KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for May 2011

Organizational change as struggle

with 5 comments

The blog laptop burns had a great post last week “Development as struggle”  which talked about how the biggest force for development and for societal change is people and people’s organizations, as opposed to development aid and state institutions which are the more frequent focus of development discourse.

I’m stretching a metaphor a little here, but I’d argue that people and their networks are also the biggest force for successful change within organizations, yet many change management exercises focus on changes to formal reporting lines and structures and business process reengineering rather than in mobilizing people and informal networks within the organization.

I’ve experienced a wide range of change management exercises in my working life and observed or heard about many others. One things I’ve noticed is that organizations, and the people within them can be not only resistant to change, but are adept at seeming to go along with change, and talking the talk but over time undermining the change or getting around them and reverting to the status quo – or at best dressing up their existing projects and behaviours in the language of change while in reality changing little in what they do and why they do it. I believe a major reason for this resistance is that the people side of change is not adequately addressed.

Don’t get me wrong, having a good supporting organizational structure in place is important, as is redefining current business processes to institutionalize and operationalize the changes you want to make. BUT the change can easily become about going through the motions if your employees don’t understand the change and why its needed, don’t believe in it, don’t see what’s in it for them, and think that if they wait long enough it will go away.

Trying to engineer change by restructuring alone is often disruptive and leads to staff insecurity about their work and their positions, even fear – the last thing you need when you want them to buy into and focus on doing something new since it leaves them feeling disempowered rather than motivated. Instead if you want to get real change you need :

  • Inspiring leaders who are responsible for providing vision and direction for the change.
  • Champions for the change across the organization, especially outside those parts of the organization which are formally identified as leading the change. Real champions can be much more convincing and credible than those who are managing the initiative itself.
  • Conversation and feedback across the organization to help spread the work and explain the change.
  • Inclusivity – give people the opportunity to feel part of the change and to contribute towards it whatever their formal roles – giving their own ideas about how it should be rolled out, and let them be recognized for it. This also requires giving up absolute control of how the change will turn out.
  • Use of existing networks of people to spread the word and get them on board – including co-opting of the skeptical as your spokespersons by reaching out to them, and explaining why the change will help them and responding to their questions and concerns. It also means acknowledging and including those who have already been working for the change you are trying to promote and recognizing and capitalizing on their pas contributions -even if you want to take your future vision in a slightly different direction.
  • Being clear and honest in explaining why the change is needed, the opportunities, but also the risks, and what impact it will have on people’s current jobs.

People are your key asset as well as your key challenge in trying to get change adopted in an organization – so you need to factor this into your plans for change.

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 26, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Organizational barriers to Knowledge Management

with 9 comments

Linda Raftree just put up an excellent post on her blog entitled  “Organizational Barriers to ICT4D“. In it she highlights a number of ways in which organizational rules and practices make it difficult for them to carry out ICT4D work (Information and Communication Technology for Development).

Many of the problems she highlights apply equally to Knowledge Management work too, and there are also some other specific ones, so here is my KM related version of her list – and I’m not just talking about my own experience but that of most people I encounter trying to do KM work in the public/not for profit sector :

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)

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)

3. We have a reluctance to admit and thus learn from failure – in part because of the need to compete for funds (see failure without borders)

4. Our IT systems, policies and tools are often not geared towards knowledge management. Although I’ve not come across the outright blocking of social media sites too often in the not-for profit sector (compared to the corporate sector where it seems commonplace), it’s still often the case that organizations lack adequate guidelines and training in use of social media, and that there is a reluctance to allow staff to use external non IT- supported tools for knowledge sharing (of which there are very many – see a few examples here), at the same time as a lack of budget/expertise/priority to set up the kind of tools that are needed for in house use that offer the same type of functionality.

5. We need to prove the “value” of what we do before we have even gotten started. It’s notoriously hard to measure the impact of KM work, and the actual value will vary a lot on organizational context and the level of support from senior management, which is hard to get without being able to prove results in the first place (Catch-22 anyone?).

Part of the reason I took up blogging was to write about some of these problems, and to share and discuss ideas to overcome them. There are a number of practical ways to deal with some of these on an operational level – but at the same time I think organizations need to ask themselves –  if they want  to become knowledge organizations, with knowledge workers, that use knowledge as an asset then they need to take a look at how some of their existing ways of working are hampering their ability to achieve their goals – and to take a leap of faith in the value of knowledge in their work and do something about them.

