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Archive for November 2011

Back to the future (2006): why too much aid harmonization might not be a good thing

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Back in early 2006 I wrote a short thought piece on aid effectiveness to stimulate internal discussion as I was beginning a new role combining work on aid effectiveness and knowledge management.

To acknowledge the Busan High Level Forum on aid effectiveness which is taking place this week, I thought I’d re-share this piece, even though I’m no longer directly working on the issues being discussed. I’ve left the document as is, apart from removing some internal references that might not make sense to an external audience. It’s surprising to me that in some ways the discussions today are very similar to the ones taking place back then, and most if the issue raised still seem relevant to me.

The paper does miss a few issues which are hot now, but which were not so much on our minds back then such as aid transparency, the role of technology and how emerging donors fit within the aid architecture. My views have also probably evolved somewhat with the benefit of experience and hindsight. That said I’d be interested to hear what you all think of the paper in today’s context. Here is is:

One size does not fit all – Why too much aid harmonization might be a bad thing – April 2006

Abstract:  The current push towards greater harmonization of  aid programmes both within the UN and by the development community as a whole has the potential to bring dividends in terms of greater coherence and efficiency in the delivery of aid. At the same time there is also a risk that too much harmonization will dampen innovation, reduce flexibility, and might result in everyone pursuing a single flawed plan. This article explores some of the risks of aid harmonization in more detail and suggests some ways in which they might be mitigated.

Reform and harmonization of development aid, together with a big push for additional resources is the current recipe being advanced for us to finally achieve the long elusive goal of eradicating global poverty. The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, signed in 2005, launched an ambitious agenda which includes an emphasis on national ownership and national development plans and national execution. For donors there is an alignment of programme cycles, targets, monitoring, and aid conditionalities.

It was signed on to by a wide range of donor and recipient governments as well as the UN, IFIs and a number of NGOs, Foundations and Global funds. The UN Development Group is participating in this effort, and in addition is currently defining its own strategy for greater harmonization within the UN including a more simplified and integrated approach to country programming, linked to national development plans as well as a move to joint offices.

Although a multitude of international targets, goals and commitments have been created by various global summits and conferences – a common set of goals has emerged as the global reference point for development – the MDGs. At national level National Development plans which are also Poverty Reduction Strategies are centre stage, and are for the most part, closely linked to global goals.

There are a number of potentially significant benefits of the current harmonization efforts (which is why they are being  pursued so strongly). These include:

  • Common mutually agreed aims and targets to which everyone contributes – we all know where we are headed, and we are all working to achieve the same thing.
  • Common plan  based on a common assessment and analysis of the needs (which is hopefully evidence based!).
  • International assistance is linked to national plans and therefore local needs rather than donor priorities.
  • Co-ordination efforts reduce programme overlaps and inconsistencies between approaches, aims and cycles of different agencies. This reduces wasteful duplication, and helps generate information sharing and programmatic synergy between the different aid actors.
  • Common institutional assessment, reporting and accounting requirements for budget support and national execution reduces reporting and accounting burdens on recipient governments.

