Archive for April 2011
In a previous post black and white I ranted about how most development discussions end up being very polarized. The recent scandal around Greg Mortenson, and the ensuing discussion leads me to think that the polarization is part of a larger phenomenon, a failure in our way of thinking about the world, which I’m going to call “Big Picture Syndrome”.
So my thesis – the universe is an extremely vast and complex place and our comparatively tiny brains can only really grasp a small part of it. This is a result of both any individual’s limited life experience, and their cognitive limitations.
But we need to make sense of the world we are in in order to make decisions and take actions. In order to do this we take shortcuts and make mental models of the world to help us understand and predict it. More sophisticated minds might also continually refine this model over time based on new information – but what we have is nevertheless a mental model of the world, one that is far less complex, and far less rich than the actual world we inhabit.
Humans are naturally inclined to finding mental shortcuts to explain the world – especially about those things we don’t have much direct knowledge of, and no easy means to verify. These mental models are heavily influenced by our experience which we assume is typical of the wider world, even though statistically speaking that’s unlikely to be true (for any one individual that is).
So this leads us to adopt particular positions whether it be about politics, the value of RCTs, celebrity activism, private sector involvement in aid, markets versus central plans etc.. And then we interpret subsequent experience in light of this and tend to seek to use new evidence confirm what we already believe (also known as confirmation bias). Often, only when the evidence contradicting our own beliefs becomes overwhelming and we experience “cognitive dissonance” are we willing to change our models.
A related problem is how many people react to scientific research. Researchers, quite rightly add all sorts of caveats and disclaimers to their work to explain what can and cannot be inferred from it – and usually this means that technically speaking very little can be said to be certain – but for non-experts in a field there is a desire either to over interpret the research to be much more definitive than it actually is (especially if it confirms your existing world view) or to dismiss it saying that if the researcher adds so many caveats, then it doesn’t really tell you anything with sufficient certainty to take it seriously. Until recently at least a good example as been how mainstream society, especially in the US has treated climate science research.
Another manifestation of “big picture syndrome” is how we treat “heroes”. Some people deliberately seek to be heroes, but many have this role thrust upon them. When we look at individual leaders it’s too easy to think of them as positive all round rather than as complex individuals with positive and negative characteristics and ones which vary depending on the circumstances they are in behaving honourably in one set of circumstances and dishonourably in another. This is known as the “Halo effect”. We turn a blind eye to the faults of those leaders we idealize until the evidence of their failings becomes too big to ignore – then we suddenly need to turn on them and find fault in everything they do -or to claim we always doubted them. We also often seek to personify a cause or issue by identifying individual leaders and focussing on them rather than the cause itself – since it is easier to relate to a person than an abstract concept.
Another manifestation of “big picture syndrome” is the idea that other professions from our own, especially ones we don’t understand are actually easier and less messy than our own. For example if you are not an economist. it’s hard to understand why economists don’t know more about running the economy and to have the sneaking feeling that if you studies a bit you could do a better job yourself (it can’t really be that hard can it), but if someone else were to attempt to do your job- well that’s different – it needs extensive training and experience, and even then we still don’t know many of the answers. This is probably a major reason why there are so many DIY aid workers who come into this work without real knowledge or experience.
What can be done about this? I don’t really have any good answers. Self-awareness and self-questioning- and certainly relying on the questioning of others to challenge our assumptions might be a good place to start.
Of course this whole blog post is a gross oversimplification – I hope you can live with that.
In it he makes well the case that aid blogs do have an important role because they provide an opportunity for those interested in aid to hear the truth about how the aid world works in practice from aid workers “on front lines”. In particular they present an unvarnished truth that you never see presented in official communications and rarely in the media. This is an important role, one which J and others play an important part in fulfilling.
But I have a slightly different take on why aid blogging matters – informed partially no doubt because while I’m blogging – I’m not a front line aid worker anonymously sending dispatches on the real situation in the field – and it seems a lot of other aid bloggers aren’t either – and I hope we are not wasting our time.
In particular J asserts that:
All of the cutting edge technical conversations in aid – the real ones – are happening elsewhere. In real life, mostly.
