KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Creating a demand for knowledge?

with 19 comments

“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

19 Responses

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  1. I would add something along the lines of accountability. “wasting time” searching for the best method is not prioritized because it is NOT one of the measures of success. Actually, it’s not a measurement at all…

    Imagine a Dr that was not up to date with the latest developments in her field of expertise? it would be unacceptable and her reputation would suffer. This does not happen in development, as long as you don’t rock the boat, piss of the donors/country and file your reports on time you are guaranteed continuation of your career. and that just should not be enough.


    March 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm

  2. I’m really taken with this cogent essay, Ian. One of the issues we deal with all the time with our clients is the whole idea of why people won’t use knowledge, why they’ll bang about struggling with this or that half-baked approach and just not get around to taking advantage of what’s there for them. Perhaps they are afraid, because if they are forced to look at knowledge that is perhaps not as current as they would like it to be, or if they have to invest time into some additional or supplementary research, they’re just not willing.

    So to me strategic learning and awareness-raising about the corporate value of knowledge are the keys to success, just teaching (OK, sharing with) people that they’ve got to buckle down.

    Very well done, Ian. Thanks very much.

    I’ll be quoting this one, particularly your comment about why there isn’t enough time (boy, do I get tired of this one!):

    “The underlying reason is not simply that there is not enough time, but rather that knowledge as an input to the project is not being prioritized.”

    Well said, sir.

    Guy St. Clair

    March 21, 2011 at 8:57 pm

  3. Hi Ian,

    Hmmmmm. As an experiment I copy / paste your post in an editor and search / replace ‘knowledge’ for ‘information’ and to me the text made much more sense. Off course it can be me, but I tend to think that is not the case. Also I think Shaw was musing on education when talking on children in pursuit of knowledge and ‘Steal with pride’ is about learning from others.

    So, my point is; ‘knowledge’ is not something you shove towards aid workers or inventory demand for as can be done by ‘information’ and indeed is done in a lot of cases overlapping other efforts. Instead knowledge is something in between people, in peoples heads, something that has to be co-created, re-created, has multiple perspectives and indeed ‘invented here’ (I mean at the aid workers desk / practice).

    So to me ‘aid workers weren’t motivated to use that information in their work’ means they are not willing / capable / able to use their brain. Asking what information / knowledge is in demand will not help here. Rather taking them along and indeed ‘(re)invent it here’ might work better.

    Best, Jaap

    Jaap Pels

    March 22, 2011 at 5:33 am

    • Jaap – thanks for your comment.
      Of course I didn’t think Shaw was thinking of aid workers when he wrote his quote – but his point was very apt.
      What seems to me to be a challenge is for aid workers to be seeking knowledge to support them in their work.
      I don’t mean simply information since if they are to apply it they also need to contextualize it, and so I mean not only written documents, or datasets but also conversations and exchanges. And of course through applying this in their own context they are able to generate new knowledge that will benefit themselves and others. (but the problems with getting people to share their knowledge could be subject of a whole other blog post).

      Ian Thorpe

      March 22, 2011 at 6:03 am

  4. Ian – Thanks for taking this Twitter conversation a step further in an excellent piece. What I find most important about the way you’ve laid out this challenge (‘the barriers to the use of knowledge’) is that they are many and varied – one size does not fit all for how individual practitioners and organizations choose to use knowledge. Understanding the range of reasons for why available knowledge may not be used may help leaders identify the barrier(s) in their particular situation and respond accordingly.

    Bonnie Koenig

    March 27, 2011 at 4:56 pm

  5. A friend sent me word of a conference at Stanford dealing with social innovation that dealt with #CollectiveImpact
    which was really about collaboration

    Hashtag: #CollectiveImpact
    Mar 23 Conference:

    I find Not Invented Here to be pervasive.
    I’m as creative as the next person, but there’s something to be said for being willing to sing
    cover songs of artists who are better than oneself
    (and um, how to say this diplomatically, much better than what the next person has come up with.

    I’m amazed at how many development organizations erase the Millennium Development Goals by not talking about them, and are eager to ask me for money so that they can keep doing that.


    March 27, 2011 at 7:35 pm

  6. Ian

    Thanks for this.

    I am always struck by the number of calls I get from people who have a job interview and want to know what they need to know about the subject. Once they’ve got the job, I don’t hear from them again (until they are being interviewed for their next job).

    It strikes me that people know how to network and search out information when it is in their interest to do so, and (as you say) the benefits outweigh the costs.

    I really don’t think there is much we can do on the supply side of knowledge. It is the demand side that isn’t working.

    warm regards

    Owen Barder

    April 7, 2011 at 1:41 pm

  7. […] 1. There often isn’t a sufficient incentive for staff to make use of knowledge in their work due to other work pressures (see creating a demand for knowledge) […]

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  10. […] stay on top of developments in their field. Two interesting ideas I have seen recently: first, make knowledge leadership a criterion for staff evaluation in development organizations, governments and foundations as well as multilaterals. I don’t mean getting field officers to […]

  11. […] to be knowledge workers and think that knowledge is one of our biggest assets – the actual demand for knowledge (and the incentives to create and use knowledge) is not as great as we might wish. In consulting […]

  12. […] How do you create a demand for knowledge in the first place? We sometimes take it for granted that people are tripping over themselves to use our fantastic knowledge if only they could access it – but in reality this seems far from the case. […]

  13. […] But even when we have a large body of relevant, available knowledge it is not always used in decision making. It’s important to understand the reasons for these and try to tackle them along with work to increase the supply of knowledge (see my previous blog “Creating a demand for knowledge”). […]

  14. […] and encouraging changes in attitudes and practices. Some of this I covered in a past blog post on creating a demand for knowledge. In the context of programmatic and policy knowledge the barriers are often in the form of a lack […]

  15. […] just because you can create or access knowledge isn’t any guarantee it will be used (See creating a demand for knowledge for more on […]

  16. […] an environment where people are encouraged ask questions. I’ve covered this topic before under “creating a demand for knowledge”. It’s important to align our incentives to encourage (or even coerce!) people to seek and make […]

  17. […] incentives to take the time to learn from research or other experiences. (See my earlier post “creating a demand for knowledge?” for more ion the challenges of getting people to use what is already […]

  18. […] not aligned to support the use of tacit learning in our work (a much larger issue that I’ve discussed previously on this blog), and because our tendency to present everything as a success and as an […]

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