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