He further goes on to say:
But if you know how and where to look it is possible to find most everything you could ever want in the way of existing industry standards, best practices, and so on. I’ve yet to see an aid blog that fills any real void in the technical conversation, let alone really pushes the envelope. We don’t need blogs to tell us the objective facts so much, or to educate us about techniques.
I respectfully disagree. I see several areas where aid blogging can play an important role in advancing technical thinking, and also in helping diffuse that knowledge and get it applied in practice. Blogging on technical issues can:
1. Help highlight important but obscure development knowledge and bring it to a broader attention both among aid workers and development experts and potentially broader audiences such as journalists, people thinking of setting up their own NGOs, potential donors/funders etc. Blogs play a role in helping bring this information to wider attention and also in “humanizing” this information to make it more interesting and relevant. This can make in much more likely that it will be found and actually be used.
2. Blogging, and commenting on blogs can help connect people working in similar areas on similar topics who might not already be connected. It can allow them to share knowledge and also publicly debate approaches in ways that don’t happen behind closed doors in programming or cluster meetings. It doesn’t work equally well in all areas of development, and hasn’t reached its potential, but there are a number of areas where technical exchange and debate does happen online, examples of which include ICT for Development, development economics and it’s application in the real world and to a lesser extent evaluation and research techniques. This type of exchange also has the advantage that it is real-time.
3. Aid blogs are also a form of personal advocacy for those issues that bloggers care about whether they be the need for a reality check in aid from the front lines, or some obscure corner of methodology used in Knowledge Management . I think many aid bloggers blog because they believe have some insight, knowledge or opinion that they feel ought to be taken into account by others in to improve aid work, but for which there isn’t an existing channel for them to get their message out, or to engage with other like minded, or even opposed individuals.
Of course whether anyone is listening to aid blogs, and whether it has any impact on others depends on the quality and relevance of what the blogger has to say, as well as how well they can make their case. And J is right that many of the technical discussions don’t take place on blogs but elsewhere – but I think blogs and other social media are becoming more important as alternative ways of disseminating technical information and using it to engage with others and influence them and be influenced by it. I know if my knowledge management work I’m influenced a lot by material and ideas I find from blogs, and I think this gives me a “knowledge advantage” over other colleagues who aren’t using this means to inform their thinking.
I’m pleased to feature my first guest post by KM fellow traveller Giulio Quaggiotto who is Knowledge Management Practice Leader in UNDP’s Bratislava Regional Centre. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNDP. You can follow Giulio on Twitter (@gquaggiotto).
In my experience, one of the big challenges that the introduction of social media presents for organizations is that of coming up with a coherent picture for time-strapped end users who did not drink the web 2.0 coolaid and are struggling to cope with information overload (see here for the latest, scary chart!).
Part of the problem has to do with the fragmentation of the social collaboration agenda: typically, external relations departments are concerned with “pushing the message” through the likes of Facebook and Twitter. KM folks are mostly concerned with internal collaboration platforms. IT departments promote tools for information management that increasingly have integrated social features. Enterpreneurial users experiment on their own with the likes of mobile phones or document management systems. No wonder business users can get lost!
To add to the pressure, an increasing number of commercial technologies are available on the market that staff typically adopt for work purposes. According to a recent piece of research, 95% of information workers use self-purchased technology for work. This not only adds to the tools overload, but generates expectations that the solutions available in-house are as user-friendly and rapidly evolving as the commercial tools (which is typically not the case).
A possible approach that, in my experience, can work to avoid the “religious wars” over tools and confusing end-users is to reframe the discussion from selling an IT solution to building a (social collaboration) competence/capability. The argument goes more or less like this: the problems our staff is facing are increasingly complex and demand real-time solutions. There is an overwhelming plethora of tools available (both within and outside the enterprise) and information overload is only going to increase. The ability to quickly network your way around to find answers to your questions and build a personal brand that stands out from the clutter is increasingly going to be a differentiator for good performance and career progression. How can we equip our colleagues with the skills to collaborate effectively in a networked, socially engaged. organization; establish effective filters against the info glut and understand which tool (among many) is the best solution for their business problem? In other words: can we build social collaboration capability across our organisation? (this is quite different from saying “let me tell you why my tool is the best solution for you”:-) ).
