KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for April 2012

Don’t fear the singularity (It’s already here)

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(Warning nerdy weekend reading ahead)


I was surprised to be asked by a colleague earlier this week what I thought about the singularity, and what if anything we should be doing to prepare for it (personally I presume, rather than in our office workplan)

For those of you who are not science/science fiction nerds “The singularity” is a term coined by Ray Kurzweil to describe a time, in the not too distant future when humanity creates an “intelligence” that surpasses human intelligence, often thought of being in the form of an intelligent self-aware computer or some form of artificial intelligence, or sometimes in the form of either genetically or technologically enhanced human. It is referred to as a singularity since once this intelligence exists and can act to improve yet further on its own level of intelligence, it is beyond the ability of our own human minds to understand and predict what it will do, and how the future will unfold as a result, and yet it is expected to unleash rapidly accelerating technological advances. This echoes the idea of a black hole in space where the singularity is the point at which our current laws of physics break down and where we can’t see or understand what is beyond.

The idea of the singularity can be exciting to some who are enticed by the possibilities in terms of improved technological advances beyond what we can currently dream of and see it as an opportunity to overcome some of the world’s problems that now seem intractable such as poverty, conflict and environmental degradation. Others see it as a dystopian nightmare where the new intelligence rises up against its creators seeing them as unjust or unnecessary, the kind of future imagined so well in The Matrix” or the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica”.

So if you are still reading, you must be wondering by now what this has to do with knowledge management?

Well, the answer is that the singularity is already here. But it’s not an artificial intelligence, a supercomputer, or set of nanorobots or cybernetic implants running amok. It is something called “distributed cognition”. That is, the collective intelligence of large numbers of diverse individuals, each intelligent actors and thinkers in their own right, connected by different forms of technology that allows them to work together and co-ordinate their activities either consciously (such as in the preparations for the US moon landings), or unconsciously (such as pricing mechanisms in financial markets) in a way which much more computationally powerful than any one individual (or computer) could ever achieve no matter how brilliant.

In  the modern “knowledge” economy no one person knows how to perform every task in a related chain of events whether it be building and delivering a car or vaccinating a child (from production to injection). Instead different people specialize in different parts of the operation and we use various means to coordinate their physical and intellectual inputs. It is the fact that we all have different skills, experiences and perspectives that can be brought together to complement each other that allows the whole to be better than the sum of the parts.

The organization of modern society is highly complex and inter-connected, and no-one has a good understanding of all of its parts, and the sum of all of this is able to process much more complex ideas than any one of us can imagine. Networking technologies such as social media or even e-mail and the written word have catalyzed this effect, and the rapid improvements in communication technologies have greatly enhanced this capability for collective intelligence with new approaches such as big data analysis, mechanical turks and prediction markets enhancing this capability along with social networks (online and offline), communities of practice as well as formal institutions. And like in the singularity we don’t really understand all of what is taking place now, let alone where this will all lead in the future. And the rate of increase in technological progress is accelerating, self improving as each new advance facilitates fast change.

But for the most part the technologies we use are not intelligent in their own right, nor are they self-aware and neither do they have agency to make decisions and take actions for themselves. It is the super-position of human intent over new means of connecting and communicating that creates this new super-human intelligence. The technological singularity is more like a colony of ants (albeit intelligent ones) each playing its own role, but collectively being able to take on bigger challenges and process more information that any individual can do, or more than any one individual can even comprehend. But at the time it is a very human intelligence, but not one limited by the capacity of one brain but by the ability for us to network many brains  effectively, supported and enhanced by, but not ruled by technology – a true wisdom of the crowd.

So, don’t fear it, it is already here, and we can’t turn back the clock.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 27, 2012 at 3:35 pm

K*, K what?

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This week there is an interesting conference taking place in Hamilton, Canada known as the K* Conference

Why K*? because while there is a growing recognition of the role of information and knowledge intermediaries in linking knowledge, evidence and decision-making, as with any other are of academic study, people refer to it by a range of different names which belie often differing views about how to approach this. A few of the common terms used are knowledge management (which is the area I consider myself to work), knowledge brokering, knowledge  sharing, knowledge translation, knowledge acquisition, knowledge mobilization etc.,  etc.