Bonus: David Gurteen has a nice short list on organizational barriers to knowledge sharing here.

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 16, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Knowledge Management as a cost saver in difficult financial times

with 3 comments

The UN,  like many other development organizations, is going through lean times with declining income, increased demand and likely cutbacks as well as economy measures in place. In such times the first immediate measures taken are things like cutting back on travel, reducing the of  meetings, cutting back on conference attendance, delaying new equipment purchases etc.

But as Steve Denning lamented recently Knowledge Management and similar cross cutting initiatives can be among the things that gets cut in lean times, especially when management don’t understand it and how it benefits the organization. Yet one of the precise benefits of a good knowledge Management programme is that it can be a significant cost saver for the organization. Here are just a few of the ways in which knowledge management can help contain costs and improve value for money.

1. Reducing travel costs – Greater use of technology can reduce the amount of time spent travelling – in particular e-learning courses and webinars can be helpful in reducing the need for face to face training, and also webinars and video-conferencing can be used for more informal knowledge sharing that wouldn’t previously have been possible, and for regular cross location meetings. Livestreaming of meetings can also help reduce the number of participants, or bring in extra participation without significant extra cost. That said, this approach can only be taken so far as some meeting face to face is essential if you want people to work well together remotely afterwards.

2. Reducing the time to find key information –  Just think of the amount of time you can spend looking for information and not finding it. some estimates put this at up to 25% of the work time of an average knowledge worker. Having a functional repository of key documents, a god document management and electronic and hard copy filing system as well as a good taxonomy and search can greatly reduce the time and frustration involved in searching for things saving a lot of time and money. The difficulty with this is that although the savings and improved productivity can be large, unfortunately many organizations are reluctant to spend the money up front to develop these systems

3. Making better use of internal expertise (and not hiring consultants) – UNICEF staff have collectively a vast wealth of knowledge, expertise and e xpertise, but often  these are not tapped in to and so because we are not aware of what we have in house and how to best use it we often end up hiring external c onsultants. Use of tools such as expertise rosters, communities of practice and peer assists can make it much easier to find and make use of our in-house experts (see Collison and Parcell’s “no more consultants” for more tips).

4. Not reinventing the wheel – similarly a lot of the problems we face in one country have already been solved elsewhere in another – yet since we are not always aware of the past learning inside the organization we often need to “reinvent the wheel” and design programmes almost from scratch. This makes the programmes more expensive and time consuming to develop, and also they are likely to be prone to repeat past mistakes from other projects rather than learning from them.  Approaches such as documenting innovations and lessons learned, the communities of practice and tools such as after action reviews and end of assignment reports can all help capture this learning so that it can be reused.

5. Just in time support – often problems on the ground need a quick response otherwise opportunities are lost or resources are wasted – but traditional ways of working often mean that just in time advice is not forthcoming and so offices are left to muddle through themselves. Tools such as online helpdesks (such as the  24 hour response mechanism in EMOPS communities of practice), use of tools such as Skype, IM and social media to quickly share information and put people in touch can greatly speed up “just in time” advice to country offices or others who need quick support for important and urgent decisions.

These are just a few of the ways that improved knowledge management can improve organizational efficiency and save costs. It’s important to note that while knowledge management can be a means to improve organizational efficiency, its most important contribution is arguably to improving the relevance and effectiveness of what we do. That’s why we need to invest in it – since a relatively small cost now can lead to big gains in efficiency and effectiveness later.

Does anyone have any other good examples of ways in which knowledge management can or has saved money?

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 11, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A few thoughts for conference organizers

with 16 comments

Yesterday there was an interesting, and perhaps a little snarky exchange on twitter about conferences and whether they really achieve much.

I admit to being one of the snarkers, but not because I think conferences are a waste of time, but rather because they so often disappoint. So I thought I would share a few very quick points on how to make conferences better  – not intended to be a definitive list.