But, there are some significant risks involved in harmonizing too tightly around all aspects of the development process. To paraphrase William Easterly, the aid business is the only area where we still have faith in central planning, long after it has been discredited as an approach by the end of the cold war, and despite little evidence to show it has fared better in development work. This might be overly harsh but there are always dangers of putting too many eggs (or funds) in one basket. So why exactly might overly harmonized planning not work?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. Too many meetings: First of all, on a practical level the co-ordination of all the various development actors including the UN, bilateral donors, IFIs, NGOs, government and civil society creates an enormous burden of co-ordination work. There is clearly a trade-off between time spent on co-ordination and time spent on implementation. Getting the right balance is tricky and current efforts might be tipping the balance unfavourably.
  2. The dangers of group think: Bringing a large group of development partners together with different capacities and agendas to agree a common plan is always going to produce an imperfect result. Often the loudest, most eloquent or best financed voices exert the greatest influence. There is pressure to reach consensus on issues when in reality none exists for the sake of reaching an agreement. Pressure to reach agreement risks producing lowest common denominator compromises that in fact satisfy no-one. Some key voices and issues may well go missing – especially those concerning the poor, the marginalized and the young.
  3. Repeating the same mistakes over and over: Assume you have one plan, based on one analysis. What happens if the analysis is flawed in some critical way? (Not impossible given the complex problems to be addressed and in many cases the uncertainties or even lack of data and research about them). Then everyone is following the same flawed plan. The plans will either be all in the right direction, or more likely all in the wrong direction. And the resulting development effort will be universally bad.
  4. Think local, act local: Some problems are simply better resolved with a bottom up approach by people finding their own ways of addressing the problems they face, in their own context. External models and expertise, and centrally mandated solutions cannot always be successfully applied to a situation. Local context is crucial, as is innovation and flexibility – things that work better at a smaller scale than at a larger one.
  5. Government “good”, government “bad”: an unintended consequence of having a common accountability framework for national execution is that either everyone is “in” channeling funds through government, or everyone is “out” when corruption, human rights issues or other weaknesses are detected. In practice this makes the funding of budget support highly volatile as money is either abundant or non-existent – hardly an environment that helps strengthen institutions. At the same time corruption may be harder to identify as a government entity only has to ace a single assessment tool.
  6. Slow to change: any plan that needs to be negotiated with myriad of local and international partners, and needs to find consensus will not easily be able to adapt to changes in the situation, whether they be emerging crises or new opportunities.

Despite this doom and gloom, I don’t believe all is lost. There are great potential gains from harmonization, but a few precautions are needed to mitigate some of the risks. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Common plans should not be too prescriptive. It might be good to agree on a common set of high level goals, but not on highly detailed objectives or on specifications of how they should be pursued. Detailed planning should be transparent but is best left to those closer to the implementation.
  2. Open communication and sharing of ideas within the country and between countries should be promoted – even if this is not directly in support of the plan. It’s useful to provide a platform and to create opportunities for sharing of development knowledge – but this sharing needs to be organic, based on the needs and interests of those who participate – not centrally controlled to serve the plan.
  3. We need to constantly ask, through research and evaluation, whether the plan is really working, what aspects work and which don’t and why. Preferably some of this evaluation is done by people who are independent of those who are carrying out the plan. And, of course, there needs to be a mechanism to ensure that what is learned is fed back into the decision-making process.
  4. Feedback should be sought from beneficiaries and development actors on a continual basis in the design and execution of the plans – for accountability and transparency but also to get as complete a picture as possible of the situation on the ground. This feedback needs to encourage, not silence dissenting views, in order to continually challenge the assumptions of the plan, and to explicitly acknowledge diverse viewpoints where there is no consensus.
  5. Plans need to have flexibility built into them to allow for the incorporation of new research, changes in the situation, or even changes in the availability of resources.
  6. There needs to be some space for grassroots initiatives to emerge. Ideally this would involve setting up a regulatory and financing system that allows natural solutions to evolve, and funds promising new ideas, even if they weren’t in the original plan.
  7. Some development actors should stay out of the central planning loop. It’s good if there are a few NGOs, private sector organizations or others that are not following the same plan as everyone else. They can help naturally fill gaps that were missed in the plan and they can innovate and take risks and thus help alternative views and models to emerge (if they have merit they can then be co-opted by the plan). Some outside critical views also help improve accountability.

What role can the UN play in these discussions? I think we can do a few practical things such as ensuring our own programming is evidence-based, is flexible and includes an element of experimentation with new approaches, is evaluated and allows for course correction. Another must-do is to ensure that the key issues get sufficient attention in discussions around the design and implementation of the national development plan – here it’s important not only for us to have a voice, but also that we ensure that civil society, and most importantly families and communities have an input into the process. In addition to this we need to work with civil society to empower them to be a critical “outside” voice that calls government and donors to account for progress made or not made.

In practice though, aid harmonization is proving more difficult to implement than anticipated. Given the diverse interests of the various development actors, it’s unlikely that all development actors in a country will be able to agree to follow a common set of goals, plans and methods any time soon!


(P.S. It goes without saying that i) this is only my own writing and does not in any way represent the views of the UN ii) it was written back in 2006 in a different time when I was in a different role.)

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Posted in smartaid

What’s the difference between a community of practice and a helpdesk?