I’ve come across a number of organizations that have developed an internal social collaboration competency framework which they are using not only for professional development but also, increasingly, for recruitment purposes (the argument being – we want to hire new staff with this set of skills).
So, what would the building blocks of a social collaboration competence framework look like? Below is just a very initial set of ideas (in no particular order) – would be grateful for any comments/suggestions.
1) Building a personal brand online – staff take interest in maintaining their image online
- Maintaining a profile on different tools
- Finding one’s tone, personality online
- Telling about oneself and one’s work
- Associating oneself with groups
- Being interesting -How to develop an audience
- When and where to jump in the conversation
2) Effective online interactions/managing online conversations
- Acknowledging others and their contributions
- Asking the right questions
- Rating, voting, digging, social bookmarking
- Sharing other’s content and contributions
- Managing conflict online
3) Online security and safety – staff are able to maintain a secure online presence:
- Understanding security settings on various platforms
- Feeling comfortable and in control with what you share online
- Spamming, fishing, malware
- Private vs professional
- Corporate policies
4) Setting filters & Effective listening
- Who to follow and where
- How to monitor what is being said about you and your work
- How to react to negative/positive comments
- RSS, dashboards
5) Picking the right tool for the right job
- Analysing the business need (routine?; complex? One-off?)
- Internal vs external; confidential vs open
- Being aware of the tools (blogs, wikis, facebook, twitter, teamworks, etc)
I’ve spent much of the past few years trying to persuade and train colleagues to use various forms of online communication in order to better share knowledge. At times been an uphill battle with only modest support from organizational management (go ahead – but don’t spend too much time and money on it). But interest and momentum is building, and given the current financial climate and the resulting increased focus on cost-efficiency, senior management is now paying more attention to the potential use of electronic communication tools such as our online communities or greater use of webinars (or even the phone).
But before we get too carried away with the potential of virtual communication and collaboration, including with people we have never met or worked with before – it’s important not to forget the importance of interaction “in real life” too.
Face to face interaction, where it’s possible, still trumps social media, telephone, e-mail, web-chat or any other virtual means of interaction. Humans are hard-wired for face-to-face interaction. A large part of our communication face to face is carried through non-verbal cues, and subtle intonations of the voice – facets that are lost in virtual communication. “Putting a face to a name” helps us relate to our interlocateur as a fellow human being not just an intimidating technical expert or a faceless bureaucrat.
Collaborating with others requires trust, some of which can be built or ensured through codes of conduct, but nothing quite replaces the feeling that you get about someone’s trustworthiness and motives that comes from interacting with them in person. And I’m sure you can all relate to how it feels to write an e-mail to someone you have never met – compared to writing it to someone you have already met, even if it was at an obscure workshop a couple of years ago.
Malcolm Gladwell was also at least partly right in saying that to change the world you need to take action in the real world, not only the virtual one, and its easier to work together with people you “know” (and trust) than with people you have never met.
But in practice we work in locations across the globe, and need to collaborate with a wide range of people where working face to face isn’t an option. Travel is becoming less economically and ecologically feasible, and time is of the essence. So what can we do to ensure that we build trust and have the depth of interaction we need to share knowledge effectively? Here are a few ideas:
1. When building online communities – if possible start with some kind of face-to-face meeting at least with your core expected membership. I know that we, like others have found that people are much more willing to participate in online communities if they have had a chance to get to get to know each other and map out their common interests at the beginning of the community’s lifecycle. Ideally this will be a dedicated meeting to launch a community – but if that’s not possible – try to at least link the community launch with another existing meeting where many of the key players will be present.
2. Cut back travel if you must – but don’t cut out travel altogether. Meeting people in person is important and should be recognized more explicitly as part of doing business effectively – particularly when people start in a new position – meeting face to face with their main counterparts is an important first step in building ongoing work relations. And periodic face to face workshops of professional peers are also important. Some of the most effective knowledge sharing techniques such as world cafés, and knowledge fairs can only really work in face to face mode. Cutting back too much on these can actually be counterproductive in terms of building cohesion and promoting sharing and reuse of key organizational knowledge.
