KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for March 2011

Diversity, community and knowledge management

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We all know diversity is a good thing right? Yet in practice I’m sure we often find it easier to work with people who are more like us – who share similar customs and beliefs, come from the same educational or professional background, or agree with us on the “big issues”. So if we value diversity – but secretly prefer to stay in our comfort zone – does it matter, and if so what should we do? And what if anything does this have to do with knowledge management?

I’m a big fan of the “Wisdom of Crowds” and the idea that groups of people know much more than individuals – even when those individuals are “renowned experts”. Our work on developing communities of practice is based in part on this belief (and builds on lots of evidence of the successful use of this approach from other organizations).

Working in groups is not always easy though. It is especially hard when there is no agreed agenda and the group members each have their own ideas about the direction and purpose of the group and what it should be doing. Of course it’s much easier when everyone shares similar objectives and perspectives on a problem and then can just “get on with it”.

In practice it’s often easier to put together communities that you know will work together well in which there will be little dissent. People in your own Section, your friends/contacts, people in your profession – people from the same socio-economic background, nationality etc. Groups often form this way spontaneously without this being intended since people seek out others they like, can relate to or understand or share a common language or tools to examine an issue.  But forming a community (or letting it spontaneously form) is not any guarantee that this “Wisdom of Crowds” will emerge.

A key component of effective communities is diversity, otherwise they risk becoming knowledge silos. What I mean by this is diversity of opinion, philosophy, life experience, professional discipline, approaches, rather than the more frequently used categories of gender, nationality or socio-economic background (but these are also important too since they affect our views and approaches more than we probably admit). Without it we can easily forget that other people don’t see the issue the same way we do, or we can miss key information and insights into the issue we are trying to address.

According to James Surowiecki, Diversity and Independence (meaning people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them i.e. they not only think differently but are willing to say so) are two of the necessary conditions in order for groups to be smart. But if we accept this as a general principle it does pose a few challenges/questions:

  • How do we put together groups with the right kind of diversity? How much diversity do we need? How do we deal with wanting to support those with passion and common purpose and integrating those who may be more skeptical (because of what they can bring)?
  • How do we encourage those with different views to express them, especially in a hierarchy where people don’t feel comfortable expressing dissent?
  • How do we manage diverse ideas and priorities and still stay focussed and effective (and not have too many cooks spoiling the broth)?

I don’t have all the answers to this, but in the context of managing communities of practice I have a few suggestions:

1. Try to be inclusive and representative when setting up your community and recruiting champions. Try to include people from different geographical locations, technical backgrounds, level of experience and also issues such as gender, nationality and grade/level. This is important because how you look at the beginning affects how well you can attract new members. If your community looks like an rich country old-boys club then people who don’t fit this image won’t feel comfortable to join and participate.

2. Encourage and support community members to express dissenting views, defending them if needed. This needs you to be sensitive to where there might be quieter community members who don’t agree with the majority. Help connect the dissenters together to give them mutual support.

3. Bring in outside perspectives by having guest contributors and guest moderators. Pick ones that challenge the conventional wisdom of the group.

4. Stir the pot yourself – if the conversation is too narrow or self-congratulatory and the few dissenting voices don’t feel comfortable to participate you might need to stir things up yourself. One way is to post academic or news articles, or contrarian examples that challenge the group consensus and try to stimulate debate around the issues raised.

5. Stage debates – deliberately set up debates and ask people to take up and defend particular positions, even ones that they don’t fully agree with – just as a thought exercise to help clarify their views.

6. Cross post the same query to different communities to try to get different perspectives on the same issue.

7. Publish community outputs and share them publicly and with other groups and organizations in order to encourage review and feedback.

8. Focus on common ground not on consensus. When summarizing or concluding a discussion we often seek consensus, and are willing to compromise or split the difference in order to achieve it. This can leave everyone dissatisfied. It can be more productive to identify those areas of agreement – the “common ground” and to agree to disagree on those areas where there are differences – and let the differences of opinion or approach stand.

The key to all of this is for the facilitators and community champions to actively seek diversity within their community – and to keep asking themselves whether they are getting it.

Any thoughts?

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 31, 2011 at 8:50 am

Online communities: silo breakers or silo makers?

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Jennifer Lentfer has compiled an excellent resource – a list of over 80 development related online communities over on her site How Matters.

When she tweeted it, this led to an interesting exchange between her and @cynan_sez about whether having so many communities is a good thing, and whether this isn’t just creating more silos.

This relates well to something I’ve been meaning to write for a while about whether online communities help break down knowledge silos or are they just creating new ones. As usual the answer is a bit of both.


Most large aid organizations are divided by function, organizational unit and geographic location. The hierarchical structures make it very difficult for information to flow around the organization to where it can be useful, and it can be even harder for people to connect to each other to directly share experience and help one another. Introducing online communities provides a opportunity for people to connect across these boundaries – silo busting! Making this work will require a lot more having a technological platform though since getting people who don’t know each other, and who don’t normally communicate to trust each other and start sharing in full sight of others is a challenging (if rewarding) task.

But you don’t usually make a community of all of your staff (Yammer notwithstanding). Most communities form around topics or themes and sometimes also geography. This way a group is of a manageable size and has enough of a common interest or purpose for collaboration to make sense. But at the same time the communities are then a sort of subject matter silo, since only those with expertise or interest in a topic will join. Some communities are selective about who can join – this is good to ensure quality and relevance of the exchange – but is negative in the sense  that you are less likely to get fresh perspectives from people from other disciplines or experiences.