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I’m currently looking at what type of tools we have and need to help support UN co-ordination work and I was reminded of something I was working on back in 2008 to explain the difference between a help desk and a community of practice and what each approach might be good for. This was useful because the idea of communities and a decentralized approach to knowledge sharing was new, and people’s natural inclination was to concentrate technical support through a central help function. In fact both help desks and communities are two valuable complementary approaches  to supporting programme managers with knowledge with different characteristics and uses.

Here is a brief table that highlights the characteristics and uses of each approach:

Help Desk Community of Practice
How do they work? Question comes into a single focal point and is forwarded to designated person(s) for response.
Question generally not shared while in process – finalized responses *might* be shared with a broader group after completion as an FAQ or might be added to a system to help future expert responses, but not shared beyond the expert group.
Question comes to a discussion forum open to all community members, a facilitator may intervene to point out relevant existing materials, to stimulate response from the community, and to synthesize responses.
Responses summarized and shared widely.
Where is the expertise? Small group of designated “experts” most likely in Headquarters/Regional Centres The community membership at large including HQ/Region/field– contributors depending on interest and expertise.
What type of questions do they address?
  • Simple “how to” questions
  • Interpretation of policy and guidance (can I do X, what is the correct procedure for y)
  • Answers needing a quick response
  • Confidential questions
  • Open questions that don’t have a single “correct” answer
  • Policy and guidance formulation (especially for guidance to be based on experience)
  • Identification of lessons learned and good practice
  • Questions that need input from field offices
  • Questions where we don’t have expertise in HQ, or we don’t know where internal expertise is located.
Other characteristics
  • Centralized
  • Needs clear designation of resources, roles,   responsibilities and procedures.
  • Quick
  • Personalized response
  • Decentralized
  • More flexibility in roles and responsibilities and resourcing (although needs facilitator and procedures)
  • Takes more time
  • Response more tailored to needs of community at large (not only question originator)
  • Fostering communication and sense of community between practitioners also an important aim of this approach.

In a recent blog poss Nick Milton has highlighted an additional idea that the demographics of an organization can affect whether you might want to use a help-desk type approach (centralized knowledge) or a community (decentralized approach). In it he mentions how this depends on how well expertise and experience  is distributed within the  organization, and that in “older” organizations knowledge is more widely distributed so communities might be a better approach whereas in younger organizations experience/expertise more likely sits with the few “old-timers” and so a help desk of experts is the way to go.  But to counter this, from my own experience it also seems that that “younger” organizations also seem more willing to share knowledge with each other in a communitarian or non-hierarchical way, whereas organizations with an older demographic seem to prefer a more centralized command and control approach (or maybe that’s just the UN :-)).

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 29, 2011 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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(photo: Royal Air Force testing the first ground to air radio)

There has been a rash of heated discussion on the nature and future of ICT for Development sparked by Ken Bank’s ICT4D postcards competition. Perhaps the best summary of the discussion to date can be found on Linda Raftree’s blog. Here’s my rather late foray into this discussion.

Reading all these different opinions or positions it occurred to me that part of the issue is that people are talking at cross purposes, since they mean quite different things by ICT4D, they don’t even agree on what development is (and who does) and they have quite different views about the role of ICTs and what approaches should be taken, often quite heatedly disagreeing with others in the process. Part of this appears to come from the natural desire to label and compartmentalize things so we can better relate to them from our own experience. I’ve written before about definitions and terminology and it seems it frequently trips us up.

So in an attempt to make sense of this all for myself, here is a broad sweep massively oversimplified view of ICT4D (or whatever you want to call it).

1. Technology is fundamental to human progress. Throughout history technology has been a critical driver of human change and progress starting with domestication of crops, including diverse technologies such as currency, guns, medicine, the printing press, the internal combustion engine and yes, the internet, computer and the mobile telephone. Read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” if you don’t believe me!

2. Technology impacts development through people and how they actually use the technology. Technology itself doesn’t have an impact if it is not applied by people. New technology can be developed, but if people don’t find it useful, or at least interesting or entertaining then it’s not going anywhere. (Obvious perhaps but sometimes overlooked).

3. How technology will be used, and the direction and pace of the subsequent impacts of that use are unpredictable, often being very different from the expectations of their inventors or promoters (or their detractors). Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM famously said in 1943 “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Luckily for IBM this turned out not to be true.

