KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for January 2012

Talk to my (knowledge) broker!

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Knowledge management work in many organizations is often focused on the generation, capture and sharing of knowledge for internal purpose such as through information management systems, systematizing of experience (lessons learned and good practice) or development of internal communities of practitioners.

But for aid/development organizations, public sector and academia another similar organizations there is another important role: that of knowledge brokering.

Basically this is connecting people with the knowledge they need (whether they know it or not!) and helping them to use it effectively.

There’s a lot of academic interest in this topic and discussion including around what the term means and how it is done but basically this is a simple idea, but as you might expect one that is difficult to do.

Why should development organizations be doing this?  Knowledge (whether “scientific” or “experiential”) is a key input to development progress. Governments, communities, individuals all need to have access to knowledge in order to make sound decisions and take action to improve their situation. A lot of potentially valuable development knowledge is either not in the hands of those who should use it, or not in a form that they can easily use.

For sustainable development it’s not enough for an aid agency to use the best available knowledge to inform its own actions (a big enough challenge in itself) it also has to facilitate this happening for beneficiaries to ultimately enable them to take their own decisions and actions.

In academic circles knowledge brokering is sometimes taken to be the more narrow role of connecting policy makers to research – in particular getting policy makers to base their decisions on “evidence” coming from research. This is challenging for a number of reasons including that policy makers also need to take into account other factors beyond research data such as cultural norms, political feasibility, personal career concerns and perhaps tacit knowledge that contradicts the research. similarly the products of research are often not in a form that is easy to use for policy makers due to unfamiliar language and jargon, poor presentation (frequently a problem even with good quality research) and lack of certainty of the results (all researchers rightly caveat their data – but policy makers tend to want definitive answers). Another challenge is that despite public funding there is a mismatch between the subjects researchers study and the knowledge policy makers need – in particular policy makers need to act now and might not have time to wait for bullet proof research to back their decisions. In fact some types of knowledge that policy makers need might not easily come from traditional research at all.

In a development context, the concept of knowledge brokering also needs to be expanded to link practitioners to one another and to foster the sharing of experience, for example through south to south knowledge exchange where one country can learn from both the evidence and the practice of another – or better still both partners can learn from each other. It’s not possible for any institution  to “know” everything about a particular topic – especially the knowledge that comes from practical experience but which might not have been subject to thorough scientific research or evaluation (and might never be due to capacity, cost or other limitations). Here the role of matchmaking between groups of people who can learn from each other is key.

This role is very ambitious, and very challenging. Among the very real challenges for knowledge brokers are:

  • How do you have a good enough overview on what knowledge is out there in a particular field, especially when you look beyond formally published papers? (although international organizations such as UN agencies probably have the best chance of any of fulfilling this role given their global presence)
  • How do you validate/vet the different potential sources of knowledge that are out there? Is this even feasible? Who judges what is of sufficient quality or relevance? (or maybe this is something  that needs crowdsourcing rather than judgment by a few “experts”)
  • How do you present/package knowledge in a way that can be easily understood and used (but not oversimplified) by those who need it?
  • How do you create a demand for knowledge in the first place? We sometimes take it for granted that people are tripping over themselves to use our fantastic knowledge if only they could access it – but in reality this seems far from the case.
  • How do we overcome some of the power and economic barriers to accessing knowledge such as institutions fiercely guarding their knowledge as a source of power; or of intellectual property, copyright or other commercial knowledge hoarding for economic gain; or deliberate inhibition of information exchange to cover corruption or political repression.
  • How do you overcome technological limitations to sharing and using knowledge? I put this last on the list because it’s probably the one that is most written about, with new technologies continually promising to improve how we connect to knowledge and to one another, and with continually improving (but still woefully inadequate) access in developing countries. But for all its difficulties I think this is the least interesting and most overstated of the limitations.

Yet despite these challenges, there is a clear need for knowledge brokers to help oil the wheels of knowledge exchange, to match-make, to translate, to collate, to synthesize and to reconnect. Despite technological advances (it’s all on Google right?) or perhaps even because of them, there is a real need for expert help in finding your way through the vast amounts of data, information, knowledge, wisdom out there and figure out how best to use it. And public organizations have a particular role in facilitating this since knowledge is the ultimate “public good”.