Of course a problem with internal communities is that your organization is also a silo. Often (usually?) the best expertise on a topic is outside your organization.  But getting people to be willing to interact with each other and collaborate across organizational boundaries is harder then getting them to do it behind the firewall. Worthwhile if you can get it going, but harder to start, and perhaps a little less frank. Again communities form around topics or themes (or in community jargon “domains“). These are also in a sense subject matter silos since they combine people with common interests or challenges – but also are at risk of group-think if they draw on too narrow a set of experiences or viewpoints.

How communities are managed matters – how inclusive/exclusive are they, and how well do they bring in diverse voices into discussion before looking for consensus or common ground, and how well do they capture exchanges into written summaries, and how readily do they share them outside the community. Size also matters, since a community can only tap into the knowledge of its members, so if the group is too small or homogeneous then the knowledge generated and shared may be too limited. Managing communities to balance common identity while encouraging diversity to deepen the exchange is a difficult balance and will be the topic of an upcoming blog post.

Another challenge with external communities is the “me too” syndrome. Yes, there might already be an online community related to my topic of interest but it’s too theoretical, too exclusive, too small, too much US influenced, not quite on the right subject focus, I could do it better, I don’t like person/organization x who is leading the community, our organization needs to be seen to be leading this topic etc., etc. So people set up their own community that meets their needs. This in part also explains the large proliferation of communities many of which in theory at least overlap.

I’ve heard people argue that we can avoid silos by using the large public social networks such as facebook or linkedin. Alas if you look at how people self-organize on these platforms they also produce multiple communities and groups that often overlap in substance but don’t connect with one another. In fact the ease of creating groups on these platforms and the closed nature of the relationships in them helps silos and closed grouping to form since you only see content from colleagues/friends i.e people you already know or groups you join and both parties have to agree to enter into a knowledge sharing relationship.

Technology platforms are themselves a kind of silo since they make it harder for people to span across communities if they have to learn and log into multiple systems to participate.

Human beings by nature naturally form into groups which develop group identities and which also have ways of establishing who is a member and who is not, which therefore deliberately exist to exclude others. There are also limits on how many relationships we can actively manage and how many people we can keep track of (the much discussed Dunbar’s number). So human beings naturally form relationship and collaboration silos just because of our cognitive limits.

What online communities (and also social networking) offer is the possibility to build transversal silos i.e. ones that cross traditional barriers to communication and collaboration such as geography or heirarchy.  These are based on affinity and common purpose rather than superimposed structures. Particularly important is that as an individual you can be a member of several different communities (a knowledge manager, an aid worker, an englishman, a  UN staffer, a father, a former statistician etc.).  People who span multiple different communities play a key role in avoiding silo thinking by  transferring knowledge from one community to another, which can as important for generating new knowledge than the interactions between those at the core of the community.

Making different communities findable can also help reduce the risks of duplication and disconnection – so efforts like Jennifer’s list play an important role in making it possible for people to find communities and connect them together – if they choose to do so. If communities (and their content) are more visible to each other and to potential members then it’s more likely they will collaborate, and also more likely that people will gravitate to those communities that really generate value – with the best communities thriving and the less valuable ones disappearing, through competition and natural selection (yes I had to bring in evolution somewhere).

In conclusion, communities (and the fact that there are so many of them) are in a sense silos, and this reflects human nature and the need to participate in groups which are defined both by inclusion and exclusion. But communities are a much better type of silo than traditional business or societally constructed silos because they span a broader range of people and locations. The online aspect in particular is key in spanning geographic barriers and allowing people to find each other and interact across large distances. Good community management can help make them more open, or at least porous to outside ideas and participants. Making communities visible can help foster collaboration and competition such that the best communities (those that generate value and share knowledge) thrive.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 29, 2011 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Yammer: lessons I learned

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I frequently get queries from people asking me about our use of and experiences with Yammer. In the spirit of knowledge sharing, I’m going to put some of my observations here in a blog post. My comments are from the point of view of someone working in an aid organization – but much of this would apply more generally.

Disclaimer: Yammer was introduced and is managed by our internal communication team – not by the KM team, so I can’t speak to our official position on the tool, nor why or how we introduced it. But I get asked a lot about it because I’m probably its biggest user, maybe even its biggest promoter in house.

So here goes:

Lessons I learned on Yammer

Yammer, for those not familiar with it, is an internal microblogging platform. Kind of like twitter but behind the firewall (and without the 140 character limit). It’s a great tool for connecting people in real time, especially in large organizations spread across the globe.

It’s easy to set up for your organization (maybe too easy). Anyone in an organization can set up a Yammer account for their organization if one doesn’t exist already. They are set up by domain, so anyone who has the same corporate e-mail domain can join.  The trick is that to get all the cool admin features that you need to make this work well, you need to pay, and if you are a large organization the cost could rack up quite quickly at $5 per user/per month (but with discounts for not-for-profits).  Since anyone could start a network – maybe someone has already started on in your organization and you don’t even know about it.

Although it’s secure to logged in members with you organization’s e-mail domain, it’s externally hosted, so it’s not run by your IT department. They are probably going to feel uncomfortable with that since they aren’t able to control it or support it or feel 100% sure that the data is secure. But the stuff that people share  is rarely mission critical not highly sensitive, so this is less of a problem in practice than in theory.  That said, I wouldn’t use it as a means to share “diplomatic cables” for example. Another downside of the external hosting is that it is yet another logon, and it doesn’t integrate with your internal systems – a potential barrier to getting people to use it.

It’s a very powerful tool that is easy to use, and also allows you to participate via web, desktop application, e-mail, smartphone and SMS. You can easy get started with sharing things and discovering what others have shared. It allows image and document uploads, polls, RSS feeds and other cool features. It might well be slicker and quicker to learn than anything you have that is home grown or bought from Micros**t or any other big vendor – unless you are a tech startup yourselves.

