KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Sharing: It’s good enough for me, but not good enough for you

with 16 comments

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.


Written by Ian Thorpe

April 7, 2011 at 8:51 am

16 Responses

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  1. Great post – I think I would argue to add a 6) “We don’t want to reveal we’re also just cooking with water”

    What do I mean? I know of projects that have an almost mystical air to themselves and try to obfuscate what is really going on with a lot of fancy language. Some I have seen examples of people trying to be “bigger than they are” and out of the fear of being discovered people don’t share what is happening. If you ask me effective KM is the sweet spot between people NOT sharing out of a feeling of inferiority and people NOT sharing out of a feeling of superiority (“knowledge is power”).

    Sebastian Rottmair

    April 7, 2011 at 9:14 am

  2. @sebastian – you make a very good point.

    One the one hand you have knowledge workers who want to make sure their evidence is bullet proof, peer-reviewed, full of qualifications, so much that they are reluctant to share or draw conclusions.
    On the other hand you have the PR people who want to sell a good story that promotes our work or our issues and will tend to use language that upsells what we did or what we know.

    I believe there is an important “missing middle” where knowledge sharing of our ongoing experience in a straightforward way than acknowledges what we know and what we don’t know, in real time, can be really valuable to help improve our work and that of our partners.

    Ian Thorpe

    April 7, 2011 at 9:33 am

    • +1 on “knowledge sharing of our ongoing experience in a straightforward way than acknowledges what we know and what we don’t know, in real time” – KM works if it is part of our Service Delivery. If we do KM as an add-on / side-effect or anything else, we will lose the battle. Only if the way we work delivers knowledge products, then we win.

      Sebastian Rottmair

      April 7, 2011 at 10:15 am

  3. Let me play devil’s advocate here, but as in R&D, knowledge is a valuable commodity that speaks to one’s comparative advantage. I would actually take a more pessimistic view of human nature here and say that a big reason people don’t share information is that they are framing things within a competitive mindset versus cooperation. When you look at game theory from this scenario, the optimal choice is to keep the information to oneself. Basically, busting through the silos requires so much more interpersonal relationships and trust building that we don’t account for in our programme and project planning. We take the view that human passions and issues are exogenous to the work at hand, but then we are surprised when personal and personnel issues deter us from our preferred outcomes. Just my 2 cents! Love it Ian!


    April 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

  4. Bloggers tend to have a very different perspective on sharing as they are used to exposing their half-thought out ideas to the whole world on a regular basis, and have experienced the benefits of this openness…


    April 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm

  5. Agree with AB there, as a way of explaining not excusing knowledge hoarding. There are potentially very large but diffuse advantages to the people you’re sharing with. But what benefit accrues to the individual whose time is taken up doing the sharing and whose name is on the shared document?

    I always hate it when people say stuff like this, but it takes a management culture that rewards success, rewards useful failure and dissent, and isn’t so much about the reward for buttoned-down nothing-ventured zero-defect types..


    April 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    • @cynan @AB – thanks for the comments. I think you are right to point out the issues around organizational and personal motivation which can constrain people’s willingness to share, and the need to take these into account – and if possible find ways to create an environment where the incentives to sharing are more compelling than the incentives for hoarding. Material for a future blog post.

      In this blog post I’m referring to a very specific situation though where the trouble has already been taken to capture/document the knowledge and even share it internally, but where there is reluctance to then share this more broadly with people outside the organization. There are of course motivational factors at work here too. But I wanted to call out a few of the reasons people use – in particular the idea that we can use things internally that we wouldn’t be prepared to stand behind externally.

      Ian Thorpe

      April 8, 2011 at 11:28 am

  6. I am one of those who believes that sharing knowledge is as good for me as it is for you! And not only do I talk the talk, but I also walk the walk. My book HOW TO THINK LIKE A KNOWLEDGE WORKER outlines the mindset needed to perform competent Knowledge Work. To share this knowledge, I gave the manuscript to the United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN) and they publish it as a freely downloadable e-book on their website (Google the title). I also have a website – – on which I share more of the same kind of material.

    William Sheridan

    April 8, 2011 at 11:15 am

  7. Challenging you on this one: often knowledge is not available externalized (information + context), in a small circle it is enough to share the information, as the context is common and known, in order to create valuable knowledge for a larger context (sharing), the context must be externalized – extra work, even more extra work, because then you need to stay updated on a bigger picture in order to create context for others (no value creating sharing, when no bigger picture is understood):


    Gerald Meinert

    April 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    • @gerald thanks for sharing – you have a good point. If I understand your linked blog post well, I think you are right that there is a trade-off between time taken to add the necessary context in order to share something externally versus the added benefit of doing so.

      My counterpoint to that would be that what I was talking about was mainly material such as project reports, lessons learned, research papers that is already being shared beyond an immediate small group within the organization, but not yet externally. In that case while there might be some additional context to be added before external sharing, but not that much compared to what it already contains, and hopefully more than offset by the additional benefit.

      Working in a publicly funded organization I’d also argue that we have some degree of responsibility to the knowledge we generate available beyond the organization as a global public good, even if this means we need to make a little extra effort to contextualize it. In the case of development work I’d argue that value of the knowledge we generate is almost always much beyond what we can do with it within our own organization, and our aim should be to make sure we contribute to global not just personalized knowledge in the areas we work in.

      Ian Thorpe

      April 12, 2011 at 2:52 pm

  8. […] Sharing: It’s good enough for me, but not good enough for you – KM on a Dollar a Day […]

  9. […] 2. There is often a reluctance to share valuable knowledge externally (see sharing: it’s good enough for me but not good enough to you) […]

  10. […] In a similar vein, Ian Thorpe has noted in his KM on a dollar a day blog the following reasons why people won’t share information: […]

  11. […] on their public website, or on other public websites and is thus searchable by Google. I’ve argued before that more of this should be available publicly – but right now it isn’t so you […]

  12. […] on their public website, or on other public websites and is thus searchable by Google. I’ve argued before that more of this should be available publicly – but right now it isn’t so you […]

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