(note: this is an introductory post on this topic – I hope to get more into some of the practical aspects of knowledge brokering in future posts)

A couple of good resources for more reflections on knowledge brokering:

  1. IDS Impact and Learning Blog
  2. Knowledge Brokers Forum

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 31, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Making ourselves more innovative in the workplace

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Since my last blog post was a bit of a rant, I thought I’d share something a bit more optimistic that deals with some of the challenges we face.

A colleague and I recently co-ran a session about creativity and innovation for our office. Let’s face it – we are a secretariat office and so perhaps one of the last places you expect to see innovation, not because of the people we have, but because of the constraints we face in our role. But at the same time we do all want to be motivated, change things for the better and make a difference. Here are some reflections on our discussion.

The discussion focused mainly on personal creativity and innovation and how to foster and maintain it in our day-to-day work rather than on setting up and managing an innovation programme or agenda for the office.

I’ve embedded the Prezi we used below – although it might be hard to follow exactly what we were discussing without some context. One great thing about doing a visual presentation using Prezi in a corporate environment is that most people have not seen this approach before, so it is already easier to capture people’s attention than when using a traditional PowerPoint – and it is better at putting people in the right frame of mind to talk about innovation.

In our introductory presentation we basically gave a brief Introduction to the concept of innovation – what it is, why it can be difficult in our environment, what are a few examples of where it has happened within the UN etc.

This was followed by 3 personal tips/suggestions each from my colleague and me on how to be creative and innovative in our work.

My colleague’s tips focused on how to get ideas and inspiration. Here are the specific resources he suggested:

1. Listening to TED talks There are actually a lot of development and change management related talks which we hope to start sharing regularly in the office to get people’s creative thinking going (possibly a topic for a future blog post).

2. Reading “The artists way – by Julia Cameron” which gives a learning/personal development programme for people to follow to improve their creativity

3. Business innovation for Dummies  – a  very practical and readable book on how to innovate in the workplace from the “For Dummies” series

My tips focused a bit more on the implementation side of turning ideas into practice and included

1. The golden parrot award – basically “stealing with pride” ideas from other colleagues, offices or even disciplines and adapting them to your own work environment. More on the idea here in this great video from Chris Collison:  and I’d just also add for those uncomfortable with “stealing”, that we mean of course with attribution/credit to those who came up with the idea in the fist place.

2. After Action Reviews – basically my point was that these are an underutilized tool for looking at past experiences  and quickly taking stock in order to learn from them and incrementally improve them – since coming up with ideas is not enough if we don’t also reflect on how they work in practice.

3. The third idea was ”phone a friend” for which unfortunately I don’t have  a link to share Sad smile. The basic idea is that anyone trying out innovation needs a network of trusted advisors who can give feedback, or make suggestions. Ideally this network includes people who are not in your immediate work environment (and so can give you an outside perspective), or perhaps not in your field of work at all, but who you can trust to give you honest, critical but constructive inputs. Another type of phone a friend is to always ask the new person in your office for feedback because they are still ready to question  how things are currently done, and are still hopeful that things can be changed and are less susceptible to “group think” which can occur within an office.

After the presentation we asked colleagues to share their own tips on what they do to stay creative and motivated. After a slow start this led to a very interesting discussion on people’s personal working habits and what works best for them, and also some frank discussion on the challenges of trying to do something new within the system where people shared some of their past frustrations and current state of mind.

A whole range of personal approaches were shared on how people keep their motivation high, how they get over writer’s block or solve difficult problems, as well as generate ideas or new approaches to work. Interestingly many of these were focused around ways of keeping physically and mentally fit in general (exercise, meditation), maintaining a good work-life balance (spending time with children or with friends) and also stepping away from a problem when you are stuck, and focusing on something completely different, or taking a break in order to regain the mental faculty to solve a problem (or to allow your subconscious to work on the problem in the background). Another interesting element was the relationship between creativity in work, and engaging in creative activities such as music or drawing outside of work.

The other issue that emerged was the imperative for us to be creative precisely because  of the challenging environment in which we work, in order to overcome the obstacles we face in order to achieve our mandate. At the same time this requires a supportive environment from management, and peer support for one another. and I had the feeling that we all agreed to do our bit to provide this.