While its easy to set up and use from a technological standpoint, getting people to use it and understand what you can do with it in your typical aid organization is a whole other issue unless you work at a place where the staff wear ripped jeans or black polo necks to work. When we first started using it, and spreading the word we got a lot of sign-ups but most people updated their status once then never came back. We  have a hard core of regular users and recently (now after 2 years) usage is really starting to pick up – but it’s going to be hard to get those one time visitors to come back again.

In hindsight “build it and they will come” doesn’t necessarily work inside a technology challenged organization. What would have been good was to be more proactive in identifying and demonstrating particular ways it could be used. A few of the more obvious uses include:

  • Status updates on what you are working on –  and also encourage people to reach out to you to contribute.
  • Promoting your work  (and yourself) – by sharing your any reports, products or other outputs you have produced, or events you are organizing.
  • Live reporting on meetings – giving timely snippets of key conclusions or good sound-bites to both help document the meeting in real time and share what’s happening with those who can’t be there in person. This works best when it’s not just one person doing it though.
  • Sharing links to interesting articles you think might be useful to your colleagues, whether internal or external – and possibly sparking a bit of debate about them.
  • Having quick exchanges of ideas and discussions with colleagues (without having a meeting, or having a long disjointed e-mail exchange where key people get missed from the conversation)
  • Asking questions and asking for help. This can range from simple factual questions, to more complex requests where Yammer would be means of finding who knows but the real exchange of experience  would happen offline.
  • Get to know and connect with your colleagues better – by finding out what they do, what they know and what they are interested in.

We would probably have done better if we consciously worked with interested teams to demonstrate how the tool could be used for these purposes, and also did more to encourage and support champions who are promoting its use. I think once people see first hand how it can be useful then they are less resistant.

Drinking from the social media firehose: one complaint from some quarters is that there is too much noise with too many potentially irrelevant updates. With the current level of usage this isn’t much of a problem, but if it really takes off then people are going to need guidance on how to use it effectively including how to select who to follow, how to use hashtags, and how to speed/skim read so members don’t feel that they need to read everything. One or two users have suggested that we need to tell people to make sure their contributions are “relevant” and encourage people to share less. I personally don’t buy this. What’s relevant to me is different from what is relevant to other colleagues.   I think it’s more that people need to get used to this new form of communication and how it works, and to get better at filtering what they take in.

Groups are less useful than they seem. Yammer allows you to create private groups for smaller discussions. People like this feature and have created hundreds of theme groups, most of which are hardly used. That’s because the benefit of Yammer is reaching out to people outside existing silos, and the serendipity of discovering common interests. If you create a group you are hiding away from this discovery and your message is much less likely to get a response. An exception to this might be if you set up a group for private discussion around a fixed time project such as a pre-defined team working on a report, or meeting participants using it to interact with each other – we have been able to use groups effectively this way on a few occasions.

Yammer’s marketing is annoying – they do things like sending e-mails to members saying things like “we can see you are highly influential within your network” why not do x. This just creeps people out and makes them think they are being spied on. I wish they would stop doing this.

It’s a tool of the moment. It’s good for real time interaction – but not as a place to store documents or conversations to come back to afterwards. It does keep everything, and it has a search which works better when people add tags to their messages (which they almost never do) but it is really structured as a stream of consciousness, like Twitter is, so Yammer is not your tool if you want to be able to capture and distil all that tacit knowledge later. It’s really about sharing materials, discussing and answering questions “right now”.

How big is your network? A benefit of Yammer is that it is restricted to your organization, so it is a safe space to talk to one another and to say things you might not want to share publicly. But that is also a drawback. One challenge of any knowledge sharing tool that is restricted to your organization is that you can only tap into the knowledge and expertise of the people you have. On many issues the best expertise is outside your organization (sorry), and Yammer can’t put you in touch with them. And within the organization there are also important network effects too. The larger the organization, and the higher the level of adoption then the more value you will get. If the people you need to talk to are not on Yammer, then you need to connect to them in some other way. But there is a virtuous circle once you get enough people on board since the more people are there the more interesting it is for others to join.

Yammer is not the only tool out there but it is the biggest and most well known. There are other similar tools offered by other companies. Socialcast is one of the larger rivals and from what I’ve seen is very nice (The 2.0 Adoption council uses it so I’ve had a chance to use it there). StatusNet and allow you to install and configure microblogging on your own server without your own domain, I’ve not used these so can’t comment directly on how good they are. There are many others – here is one list. Most enterprise collaboration tools and even ERPs are also scrambling to incorporate some microblogging feature within their existing platforms, although one of the attraction of microblogging is simplicity, so mixing it in with SAP, Sharepoint, Salesforce or some other big tool will probably take away some of the appeal and make it more cumbersome, in order to achieve integration.

My final take-away – I love microblogging (look at how much I share on Twitter) and I believe it can have great potential inside the workplace too – but you need to know what you are getting yourself in for, you need to work hard at supporting users to understand it and use it effectively, and you need patience. Yammer is a great place to start – but there are many other tools on the market now to choose from so ask around, and negotiate well.

Any comments/questions? (Happy to continue the discussion in the comments for the benefit of others curious about the possibilities of microblogging inside aid organizations)

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Creating a demand for knowledge?

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“What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” – George Bernard Shaw

When Owen Barder spoke to UNICEF earlier this year he said something very intriguing about knowledge and development. His contention was that the biggest problem for aid workers was not that we didn’t have enough knowledge, or that the knowledge we have wasn’t well disseminated, but that aid workers weren’t motivated to use that knowledge in their work. When I look at what we are doing, what people said they want us to do for them, and then what they actually do with what we provide, I’m led to believe that he might be right. We often focus knowledge management work on either i) collecting more knowledge – more lessons, more stories, more research or ii) dissemination – trying to get out what knowledge we have through better promotion and dissemination (see Nick Milton’s 4 roles for the KM team).