3. Remember the social – I usually find that the most valuable aspects of participation in a meeting come from outside of the formal agenda itself, over coffee breaks, during the evening meal or in the bar. In an attempt to maximise the value from a costly meeting, there is a tendency to overcram the official agenda to make sure every possible issue is covered. Yet this often leads to poor quality interactions, and a lack of follow up afterwards. It’s important to schedule adequate time just for people to catch up, to get to know each other and to have bilateral meetings. Including time for people to socialize, including evening social events, as well as using meeting methodologies that encourage people to talk to each other, including to people they don’t already know is very important to get the best out of a meeting and to build contacts that will be of use for knowledge sharing and collaboration after the meeting is finished.
4. Humanize virtual communication. Although virtual communication is not like real life, there are things you can do to make your use of these technologies more personal, and more likely to promote trust and willingness to work together. Examples of this are development of systems for online personal profiles/spaces that are managed by the individuals themselves, rather than coming from the HR system (giving people the chance to choose how they present themselves to colleagues), add pictures – online systems that include photographs rather than just an anonymous avatar also help people remember they are interacting with another human being. Don’t be afraid to include personal details, interests and observations in online systems – yes, these might not be directly connected to your work – but they do help create bonds between individuals which make working together easier. Where possible use video/webcam for interaction not just the phone, or use the phone rather than just chat – hearing a real voice and seeing a real image convey a more personal communication than simply using text.
5. Take advantage of serendipitous opportunities for meetings. This is the beauty of the tweetup or impromptu meeting – finally encountering people you have only known online in real life. It’s always good to “pop in” (preferably announced) to see people you have worked with virtually to say hello in person – even if you don’t have specific business with them. And organizing a social get together with virtual collaborators to get to know them outside a formal setting can be both fun, but it also transforms the online relationship afterwards and can make it much more productive – even if you barely talked about work when you met (and you know that if you went to the pub you ended up talking about work anyway – but this time without guard up).
6. Walk down the corridor, go for coffee. If you are in the same location it still often seems easier to write an e-mail or make a phone call rather than go down the hallway or go to the cafeteria to chat in person. I know I’m guilty of this, but it’s really worth the effort to take the time to meet in person, especially when you need to sort our differences of opinion and misunderstanding that are easily generated via e-mail exchanges. Make an effort not to hide behind technology with the mistaken impression that it will save you time, and the need to deal with people.
Technology plays an important role in helping connect people from across locations, or even within them and allows for all kinds of rich interactions that weren’t previously possible – but they are not a substitute for face to face interaction – rather they are a complement to it. For more effective knowledge sharing and collaboration it’s important to try to build in opportunities for face-to-face interaction wherever possible. And although sustained face-to face interaction is often impractical – having face to face interactions at some stage to promote relationship building can work wonders to improve the virtual interactions that happen afterwards and make them more frequent and more substantive and the connections more long lasting. And here is where I think Gladwell was wrong – yes, action needs to be taken in the real world and based on real world connections – but important connections can start virtually and be cemented by meeting face to face, or can start face to face and be sustained by online interaction. It’s not that online is better than in person, or that they are competing approaches, but that done well they are complementary and mutually reinforcing – and so we need to pay attention to both.
In the field of donations we often complain that donors are willing to provide goods to others that they wouldn’t use themselves, whether this be second hand shoes, genetically modified food aid, or peepoo bags.
But surprisingly in knowledge management we sometimes have the opposite situation. We generate or capture knowledge for use in our own programmes, but seem strangely reluctant to share it with the outside world.
Just recently I’ve been trying to increase the number of progamme innovations and lessons learned we share with the outside world. We’ve already managed to document a large number of these, but up until now we had only shared relatively few of them externally. I naively imagined that with appropriate review, we should be able to share many more, and that people would be glad to share their experiences more broadly, but have met more resistance to do this than I had anticipated.
Looking around I realize that this doesn’t just apply to the things I’m working on, but across the organization I see that we produce many knowledge products of different types, many of which don’t get shared outside the organization, and sometimes not even very widely within it. I suspect this is the case in many other development organizations too.