In the end each of us agreed to write down one or more ideas we would try for the next four months from among those we had heard in order to increase our ability to innovate, and to meet back after the four months are up to report back on how we had done – did we manage to follow-up with the idea, and what was the result. And like with any innovation, this might or might not be fully successful, but we will all hopefully learn something useful from the experience.

Innovation and DOCO on Prezi

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Working with one hand tied behind your back

with 11 comments

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

– Lewis Caroll: “Through the Looking Glass”

(Warning rant ahead)

I’ve spent my entire career working in aid bureaucracies of one sort or another. This post is not about any specific experience – but is a bit about all of them.

What is it with bureaucracies that makes them expect you to achieve extraordinary things, yet seemingly deliberately put obstacles in the way to prevent you from achieving them. Here are some of the ways we make things hard for ourselves:

1. Wrapping ourselves in red-tape. In large organizations there is a guideline and a procedure for everything, frequently written in unclear bureaucratic language,  often trying to mitigate every possible risk, however unlikely, except the risk that the guideline will be too complex to understand or follow. Given the difficult in drafting guidance, and getting agreement on it, the guidance is likely to be out of date with recent developments, or unintentionally conflict with other existing guidance, or by buried in some obscure corner of the intranet that no-one visits. Of course guidance is necessary, but I can’t help but feel that the way much guidance is written gives the impression that following rules is more important than achieving results, and that fundamentally all these rules exist because we don’t trust our staff to be  responsible and accountable (not you and me you understand – but those other idiots who don’t know what they are doing or can’t be trusted). I expanded on this theme more in a previous blog: afraid of responsibility – try regulation.

2. Looking for savings in all the wrong places. Most aid agencies are currently extremely cash strapped, and need to look for ways to get by with less. It’s therefore understandable that we seek to take cost cutting measures in order to live within our limited budgets. It’s perhaps also understandable, if regrettable that devoting resources to innovative new programmes takes a back seat to “focusing on our core business”. But this means we become less, rather than more able to adapt to the changing environment, and more likely to become less relevant. We often also economize on the things that enable us to improve our productivity and motivation. For example rather than making strategic, but difficult choices about priorities, we scale back evenly across the board, regardless of the impact on results. Similarly we maintain long-standing programmes and long-term staff, and scale back on things like travel, equipment, and on actual programme funds in order to maintain our core infrastructure. The problem with this is we often have people, but without any discretionary resources to enable them to actually be effective in their jobs. Similarly we buy cheaply and cut corners on areas such as IT equipment (e.g. buying 1 hour laptop batteries instead of 8 hour ones) in ways which relatively speaking save little money, but which can make it much harder to get things done.  Sometimes these things are more about appearing to be frugal rather than actually saving any money (I remember one senior former colleague insisting that everything be photocopied ort printed only in black and white and never in colour).

3. The Frankenstein consensus. Getting agreement across different stakeholders, or even internal departments and personalities can be difficult. But to try to keep everyone happy, or to get an idea through all the internal committees and processes and reviews, an all too common approach is to take on board as much feedback as possible uncritically and without regard to whether the resulting project is still recognizable or is still able to meet the initial purpose for which it was proposed. Similarly where different partners might have different approaches and systems they are trying to align the tendency is to go towards the lowest common denominator – the one that is easiest for everyone to adopt, rather than the one which will lead to the highest (if more challenging) standard.

4.  Egos. We all have one – but in the public service world where pay is based on grade rather than on contribution, and standard office sizes are mandated, and company perks are few, then soft power becomes very important. Who has the ear of leadership, who manages the biggest budget, who can tell you about the latest job opportunities, the corner office are all expressions of relative importance. In this context there is too often a confusion between defending ones own views or interests because we believe in them, and defending them because of pride, the need to save face or not be seen to admit we were wrong, or to change views because we need to keep favour with those more powerful than ourselves.  Similarly while I believe in the importance of building good personal networks and relationships in the workplace, too often personal perceptions or petty rivalries get in the way of collaboration and common agreement on substantive non-personal issues.

