KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for February 2012

If I told you a story, would you believe me?

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There has been lots of discussion lately about both the potential and danger of “stories”. There are those who believe that stories are a major way to foster greater support for international development, drive organizational change, or share knowledge.

There have also been a number of academic bloggers warning about the danger of stories, about their lack of scientific rigor and their dangers of being influenced by them.

Maybe, just maybe, both the detractors and promoters are overstating their case (another example of black and white thinking?).

Humans are hard-wired to tell and respond to stories and have been a major way of sharing knowledge and ideas throughout human history. Before writing and the scientific method this was possibly the only way to do this. But the way that stories work is both an opportunity and a potential problem.

Reality is complex, messy and full of uncertainties – even in your own areas of expertise and experience. Explaining this to someone else who doesn’t share your technical background or frame of reference is extremely hard. Stories can serve as a powerful way to bridge these gaps to make it easier to convey an idea from one person to another. One of the reasons they work so well is that they distil messy reality into a few individual concepts or ideas stripping out detail and nuance, and they use a familiar narrative form to explain these in a way in which the listener can easily understand, relate to their own experience and emotionally engage with.

When I learn about something I’m unfamiliar with it’s much easier if the first time I hear it, it is (over)simplified so I can grasp the main elements, and that it is explained in a way which I can relate to my own experience, or I can imagine it in terms of how it affects people (even hypothetical ones) in the real world, rather than in terms of abstract concepts. Once I’ve understood the basics, I might then be able to flesh out this basic knowledge with additional experiences or stories, through my own experimentation and experience, or through reading the literature, or through my own research. But if the door to the topic is not opened in a way which I can easily grasp, relate to and care about –then I might never get to the part where I check my sources, test my assumptions and take the issue on for myself.

Another important factor in accepting knowledge or an idea from someone is trust. How do I judge the value of information shared about an unfamiliar topic? If I’m short on time I’m likely to judge it on its plausibility and its provenance. Storytelling helps build a relationship between storyteller and listener in a way that for most people data doesn’t in that it makes a story human and it also creates a relationship between the storyteller, the listener and the idea itself in a way which is much stronger (and which requires much less learned skills) than looking at a shared data set. And the building of relationships, and of shared frames of reference are critical to maintain an ongoing and mutually supportive flow of knowledge within communities of practitioners (including for researchers!).

However it’s important for both the teller and the listener to recognize that a story is not objective reality, it’s  a subjective personal interpretation. It is necessarily oversimplified, and might not even be “true”, even though it’s a good way to open a conversation and spark a potential interest in a new issue or to help explain a complex issue to a lay audience. Stories can be subject to bias both in the telling and the listening – although we are much more aware of this than of the smaller but still real biases that occur in the formulation and presentation of “objective, scientific data”. Like the use of metaphor, stories are a device to aid transfer of ideas – but are not the ideas or facts themselves.

On the one hand we don’t use stories enough to help introduce people to new ideas and to spark interest and engagement. They could be used more as a tool for experts and researchers to start a dialogue about the applications of their expertise in policy and in politics, and for politicians or advocates to engage an uninformed or weary public on public policy issues. On the other hand, responsible advocates also need to recognize that story telling is a beginning of a dialogue around an issue which needs to evolve into a more nuanced, evidence informed discussion, rather than being a substitute for it.

If I want to introduce something and get people to care about it a story is a much better place to start than an academic paper – but it would also be remiss of researchers and advocates if they didn’t try take the conversation further, and it would be equally remiss of the listener not to dig into a story that touches them to question it and understand more about what’s behind it.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 29, 2012 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Interested in aid and development? … go to the source

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Wondering where to go to hang out online with other aid and development workers (as well as students aspiring to be aid workers)? Do you miss the searing wit and home truths of @talesfromthhood since he “quit” blogging?

Look no further Aidsource is here!

J (of Tales from the Hood fame), Shotgun Shack, and Alanna Shaikh have pulled together a rather nifty social network on Ning where aid and development workers can hang out and shoot the breeze on everything from cash assistance and RCTs to work-life balance and cookery. The site was launched on Valentine’s day (how nice) and already has over 400 members and a range of lively conversations.

Sign up today

Here’s a nice little promo video for their site:

Bonus – for those of you who are into aid/development AND knowledge management there is also the Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) community. This has been around for quite a few years, and is fully of lively debate on both the practical and esoteric aspects of doing knowledge work in the aid/development world.

KM4Dev has both an online social network powered by Ning ( and an e-mail based discussion forum (KM4Dev-L) powered by D-Groups. Of the two the e-mail list is probably the most active but each has its own dynamic. They also share the summaries of their discussions on a wiki which is a great resource for KM related questions.

Update: for a pretty comprehensive list of aid/development related online communities check out this handy page from ” How Matters“.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Metaphorically speaking

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“Life is like a box of chocolates”

It’s a common device to use analogies and metaphors to help explain complex or unfamiliar concepts. It can be a helpful mechanism since it can help frame something that is rather abstract or unfamiliar in the context of something that is more familiar and concrete thus making it easier to understand.