So, this begs the reverse question. If the knowledge we capture is good enough to be used as a basis for our own planning, decision making and implementation, then isn’t it good enough to be used by others?
A number of reasons are often given for not sharing knowledge products externally – here I’ll examine a few of the most common ones to see whether they have merit and what if anything can be done about them:
1. It’s not written/edited/designed well enough for external sharing.
It’s true that sloppy copy editing and poor layout and design can detract from the readability and credibility of our material. If we generally have high standards for our official communications then we don’t want to let down the side with poor production values.
But at the same time, poorly written materials are also not that likely to be used internally either so if the actual substance of a product is worth sharing then its worth putting in the effort to edit and present it well – if you want it to be used. If resources are stretched thin to do this – it might be better to focus on producing fewer products of higher quality – but this applies equally to internal as well as external sharing.
Design, while important, need not be elaborate and complex for all externally shared materials. It’s worth developing simple formats and designs that look good, but are simple and cheap to produce, and most importantly functional for the type of content. They will clearly look different from glossy advocacy materials and multi-media presentations – but that’s OK.
2. The contents aren’t in line with our organizational advocacy messages and policies.
Knowledge products – especially those based on research and real experience might well not neatly conform to the organizations advocacy messages. That’s OK if they are i) based on the actual evidence ii) are explained in context and iii) carry a suitable disclaimer.
I’d argue that it actually adds to the credibility of an organization if it shares experience and findings even when they are not conveniently on message. It shows that we actually care about looking at the evidence in context and that ultimately our advocacy positions will be informed by the balance of evidence from different experiences.
3. The work isn’t completed, the results are just preliminary. We should wait to share until the project has run longer.
There is both a merit in having knowledge products based on fully evaluated, completed projects. There is also a merit in sharing what we have learned, even while we are in the middle of things. It isn’t an either/or. Just as we may present things mid-way internally – we should be willing to do so externally if relevant data or learnings can be shared which might be of use to others. The key here is to explain clearly what we are sharing and what degree of evidence or reflection we have undertaken, showing what we know and what we don’t know.
4. It contains confidential or sensitive information
This can be a legitimate concern. Sometimes important knowledge is also politically sensitive and so cannot be externally shared – and in fact care should be taken when sharing it internally since material often has a way of being disclosed even if that is not the attention.
Sensitive material is far less common than it seems though. In many cases something that might be critical of a particular counterpart can be worded in such a way that the challenges or weaknesses to be addressed are clear, without being unduly negative or finger pointing – in particular by sticking to the facts and avoiding opinion and interpretation where this is likely to be contestable.
5. We’re not sure that the evidence is good enough to share externally.
This is the thing that makes me see red! If we are not sure enough to share it externally, then why are we sharing it with our own staff and expecting them to use it? If we are not satisfied with the level of evidence for the points made, then it is better to be clear about what we know and what we don’t know – with our staff as well as with outsiders. If we believe our work doesn’t stand up to real external scrutiny then we should also be cautious about sharing it internally.
On the other hand this doesn’t mean we should share something unless we are absolutely sure it is bullet-proof. Rather it means we should be clear about the purpose of what we are sharing, the evidence we have to back it up, and what the limitations of what we know are so that readers – internal and external can make their own judgements about how to use the material we share.
If something is preliminary, or is an opinion piece, or is intended for discussion (rather than conclusion) or if it is based on internal reflection, or external evaluation, or, or whatever we should say so. It doesn’t mean we can’t share it – it just means we have to tell people what it is.
As you can see, I’m not convinced by many of the common arguments for not sharing. If we want to improve our “knowledge leadership” and provide knowledge to help inform the actions of others then we have to share. Ensuring quality is a valid concern, but one we need to address in our work in general. If we start from the premise that any knowledge we generate or synthesize is intended to be shared – then we think about quality and work towards it right from the beginning.
External publication not only allows us to share what we have learned with others, (and also in the case of positive experiences to help publicize work we are proud of), it also exposes our work to external scrutiny which will help make it (and our organization’s work) better. It also opens up doors to enlist external contributors and new partnerships. It shows how our thinking is evolving based on our experience and new evidence and how we are contributing to this.
