KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for June 2012

Knowledge Management – Attitudes – Practices

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People familiar with Communication for Development (or C4D, behavioural change communication, social mobilization or the other names this discipline goes by) will no doubt have heard of KAP “knowledge-attitudes-practice”.

This is the idea that in certain areas of development (often but not only health) require changed behaviours on the part of the beneficiaries. A classic example is the need for regular hand washing with soap in order to reduce transmission of disease.

A recognition of the KAP approach is that is not sufficient to provide beneficiaries with the knowledge that washing hands reduces the spread of disease to get them to do so. Changing behaviours requires first that the knowledge is transmitted (in a way that is understandable in the local context), that people’s attitudes about the issue are changed and then finally that they adopt new, healthier behaviours and regularly practice them. Anyone who is a parent has probably also experienced this first hand when trying to persuade their children to regularly brush their teeth – and knows that it isn’t sufficient just to tell them that all their teeth will fall out of they don’t.

In the KAP model in order to move beyond transmitting the knowledge it is also important to look at the attitudes of the beneficiaries – what do they believe about the issue – are there fundamental cultural, moral, religious beliefs that affect the way people think about new knowledge they have acquired, or perhaps there are deeply ingrained habits  Or perhaps there are other barriers such as peer pressure, or financial constraints that stop them applying what they have learned.

KAP is well-known and applied approach in communication for development and is used in a very broad range of areas from hand washing, use of toilets, family planning, HIV prevention, prevention of early marriage, or school attendance etc. etc.

What is a little surprising to me is that the lessons and approaches used in communication for development are not more widely applied to knowledge management and knowledge brokering work. In both cases the ultimate purpose of knowledge is behavioural change i.e. you want practitioners or policy makers to change what they do based on the knowledge you share with them so that their actions are “evidence-based” or “evidence informed”. But in a lot of knowledge work we put most of the effort into creating, documenting and then packaging and disseminating the knowledge, but rather less on understanding and influencing the attitudes and behaviours of those we hope will use the knowledge.

Too often we assume naively that if we explain our knowledge logically and clearly, or package it nicely then it will be sufficient. Yet in practice there are many unseen barriers to get policy makers and practitioners to change their behaviours and put new knowledge to work. And so an important part of the knowledge broker or knowledge manager’s work should also be around removing barriers to use of knowledge and encouraging changes in attitudes and practices. Some of this I covered in a past blog post on creating a demand for knowledge. In the context of programmatic and policy knowledge the barriers are often in the form of a lack of institutional incentives (or even disincentives) to use knowledge. These can be overcome – if you look at doctors or technology developers they need to be constantly learning new knowledge to stay in business – but in aid and public policy work this link is not so clear.

They can also be in the form of ingrained attitudes or views about an issue (such as: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and know all I need to know to do this work”, “I don’t trust economists/sociologists (name your discipline)”, “I don’t trust the experience of my staff/beneficiaries-they don’t know anything”) or maybe even the evidence goes against their own deeply held moral or religious beliefs – policy makers are subject to the same culturally based biases as beneficiaries (you only have to look at some of the public policy debates in the USA).

We would do well to adopt some of the tools and approaches from communication for development and social mobilization and apply/adapt them when thinking about sharing and brokering knowledge both within the organization and in trying to influence partners to use it. These are not just about transferring information or giving direction, but are also about engagement of our “audience” with the knowledge to contextualize it into their own situation and worldview and incorporate their own knowledge, opinions and needs into the process. There is even a set of tools used for measuring the need for and effectiveness of communication for development work known as KAP surveys which measure both knowledge on an issue, but also attitudes and actual practices to help understand how well public health messages are getting across and the impact they are having. We might also think of looking at ways to use this same approach to measuring the effectiveness of our knowledge work to understand not only how well knowledge has been disseminated and whether people are aware of it, but also whether it is influential and has changed their behaviour (and if not why not) – that could be a  good start to trying to understand how to do it more effectively.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 26, 2012 at 11:19 am

Too good to be true

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(A short digressional rant on internal communication inspired in part by various examples I’ve seen recently from a range of organizations. )

Internal communication plays an important role in informing staff about organizational priorities, key events, and new developments. It’s also helpful in building a sense of togetherness and pride in the work of the organization.

But, there’s a fine line in internal communication between motivating and inspiring your staff through success stories, and propagandizing them with your corporate message. Your staff, more than the general public, knows about how your organization works, its challenges and its shortcomings, and they know about the messy reality on the ground.

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”. This is especially true of communications for your own employees, or for fellow practitioners.

We’re subjected to so much spin and promotion from politicians, advertisers and fundraisers that our brains no longer accept it. A bit more optimistic realism in workplace communications would be a welcome change and less of an insult to our intelligence.

