KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for February 2011

More work I do: Innovations and lessons learned on programming for equity

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Just back from vacation, so apologies for slow blogging. In the meantime I’m sharing some work my team recently did (together with many colleagues from our country offices and technical sections). It’s an example of our work of documenting innovations and lessons learned from UNICEF programmes which can help inform and inspire (but not taken as a blueprint for!) programmes in other countries and other organizations.

In this case we pulled together a few examples of good programmes addressing equity and reaching the most marginalized. This is a strong focus of UNICEF’s current work, but part of the challenge is finding good approaches to doing it which can work in practice (as well as in theory). This is a first sharing of a few relevant examples – but we hope to document many more during the rest of this year and afterwards.

Here’s the announcement:

We are pleased to announce an external publication of ‘Equity and reaching the most marginalized: selected innovations and lessons learned from UNICEF programmes.’ This publication features nine recent innovations and lessons learned which are illustrative examples of some of our work on equity.

The cases highlighted in this publication are highly diverse examples – from women’s participation to deliver messages on immunization in Afghanistan to Brazil’s effort to achieve universal birth registration, lessons learned from community engagement in a rural neglected area in Uganda, and the experience from a child-friendly programme implemented in one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam. We hope these cases are inspiring to further strengthen and intensify the equity focus in your work.

The publication is now available on UNICEF internet and will widely be shared with external partners. Feel free to share it with interested colleagues inside and outside UNICEF.

If you have comments on this publication or any questions regarding innovations, lessons learned and good practices, please email us at:

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 28, 2011 at 9:30 am

Action in real time at the UN: A New Hope (reflections on #openUN)

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Last week I attended the panel “Open UN, Engagement in the Age of Real Time”  during social media week. The meeting consisted of a presentation by PSFK on their report “The future of Realtime“, a keynote by Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, and two panel discussions on “Real time field operations” and “Institutions in the age of real time”.

The full programme can be found here.
The recording of the session can be found here here.
Good summary of the discussion from Patrick McNamara here in the comments.
There was also pretty extensive coverage in Twitter under the hashtag #openun

I won’t give a full accounting of the panel discussions since others will do that and you can see the recording for yourself. But I do want to share few highlights/observations from this very interesting and encouraging panel discussion. Here are my main take-aways:

1. Need for realtime data – In the past we have often needed to wait months or even years to be able to amass, interpret and publish analysis of emerging situations in official statistics. But we need to respond quickly to emerging crises, and so need to be able to gather and analyze data in real time in order to take timely informed action.

2. New possibilities to collect it – many new technologies and approaches make it increasingly possible to do this. Mobile technology can be used to quickly collect data and transfer it to a central location for analysis, especially given the high penetration of mobile phones. There is also great possibilities to use “data exhaust” i.e. data coming out of administrative process or as a by product of people’s activity which could be collected and analyzed in real time. There are also new analytical techniques which can be used to quickly make sense of this. The PSFK report gives a wide range of examples. The potential uses range from monitoring economic crises, conflict, disease outbreaks, monitoring the delivery of supplies, or giving populations a voice in issues that affect them.

3. Too much data? – In future the problem will not be lack of data, it will rather be too much data. How are we going to filter/manage it – do we have the skills to do it? Developing new skills and techniques to process and make sense of large amounts of data, and at a personal level the skills to filter through the various conflicting signals and noise that pass our way to determine what is important will become increasingly important. While there are some promising analytical techniques to help deal with large volumes of data I think this is an area that still needs a lot of work. One important approach is that of open data. Making more data available publicly opens up new possibilities to make use of the data, ad alloows more people to engage with it and make useful outputs from it. But sometimes this data needs expert interpretation, otherwise misinterpretation could lad to incorrect and possibly harmful conclusions being drawn – so we also need to focus on the interpretation- not just on openness.

Dealing with information overload and sense-making at an individual level whether as “aid professionals” or as “decision makers” is also a major challenge for those working in the development sector and an area where tools and skills for personal effectiveness need to be developed.

4. (In) ability to act – While a lot of the current focus is on quick collection and analysis of data, one of the biggest challenges in large organizations is our ability to respond with equal speed and decisiveness. Having good data can help, but not if we don’t change our decision making models and practices first. Large organizations, and institutions such as the UN and the multilateral system are naturally (by design) slow to take decisions and to respond to change. The seeming inability of the “global community” to agree on concerted action on climate change despite the obvious urgency is a prime example.

5. Shifting powers – Power is shifting away from traditional institutions such as the UN, Governments, large corporations and NGOs as people are more able to hold them accountable or take action independently. This applies in development but also beyond. But one of the challenges is that the existing powers don’t want to acknowledge and accept this change and so global decision making fora (UN, G8, Davos etc.) don’t reflect this change in “real” power.

6. How much has social media and technology really got to do with the changes in power? There was a lot of chat about the role of technology in the recent Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, but one of the panelists (@carneross) was quick to warn that while technology can help bring people together and help them communicate, we shouldn’t overestimate the role of technology, and need to remember that real change is brought about by action, power and resources (blood and money). We therefore need to ensure we don’t use technological participation as a  substitute for real-world action.

7. Change our bureaucracies or work with agile players? – There was a lot of talk about the day to day challenges of working in the UN system or in “Development”, and how many small social entrepreneurs were able to take risks and make significant innovations while the major aid players cannot – but that the major players are the only ones who have the scale and resources needed to make innovative ideas go to scale. But does this mean that the UN itself should be carrying out innovation, or should we be partnering with other more agile organizations and individuals.

The creation of teams like UN Global Pulse or the UNICEF innovations team is one way forward – but still this is still only a small part of the UN. Should these be more widespread? Should the UN focus on developing partnerships with more agile organizations – with the UN identifying the big challenges and providing support, but with other organizations creating and implementing solutions. Informal and personal partnerships between the UN and academia and social entrepreneurs around areas of mutual interest was also stressed as a useful way of working together, avoiding some of the bureaucratic hurdles in establishing formal partnerships.

Adoption of techniques such as fail-fast and action-learning for programming in the UN was also mentioned, especially for working in those areas where knowledge of “the best approach” is limited and where the situation is changing rapidly.  Greater adoption of technological tools in the everyday work of the UN, to improve organizational effectiveness and co-ordination was also stressed, also as a way of decentralizing decision making on day to day operational issues. This should include use of open source technology to allow the UN to tap into the skills of the developer community and also to be able to share back what it develops for the use of others.

8. This is not the UN I’m used to – The people at the meetings, and the nature of the discussions was refreshing and inspiring. But I’ve got to go back to my office afterwards where things are quite different. Don’t get me wrong, most people I come across in the UN system are both smart and hardworking. But the environment we work in day to day is also more challenging as there is much more resistance to change and aversion to risk. There are also layers of procedure and decision making, and reporting requirements to navigate.

What we really need is for some of the energy and ideas from the meeting to permeate our daily work, and for this type of working to be more widespread and more visibly supported by our bosses within the UN and from the member states. The presence and encouraging words of Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning  is a strong positive sign. The wide range of external people who want to help the UN to take these steps, and the appetite for this change among many UN staffers also offer hope.

The key now will be to build a “coalition of the willing” from inside and outside the UN who can work together to make this happen. This meeting helped identify the potential and some of the possible ways forward, while also bringing together some of the people who want to and will need to work together to make it a reality.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Losing our shirts at smartaid?

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– or can social media activism change the aid world for the better? –

Some months ago I joined a group of bloggers/tweeters trying to promote the idea of “smart aid” and help the public, donors, aid agencies and workers move away from known bad aid practices. Among other things we collectively tweet under the @smart_aid handle about all things related to good and bad aid practices.

Over the past year I’ve noticed more and more voices on blogs, twitter and elsewhere who are speaking out against bad aid practices and who are advocating for a more honest, transparent and beneficiary responsive system of aid. It seems in our more optimistic moments that if we could build enough of a movement we might be able to have a real influence on new entrants to the aid world, aid DIYers and maybe even established aid agencies.

Last year when Jason Sadler proposed sending 1 million shirts to Africa the blogosphere quickly responded with comment son his website, over 60 blog posts and possibly thousands of tweets, as well as a roundtable phone call which eventually led to Jason changing course and eventually changing his plans to do something much more useful for charity with his brand.

This was a high point in online smart aid activism, with people talking about the power of social media to put would be aid providers under new scrutiny.