5. Planning paralysis – The public sector often has elaborate planning frameworks, increasingly replete with “SMART” indicators, planning retreats., complex consultation and approval mechanisms – all of which lead to late, complex plans often with unrealistic objectives (because we really aspire to change the world) but which are under resourced, with unverifiable indicators, and unrealistic timelines. A principal challenge is the difficulty to prioritize when there are so many important issues to deal with and interest groups to please – so we often end up including everything, overpromising and then underperforming (whereas we might be better off under promising and over performing). In fact often lip service is paid to important issues but the real test is to whether the organization puts resources and senior level managerial support behind them, and staff members can be left guessing what the real priorities are they are expected to deliver on. Another challenge is that once the marathon planning process is over, a plan is approved and budget allocated, relatively less effort is spent on systematically following up to make sure it is achieved.

6. Risk aversion – since we are spending public money, and rightly don’t want to be seen to waste it on “bad ideas” we are often unwilling to take calculated risks in order to innovate and try new approaches or incrementally improve our work.  We stick with the tried and tested, even if we know that potentially better solutions are out there because we prefer a predictable to an unpredictable outcome. We’re also often unwilling to admit when something isn’t working, but if we don’t acknowledge failures (or less than optimal outcomes) then how can we change what we are doing, learn from our experience and alert others so they can avoid making the same mistakes? (more in failure here)

So what can be done about this? We could easily blame the system, I know I have. But we also need to remember that we are part of that system and take some responsibility for the way things are as well as in trying to make things better. Of course doing this alone can be a difficult and risky business – but working together and supporting each other, together with a bit of top-level support we might be able to change things for the better. We certainly can’t if we just give up, or if we wait for someone else to change things for us.

I hope to come back to some of the issue above in later blog posts to try to get some discussion about what might be done to improve things in each of these areas.

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 25, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Posted in rants

A roundup of 2012 aid and development predictions

with 5 comments

I just received this fabulous overview of 2012 forecasts and predictions from the world of development and aid via e-mail from former colleagues in UNICEF, who have kindly agreed to allow me to share it with all of you. Thanks to Bjorn Gillsater, Sofia Soromenho-Ramos, Yulia Oleinik and Viktor Damjanovic who pulled together and synthesized this great reading list and saved us all a lot of time!

Here it is:

The beginning of each year always brings a flurry of “Year Ahead Predictions” from a variety of pundits. Some are light-hearted, and many acknowledge the unreliability of gazing into a crystal ball. At the beginning of 2011, almost no one expected the upheavals in the Middle East… Hillary Clinton famously stated that she expected calm in the region. So is it useful to look ahead?  Some (e.g. Andrew Hill, in the FT) are doubtful, calling instead for embracing the increasing uncertainty in the world, making the best of what we do know, and moving ahead in any case. But even from this critical viewpoint, there are some recurring themes in this year’s “predictions” that set the stage for the year ahead, at the very least, and that we may want to keep in mind as we plan for UNICEF’s work in 2012 and beyond – including in the context of the reviews of the UN’s Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review and the next Medium Term Strategic Plan, and the Post-2015 discussions.