But I wonder, if it’s true that many aid workers don’t actually look for or use knowledge more in doing their work – then maybe we need to do more to build the demand for knowledge rather than supporting improved supply. What are some of the reasons why the demand for knowledge might not be what we would expect it to be?

Below I look at some of the reasons people give, three of which can help guide your KM activities, and a fourth which is not what it seems, and a fifth reason people don’t admit at all.

Four main reasons people give for not using knowledge are:

1. The knowledge needed doesn’t exist, or isn’t sufficiently reliable to act upon – to which the answer is of course “more research needed”. But at the same time, this is a poor excuse not to use what knowledge is already out there. Another version of this is “the knowledge we have isn’t relevant”. Here it’s important to listen to what frontline users of knowledge need and try to support them to obtain it. In the longer term some sort of knowledge mapping comparing user needs with what is being provided, is useful here so that you can then also make a plan to address the gaps.

2. The knowledge is too difficult or time consuming to find when you need it – to which the answer appears to be to better organize knowledge to make it easier to find (especially using tools such as knowledge taxonomies, better search, social search, help-desks and communities). Another approach might be give people better skills in searching for the things they need themselves – i.e. personal knowledge management.

3. The knowledge is not in the format to be easily usable – I have a lot of sympathy for this one. Often knowledge products (especially research papers) are not written with the user in mind – in particular they might be overly long, unnecessarily laden with jargon, and lacking in a good summary of the key points. Packaging knowledge to meet the needs of users – both so they find it interesting and readable in the first place, and then easy to navigate and act upon when it is needed – are important skills of the good knowledge manager. Getting feedback from users, and also asking and observing how they actually use knowledge is key.

4. Not enough time  to read – This is the one answer that is not what it first appears. Of course we are all busy, trying to meet lots of competing demands, and identifying knowledge needs, filling them and then acting on them are time consuming. BUT if knowledge is important to doing the project well, then why is there not time? The underlying reason is not simply that there is not enough time, but rather than knowledge as an input to the project is not being prioritized.

There is an opportunity cost to the time taken to seeking and using knowledge which needs to be weighed up against other activities and if knowledge doesn’t make enough of a difference in the outcome compared to the time spent on other activities – then perhaps it’s not a problem. BUT I believe the equation in many project managers’ minds is not about outcomes as much as it is about incentives and risks. If you are an aid project manager under multiple pressures, then you will most likely respond to those which give you greatest obvious gain (the “low hanging fruit”), or which you need to mitigate to avoid the greatest risk.

In the world of frequent programe audits, donor reports, and complex planning and reporting procedures, possibly working in a country which has hmmm “governance issues” then some of the biggest risks are a bad audit, a bad media story or an unhappy donor. And if your knowledge tells you that to really get the impact you need, you have to rock the boat a little in country then your next risk is unhappy government counterparts (and in the worst case scenario a one-way plane ticket).

The funding and budgetary systems of aid organizations also hamper use of knowledge. There is intense pressure to spend money within fixed, often annual deadlines – and performance is often measured by “implementation rates”. It’s easier to spend the money if you don’t take the time to look for new knowledge, or try to do things you haven’t done before which are inevitably harder to budget accurately and harder to get started or run without setbacks.

As a country office manager you are much more likely to get in trouble for not having your reports in on time, not spending your budget, sloppy administration, or getting into trouble with the government than you are for not using the best available knowledge to run your programmes – especially if the best knowledge is telling you that you need to change the way you are doing things away from the programme you know how to run well and which your counterparts are comfortable with. Especially when changing your programme might make it a bit harder to get your reports in on time, or make it more likely someone will criticize what you are doing in the media.

The answer to this challenge is a little more difficult than the others, and can really only be addressed by leadership. At an organizational level by making it clear that knowledge leadership is one of the benchmarks against which organizational performance and individual performance will be assessed, and putting in systems to make this a reality. By personal leadership – through top management walking the talk by holding the organization to account in reality, as well as modelling the types of behaviours they demand from others. By managers down the chain of command, but especially by country directors to hold themselves and their office accountable for using knowledge – and by making sensible trade offs between efficiency (spending your budget on time, filling out reports, keeping partners happy) and effectiveness (using the best available knowledge in your programmes to get the best possible outcomes – even when this takes time). It would also help if donors and beneficiaries were tougher on aid agencies to insist that they use the best available knowledge in their work.

The fifth reason why people don’t use knowledge, the one they won’t readily admit is the  “not invented here” syndrome. This is where people prefer to find the solution themselves, rather than looking at and adapting what others have already done. This could be out of a sense of competition between rival individuals or organizations, or of overconfidence in one’s own knowledge and lack of confidence in others. It might be the sense of wanting to make one’s own mark. There are techniques that can be used to help address this – arguing the value of not reinventing the wheel every time might help, but since the reasons for “not invented here” are largely non-rational, a resort to rational argument is not likely to be that persuasive. Instead you can try peer-pressure methods to make learning and sharing more acceptable than not such as Collison and Parcell’s “steal with pride” award for copying the ideas of others.

But as with “I don’t have the time”, the real remedy to “Not invented here” is leadership  – it needs to become an unacceptable practice in the organization based on the expectations and good example set by management.

So what is my conclusion with this? Demand for knowledge is at least as important as supply. If you want to stimulate demand, then you need to listen to users and find out and respond to what they need, and you also need to remove the barriers that exist to them using knowledge, some of which are KM related some of which are not. But lastly you need to pay attention to leadership. If your leadership doesn’t place value on the use of knowledge, model this by using knowledge themselves and make it clear that they will hold others accountable to do the same, then how can you expect your employees to do so.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm

The joy of Skunkworks

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“It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” – Grace Murray Hopper

When Owen Barder spoke to us earlier this year he was asked about how to create change in large aid organizations. His response was that often change needs to come in through setting up “skunkworks”, unofficial or even clandestine projects to try out new approaches which if successful can help provoke change in the larger organization. These are kind of the “black ops” of development work.