Analogies can also be a useful way to look for innovation. If you can find a good analogy for the problem you are dealing with, you might be able to extrapolate from the analogy to also find potential approaches to tackling it.

There are some great analogies out there to help explain knowledge management and how it works. Here are a couple of examples:

1. Iceberg metaphor to explain the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge

2. Complexity theory explained through a children’s party

3. Knowledge as a garden. This occurs in multiple contexts and ways so I can’t give a single good link but a common related quote is “knowledge is like a garden: if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.”

You might  well have your own favourite.

But a word of caution – an analogy or a metaphor is only a device. It’s not a perfect match to the issue you are trying to explain. Sometimes the choice of metaphor can have strong effects on how you think about a problem that are not related to the nature of the problem itself. See this example on how choosing different metaphors (seeing crime as a beast versus seeing crime as a virus) leads people to favour different solutions  of the best ways to tackle crime.

Similarly a recent analogy used about the US federal budget likening it to a household budget shows the limitations and dangers of applying the insights you get from analogies too blindly (as well as highlighting their potential to mislead for ideological purposes).

Right now there is an interesting discussion taking place on the KM4dev mailing list sparked by an innocent query how to set up a “knowledge bank”, which has set off a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion about whether and how knowledge can be put into a bank and to what extent KM systems are like financial systems. Maybe they are, or maybe they are not, although I wonder exactly how that will help the original inquirer to achieve her goals (it seems those of us who work on KM do like to – excuse the metaphor –  indulge in epistemological navel gazing whenever we can Smile).

So while analogies and metaphors can be highly useful in helping explain our ideas and giving us inspiration, we need to be careful to 1. pick good analogies/metaphors in the first place 2. remember they are just metaphors, not the real thing 3. make sure that we carefully test any insights or inspirations we might get from the metaphor to ensure that they hold in the real world.

Happy gardening!

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 13, 2012 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

There’s more than one way to expand your knowledge

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In my most recent blog post I talked about two ways to get quality knowledge which looked at different approaches to reviewing quality. But what happens if you don’t have the knowledge you think you need in the first place?

In development work we’re often faced with problems that we’re not sure how best to tackle. We know something about it – most likely why it is a problem that we should care about, some extent of its magnitude, but possibly not enough to be sure about the best approach to tackle it.

So how do we go about expanding our knowledge enough to make informed choices about what we might do?

A couple of typical answers might be:

1) Scan the scientific literature to find out more about what is already known about the problem generally, or in other locations.

2) Do our own scientific research into the problem, either by collecting more data on the magnitude, characteristics and distribution of the issue, or by doing research into understanding the mechanism of the problem in the local context (example of this might be getting child mortality statistics disaggregated by region and gender, or carrying out analysis to see how this varies according to income, socioeconomic status or other factors to understand the causes and relationships between them).

Both of these are sensible suggestions. But they are not the only options. A few other things you might consider are:

  • look at relevant experiences from elsewhere, even if they have not been formally evaluated or have peer-reviewed research done on them. There might be a lot of grey literature and relevant material from other experiences that is relevant. A major resource can be lessons learned and good practices documented from experience, but you can even find potentially useful insights from communication materials and media stories. This might not be “hard” evidence but it can be very helpful in better understanding a problem and how to address it.
  • talk to people – whether it’s a range of people in country to get a better understanding of the issue in its local context, or to other practitioners who might have experience in similar situations who you might reach through your personal/social networks, or even better through a community of practice.
  • do something – carry out a small-scale pilot or prototype as a basis for learning more about the situation and how to tackle it. Here you need to be careful to build in measurement so you can see how you are doing, and also feedback so you can incorporate what you learn to improve the design, and flexibility so you can adapt your programme continually as you go along. Even better might be to do several parallel projects that use different approaches so you can compare and contrast rather than sticking with one single theory of change (especially when you are not really sure).

A common thread in these approaches is the idea that there is more to knowledge than what you can get from only looking at research and evaluation. There is a whole area of tacit knowledge from experience that lies beneath the surface (see “The truth is out there”).

My last, and perhaps most unconventional approach to increasing your knowledge is the idea that you already know more than you think you know. Donald Rumsfeld was famous for his quote about the known-knowns, the known-unknowns and the unknown-unknowns. Much of this post was about how to expand on the known-unknowns and turn them into known-knowns, but Rumsfeld forgot the mention the unknown-knowns. If you look at yourself and reflect on your own actions and past experience, and if you assemble a good team (or reassemble a team that you know works well together), and do things to stimulate your own creativity. you might well find that you have more insight into a situation than you imagine, or at least enough to be able to make a proposal and test it with others, or turn it into a workable pilot.

It goes without saying that each of the above approaches to expanding your knowledge has their strengths and weaknesses, and that which one is most appropriate depends on the problem you are trying to address. It’s also important to recognize that they are not exclusive – even though many people naturally incline to one approach or the other. It  can be better to combine peer-reviewed research, rigorous evaluation, personal experience, peer-support, experimentation and local voices together to get a richer and more nuanced view of the situation you are facing and the possible approaches to dealing with it. If they don’t always tell the same picture it doesn’t mean that one or other is not reliable so much as that there is rarely a simple incontrovertible truth about what we should do. Better to apply judgment based on a rounded, multi-faceted understanding of the complex situation we face than to base our actions on a single. clear but incomplete view.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 10, 2012 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Two ways to get quality knowledge

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Whenever I was working on communities of practice or on lessons learned, or anything relating to external knowledge sharing I would inevitably get the same question from senior managers “How do we ensure that what is being shared is high quality?, who is vetting it?”. Even in internal communities of practice I would be asked whether we ought to screen questions to make sure they are relevant and not trivial, and responses to make sure that they were sufficiently evidence based.

I understand this concern – you don’t want people to waste their time, or worse be misled and take inappropriate action based on faulty knowledge. And at the back of the minds of many was also the potential risk to our reputation of putting out something that might draw criticism.

So how do you ensure that the knowledge you are sharing is of a high quality? I’m going to look at two approaches:

1. The “old-fashioned way” – i.e. all content is reviewed and edited/cleared by a small group of “experts”. Their authority to review comes either from their position (i.e. reviewed by headquarters because it’s their job to set global standards and its assumed they know better than you – or by the head of a department because he/she is “accountable”) or through “recognized experts in the field of study”.

This approach is widely used, but it has its limitations: most contributions will not live up to their standards; people might well be intimidated to contribute if they feel their contributions could be judged unworthy, yet it’s already hard enough to get people to share; material produced and cleared is likely to conform to the biases and preferences of the reviewers; the time of the reviewers is a bottleneck; what the reviewers are looking for might not be the same thing that the potential users need.

2. The way of the “amazon” – i.e. quality is reviewed by a network of peers, either conservatively (and time consumingly) before something is shared widely, or quicker, but more riskily – after something is shared, or after a lighter quality review. The advantages here are that the reviewers are the consumers and so they are best placed to identify what is most useful and can also add to the conversation making the whole process more dynamic and allowing the best quality material to “float to the top”. The challenge is that to get there some of the exchanges may be of poor quality or relevance but have still taken up people’s time. This also requires the central power structure to give up control to the “workers” which means sometimes the exchanges will not follow the direction of the official party line.

Of course it’s not that one method is intrinsically right and the other wrong. Historically the first had precedence, now it seems the balance of opinion is favouring the latter. But which approach is most useful depends to some extent on the type of knowledge you are dealing with (see this previous post on the difference between a community of practice and a help desk which are two specific examples of each of the above two approaches and some guidance on when each one works best). It might also depend on the type of organization you are in.

But it’s also good not to think in terms of one or the other, but how to combine both and allow them to complement each other. It’s possible to have both “expert” reviews and peer/consumer reviews of lessons learned or other knowledge products – just like at you can read both the critics feedback and  the viewers feedback (guess what I took the kids to see this weekend). It would be good if in our knowledge management systems we could find better ways to incorporate both of these approaches too.

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Two great initiatives you should know about

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Peer coaching for development workers

Whydev and Development Crossroads, are launching a matchmaking service for peer coaching, aimed at young professionals, graduate students, and others starting out in international development could benefit from having access to peers who can help talk them through a problem and act as a sounding board.

They are just in the planning phase right now and are seeking feedback on the level of demand for this type of service and  what kind of matching system might be most useful. They have developed a short survey to help them craft the service  – go and let them know what you think!

We all need someone to talk to who isn’t part of our immediate team from time to time, even those of us who can’t really call ourselves young professionals any longer.  This is a promising idea that deserv es your support and input.  To find out more check out the blog announcement and questionnaire here.

The knowledge sharing toolkit

OK. I’ve written about this before, but there have been a wealth of updates since I last plugged it and also UNDP have now been added to the list of cosponsors and contributors. Here’s the spiel….

Join the CGIAR, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the KM4Dev Community , the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Development Programme in creating and growing the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit ( an excellent resource of knowledge sharing tools and methods.

It is a living wiki based site where a wide range of individuals from the sponsor organizations and others have written or pulled together materials about a wide range of knowledge sharing tools and techniques. It’s open to all to participate, whether it is just to consult the toolkit as a resource, or whether you would like to add new material or improve what’s already there.

What can you do with the toolkit?

1. Use the Toolkit and share it w/ colleagues – the simplest step. You don’t even need to join the wiki to read it. Bookmark Tweet it out!

2. Improve an existing page – every page on the wiki is editable. All you have to do is join the wiki (upper right hand corner – you will have to wait for one of us to approve – we do this to keep out spammers), then go to the page you want to improve, click edit, and have a go! (See also… )

3. Create a new page for a method or tool that is not yet in the Toolkit (see also ) – Go to either KSTools or KSMethods (the lists are in alphabetical order), click edit, write in the new message in the appropriate alpha order, click on the link creator in the editor window at the top, and choose wiki link. The system will create a new link. Then click save. After the page reloads, click on the new link you made. That will take you to a page that has to be created (by you!) Then on that page select the KSToolkit template and start editing! (yes, we built a template to make it easy)

4. Comment on any page… just click on the little “comment” balloon on the upper right of any page – you have to be logged in though!

This is a common resource – so it is as good as WE ALL make it!

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm

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