  • Broad reflection on social and economic objectives, including measures of national welfare and the best path to development, will intensify: Concerns about inequality and other downsides of the current economic model are fostering some rethinking of “the growth imperative,” as Kenneth Rogoff calls it. He notes that “modern macroeconomics often seems to treat rapid and stable economic growth as the be-all and end-all of policy… But many critiques of standard economic statistics have argued for broader measures of national welfare, such as life expectancy at birth, literacy, etc.” John Gapper seems to agree, predicting that China will be worried about “balancing social reform with economic liberalization,” in a way that fosters “harmonious development” and inclusive growth. “Without popular consent and a fair distribution of economic opportunity, the entire Chinese experiment will come tumbling down,” he argues. The upcoming change in leadership (see point 3) will determine where the balance will fall, between a more pro-business or more socially conscious stance.
  • Inequality, in particular, will remain a central issue for discussion: In an FT article entitled “Peaceful acceptance of deep differentials is coming to an end”, Moises Naim suggests that “inequality will be the central theme of 2012. It has always existed…but this year it will top the global agenda of voters, protesters, and politicians running for office in the many important elections scheduled.” Michael Ignatieff agrees that this will be the key issue for the American electorate in November.
  • Politics will be focused on domestic challenges– making focus on international issues and agreements difficult: According to Gideon Rachman (and James Lindsay), in 2012 “efforts to rescue the world economy will be afflicted by a perilous political paradox. The more international cooperation is needed, the harder it will be to achieve,” as many countries (the US, France, Russia, Egypt, South Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela, and Mexico, who will host the next G20 summit) will be facing elections and domestic political constraints. China will also change leadership, and has been facing its own internal social unrest; China was clearly alarmed by the Arab Spring, meaning that it may have little energy to devote to elaborate international cooperation. In this context, Nouriel Roubini predicts a game of “kicking the can down the road” with regard to taking the tough decisions, and Kishore Mahbubani expects that calls for global leadership will be unanswered. The WEF’s “Outlook on the Global Agenda” agrees that global power shifts are favoring regionalism over global cooperation, and foresees a weakening of global leadership as governments face inward, leading to the rise of “multistakeholder partnerships” at different levels to deliver needs where government fails.
  • Politics will become more unruly. Lawrence Haddad notes that “the Arab revolts and the Occupy movements (due to be focused on Washington DC in an election year) have brought protest to the fore. Even TIME magazine made “The Protester” its Person of the Year… It remains to be seen how much of this is enabled by Facebook (800 million users and counting) and other social media platforms, but we will see more of it in 2012.” Jeffrey Sachs similarly predicts another year of protest and instability; and Naomi Wolf sees increasing conflicts between empowered individuals and the interests of global capital and governments that have grown accustomed to operating without citizen oversight. Mark Malloch Brown, on the other hand, thinks that 2012 may be only the calm before the storm, as incumbents like Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy will do just enough to keep things on an even keel until after their (re?)elections.
  • New hotspots will be in sub-Saharan Africa, and possibly Central Asia. Anne Marie Slaughter expects “technology to power rolling disruption to outright revolution…In 2012, we should see many more protests in sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe is one obvious candidate; Sudan is another. Nigeria could rise up en masse.”  Lawrence Haddad also expects Central Asia to rise on the development agenda: “Long forgotten, despite being on Europe’s doorstep, many of the Central Asian countries have poverty rates stubbornly set at 30%… With the West’s declining commitment to Afghanistan, elections coming up in Russia and other countries in the region, will we see protest and unrest in the Caucuses?” The Center for Foreign Relations also highlights these and other hotspots in its Preventive Priorities Survey: 2012; as does Foreign Policy in “Next Year’s Wars: 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2012”
  • Among the “development set”, the focus will likely shift from poverty to sustainable development, and from aid to innovation:  Lawrence Haddad worries that we are not doing enough to think about the 2016+ world, partly because the focus is on the run up to the MDG 2015 deadline and partly because the list of ODA eligible countries is dwindling (a Guardian article agrees that more thinking is needed).  Constrained aid budgets and the domestic focus of developed countries probably won’t help either. In this context, developed countries will only focus on development if it is seen to offer possible solutions to broader problems too, from a stalled economy to climate change. The lead up to Rio+20 seems to be heading this way. Julia Day reports that “after the second Rio+20 inter-sessional meeting held in New York in mid-December, word has it that a consensus is building among a core group of countries to use Rio+20 to shift the post-MDG agenda from poverty to sustainable development, i.e. from problems affecting the poor in developing nations to those affecting us all, everywhere… Science and technology can work more directly for social justice, poverty alleviation and the environment, helping to build a just and equitable green economy at a global level. But different forms of innovation that address sustainable development challenges at local, national and global levels need to be encouraged… Consensus at Rio on a global framework supporting innovation for sustainable development would be a major breakthrough”.
  • The importance of fostering good jobs, including youth employment, will be on everyone’s agenda. Jayati Ghosh notes that “ we have to move away from the profit- and export-driven growth model to a wage- and employment-led growth model, in which improvements in quality of life of all are seen as the basic goals. This…is just as relevant for developing countries as it is for advanced nations in crisis. In emerging economies, significantly increased spending on the “social sectors” – health, nutrition, sanitation, education – are an important element of this, because these are massively undersupplied, and increasing these will have positive employment effects directly and through the multiplier. Brazil provides an example…” Many international institutions are already planning reports and events on this issue – it will be the theme of the World Bank’s next WDR, the High-level Segment of ECOSOC in July, and reports by the OECD and ILO. The G20 has also set up a Working Group on jobs.
  • Donors will continue to reduce their role in Middle Income Countries: Andy Sumner and Amanda Glassman argue that this will be a mistake. The “EU, the Global Fund, and the World Bank’s IDA… all want to save money during a fiscal crunch by cutting off aid to middle-income countries (MIC). [But] there aren’t “pockets” of poverty in MICs: by income, most of the world’s poor live in MICs. The global distribution of malnutrition also points towards MICs, as do multi-dimensional measures of poverty and global disease and death figures. So if aid agencies pull out of MICs, they’re disconnecting from the majority of the world’s poor and sick. This problem is only going to grow. There are only 35 low-income countries (LICs) left, and estimates suggest that only about 20 will remain by 2025, most of them fragile states. Donors could develop a sliding scale on financial contributions…there are plenty of good things they could do in MICs at a reasonable price…[For example,] they could support purchasing clubs through existing multilaterals like UNICEF in order to achieve economies of scale in the purchase of health products like bed nets and vaccines.”
  • The interest in getting rid of undernutrition is here to stay, predicts Lawrence Haddad. “I have not witnessed anything like it… Many of the investments are 5-6 years and so this guarantees their longevity… Whether this transformation of nutrition within the development agenda can be locked in will depend on how we are able to transform thinking about nutrition, getting a better balance between health and development perspectives and making it as much a political issue as a technical one.”