Firstly, a large part of the benefit of conferences is that they are an opportunity for networking and side conversations. Yet for some reason most conference organizers don’t adequately recognize this. I’ve mentioned befrore the importance of meeting people in real life, but I’d go as far as to say that often the most lasting partnerships and follow up actions from a conference come out of the various informal side meetings or are hashed out over coffee or beers. Therefore if you want to run a successful conference you need to provide opportunities for people to network.

A few practical ways to do this are to include enough time for breaks, especially at the start of the meeting – don’t overschedule everything so there is no “down time”. Use some sort of icebreaker for people to introduce and get to know each other at the beginning of the conference so it is easier for them to interact later. Organize a reception or “reasonably priced” social events in the evenings (even if not everyone can attend). Keep people in the conference vicinity by catering onsite so they are encouraged to stay together.

So on to the conference content itself. The biggest mistake I’ve tended to see is death by Powerpoint – one boring presentation after another without any real time for discussion, often with so many different topics crammed into the meeting and so many different speakers that it is impossible to do any of them justice. Often in conferences less is more – better to reduce the number of topics covered and the number of presentations and presenters so that you have adequate time to cover the topics well. It’s also important for the speakers to allow adequate time for questions and answer – I’d say in most cases it’s good to plan for 50% of a session to be left for questions – knowing that most speakers don’t keep to time and will then take up more like 75% of the total time allotted.

Mix up formats – the participants are much more likely to pay attention if you vary the formats of the sessions – mix up formal presentations, panel discussions, and try to introduce some innovative methods such as fish bowls or chat shows, or rapid fire presentation techniques such as Ignite. If the nature of the conference allows it (and it might not work for all types of conference) try to introduce more interactive methodologies including group work, methods such as knowledge fairs or world cafes – these are much more effective at getting people to contribute to and learn from a conference than simply sitting and listening to others (more techniques and approaches are included here in the knowledge sharing toolkit).

Get good speakers, or get your speakers good. Of course we all want good speakers, but we also recognize that some are better than others, and we will need to include some that aren’t the most exciting. But – you can encourage presenters to rehearse their presentations beforehand – this will give them an opportunity to get feedback on content, but also timing so that they don’t talk for the whole session. It’s also good to share some general tips on good powerpoint presentations with your presenters beforehand. If possible avoid putting your less exciting speakers in the slot just after lunch – and try to open up with one of your better speakers as the first presentation sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. Good experienced moderators for the meeting can also make a big difference since they can help keep the meeting on track, keep the flow of conversation going and help people feel included and heard. Moderators are sometimes chosen because of seniority or “gravitas” – but while these things might be good for appearances – someone who is actually good at moderating can have a greater impact – of course someone good at both is ideal.

Meeting technology can also have an important impact on your meeting success. The most important thing is to test it beforehand – several times – especially if you are having people join the conference by video conferencing – there’s nothing worse than spending a good part of your conference fixing technology. And if the technology is not working properly, deal with it – don’t spend the whole time fixing it instead of concentrating on the content of the conference. The importance of having a reliable internet wireless connection also can’t be stressed enough (hope our building managers are reading this!) – this is especially important if you want to encourage people to livetweet your meeting which is a great way to get a meeting backchannel going (so you can get an idea how the meeting is really going) and to engage people who are not present in the room.

Engage people before and after the conference – post key information online beforehand including agenda, papers, speakers etc. this will help pique people’s interest and give people the opportunity to come prepared (although many will not bother to read anything you send them beforehand).  Share meeting proceedings afterwards, also online as quickly as possible. Encourage people to blog and tweet your meeting, and to share their photos etc. informally, during the meeting and afterwards separate from the formal reporting. Create and publicize hashtag for the conference so people can easily find the related social content.  Depending on the purpose of the conference it can also be a great opportunity to launch something such as a new initiative or a community of practice – you can build on the momentum and goodwill of the conference and capitalize on the benefits of having people meet face to face to help get them to collaborate better in future.

This is just a quick, non-comprehensive list based on my own experience – there are many other more authoritative, more detailed guides and tips out there if you look. Are there any other tips and pitfalls that any of you would suggest?

Update: Sasha Dichter from Acumen Fund takes improving conferences to a new level with this excellent post “Radical openness and what it means for conferences” which suggests that livestreaming allows is to consider restructuring conferences altogether (although it will be a while before all OUR conferences are livestreamed).