The K* conference attempts to bring all these different ideas/approaches and their practitioners together in one place to get them to talk to each other, learn from each other and identify common ground. A good idea if I ever heard one! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go but am trying to follow bits of it via web conference. But I nevertheless wanted to share a few of my own thoughts about the challenges in this area from the perspective of a non-academic worker in this area – just to be a little provocative:

Firstly, I’m struck by our ability as knowledge workers to finely gradate our work into so many different sub domains and disciplines and approaches, and for those to not necessarily be talking to or collaborating with each other! Arguably this is an issue with academic thinking in general in that it often encourages a high degree of specialization whereas innovation and knowledge sharing often are more impactful when they are interdisciplinary in nature.

Secondly, a lot of the work of the various knowledge intermediaries focuses around the idea that people are doing great research, if only they could get it into the hands of policy makers, and if only policy makers would take more notice of it in order to make “evidence-based” decisions. There are a number of problems with this, particularly that i) much research is not necessarily designed to meet the needs of decision makers – in particular decision makers are looking for advice for action now rather than for learning towards an improved understanding of reality later ii) there is a poor understanding of how policy is made and the role of research based evidence in it iii) research is not the only form of knowledge that policy makers do or indeed should take into account – they also rightly consider issues such  as issues such as politics, direct experience and advice from programme implementers and from those affected which while not “scientific” are no less real iv) researchers are from Mars and policy makers are from Venus i.e they don’t understand each others language and world views.

A recent blog from the World Bank “Knowledge Management is not mere dissemination” took on this issue, pointing to the need to move beyond knowledge generation and sharing being seen as a technically oriented paradigm around producing  technical excellence and sharing it widely with a hope it will be consumed and acted upon, and moving to a more communication mind-frame whereby the packaging and means of transmission of the knowledge is equally important in order for those who can apply the knowledge to take notice and see how and why they should put it to use.

But for me even this doesn’t go far enough. We need to get away from thinking of the policy maker as an audience for knowledge, and rather see them as  actors in their own right. In this sense knowledge intermediation is about building relationships between policy makers and researchers, and also those who implement policies and those affected by them. This is important to be able to bring in the different perspectives on an issue so that researchers can also understand what kind of knowledge is useful to policy makers and how the policy making process works, and also to bring together the different types of knowledge that come both from scientific research, and from experience of implementing and being affected by policy decisions (or to put a human face on scientific information).

This is also important to build trust between researchers and policy makers. While intangible, trust and mutual understanding is an important factor in whether a particular voice is listened to (especially since policy makers don’t have the time or means to verify the technical merits of the research they encounter). Building and nurturing these relationships over time (i.e. not only focusing on the content of the exchange) is a key yet under-emphasized role of the knowledge intermediary.

It will be interesting to see how far these issues come up in this week’s discussions!

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Bottom-up coordination

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(Big disclaimer: these are my own ramblings and do not in any way reflect official UN thinking  – and I even reserve the right to change my own mind about this)

I wrote in a previous post about the need to use the heart, not just the mind when trying to improve the coordination of the UN’s work (or for any co-ordination effort).

A related issue is whether coordination is best achieved by imposing it top-down, or whether you foster the emergence of coordination from the bottom up (or perhaps more correctly what is the right balance  of the two approaches).

A traditional view of coordination has been to establish common norms and standards and guidelines at a global level through a process of negotiation between agencies in order to accommodate their different mandates, experiences and perspectives.

This has the benefit of establishing common global standards that are mandated and clearly recognized and understood as “the way to do things” across the system. This type of coordination has much more of a “force of law” than coordination that emerges locally.

But this type of coordination also suffers from some drawbacks. In particular:

  • It can be time consuming and difficult to get agreement of common rules and procedures at a global or HQ level, and even when agreement is reached it is often a compromise and sometimes risks to be an agreement on the “lowest common denominator” rather than the best ideas and practices each has to bring.
  • Rules and procedures developed centrally don’t necessarily work equally well in the wide variety of different circumstances in which we work with different country contexts in terms of size, level of development, culture, capacity and political and security risks (as well as different personalities on the ground).
  • Procedures of this type are often followed in letter, but not in spirit i.e. the rules are followed, but without the accompanying intend behind them to make the work more coordinated in practice.

At a UNDG knowledge fair back in 2010 we looked at good country examples of multi-agency projects working on policy change. One of the interesting aspects of this was looking at what the factors were that facilitated good inter-agency co-operation and a striking observation was that a lot of the examples of successful inter-agency coordination  were not as a result of top down imposed coordination where people were told to work together, but more often from a group of people together identifying a common interest and the potential to achieve more by pooling or coordinating their efforts.