So what is skunkworks?

According to wikipedia (at least when I last looked;-)

The designation “skunk works”, or “skunkworks”, is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.

The term comes from a secret team set up during the Second World War by Lockheed Martin to develop a new fighter plane. They realized that doing this following the usual bureaucratic processes of the Air Force and the Company would take too long, and so they set up an elite team who worked on the project in secret and outside the usual working methods.

This approach has since been adopted by many large organizations who wanted to develop new products or approaches without being bogged down by the inevitable inertia and red-tape that afflict most large organizations, even highly successful ones. And given the frequent lamenting about the need for change in the aid world (my my frequent lamenting about the need for organizations to be better at sharing knowledge more effectively), this might be a means to foster change.

So how can we apply this approach in aid work?

In some cases “Skunkworks” can be set up as an official team or project with full management support – if you are luck enough to be able to convince your senior managers that you have an idea and would like to try it out, and be given a space to do so. Examples of this in the UN system include the UNICEF innovation team and UN Global Pulse, both of whom have a mandate to innovate and pilot new approaches. They are not referred to as Skunkworks and are not clandestine, but are doing work that is not typical of the UN and are managed and run more like start-ups than regular functional units. One discussion point from the recent Open UN event during social media week is that the UN needs more of these, and I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this approach would be useful in other aid organizations too.

But it’s not always possible to get a resourced project with top management support and a mandate for change (especially for knowledge management work!). So another approach is to set up your own unofficial  “skunkworks”. In this case you might not have a budget or a mandate – but if you really believe in change it might be the only way to go.

Here the basic principle is that to introduce a change, an innovation or a new approach is not to try to persuade the organization to adopt it organization wide, or to ask permission and get inputs from everyone who might have an interest or a comment on the approach – this will invariably get you stuck because it will lead everyone else to express their doubts, identify risks, add layers of complication, ask for additional research and drafts, or need an evidence based business case that proves it will work – all of which could be a problem if you are doing something new and untested.

Instead a skunkworks approach would be to:

i) come up with the basic idea

ii) get support (or at least cover) from your immediate bosses to try out the idea on a limited scale

iii) identify a few allies who are interested, or better enthusiastic  about trying out the idea in practice and who you can work with well in order to do it.

iv) consult with those people who can bring specific expertise you need, whose advice you trust and who won’t try to stop you from doing what you want to do unless they feel you really are on the wrong track. Include insiders and outsiders in this group – each has different insights to bring – both technical and political.

v) try out the idea, and be flexible about how it works, continually taking feedback and adjusting the approach based on experience and importantly the feedback of the people you are trying to help.

vi) after a sensible amount of time take stock of the experience and –  if it really isn’t working STOP doing it, document and share what you learned and move on

vii) if it works get the people who you helped to say how great it is (rather than you – their views are much more credible than yours) – then make a pitch to scale it up and get proper institutional support. BUT – a judgement call here – one pilot might not be enough, maybe you will need more before you are ready to go big.

A key here is to demonstrate that change is possible and that it contributes value in reality, before someone has time to object to it “in theory”. Then  if what you are doing is good it will create a momentum for it to continue, even if it needs to be modified to take into account other people’s opinions and the corporate culture.

What do you think – have people tried this successfully, any tips to add? Does anyone have any objection to this approach (preferably in practice rather than in theory 😉 ?

(This blog post draws both on my own experience, that of my colleagues and lots of invaluable conversations with others trying to foster change in large organizations. I’d also recommend those specifically interested in Knowledge Management to read this excellent post on “Guerrilla Knowledge Management” by Christian Young which advocates for taking a “revolutionary’s” approach to fostering knowledge management and provides lots of tips on how to do so)

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm

8 uses for social media in aid work

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As a follow up to my previous post “the future of (aid) work is social”, I wanted to elaborate a little on some of the specific areas where social media and social technologies are being or could be applied in development work. I’ve identified 8 different purposes for which these could be used, some of which are widely applied already, and others where there is much less experience but which I believe have tremendous potential.

It’s worth enumerating these since attention is often focussed on a few of these, especially the first three where there is a lot of information and expertise – but the other uses also important and should be considered by aid organizations who are developing  their social media strategy. It is also important to think about these uses when developing social media policy in order to ensure that the policy allows and fosters the greatest possible benefit can be made of these.

So here’s my list:

1. External communication – getting the word out about what your organization does:, what are the issues you are working on, why are they important, what are you doing, and what are you achieving.

2. Campaigning – taking it to the next level, raising public awareness and engaging them in taking action  about a particular issue whether it be HIV/AIDS, homophobia or child abuse. Many examples of this look at advocacy in the developed world, but there are also notable examples in the developing world too.

3. Fundraising – social media s being used increasingly as a means to raise funds, or as a means to drive people to contribute in more traditional ways.

There are lots of examples of these three uses that are well documented and shared, and there are a large number of consultants, experts and boutique firms (and a few charlatans) that specialize in these, so I don’t have anything intelligent to add to what’s already been said by others on these. They are “bread and butter”.

4. Civic engagement  this goes beyond advocacy to engage people to work collaboratively using social media to take action to improve their lives. This is not just mobilizing people to a cause but also facilitating real participation such that the direction taken and actions pursued are the work of the group, not done at the direction of an outside campaigner. Here the role of aid organizations  is to empower, provide tools, training and support rather than to persuade and direct.  Examples of this are projects such as Map Kibera a community mapping project or Sharek961 (election monitoring in Lebanon).