Well right now we might now be facing a more testing moment when we see the real opportunities and limitations of this sort of activism. World Vision recently blogged about their scheme to donate 100,000 unwanted superbowl shirts that were printed with the logo of the losing team. The blogosphere responded – but with much less speed and gusto than with Jason. This time things are a little more difficult for a number of reasons: It’s “only” 100,000 shirts, they are new, not second-hand, they are part of a larger aid effort not a one-off, we’re all tired of talking/posting about SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want).

But the biggest reason of all is that this time the project is not being done by a aid newcomer who doesn’t realize their good idea might actually not be so good.  It’s being done by a major aid organization with a global presence and long experience who should know better. We’ve also heard that some people feel afraid to speak out against a major aid organization, or were asked not to.  World Vision, to their credit, have engaged their critics on their blog – but have not really addressed many of the criticisms nor expressed any indication that they are willing  to consider changing their approach. Indeed its probably hard for a major player to accept criticism about a very public programme and change in response to it – all the incentives point to saving face by standing your ground and hoping the criticism will go away.

World Vision know the programme is wrong (many of their staff say so – anonymously of course), but will the bloggers pushing for smarter aid be able to bring enough attention to the issue and put enough pressure on them to to get them to admit they are wrong and change their programme?

We’ll have to wait and see. What happens will tell us a lot about how far we can go in using social media to promote better aid – and also how willing the large aid agencies really are to listen to their critics.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 14, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Posted in rants, smartaid

The unknown-knowns: you know more than you think

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A number of aidcommentators have talked about the known-knowns, the known-unknowns and the unknown-unknowns and what they mean for aid, development and international relations.

In summary:

Known – knowns: we know what the problem is and what to do about it – let’s get on with it.

Known-unknowns: we know what the problem is but not what to do about it. So we hypothesize and test until we know enough that these become known-knowns.

Unknown-unknowns: we don’t even know what the problem is let alone how to address it. These are beyond our scope of imagination so only individual decentralized action and feedback address them.

But there is one important type of knowledge that is frequently overlooked – probably because it is hard to pin down – that is the “unknown-knowns” i.e. those things we know, but aren’t aware we know them, or skills we have but either we don’t know we have them, or we can’t explain how we do them. In a sense, we know what to do even if we don’t understand the problem or know why what we do works.

This knowledge is real, but it is tacit so is hard to document and hard to transfer. Taking the example of a top athlete – they can most likely explain to you the main principles of their sport and what they need to do to train effectively – but they probably can’t tell you precisely what it is that sets them apart from other athletes who are proficient and practice all the same principles, but are not in the same elite class.

But if these things are known – but not understood, then how could we apply them in the world of development? What do we do if we can’t build a testable hypothesis around them?

In fact there are a few approaches that can be used – here are a few suggestions:

1. Look for exceptional individuals, groups an organizations to see why they are more successful. Even if they are not able to clearly articulate why they are successful – if you watch what they do ad compare to others you might be able to capture it, and derive some principles which could be applied by others. This is akin to the positive deviance approach which has been discussed a lot in recent aid blogs.

2. Mentoring and apprenticeship – by people but also between projects and organizations. Spending time with people who are competent and learning from them on the job is an age old practice, but one that now seems to be in some decline.  Learning from those who already

3. Invest in teams not just in projects. As a commenter remarked on my recent post on venture capital – angel investors usually invest in good teams as much as they do good ideas. Although this goes against our Cartesian approach to problem solving – maybe we should put together good teams that are known to be competent and creative and trust them to solve problems rather than looking at a problem as one with an engineering solution in which the people are merely “machines”  to implement a pre-defined process.

4. Find what people are good at, and have them do that. It sounds straightforward, but in practice it is rarely applied. E.g. people who are good at research often get to head up research departments and end up spending most of their time on administration!

5. Practice makes perfect. If you show potential in something and have the interest and determination to pursue it then keep on practicing it until you master it. Once you have really mastered it then you will have reached the stage when you can do much more than you can explain- when you are working at your best by using the unknown-knowns.

Footnote: For those that don’t recognize it, I’m transposing the conscious-competency model from personal development into the field of knowledge management and aid where it explains well the phenomena of those people and organizations that are effective without necessarily being consciously aware of why.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 12, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Confusing crowds with communities

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(Life of Brian on crowds)

This morning I attended the Social Media Week session “Open UN: The evolution of the crowd” (see programme and video of the event here on the UN Pulse website).