Written by Ian Thorpe

May 10, 2011 at 8:40 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had

Measuring value in communities of practice

with 12 comments

Last week we were lucky enough to have Etienne Wenger lead us in a workshop looking at measuring the value of and making the  business case for communities of practice.

The background to this is that we introduced the concept of communities of practice into UNICEF less that two years ago. We’ve seen tremendous enthusiasm and take up from across the organization which has spread mainly as a grass roots initiative. But, we still lack the level of senior level sponsorship and support that we would like or possibly need  for this to become a major strategic approach to how we collaborate and share knowledge across the organization.

One of the particular challenges facing many community initiatives in different kinds of organizations is measuring and demonstrating that the communities add value and measuring the value that they generate. The aid-development field is almost obsessed with “results-based management” and similar measurement approaches right now and so we need to be able to justify what we are doing in these terms – but also for ourselves to know how we are doing, and what we can improve.

Etienne Wenger (together with Beverly Trayner and Maarten de Laat)  recently developed a value creation framework exactly to help assess and promote value creation in communities. It’s not published yet so I won’t share it here in its entirety- but I wanted to share some highlights of the framework and how we looked at in our recent workshop.

The paper defines several “cycles” of where value is created by communities. Briefly these are:

1.  Immediate value – such as where someone gets a question answered, or finds information they need though a community.

2. Potential value – where the exchange of knowledge can potentially contribute to someone’s work but we don’t know yet what the outcome of this will be. An example is where someone finds an approach they learned about of interest and wants to try it out.

3. Applied value – where someone has applied knowledge they have gained through the community and have changed their work as a result.

4. Realized value – where someone has applied knowledge from their community to change how they do their work and this has had a measurable positive effect on the work’s success (according to whatever indicators of success are used to measure the activity concerned).

5. Reframing value – where the interactions of the community have caused the participants (and the organization) to re-examine its definition of success or its way of doing business and have changed the practice as a result.

Of course ideally you want to be able to go as far as you can through these cycles – but the community needs to be up and running for longer and you need to put more effort into measurement to determine the changes and the contribution of the community to them as you move through the cycles. We tried applying the cycles to our own communities and found that we were mostly still at the first few but with a few examples of the later cycles emerging. The participants were also able to see ways in which some of the work they were doing could be enhanced to help make it more impactful.

The other big element of the framework and our discussions was how do we collect the information/data we need to be able to measure this value through the different cycles. Here we looked briefly at quantitative measures, what kind exist, what they tell us and how to collect them – but the most interesting part was the use of “value-creation stories” to illustrate how value is created in practice. Etienne developed some draft templates for different types of community stories which we test drove during the workshop. These stories illustrate different facets of the communities and cut across the value creation cycles. They types of stories we looked at were:

  • Community stories – about how the community has created value, either at individual or community wide level
  • Leadership stories – personal narrative of someone leading a community
  • Sponsorship stories – personal narrative of someone sponsoring a community or an initiative
  • Stories of the initiative – stories about the community of practice initiative itself.

Of course those who prefer hard data might ask, how can stories be useful if they subjective. The answer to this is to collect multiple stories out of which you can get a more complete and convincing picture of the results of a community. Etienne referred to this as “systematic anecdotal evidence”.

We started to collect some of our own stories during the workshop which led to some very interesting conversations about what is working and what isn’t and showed how interviewing and storytelling ws a powerful way of getting at this information which might not otherwise be surfaced.

Our next exercise was to create “stories of the future” – i.e. stories of the potential we wanted to see from communities – done as a kind of visioning exercise for us to see where we want to go with individual communities as well as the communities initiative itself. This was very helpful in identifying the gaps between where we currently are and where we want to be. It highlighted in particular the challenges we have with high level sponsorship and the difference this could potentially make to our work.

There were many other thought provoking  discussions around our communities work during the workshop including some interesting discussions around ho communities work within hierarchical organizations which I’ll come back to in future blog posts.

Our next steps will be to develop a measurement system for our community work, and to use the information we collect from this build a case for investing in our communities that builds on both the results achieved to date, and their future potential. It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m excited about the possibilities, and the other workshop participants were too.

Update: Bev Trayner has posted the full paper on her website. Here’s her blog post. Here’s a link to the full paper:
Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 5, 2011 at 8:50 am

%d bloggers like this: