KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

How to appear smarter than the average aid worker

with 5 comments

People sometimes say to me “you work on knowledge management – you must be really smart” or “there you are managing all the organization’s knowledge, boy you must need to know a lot”.

Sorry to disappoint – but in fact rather than actually being smart, or trying to know a lot, I’ve found that I can just look smart by learning and applying a few simple skills, that everyone could do – but for some reason most don’t.

So here’s my advice on four skills you can learn to make you look smarter:

1. Reading – Keeping on top of major developments in your fields of interest by scanning a few key sources mainly blogs, twitter feeds and a few journals and news sources. Yes, of course everyone should be doing this already- but in reality people do it less than you’d expect. Dave Algoso recently did a great post on why you should read blogs which was remixed for development workers by Linda Raftree. This is a great place to start – I’d advise anyone to scan through these to pick some blogs to follow. For most people the volume of suggestions here is a bit daunting though – I’d suggest just picking a few you like that most reliably cover the range of topics you are most interested in. It might also be good to pick just one or two for any particular topic, but follow several topics rather than picking all in a single topic – bloggers quite often refer to each other in their blogs or tweets anyway. In our organization we also have “Strategic Dissemination of Information bulletins” which provide summaries of the latest research on priority topics, another great way to stay on top  of the latest thinking. Some libraries and and academic institutions offer similar services. Eldis and Zunia are two such services that people can sign up to receive thematic updates on specific topics.

2. Searching the internet. This is not that hard a skill to learn – but it is surprising how few people know how to find things easily, even with Google.  There are lots of tutorials out there, but this one from Beaufort University is quite good, and you can skip right to chapter 7 for some quick tips.

My own very quick tips would be:

  • You can stick mainly with Google (or Bing if you must) for most queries unless you are looking for something specialized (such as for academic papers, print publications, patents, restaurant reviews etc.) in which case you should used a specialized search tool or site.
  • Search for a document or site using multiple search terms (at least 3 or 4), try to pick distinctive words which don’t frequently occur together that will uniquely identify what you are looking for. Keep trying different combinations of words until you get the results you are looking for.
  • Use author names and publisher names if you know them, but only if you know how to spell them correctly.
  • Similarly you can use document titles in “quotes”, but again only if you are sure you know the exact title.
  • You can use boolean logic (and/or/not) if you know it or any other syntax supported by your search engine of choice – it’s not hard to learn – but in most cases you don’t need it.
  • In most cases I’d avoid using the search engine on a organization’s website to search for content on that site, unless it has a lot of options for narrowing down content – you will almost certainly find it more quickly just by using Google if you type in the organization name plus the search terms you want (inexplicably YouTube is an exception to this where the onsite search is actually better than Google search).

3. Scanning social media – there are several platforms that might be useful to follow including facebook, friendfeed, twitter and dedicated online communities. If you are looking for specialized knowledge then it might be worth looking to see if there are dedicated online communities devoted to your topic of interest. Otherwise, probably the one where you will get most payback for your time invested is with Twitter. There are people tweeting about every topic you can imagine. You can follow topics through hashtags, i.e. keywords or acronyms preceded by the # character (e.g. #smartaid) although people don’t use these reliably or consistently. Your best bet is to identify prolific and well regarded tweeters in your topics of interest, follow them and read their tweets and the articles they link to. To find these, look to see if well respected names, or organizations in your field are tweeting. You can also look at a combination of who gets retweeted frequently (i.e. people quote their tweets using the retweet function or by repeating their tweet preceded by RT and their twitter name), and who has a lot of followers, and whose tweets you like.  When you find people, to follow its also good to look at who they are following to see if you also find them interesting. Don’t worry about reading everything – just read those things you find interesting (selective reading or “skimming” will be the topic of a forthcoming blog post). To seem “smarter” its also good to follow people on different sides of the same issue, not just those you most agree with.

Actually following people in twitter can be a great way to keep up with blogs and news as well since the most interesting blog posts and news stories are sure to get tweeted so this can cut down on the number of blogs or news feeds you need to follow regularly.

4. Connecting – Often one group has knowledge that another unconnected group needs but is not aware of.  Helping connect these groups and ideas together is a great service you can perform if you are a member of a couple of intersecting groups or networks or have interests that span different topics. This is particularly useful in large organizations where you can help transfer relevant knowledge between different parts of the organization or between the organization and the outside world.

This is something I try to do routinely and might be the “smartest” of all these skills. For example I often find an interesting blog post on a topic related to our work which I forward to relevant colleagues, who more often that I would expect have not seen it (since it is in their subject area). Similarly I often see discussions on twitter and elsewhere  on topics where we have experience and have produced materials, but these are not well known outside the organization. Just sharing what we have helps inform the debate plus make our work better known. My work also straddles aid effectiveness and knowledge management and I often find that one discipline has important insights for the other, yet the two are not often combined. Similarly I find people in the private sector working on Enterprise 2.0 or innovation are talking about things that are very relevant to development but which people in the aid sector are not aware about.

What surprises me is that more people aren’t practicing these skills. They can be easily learned, and if more people were doing them we would have a much better informed workforce who are easily able to find the knowledge they need for their work. And I won’t look nearly so smart  (maybe you should hold off on this a bit after all).


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 15, 2010 at 8:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. where i work people still openly proclaim they are ludites – and that’s why they need me to hunt down the stuff for them. also searching thru stuff is time consuming; that’s why they’re happy to leave the ‘copy tasting’ to me.

    so sure the skills are easy to learn, but let’s not pretend this stuff is not time consuming — and when doing it you can get soooo sidetracked down sooo many tangents!

    Rebecca M.E. Pointer

    December 15, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    • I agree that finding information and keeping on top of developments in your profession takes time – but it is easier than it used to be, and I think it’s becoming increasingly untenable to outsource your own professional development to others. Those who master these skills will have a natural advantage over those who don’t which is becoming more and more valuable.

      As to avoiding wasting time by getting sidetracked – this is also an important skill to learn – but I’m not sure I’ve mastered that one yet.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm

  2. My word of advise, or causation if you will:

    Do think of social web as a hub or gate to knowledge. As such it is truly rewarding.

    While I agree with your overall point, I’m at the same time worried that the trend in the #smartaid-twitter-blogosphere will leave us satisfied and lazy on empty calories. The future of KM will have to find a way to engage people more substantially for it to make a real difference. And that’s the VERY tricky part.

    Let’s face it, a lot of posts are really no more than half-backed opinion pieces and the comments zones rarely take progress much further. More often it’s ‘I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine’.

    Am I being too sceptical?

    Sceptical Secondo

    December 16, 2010 at 6:21 am

    • I think you have a point. For me though, social media is a gateway to more substantial interaction, if you choose to use it that way. It opens you up to different people, opinions and materials that you otherwise might not encounter. But once you have found them, to get more in depth, you probably need to move to other means of interaction. See this great post by Christian Kreutz on this topic, and the comments.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 16, 2010 at 6:31 am

    • I don’t think it is as superficial as you imagine … I’ve been on FB for a while, and that’s a way to talk to friends around the world, and I’ve made some new friends through the medium — had a lot of interesting debates there.

      I only joined twitter recently, but it has been a tremendous resource for me to find out about the things I need to find out about … which is mostly knowledge management and the T in ICT … my brain is starting to get fried from all the info and ideas I’ve digested in the last while — even tho it leaves me hungry for more …

      Rather thank shallowness, I find the biggest problem is repetition — finding the stuff that is truly new and original — but whenever I do find it, I read in-depth.

      Rebecca M.E. Pointer

      December 16, 2010 at 12:27 pm

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