KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

There’s more than one way to expand your knowledge

with 3 comments


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

3 Responses

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  1. Fortunately Donald ‘stole’ his wisdom also.
    Have a look at
    Cheers, Jaap

    wjpelsW.J. Pels

    February 10, 2012 at 9:19 am

  2. Ian:
    Thanks for sharing these distinctions.

    One variation on the “unknown unknown” theme is to ask (and answer) the question, “What would we think, feel, or do if we DID know?” In effect, it provides permission to guess; to draw from intuition; to give voice to the (until now) pre-verbal ideas we may have but have not allowed to rise to consciousness.

    The nice thing about this form of exploration is there is no expectation of the idea being “right.” Without that internal censorship, more individual and group creativity is free to emerge.

    Take care,

    Larry Solow

    February 10, 2012 at 9:21 am

  3. […] View post: There’s more than one way to expand your knowledge […]

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