of learning and sharing is done through formal and informal networks and through person to person contact, so it is important to put the effort into making the people side of knowledge capture and sharing work if we really want to get improved aid. All aid projects are run by individuals after all, not by reports. Similarly making sure that knowledge is conveyed in a way that is meaningful and useful for others is as important as  capturing the knowledge itself. Knowledge is only useful if it can be applied in practice which means in needs to be relevant, contextualized, understandable and actionable by those who can use it to inform and improve their work. It’s not enough to collect knowledge “because we want to know” we need to take the steps necessary so it is actually used.

5. We need to listen – to our data, ourselves, to the experiences of others and most of all to our “beneficiaries”. If collect relevant knowledge through the above steps but decide because of our own hubris that we don’t need to listen to what we hear (either the “not invented here” syndrome on using the good ideas of others or the “head in the sand” syndrome of not accepting bad news) then the knowledge we have serves us no purpose.

In conclusion – both knowledge management and for smart aid share the fundamental assumptions  that we don’t know everything, and that it is always possible to learn and improve on what we are currently doing, and that through better sharing, co-ordination and collaboration we can build on what has gone before. So to “do” smart aid we need to recognize our fallibility, and be continually open to look for, try out and adopt improvements, new ideas and new ways of working if and when they are better than the old.


Written by Ian Thorpe

November 29, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Posted in smartaid

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4 Responses

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  1. Ian – Excellent post. It also has been my experience that learning internal lessons, while they are still relevant enough to the organisation’s operations to make modifications, is extremely useful, but unfortunately happens all too rarely. In a world where so much needs to be addressed at once, the focus is most often on “doing” and prioritizing long “to do” lists, seemingly leaving little time for this kind of reflective learning. Hopefully through these kind of discussions and the sharing of experiences among organisations, more leaders will realise that it is well worth making the time to reflect and learn.

    Vis a vis the importance of networking for sharing information, while I agree that networking is important, I also believe that more systematic (but easy to access and use) clearninghouses, web portals and other ways of sharing information with a broader audience are equally important. Having more of these type of knowledge ‘spaces’ should help to make finding useful information easier when one is ‘searching for it’ and not just left to happening upon someone with useful info to one’s work via a networking opportunity.

    Bonnie Koenig

    November 29, 2010 at 11:00 pm

  2. […] great post on the topic of smart aid, this crosspost is from Ian Thorpe’s new blog KM on a dollar a day. KM is shorthand for knowledge management, […]

  3. No.2 is pretty much what I do (M&E mid term) and I couldn’t agree more about its importance. the issue I find is often how you share knowledge after that. As B.K. mentions, you need something that practitioners will look at (i.e. easy access and easy read). There are some experiments going on presently that I know of. like the Teamworks web based knowledge share tool developed by UNDP, or the creation of some thematic websites around the MDG fund (like in Brasil). Very keen to know if these are working


    December 1, 2010 at 5:20 am

  4. […] the humanitarian or development aid field, you’ll find good ideas here (like the latest post Smart-Aid: What’s KM Got to Do with It? with its list of five areas where knowledge and learning are critical to improving aid). And with a […]

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