4. The development, spread and use of technology is a huge field with lots of actors each playing their part, with plenty of room for different motives and philosophical or empirical approaches – even contradictory ones  – since in the end they will all contribute to the change that takes place through collaboration, competition and even contradiction. In short it’s a complex adaptive system. Past technological spread has always resulted from the actions of multiple actors often with very different motives and philosophies: Inventors, entrepreneurs, governments, consumers, academics, not for profits and others have all helped shape the way technology is currently used both consciously and unconsciously. Using technology to make money is a key component of spreading technology that improves lives, but it’s only part of the story.

So what do I conclude from this:

ICTs (as an important but not the only form of technology) are important to development however you define either of these. Mobile is the hottest and most promising looking technology right now, but it’s not the only technology that can be useful, and it will probably be displaced by something else in the future.

We don’t all agree on what ICT4D is, what technology we should use, what the aims of ICT4D are, and what are the best ways to pursue them – we don’t even agree on what “development” is (obviously).

It doesn’t matter that we don’t agree, in fact it’s a good thing. A diverse approach involving multiple actors and friction between them is in the best interests of the field because it allows different models to co-exist, compete and learn from each other, and it allows then to be judged in the market and the marketplace of ideas. Despite our strong convictions, none of us know if we are right (or even partially right) and only through doing, and adapting as we go will we find out what works best, and what the (currently unknown) potential of this work will be. Talking to each other and debating our ideas is useful to help people reframe their ideas and approaches – but the real test is not in who makes the best argument – but in what actually happens on the ground when these approaches intersect.

So in conclusion – “viveladifférence” because there are exciting, uncharted times ahead.

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 23, 2011 at 9:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Come work with us on KM and UN co-ordination!

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We’re looking for good candidates for an internship position with our team (the knowledge management team in the UN Development Operations Co-ordination Office) helping to facilitate (and reinvigorate) the Co-ordination Practice Network (CPN) which is a network/community of practice of UN staff working on UN co-ordination issues. The purpose of CPN is to help connect UN staff in the field who are working on co-ordination with practical peer-support in doing their work – we also hope to use this as a means to identify good practice and lessons learned that can be used more widely to improve how the UN works together.

It’s a great team, and you would get an opportunity to learn a lot about the inner workings of the UN.

Here’s a link to the job advert with full “official” job description and eligibility requirements and application procedure.

If you are currently enrolled in a post-graduate programme, and have an interest in development issues and knowledge management we would like to hear from you!

UPDATE: UNDP are currently having difficulties with their web recruitment system so please be patient. They will extend the deadline for application once the site is back online. Will let you all know once it’s back online.

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 21, 2011 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Stand up and share

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Keeping up with what your colleagues are doing and how it might affect your work,  and making sure they know the same about you is often easier said than done, even in a small team. One low tech but effective way to keep information flowing  is the “stand-up meeting”. This type of approach is widely used in technology companies and in media companies on a daily basis, often at the beginning of the day to help identify and problems that need to be addressed in the day’s work. In the settings where I’ve worked I’ve seen this technique  used more often on a weekly basis.

Shortly after I started my new job, my boss decided we needed something similar in our small office (we are around 30 people), and so a group of colleagues and I who are on our “learning committee” have been experimenting with different formats for these meetings. I’ve also participated in good and bad versions of stand-up meetings in previous jobs. Done well they can be a quick and effective way of keeping in touch, so I thought I would share some dos and don’ts and other tips on organizing them from my own experience. Feel free to add yours.

A few Dos:

  • Have a facilitator – for the  first few times at least. The facilitator’s job is to organize the meeting, remind people to come, and remind people of the ground rules of the meeting at the beginning and during the of the meeting.meeting, in particular making sure the meeting is short and snappy (see below for more tips for the facilitator). It’s probably best to rotate the role of facilitator so the burden doesn’t fall on the same person each week, also making sure the meeting can take place whoever is in the office on the day of the meeting.
  • Organize the meeting at the same time in the same place each time. The meeting should take place whether or not the boss is there, or even when other team members are expected to be absent. This way everyone knows exactly when and where the meeting will take place. The meeting can be in a formal meeting room, but it can work equally well in an open space such as a reception area or office “corner” as long as everyone can fit in the space comfortably when standing.
  • Keep it short – a sharing meeting should aim to be no longer than 30 minutes. Start as soon as possible after the scheduled start time – when there is a critical mass of people, and no later than 5 minutes after the scheduled start time,  rather than making sure everyone is there. Latecomers can join the meeting once it has started. If this is established early as a pattern then people are more likely to turn up on time.
  • Stand up (don’t get too comfortable). If people stand then it makes sure people are awake, and it gives people an incentive to keep the meting short. Make sure everyone is in a circle facing each other so everyone can see the other participants.
  • Let everyone have a chance to speak. One way to do this is to go around the room in order to make sure everyone gets their chance, then going back to any latecomers afterwards.  If a more spontaneous approach is used to pick who speaks then its important for the facilitator to circle back and ensure everyone has had a chance to share.
  • Let people “pass” if they have no information to share. The facilitator or the team leader can gently coax a reluctant participant into sharing about something the know the team member is doing that would be interesting to the group, but pressure to share should be encouraging and gentle.
  • Participants should keep their updates brief (no longer than 1 minute). They should  update on something that they think other colleagues need to know about to help in their work or something where their progress will either depend on the inputs and actions of others. Updates should be encouraged to be brief and factual highlighting any connections with other colleagues work. If needed the meeting facilitator should gently refocus any contributions that are too lengthy or off topic by reminding of the purpose and also emphasizing the need to be quick to allow everyone to participate in the short meeting time. The facilitator might also set a good example by providing the first update.
  • It might be a good idea to pass around a “speaker’s totem” that is held by whoever is speaking at the time. If you are holding the totem you can speak, if not then you don’t speak. This helps avoid side conversations and focuses attention on whoever is giving the update. The totem can be any small object that can be easily passed around. A stress ball or something similar works well.
And a few don’ts:
  • If an issue comes up that needs further discussion – don’t work the problem during the meeting. It’s OK to ask for clarification on an update – but working the problem should take place bilaterally outside the meeting. At most participants should  agree who needs to work together to follow-up afterwards, and agree to do so.
  • Don’t have the boss speak first. Team leaders are likely to have more and longer  updates than others and so it is important not to have the meeting focus too much on the boss and the boss’s concerns to ensure that others have a chance to speak and ask questions and not feel that they need to “perform” for the boss, or to feel intimidated to share their own concerns. If the boss is the facilitator then they need to set a good example by keeping their own update short or a single topic, or by choosing not to go first.
  • Don’t give a long string of updates on whatever you did in the past week (you can always share good news by e-mail). Instead focus on one or two things that will be valuable to other colleagues.
How about you? Any other tips from your own experience?

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 15, 2011 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The heart of co-ordination

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OK – this is my first post writing about something connected with my new job – knowledge sharing around UN Co-ordination.

Improving the co-ordination and coherence of the UN’s development work (i.e  that of the over 30 UN organizations that work in some way in Development) is essentially a change management process – one that is gradual, but nevertheless evolving and deepening over time. It faces all the same challenges that other change management processes face and the same type of potential benefits accompanied by risks and potential failure.

Learning about and observing how co-ordination is developing I notice three distinct levels or aspects of how enhanced co-ordination is being pursued. These three levels would also apply to any type of change management process. But let me illustrate them in the context of co-ordination: The three levels of co-ordination correspond to:

  • The body: these are the rules, procedures, tools and mechanisms for co-ordination.
  • The mind: these are the reasons that motivate co-ordination, the justification for it and the assessment of results achieved.
  • The heart: the belief in and commitment to the UN mandate and the idea of working together towards common goals.

Taking a closer look at each of these:

The body: This is probably the most visible  part of UN co-ordination, the nuts and bolts of how co-ordination is done, essential to make sure it happens and that everyone understands what they are supposed to do and we know if everyone is pulling their weight. This includes a wide range of things like common programming tools such as the United Nations Development Assistance Framework, common guidelines on a myriad of issues including joint funding, common premises, human rights mainstreaming etc.  as well as joint trainings, working mechanisms and groups and other types of meetings and decision making procedures. This is an ever growing body as time progresses.