The knowledge we generate and synthesize is also paid for by public money, and demanded and needed by our partners, so in a sense it is not ours to keep. And in a world of scarcer resources, greater demands for transparency and increased competition as well as new partnership opportunities and new development challenges we need to be sharing more, not sharing less.
This is the organizational equivalent of living out loud.
Saundra Schimmelpfennig is organizing a countercampaign to Tom’s shoes “Day without shoes” entitled “Day without Dignity.” Here is my contribution:
People have a lot of ideas, good and not so good about how to help the poor. But often these are as much informed by the beliefs and the needs of donors, researchers and aid workers as they are the needs and desires of the people they are intended to help.
Yet the poor themselves have needs, desires and hopes. They also have valuable insights into their situation and local knowledge about what might or might not work to improve it, or what it would take to introduce new ideas from the outside.
Even without these insights, surely the poor have right to a voice, to say what they want, and what they think about what is being done for them in their name.
But isn’t it hard to know what the poor really want, or what they think about our work? While it might not be easy, there are in fact many ways that we can listen to the poor. Here are just a few examples, most of which don’t involve sophisticated social media or “crowd-sorcery”:
Participatory qualitative research:
Beneficiary feedback surveys:
Complaints and anti-corruption mechanisms
Local partner surveys:
Other feedback mechanisms and tools
And this is just a few examples – saying nothing of the possibilities offered by use of emerging technologies such as social media, cellphones, open data etc. So why don’t we do this more?
On the other hand, perhaps we should just give them free shoes?
I was looking though the archives of our internal blogs and I found this interesting article (author unknown) – original post date April 1, 2007 prepared as part of our organizational review process. I wonder what happened to this innovative idea.
One of the major challenges in developing an effective knowledge sharing system is an established mind-set or organizational culture of being unwilling to share information, and the idea that “knowledge is power”. Traditional transparent, participatory and horizontal KM methods offer much promise in theory, but in practice have produced sub-optimal outputs according to our monitoring and evaluation frameworks.
Because of this, much information sharing is done informally though peer to peer mechanisms based on mutual trust and reciprocity (“you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”). One of the negative aspects to this is that access to information is often incomplete or inaccurate, and the sharing is highly unequal creating “haves” and “have-nots” which is clearly a human rights issue. From an economic point of view it is also highly inefficient, as we are not able to achieve pareto optimal results to maximize the rate of return on the investment in knowledge generation.
Another related challenge is the difficulties staff face in adapting to new web 2.0 technologies. These new technologies can lead to a huge growth in information sharing, but also accentuates the digital divide between the haves (those with Blackberries) and the have-nots (the rest of us). This can inadvertantly lead to loss of important knowledge assets, such as forgetting how to use the handy “prevent copying” feature of e-mail.
Luckily we have come up with a new Web 2.0 scalable tool based on free market models of information efficiency and integration that addresses the problem of knowledge sharing but in a way that is adapted to the UN’s corporate culture.
We would like to present “Eye-Leak”. This is an E-bay like tool for on-line information sharing that combines the best features of prediction markets and online auctions.
Basically subscribers can anonymously offer pieces of information to share on the online “market”. Other subsribers who are interested in recieveing this piece of information can enter anonymous “bids” consisting of other pieces of juicy information, an “IOU a favour “, or even financial rewards which can be exchanged in a “barter mechanism.” The offerer can then select the winning bid and transact the exchange via our secure online system which uses double SSL encryption (or something like that – if we told you how we did it we would have to kill you). Those who acquire
rumours information can enter a rating to provide quality feedback. Each “information provider” will have an anonymous profile which includes their overall rating (between one and five “Assanges”) and the number of transactions.
We are piloting this tool for the organizational review and the biennium budget process. Participation is open to all staff with series 100 contracts, and consultants and temporary staff who can demonstrate their commitment to the core values of the UN by submission of forms A-111 though Z-999 in triplicate (sorry these are not available online) and a bottle of whisky to the site founder. To request your anonymous profile and start leveraging your intellectual capital please follow this link.