5. Real time data collection and response  in crisis – this is an emerging field which includes some notable examples such as Ushahidi, but which also has been the subject of some controversy. The UN Global Pulse project has been set up to  develop ways of doing this effectively  – there was a good discussion on this at the recent OpenUN panel during social media week.

6. Knowledge sharing and collaboration –  this takes place within organizations and between them. This is the bit I work on. It’s important to note that this collaboration is between individuals within organizations, not between organizations or organizational units themselves. This is what is often referred to in the private sector as Enterprise 2.0 or social business. Doing this requires a combination of development of single agency or cross agency platforms to support communities and networks, and use of public tools such as Twitter and Facebook. There are numerous challenges including cultural change in getting seasoned aid workers to move from e-mail into using these more open and realtime tools. There are also tensions between wanting to keep discussions internal to an organization in order to allow people to talk more freely and be less worried on how what they say reflects on the organization, and the benefits of being more open and being able to tap into the much wider and deeper pool of knowledge beyond the organizational boundaries. The aim of this work is to facilitate aid work by giving people access to data, knowledge, expertise and advice in real time to support them to do their work. This part is often overlooked in social media strategies which concentrate on bringing in money and keeping the message under control.

7. Creating online markets for common production – using social media to connect together people who can work together, or providing ways to share data, ideas, code towards the common good. Examples of this might be support for open source software development, hackathons, open data, open publishing, open innovation. This is, in a way, an extension of the use for knowledge sharing, but much less directed. Here the results of the collaboration are not just  the support of existing business processes and priorities but creation of new opportunities and tools which go beyond the contribution or intent of any individual or organizational contributor but create a common good to development that others can later adapt and use.

8. Accountability and beneficiary feedback – this is a really exciting, but also challenging application of social media. Many private companies, and also increasingly governments are using social media to get feedback on the quality and relevance of their offerings, to respond to complaints and to crowdsource ideas about how to improve them. But in the aid business this tends to focus on providing feedback and accountability to donors, or the media and to crowdsource ideas from academia or business startups based in the developed world – probably because that’s where the technology is, and where the money is. But what is good for donors and innovators might not be what is needed or what will work for beneficiaries. To ensure true accountability, as well as increasing the likelihood that projects will be practical and respond to real needs, there is a need to find ways to make our work more accountable in programme countries both to beneficiaries and the local partners we work with. This is an area where experience is limited  – but where approaches and lessons from civic engagement and real-time response could be highly useful. This can also be politically challenging as so far the pressures to be accountable to donors are much greater than those to be accountable to those who we are trying to help.

Examples in this area are few – something I plan to research more in the coming months. Do any of you know of any good examples of organizations who do this, or tools and approaches that have been used successfully whether for an organization as a whole, or for specific projects?

I’d be interested to get your feedback on these uses, and whether you think there are any important uses I’ve overlooked.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm

It’s not just your M and E its MyMandE too

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A brief pause for a commercial break while I’m working on my next blog post……

I wanted to bring your attention to some great work being done by my colleagues in our Evaluation Office to foster knowledge sharing around the latest approaches to Evaluation.

UNICEF together with DevInfo and IOCE founded a website MyMandE which is a  kind of social network and common repository for information on evaluation practice. This is run by the founders and a consortium of other parters who have joined since its launch.

The site features a social network of evaluators (which is actually a LinkedIn Group), a wiki on evaluation practice, a virtual library and a set of training materials. It is an “open content” initiative and so is open to participation and contributions by all.

One particular innovation (which are shamelessly copying in the KM team) is the organization of regular webinars on development s in evaluation practice which are open for participation by all, and for which the recordings are shared publicly afterwards.

Here’s a link to the list of past and upcoming webinars and details on how to participate. The webinar from earlier this week  was on evaluation of innovation in development with Steve Rochlin of AccountAbility. I’d highly recommend watching the recording. It also dominated my tweetstream on Tuesday – see an extract below:

> Recording of yesterday’s webinar on evaluating innovations in development with steve Rochlin (java viewer)
> UNICEF, Rockefeller etc . Great webinars on Emerging Practices in Development Evaluation catch up on the recordings
> For better chance of success need to reach out to beneficiaries at the outset of an innovation process.
> To evaluate innovation – need to evaluate and learn from individual innovations as well as evaluating the whole portfolio and process.
> For innovation to be successful it has to be at scale – it has to be diffused
> Need to celebrate diagnose and learn from failure, not punish it, in order to innovate
> Innovation is a contact sport. Need to go out and meet people and share ideas, even if you risk losing some of your intellectual property
> If you want to evaluate innovation, also need to evaluate organizations for how well they support innovation in reality not just in rhetoric
> Keys for innovation: top leadership, org. processes, customer focus, diffusion, collaboration and embracing failure
> Like in any discussion on evaluation – we first have to agree what we mean by innovation b4 we evaluate. Not an easy thing to agree on.
> Innovation for development is often thought of as new products/tech, but can also be process, markets or organizational innovations
I hope that whets your appetite! Check them out – the next webinar on 5 April will be on evaluating sustainable development.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 11, 2011 at 10:15 am

The future of (aid) work is social

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Private sector companies are increasingly recognizing the value of social collaboration. The video above makes a good case as to why. It’s much more than games and idle chit-chat, it’s a way to make work both more efficient, but also more innovative. But, you could easily replace “business” with “aid” and “customers” with “donors and beneficiaries” and the message would still hold true.

McKinsey also recently produced a research report  “The rise of the networked enterprise: Web 2.0 finds its payday” highlighting how companies investments in “Web 2.0” in business are starting to pay off.