The plus side of all these tools and mechanisms and guidelines is that they help define what co-ordination really means, they make responsibilities and accountabilities clear and help measure progress. They also help define the limits of what has been agreed will be done in common and what will be done separately.

The downside is that the volume of “the body” can be quite daunting and some of the mechanisms can seem quite complex and hard to understand, and at times a bit bureaucratic. The other downside is that while procedures can make things clear and hold people accountable  – there is always a risk that people will follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit i.e. to follow the procedures without thinking about, and having the motivation to improve co-ordination.

The second aspect is the head – the logic of co-ordination. The arguments we make to ourselves, to donors, to beneficiaries about why improved co-ordination is a good thing. These are the potential, or if we are lucky tangible measurable results of co-ordination – reduced costs due to shared premises or joint procurement, reduced transaction costs for partner governments due to harmonized reporting requirements – and the “holy grail” – improved development results due to better policy coherence and complementary contributions from different parts of the UN system.

The external logic of improved co-ordination is compelling. One of the difficulties I have in explaining my job to people outside the UN is that they can’t see why we are not better coordinated in the first place. Why doesn’t the UN already have common systems and approaches (or why are there so many semi-autonomous parts of the UN in the first place)?

The difficulties with the “head” or logical approach are that i) although improved results are logically expected – they can be quite hard to measure in practice – especially pinning down how much difference co-ordination actually makes in achieving results over and above what might have happened anyway. We get asked for this a lot, but it’s very hard to know exactly how things would have been different if we had been less coordinated – it’s not the sort of thing that easily lends itself to experimental design. Thinking about ways to do this will undoubtedly be one of the upcoming challenges in my new job. This view also sometimes overlooks that fact that at times co-ordination is hard, and takes  resources all of its own that need to be weighed against the benefits achieved.

The second difficulty of the logical approach is that the external logic of improved efficiency/effectiveness is not always enough to overcome the internal logic of responding to agency specific imperatives as “our way is the better way”, “our rules only allow us to do it this way”, “I get rewarded for pursuing goals of my own organization rather than those of the UN as a whole”  or just that “business as usual” is much easier and less risky than change.

The third level is the “heart” – or belief.  This is the personal commitment to work in a coordinated way, whether motivated by a belief in the values and mandate of the UN as a whole (as opposed to only that of the specific agency you work in) or the belief that better co-ordination will lead to better work and that it is a good thing to work better together – note here I’m not talking about the logical argument for better co-ordination, but rather an internal belief in it being “the right thing to do”. With this frame of mind (or heart) you look for, and find the opportunities to work together. People follow the “spirit” of co-ordination rather than following procedure or just going through the motions. It creates a sense of “we” rather than us and them trying to agree on the minimum common denominator or trying to “win” a negotiation about how to do things or who gets the resources.

All of these three “levels” are needed for improved co-ordination, or for any change process for that matter. But my sense is that in much of the detailed and practical work on enhancing and measuring co-ordination, this last element has been somewhat overlooked or underemphasized due to its intangible nature, and due to the typical approaches of large inter-governmental bureaucracies . Yet many/most people who work for the UN do so because they believe in its mission and mandate, and because they have a desire to do something that makes a difference – i.e. for emotional reasons. While in terms of organizational culture we might feel a little uneasy about emphasizing a call to a higher purpose without a specific blueprint on how to achieve it – in fact I think without this we might risk not being able to get beyond a focus on the “how” of co-ordination towards achieving a sense of common purpose. A common purpose that we really believe in is highly motivating and can help us to find ways to work together even when it is difficult, because we recognize that despite  our different characteristics, roles or points of view – we know we all are trying to achieve a common goal, one which is more important than any challenges we have in understanding each other and working together.

The question is, how do we awaken the heart of co-ordination in all of us?

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

KM on $365 a year (or one year of blogging)

with 6 comments

I hadn’t realized it, but I’ve been blogging now for just over a year.

I started blogging because I was having a lot of interesting conversations on Twitter – but wanted to expand on some of the ideas I came across in more detail than the medium allowed. I had been blogging internally for several years, but was curious to see how it would feel to share ideas externally and whether the reactions would be different. They were – people react to quite different things inside and outside an organization – inside an organization there are less people interested in ideas about knowledge management or development  – they are keener on practical tips and hints they can use in their work, as they should be – but sharing outside allowed a kind of “peer review” of my thoughts, and links to other ways of looking at an issue that I might not get by staying within the comfortable circle of my colleagues.