I was particularly interested in this panel since I’ve had a long standing interest in “the wisdom of crowds” and how this might be applied in development which predates my current work on knowledge management and communities of practice.

Listening to the panel discussion though I quickly realized that while the panel was notionally about crowds, in fact what most of the panelists were describing were the creation of communities, not crowds at all.  Mark Belinski of Digital Democracy even went as far as to say “Communities share info, crowds make noise”.

If we are to think about “listening to the crowd” and “crowdsourcing ” then it’s important to have a clearer understanding of the differences between crowds and communities where each occur and how we can “use” them for knowledge sharing for development.

A community is a group of people who come together to act around a common purpose or “intent”. It is also characterized by interactions and relationships between its members who are in some way dependent on one another. A community may have formalized organization and rules, or it may only have informal norms, it may be intentionally designed or it may “emerge” spontaneously. It may have clear leadership or it may have highly decentralized leadership. As I mentioned in a previous post – even if a community emerges spontaneously, over time it will develop its own rules, norms and heirarchies and methods of co-ordination. It’s not a flat leaderless structure where all members have equal influence.

A crowd by contrast is made up of individuals each pursuing their own interests. While information might emerge from a crowd it is the result of individual actions (and often each member of the crowd watching and reacting to what the others are doing) but it doesn’t have a conscious “purpose” or organization. An example might be the stock market where stock prices are set by the “crowd” of investors each making their own decisions pursuing their own goals, but from which information and order (in this case a stock price) emerges.

Often communities can emerge from crowds but they are not the same thing, and that matters. Here are a few of the implications of the differences.

1. People choose to be in communities. Communities  can represent “local ownership and participation” in the development process, and an opportunity for aid beneficiaries to have a voice. It also provides development workers with clear interlocateurs to interact with. It’s therefore clearly desirable to help foster communities and provide the means for them to self-organize and communicate and take action. BUT we should also recognize that communities establish rules and hierarchies even if these evolve over time and are not formal or explicit. This means that not all voices in a community are equal. Some members have more influence than others, and some make a greater contribution to the cause than others. Not all members of a group of beneficiaries will necessarily be willing or able to join a community or play an active part in it, and not all voices or interests are treated equally. Those with more personal influence and those who are able to put in most effort will also have more influence over the community and most likely benefit most from it.

2. Since  crowds are more passive or “purposeless” then you can’t interact with them as if they have a common voice. But a crowd can include members of beneficiary groups that don’t actively participate in any communities. Here the means to collect information from the crowd is also more passive, and it’s here where a broader sense of “information exhaust” can come into play. To understand a crowd you need to try to observe what a crowd does, and aggregate it into meaningful data. This can be by collecting and analyzing lots of micro level data on behaviour such as visits to health centres, mobile phone usage, school attendance etc. and then using analytical techniques to make sense of it. It can include collecti0n systems that require participation such as voting or opinion polls, or SMS alert systems such as Ushahidi – but in this case we need to be careful to ensure the barriers to participation are not so high as to bias the information collected. In a crowd situation generally one voice is not more important than another, or if it is this is not due to the communication and leadership skills of the contributor. Observing crowds can also be a better way to see divergent or minority views or situations within a population whereas communities often promote convergence around a single viewpoint.

A key difference here is that we collect data from crowds and interpret it ourselves often using analytical techniques to make sense of it, whereas in a community, the community itself determines the “meaning” of the information collected. Crowd data could be thought of as more “objective” since it is is based on observation, whereas community data is more subjective as it is based on the communities interpretation of its own situation, but it also gives a more contextualized understanding of the local situation.

But both of these approaches can be very valuable for development giving complementary views of the same situation by bringing together observation and participation. It’s not a question of communities versus crowds but rather making best use of each to better understand a situation, engage with beneficiaries and work together to take appropriate action.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 8, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Doing the job, or getting the job done?

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I got a bit of stick from some commenters on my recent bleg post looking for interns/volunteers to supplement the work of my under-resourced team.

One commenter remarked: “This is a shame! UNICEF should shape up and: address their internal budgeting, or stop claiming they practice knowledge management, or just pay people that work for them”

I don’t think it is that easy, for UNICEF or for me.