But that’s all well and good in the private sector, but what about in aid? Unfortunately the aid sector has been rather slower at adopting these approaches.  There are certainly unique challenges for aid organizations:

  • We don’t have the kind of IT budgets that many large private sector organizations have.
  • Some of our more remote offices and also many of our external partners don’t have good internet access so we need to find solutions that address this such as low bandwidth tech, mobile tech and even (although I hate to say it) e-mail.
  • Large public and not for profit organizations are slow to change and adapt to new approaches and are notoriously risk averse.

But at the same time the number of type of organizations involved in the development sector is continually increasing.  Given this increasingly crowded field, large “traditional” organizations need to think more and more about what it is of unique value that they can bring to development that can’t easily be brought by smaller, younger more nimble organizations, the private sector or grass roots initiatives. There is also increasing pressure on large aid organizations to be more transparent, accountable and to demonstrate results, especially in the current environment of limited resources.

A more enthusiastic adoption of social media, and “social business” tools can offers great opportunities to address these issues head on. But to be useful, social tools need to contribute concretely to the mission of the organization – either by supporting existing work processes and making them more efficient, or by making it possible to do entirely new things that were previously impossible, but which make areal contribution to the organization’s mission. Social business is not about helping people develop their social networks, but it is a recognition that people work socially and that it is people who make plans, execute programmes and write supports and that they collaborate with others to do so. Social business tools help them to do this better – by improving their ability to locate and work with other people.

A few important applications of internally focussed “social business” include:

  • Making it easier to find internal expertise – whether it’s being able to find the right expert who can work on or provide advice to your project, or being able to find which offices or individuals have faced a similar challenge to the one you are facing and helping you to learn from their experience.
  • Making it easier to share “just in time” information and knowledge to support decisions and action – social tools can be used to provide “real-time” advice to programmes and also to help monitor progress. Unlike more traditional tools that provide warehouses of data that need to be searched through – social tools can allow real time person to person support.
  • Working collaboratively to develop new approaches and tools. Social tools can support the development of new approaches across the organization by tapping into different experience, expertise and country contexts. This can be particularly useful when developing “guidance” or “good practices” that can be used across the organization.
  • Making it easier for management to communicate and listen to (and keep on top of the pulse of) their staff. It can be used as a means to help communicate organizational priorities to staff, and also hear their views and respond to them in an authentic non bureaucratic way. This also helps build a stronger sense of community and loyalty among staff – staff morale is an often overlooked aspect of organizational performance or staff retention – social tools can actually help create a sense of belonging and engagement

In addition to these internal uses, social tools really come into their own when used to support outreach to the public and collaboration with partners. A few externally focussed applications of social  business include:

  • Educating donors and the general public about what you do – both contributing to public support to development and your organization’s mission, but also to help support your advocacy and fundraising activities and to help put a human face on your work. It’s also an important way to listen to the public and to understand how their view your mission and your organization.
  • Tapping into expertise from other organizations. While there is probably a lot of untapped expertise within your own organization – there is much. much more outside whether it be in other aid organizations,  academia and think tanks or government counterparts, grass roots NGOs or entrepreneurs. The larger your network the greater its value and the more expertise you can bring to bear on an issue.
  • Building partnerships – beyond finding expertise, social collaboration can be used to take these interactions between organizations  to the next level and help build concrete partnerships to work together on specific issues or projects. Social tools can provide an ongoing means to service these partnerships.  This is a particularly powerful way to foster greater programmatic innovation by bringing together different groups that do not normally work together such as entrepreneurs, technologists, government and local NGOs.
  • Crowdsourcing- social tools are increasingly being used as a means to mobilize people to collect data or solve problems. This can be a very valuable approach to help monitor the impacts of a crisis and serve as an early warning system (e.g. to spot localized  food price spikes), or to help mobilize people to help in a project (e.g. to get local people to help map water points and sanitary facilities in their community)
  • Help get feedback about the quality and relevance of your programmes from beneficiaries. For me this is one of the most challenging and exciting possibilities. Real “transparency and accountability” comes not just from providing data online about your activities but also listening to and engaging with those whom we seek to serve. While the technical challenges are still formidable there is tremendous potential. Examples might include getting general feedback on the public’s image and perception of the organization and its work to more specific project level feedback for example on whether the schools have been built as planned, are the facilities in good order, are the teachers in school, and are pupils learning- are these things still in place 2 or 5 years later, and how has the assistance provided changed peoples lives?

Large aid organizations in particular have a lot to gain by investing in these ideas since they are large enough to have a pool of internal expertise to tap in to, and are big enough for there to be silos and other challenges to using it effectively. Larger organizations also have the visibility and connections to allow them to do effective outreach to partner with others or engage donor country or beneficiary country publics by leveraging their brands. They are also more likely to be able to find the resources needed to set up and manage  “social business” tools and processes.

So the opportunities are huge, and the right time to do it is now. So why don’t you all just get on with it!

Post script: I just came across this great presentation by Jonathan Kopp which he made last week to our National Committees annual meeting. Unfortunately I didn’t attend the meeting – but from the  slides you can see that his recommendations reinforce a lot of what I’ve written here. I hope this is a good omen for working socially in UNICEF.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 7, 2011 at 10:15 pm

After Action Reviews – a simple low-tech learning tool anyone can use

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A brief interlude from my usual rants and thought experiments  – here’s a quick piece I did for an internal blog about after action reviews – one of the simplest and most well established knowledge management tools, but which hasn’t really caught on in UNICEF for some reason.

The After Action Review (AAR) is a structured review or de-brief process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better, by the participants and those responsible for the project or event.