This post more or less explains why I blog. I still don’t know if blogging has any real impact, but it’s a good medium to help me clarify my thoughts and sometimes get independent feedback on them.

As is traditional, here is a brief recap of the year, with some statistics.

With organizational restructuring and career changes this summer I’ve not been blogging as frequently as I once was, and perhaps I was running out of things to say – but now I’m settling in to my new job I hope to write a bit more frequently, and have some new thoughts to share.
Many thanks to all of you who have read, pass on and commented on my blog over the past year. I don’t know if anything  I’ve written has been helpful to you, but I know that your support and feedback has been invaluable to me.

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 3, 2011 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Is average an option?

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Yesterday Nick Milton wrote an interesting blog post on Knoco Stories “Consistent mediocrity beats inconsistent genius” in which he suggests that in some companies (and I suppose organizations) seeking to be consistent and error free is a better strategy than trying to innovate and risk inconsistency, and further knowledge management is a good tool to support being consistently average.

I immediately wrote a comment disagreeing – I mean who wants to be average? who doesn’t want to innovate and improve their work? But then thinking about it a bit more, of course the answer is not always so clear cut.

Let’s take an extreme example to illustrate Nick’s point. Running a nuclear power station is a knowledge intensive business – it is highly technical with precise complicated procedures to be followed. On the one hand you want your employees to know exactly what procedures to follow and how to quickly find the information they need to cover any eventuality. On the other hand, you don’t want them innovating or taking risks. You would want them to log down their experiences in implementing procedures so these can be carefully reviewed, and if appropriate fed back into improving the guidelines. And yes, this is knowledge management.

The question is, when is this type of knowledge management strategy useful, and when is it not. And for me the answer comes back to complexity theory (see here for a nice explanation of complexity theory applied to humanitarian aid). If you have an engineering problem that is fairly well mapped out then it is possible to reduce it fairly reliably to a set of rules and procedures which can be consistently applied to produce predictable results. In complexity theory jargon such problems may be complicated – but not complex. In the commercial world this might be the equivalent of a mature market where the “best” procedures for production and marketing are well established and so competitive edge comes largely from execution. In the aid world this might be complicated, but well established procedures for logistics such as delivery of supplies, cold chain and so on.

But many real world situations we face, particularly in the world of development aid and humanitarian assistance, are not complicated they are complex (see here for a previous blog about complex systems in aid and ways to address them). They can’t easily be reduced to precise procedures with predictable outcomes since they are not fully understood, and are highly dependent on contextual factors such as politics and culture. Guidance and procedure still is important to ensure consistency in those parts of the work where good practices have been established through experience, or where there are requirements in terms of fairness or financial responsibility. But autonomy of programme managers to adapt their approach to the situation is key here and knowledge management needs to provide them with the skills and knowledge to adapt effectively.  Here you want some degree of innovation and adaptation, and even instinct – but you also want to capture, share and compare experiences and network advice and support so that country managers can make informed decisions.

Even in well established and mapped areas of work taking an approach of “being average” is only a viable option in the short to medium term. This is because someone else can always come up with a new innovation, be it in physical technology  (think mobile) – or in work process (think outsourcing) – that can quickly change a whole area of work leaving behind those who are taking an average, standardized (and thus slow changing) approach. Environmental changes – such as climate degradation, but also political and regulatory changes, financial crises etc. can also rapidly change the game, meaning that standard well established models no longer apply. The problem in being average and consistent is that it doesn’t adapt well to a rapidly changing world.

In the aid/development world we have an added dilemma. It’s much easier to raise money for a tangible, well established programme, and an organization with a long history and a simple message -  than it is for something that is complex, changing, innovative but not proven. Yet in order to make a real change in development, while doing the tried and tested is valuable, it’s clearly also not enough, perhaps not even good enough. With the global challenges we are facing it’s no time to be average, and we shouldn’t be emphasizing the knowledge management tools that help us be average and consistent, but ones that encourage us to be innovative, and evolving.

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 2, 2011 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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