Our small Knowledge Management team is trying to introduce new ways of working, new tools and new techniques across the organization to help it become better at capturing, sharing and using knowledge in its work. This is not only for our own internal benefit but also to help the governments we support and the countries we work in make better use of knowledge for children.  The potential is huge, the challenges daunting and the resources we have to do it are  extremely limited.

I do believe that our team is massively under-resourced for the challenges we face and the expectations that are placed  on us from the organization. And I’d like for this to be changed and that there would be a better understanding of what it takes to do KM work well, and greater recognition for what we do.

But at the same time, we are in a period of fiscal restraint across the organization – there are multiple emerging priorities competing for limited funds, and an emphasis to focus our efforts on strengthening country operations rather than new headquarters functions.

So it’s highly unlikely we will get the kind of resources we need to do the kind of things we really need to do. This might be because we’ve not made a strong enough case for the value of what we are doing (and we’re certainly working on it), or it might be that there are just too resources to go around for an organization like ours to deal with the vast array of issues and situations we need to deal with.

So what should we do? I can see two possible paths:

1. “Doing the job” –  Do what we can with the resources we have (and no more). This means budgeting our activities carefully and only doing those for which we have an adequate budget, enough time and clear demand from our management. We still get to do things that are valuable and help the organization, but we don’t kill ourselves in the process. We fill in our plans and spreadsheets, report our results, get paid and go home to our families – doing a good job –  but not changing the world, because we don’t have the resources to do that. Of course this means that we also don’t do anything new, unless we have a clear request to do it with an adequate budget to go along with it.

2. “Getting the job done”:  try to do whatever can reasonably be done to move things forward despite the constraints. Try new things to see if they work, try to persuade the organization to do things that you think will make the organization work better, even if people are resistant and don’t initially take to them. Try to mobilize resources wherever you can including getting volunteers, interns , free trial-software, borrowed equipment. Try to bring in knowledge through external networking, try to build internal support through relentlessly engaging with people and also helping them with things that are “not your job” and are not “in your budget” but where your expertise can help. Work late. Take risks. Fail. Succeed.

I think in a large aid organization you might just be able to get away with either path. But which one do you want to do? and which one will the organization be thankful to you for in the long run?

I think despite the challenges, if you believe that what you do can make a difference, then you do what you can to get the job done (or you get another job).

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 2, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Are you going to social media week?

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Next week (7-11 February) is Social Media Week.

Hundreds of social media related events will be taking place in six cities around the world (New York, London, San Francisco, Sao Paolo, Istanbul, Hong Kong) many of which are free to attend.

A lot of them are related to use of social media for business, but there are a number of events on the New York schedule which might be of interest to people working on development or knowledge management.

Here are my picks from the New York agenda:

Citizen 2.0 – Social Media and the Future of Participatory Government, Hosted by Reboot
Monday 7, 12:00 PM
– 2:00 PM
Hosted at the People & Society Hub at The Paley Center for Media Get directions 

Part of Open UN: Engagement in the Age of Real-Time Hosted by United Nations Global Pulse
Tuesday 8, 9:00 AM
– 11:00 AM
Hosted at the Science and Technology Hub at Google Ge t directions 

Let Them Eat Tweets: Online Organizing for Real World Change, Hosted by Purpose
Tuesday 8, 2:00 PM
– 4:00 PM
Hosted at the People & Society Hub at The Paley Center for Media Get directions 

Research Gone Social: Leveraging the Web to Advance Scientific Discovery, Hosted by Mendeley
Tuesday 8, 3:00 PM
– 5:00 PM
Hosted at the Science and Technology Hub at Google Get directions
Open UN: Engagement in the Age of Real-Time, Hosted by United Nations Global Pulse
Thursday 10, 11:30 AM
– 4:30 PM
Hosted at the People & Society Hub at The Paley Center for Media Get directions 

Nonprofits Using Social Media to Close Doors?For Good, Hosted by Scott Case of Malaria No More
Friday 11, 9:30 AM
– 10:30 AM
Hosted at the People & Society Hub at The Paley Center for Media Get directions
I probably won’t make them all but I hope to at least catch the two events organized by the UN Global Pulse and Citizen 2.0. Will blog and tweet later about what I learn.


See you there? (good tweetup possibilities anyone?)

If you can’t attend in person you can also follow on twitter via hashtag  #smwnyc

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 2, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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