Similarly the UN’s Delivering as One initiative is essentially a bottom up one where countries themselves have expressed an interest in greater integration and coherence of the UN’s operation at country level. Here countries were in the driving seat in determining how and where to integrate more within a broad framework of options rather than in a one size fits all mode.

Bottom-up coordination, based on a real desire to be better coordinated from those people who are being coordinated (or perhaps better acting to coordinate themselves) and which responds to real needs, and takes advantage of opportunities is an undervalued and potentially very impactful and sustainable way of getting better results.

But for this to happen there also needs to be a supportive environment that allows people to seize opportunities to work together, and develop common, but locally appropriate solutions. A few of the factors important in creating this type of environment include:

  • Shared purpose. There has to be some sense of common interests or goals if only articulated at a high level which are shared between the coordinating organizations (even if they still have their own more specific mandates and goals under them).
  • Trust. It’s important for the people who are supposed to work together to get to know each other  and effectively to like each other so that they are willing to trust each other to deliver on their part of the work. To foster this its important to get people together regularly, not only for formal theme meetings, but also for informal more social meetings so they can understand each other better. Where possible putting people in physical proximity can help improve this. Putting people in the same building, or even better for cross agency teams to sit on the same floor can greatly improve trust building and information sharing.
  • Information sharing. To coordinate effectively you need to have good mechanisms for sharing information. Ideally these are comprehensive, but not overwhelming in terms of either the burden of sharing your information or the volume of information received. Here development of light systems that share the most important information and that are equitable in terms of sharing the same information with everyone. This is important both to spot opportunities for pooling efforts,as well as to make sure these efforts are managed effectively. Greater transparency and public disclosure of aid information not just within teams but with governments, donors  and the public will greatly facilitate this.
  • Flexibility and empowerment from HQ down. One challenge to local initiatives in coordination is whether their respective HQs allow them to happen or whether rote application of global policies and rules that are agency specific means that staff locally cannot seize opportunities to work better together. For local initiative to work then local teams would need to be empowered to make their own decisions on when and how to collaborate. In some instances this would lead to greater integration, and in some cases to less, depending on whether there is a need and whether greater collaboration is likely to yield results. Here the allowable parameters for working together would n3eed to be established and performance monitored, but the exact form of cooperation would be largely determined locally.
  • Leadership. Greater collaboration is more likely to work when it is encouraged by management globally, but perhaps even more importantly locally, and that efforts to work together are encouraged and supported and expected.
  • External pressure. It helps if government counterparts and other partners, as well as donors put a little external pressure on people to coordinate better. Another external pressure is that of resources – on the one hand donor funding (or other internal funding mechanisms) can be used to help stimulate greater collaboration. On the other hand in the current climate of shrinking budgets the limited resources of individual actors itself is a good incentive to pool resources and coordinate different inputs to achieve more with less, so long as the external incentives are not pushing people to compete.
  • Learning and knowledge sharing. If the way work is coordinated varies from situation to situation based on context, then how do we know  what works? A necessary accompaniment to greater flexibility is the need to reflect on and share experience of what works and what doesn’t and for different countries to share their experiences and to support one another so that each team doesn’t need to start from scratch but can benefit from the the experience of others. This would also mean that any approach taken is seen and potentially scrutinized externally so that successful approaches will be copied and adapted by others while unsuccessful ones will be abandoned  in favour of better approaches being used by others.
  • Incentives. People respond to incentives, especially around what they are told is important and what will affect their reputation and career..  Staff in agencies are primarily responsible to those agencies which are primarily responsible to their governing boards. The trick is to find ways for their incentives to also be geared towards finding common or coordinated solutions. this might be by including feedback mechanisms on their work from beneficiaries (who benefit from better coordinated work), from collaborating partners, or even within their agencies through their staff reporting systems and their reporting relationships with their own boards.

I’m not meaning to say that top-down coordination and common rules don’t have their place. They are extremely important to establish common frame of reference and legitimacy for coordination and to ensure certain minimum standards are met and will continue to be a key driver of improved coordination, but they should also be complemented by greater support and encouragement for locally developed forms of coordination that emerge from a need and desire to work together, and which are developed in a flexible way to respond to the situation on the ground. This way work can be coordinated in a way that is most likely to yield results for those who are in the front lines working in countries with governments and other local partners.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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