The AAR was originally developed by the US Army and is a simple group learning tool that can be used by anyone, not requiring any specialized software or KM expertise. It often forms part of the KM toolkit of other organizations in both the public and private sectors – but for some reason it’s never really caught on in UNICEF.

The KS Toolkit (which UNICEF co-sponsors) has a nice explanation of the approach. Here is an extract that explains further when to use the approach and how to do it:

When to use:

* During and after a project to reveal what has been learned, reassess direction, and review both successes and challenges.
* During and after an event monitor and evaluate.

How to Use:
Learning While Doing – Time to Reflect (From Chris Collison’s Learning to Fly)

1. Hold the AAR immediately. AARs are carried out immediately whilst all of the participants are still available, and their memories are fresh. Learning can then be applied right away, even on the next day.
2. Create the right climate. The ideal climate for an AAR to be successful is one of openness and commitment to learning. Everyone should participate in an atmosphere free from the concept of seniority or rank. AARs are learning events rather than critiques. They certainly should not be treated as personal performance evaluation.
3. Appoint a facilitator. The facilitator of an AAR is not there to ?have? answers, but to help the team to ?learn? answers. People must be drawn out, both for their own learning and the group?s learning.
4. Ask “what was supposed to happen” The facilitator should start by dividing the event into discrete activities, each of which had (or should have had) an identifiable objective and plan of action. The discussion begins with the first activity: “What was supposed to happen”
5. Ask “what actually happened” This means the team must understand and agree facts about what happened. Remember, though, that the aim is to identify a problem not a culprit.
6. Now compare the plan with reality. The real learning begins as the team of teams compares the plan to what actually happened in reality and determines “Why were there differences” and “What did we learn” Identify and discuss successes and shortfalls. Put in place action plans to sustain the successes and to improve upon the shortfalls.
7. Record the key points. Recording the key elements of an AAR clarifies what happened and compares it to what was supposed to happen. It facilitates sharing of learning experiences within the team and provides the basis for a broader learning programme in the organisation.

USAID have also developed more detailed explanation and guidance.

Here is a nice blog post and video from Nick Milton (Knoco stories) that demonstrates the use of the approach in practice. He also has lots of other great stuff on AARs on his blog.

The graphic above comes from a great blog post by Chris Collison on using the AAR approach on a flight during that 15 minutes when you are not allowed to use electronics.

Are you using this approach where you work? Any useful tips or experiences to share?

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 4, 2011 at 8:50 am


with 2 comments

“And these children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds. They are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware what they are going through.”

Change is in the air, or at least in the news. So I thought I’d share a few things that have been on my mind about change and how it relates to aid and development.

Firstly, If we are really serious about eradicating poverty or reducing inequality then we will need some major changes to the way the world currently works. On a smaller scale, if we aspire to be a knowledge organization one that generates, shares and uses knowledge and empowers others to do the same we will need to make some fundamental changes in our current way of working.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can achieve what we aspire to do by incremental efforts and tinkering around the margins of the current systems. There are structural barriers in the way of where we want to go that form part of the existing system.

Secondly, as we try to promote change the system will fight back, as if change were a kind of infection. One obvious reason for this is that there are people with powerful interests in the status quo who want to maintain their current advantages and benefits. But that’s not the only reason. Many individuals in a system might be disadvantaged and want to improve things for themselves or for others – but they have to set this aside the uncertainty and personal risk of change and the predictability and comparative safety of the current situation (“a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”). So in many cases there isn’t sufficient momentum for change. The current situation is a kind of equilibrium between the various people and forces at play – not optimal, not fair, but stable. It’s therefore hard to  budget even if there are strong logical reasons and latent desire for change.

Thirdly, change can be a long time coming, but when it does it can come very quickly, and often unexpectedly, although looking retrospectively you might often see that the seeds of change were slowly building over a long period of time. What triggers change? This is the multi-billion dollar question but it is often due to small changes in the balance of risk for the disadvantaged between trying to change and not trying to change. If the level of disadvantage becomes too frustrating or difficult that people are pushed to react, if the number of people frustrated and willing to act increases to a big enough number, if people sense an opening for change in the current power structure, or are inspired by successful change elsewhere (in other countries or other organizations), or if external forces put strain on the existing system  (economic crisis, competition from other countries or other organizations, a scandal, a natural disaster).

So if we want to promote change we have to work with these factors, how do we take advantage of crisis as an opportunity to promote change, how do we help connect and mobilize people so they will demand change, or how do we inspire them by change happening elsewhere. This is a lot different from how we normally think about development assistance. It’s not just about technical interventions – creating momentum and engagement is at least as important.

Fourthly, the outcome of change is not always predictable and the new “equilibrium” reached after the change might not at all be what was expected or wanted by those pushing for the change. The greater the resistance to change by the existing system then the more likely it will be that the change will be sudden, dramatic and unpredictable in outcome. Of course this also means that the change is not always for the better, sometimes new power structures emerge that are as unfair or inefficient as the old ones, just in new ways.

This means we need to look out for unintended negative consequences of what we are doing, and also be ready to take advantage of unforseen opportunities – and quickly since once change happens it happens quickly.

Lastly, change agents are important in fostering change, but cannot make the change happen alone. Change either comes from mass mobilization of people who take action, or from the existing leadership who take steps to make change happen, or a combination of the two. In the world of aid where we are trying to support change, it can only work if the change is embraced and moved forward by the people we are seeking to help and its direction is ultimately determined by them. You can’t change someone else you can only change yourself. Similarly in the case of organizational change – you can be a change agent, but for real change to take place both leadership and rank-and-file have to take it on, not only the change agents themselves. That’s why “ownership” is so important.

In conclusion – we are not working in a technical field, we are in the change field, we should recognize it and start acting accordingly.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 3, 2011 at 8:50 am

Posted in rants, smartaid

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