If we have learned anything from the tumultuous last few years it is that the future is ever more unpredictable. Nevertheless, this should not stop us for forging ahead, while still trying to discern some goal posts through the fog. In this spirit, Charles Kenny puts it all in a longer term context, and gives us several “reasons to be cheerful in 2012”.

Enjoy the reading, and we wish you a great year ahead!

Björn, Sofia, Yulia and Viktor – Multilateral System Analysis Unit, UNICEF

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 10, 2012 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Differences between internal and external blogging

with 4 comments

Over the past few months since taking up my new job, I’ve been running a little comparison to see how sharing the same content in different ways can get different reactions. In particular I’ve been comparing the reactions I get to blog posts when I share them within the UN system via UNDP’s Teamworks platform, and by sharing them externally via my personal blog (Teamworks helpfully includes page views on contributed content which allows for this).

Here’s a quick comparison for three recent blog posts:

1. Social networking lessons from Booz-Allen Hamilton a blog post which summarizes a presentation I attended organized by UNDP’s KM team (so one for which you would assume there are a fairly large internal audience):

Teamworks: 39 views, 1 recommendation, 4 cross posts (other than by me), 3 comments

External blog: 378 site views, 17 tweets, 2 facebook shares, 1 comment

2. Write it down! a blog post about the importance of writing down and sharing lessons learned.

Teamworks: 44 views, 2 recommendations, 5 cross posts, 2 comments

External blog: 292 site views, 22 tweets, 7 comments

3. The heart of co-ordination on UN co-ordination!

Teamworks: 42 views, 1 recommendation, 4 cross posts, 1 comment

External blog: 309 site views, 9 tweets, 6 facebook shares, 8 comments (including some from current and former UN staffers)

The results would be similar if I had taken other older posts. What do I conclude from the comparison?

  • External blogging reaches a larger and more diverse audience (i.e. people outside the organization). Based on comments and subscriptions this does however include a number of current and former UN staffers, including some who are users of our internal systems.
  • Generally speaking there is a greater level of interaction through commenting and cross posting externally than internally – but this isn’t always the case.
  • The nature of the comments is qualitatively different. This is harder to characterize, but my general impression is that external comments are more likely to be critical, bringing in more diverse perspectives whereas internally we seem to be mostly more polite about expressing disagreement.
  • If you want to reach professional peers or like-minded individuals from beyond your own organization (but mostly the tech-savvy ones), or to promote your and your organization’s work externally, and also to get critical feedback then external blogging is the way to go. It’s also a good way to build your personal online brand and build external professional networks.
  • If you want to reach colleagues to learn from and also influence them then internal blogging is the way to go. While you might reach a larger audience through an external blog – your contributions might well have a more direct impact internally where it might be easier to directly apply learnings from the discussion into our work. The main challenge at the moment might be that consumption of content on our internal tools is still relatively low  – once more people are regularly reading and contributing then this effect could be much greater.
  • It’s possible to write content that serves both channels and purposes without too much adaptation. I therefore think it is worthwhile to share content both internally and externally (noting that some content might only be suitable for one or the other) – it can be very satisfying and open you up to different points of view you might not come across as often if you stay within the house – although it’s still a challenge to persuade many staffers to do either.
  • Another thought that occurs to me is about building networks – I’ve been blogging for just over a year now and am also active on twitter whereas I’m new in my current job and just starting to build networks there so the people I can reach and their interest in engaging with me are different.

Any thoughts from others who blog internally and externally on how they are different?

(Note: this is an adaptation and update of a blog post I shared internally to try to stir up some discussion about why we might need to also share externally not only post things on our internal systems)

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 9, 2012 at 8:58 am

Mind your language

with 2 comments


One of the challenges in knowledge sharing in development (or anywhere for that matter) is that different people often use different words to describe the same things, or even more confusingly they use the same words to describe quite different things.

The written word is both a powerful tool to help us connect people and ideas over space and time, and also a very imperfect one that doesn’t adequately capture the body language and other physical aspects of face to face communication, nor the much richer knowledge context and that is captured inside a person’s brain which can’t be easily conveyed in any means to another person.

I recently switched jobs, and although it’s only to a different agency within the United Nations, I found I had to learn a whole new set of terminology, acronyms, and tacit assumptions about what things mean. I’m quite good at picking up specialized lingo and already after a couple of months I was presenting at an external meeting when I found I was using internal acronyms and terms that were in everyday use by those in my office, but which unfortunately were not familiar to my audience. This experience made me think a little about how we use language in our work.

On the one hand using specialized language is helpful in that it helps reduce the time to communicate if you don’t have to explain or spell out commonly used terms in longhand. It also adds precision in communication IF all those using a term know exactly what is meant.

But the use of specialized language is also like a kind of argot – a way of indicating membership of a group and showing who is in and who is out. Using UN jargon or social media speak, or whatever specific jargon you are using just as much identifies you as a member of a group as does using the latest patois or gang slang, but in the workplace we just don’t admit this as openly.

When we are communicating we need to think about the audience and the purpose of the communication – are they familiar with the language we are using and do the terms carry the same connotations to them as they do to us? We often forget that the terms we use for brevity or improved clarity might have the opposite effect if they are used with audiences unfamiliar with our lingua franca.

Similarly we need to ask ourselves whether we are being honest with ourselves about our reasons for using aid worker vernacular. Are we using it to communicate clearly, or are we  really using it to appear smart and “with it”, to try to be insiders (and possibly to signify to others that they are outsiders) rather than to ensure we get our message across in the best way possible.

Politically correct speech is another “challenging” area. On the one hand we need to be careful not to use terms that might be culturally offensive or unfairly critical or judgmental, especially when working in a multicultural environment. On the other hand, this frequently goes so far as to make communication bland and opaque, such that you need to be adept at reading between the lines to understand what is really meant (the British are experts at this – see this excellent piece from the Economist on what Brits mean). This involves striking a difficult balance between not offending, but still saying something clearly enough to be understood.

Another pitfall is promotional language. We see this everywhere in advertisements, including in charity fundraising and even in our annual reports and press releases. Jakob Nielsen (the web usability guru) explains that “promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts ‘Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,’ their first reaction is no, it’s not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them”.

So if we really want to share knowledge, and communicate effectively, rather than just show off our “mad writing skillz” then we need to “Mind our Language”. As J so expressed so well, writing is a critical skill for the aid worker, since for all its imperfections as a medium the written word is still the best and most ubiquitous means of sharing what we know. It’s a skill I know I’m still working on, and one that we all need to reflect on from time to time.

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 5, 2012 at 10:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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