If I’m at the receiving end of internal communication I want to know the facts not the gloss, and what those facts mean for me. If it’s a success story, I don’t just want to see the smiling faces and the statements about why it’s so great – I want to know why it’s a success and how it was done, so I can not only be inspired by it, but also learn from it. I also want to understand the challenges and how they were addressed and where there are still hurdles, because if I try to adapt  them I’d like to know what’s in store for me.

I’d suggest this might be another place where an 80-20 rule applies. 80% positive and 20% negative in a story is much more credible, and much more interesting than one that is 100% positive, yet it’s not so negative that it loses its appeal.

I’d also suggest that concrete example trumps abstract concept any day. If you can give a real (or at least realistic hypothetical) example of how a new initiative will help improve efficiency it’s much better than simply asserting that it will.

It’s also worth remembering that the things people probably look for most in internal communications are i) career advancement opportunities ii) opportunities to get funding or support for their work iii) internal developments that will either help them in their work, or will make their life harder – and what they need to do to respond to these iv) specialized resources relating to their area of work. So it’s good to make sure these the most accessible. Basically it’s about your audience not about your corporate messaging, and if you want people to read, and to act you need to figure out how to relate it to their experience and what they want and need, not simply what you want them to believe.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Posted in rants

Lack of curiosity killed the cat

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Seth Godin blogged some time ago lamenting  how as adults we lose the ability to ask questions.

Why do we stop asking questions? Here are a few reasons I can think of, perhaps you can think of more:

1. We don’t want to appear dumb

2. We want to fit in, and don’t want to rock the boat

3. We are used to the status quo.

4. We’ve been burned by asking questions before.

5. Asking questions doesn’t get us real answers.

6. We are not paying attention.

7. We don’t really want to hear the real answers to the important questions we have.

I recall many a time sitting in university lecture theatres, or even at office workshops after a presentation and invariably there would be few or no questions. I was often the one to ask the first “stupid question”.

It IS hard to ask questions as an adult, but if we don’t ask –  we are not able to learn, to clarify, or to challenge. Without questions we are stuck with misunderstanding or with accepting the status quo.

So I have two suggestions:

1. Ask more questions, even “stupid” questions.

2. Encourage others to ask questions. And if you are a presenter, or a boss create a safe space for others to ask questions of you. Make them feel comfortable – even if you are not. And of course do your best to answer them, including admitting when you don’t have the answer.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 20, 2012 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Four levels of knowledge management for development

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Based on my experience of development organizations there seems to be a progression of four different levels to their knowledge management work, regardless of their specific approach to Knowledge Management or the methodology they use

1. Internal knowledge management – giving their staff access to knowledge in order to support them to do their jobs better or to improve organizational performance. This can include various types of tools and approaches – intranets, toolkits, databases of research or lessons learned, communities of practice, knowledge sharing events. But the focus is on the organizational and staff needs for knowledge in order to improve performance by learning from the latest research and from experience. This is the most common purpose for knowledge management outside the development sector and probably where there is the strongest theoretical basis and practical track record in KM work. It’s no surprise then that many aid organizations start with this approach. But in the context of development, it has its limitations. A large part of development is about the transfer of knowledge and building of sustainable local capacity rather than just delivering a quality product or service – in this context it seems a bit near-sighted to focus only on empowering yourself with the knowledge you need to need. Also since much development knowledge is derived from publicly funded activities it also doesn’t seem right to hoard all this knowledge for ourselves.

2. Knowledge dissemination – generating knowledge and making their organizational knowledge as widely accessible, or known to the external world especially development partners. For organizations with a strong base either in research, or in practical on the ground experience a next natural step is to want to make the knowledge you have as widely available, accessible and used as possible. Here the focus might be on how to capture or package or effectively disseminate what you know so it will be relevant, readable and usable for those who can use it and trying to find the best means to put it in the hands of those who have most need of it. This is often knowledge in the form of knowledge products (publications, videos, papers, toolkits etc.) but could also be in terms of deploying internal expertise and making your experts externally available, or in organizing events where they can share and interact. If you do this well it also has the added benefit that it improves the visibility and credibility of your organization.

But even with an organization as broad and large as the UN this has its limitations. A lot of the most valuable knowledge and expertise lies outside your organization. And this approach can seem a little top down  and elitist (“listen to us and you shall find wisdom”).

3. Knowledge brokering – connecting development partners to relevant knowledge and expertise wherever it comes from (see more in this previous post). Here the role is to help connect development partners with the knowledge they need, whether or not it comes from within your own organization. Key elements here are matchmaking, facilitation, translation (e.g. of solid but poorly communicated research into a format that policy makers can and want to digest and use) and ultimately that of building relationships. Ultimately part of the role is that of a credible convener who can be trusted to help make useful connections and be a “go to” source not necessarily to know all the answers, but to be able to pull together the required expertise to address a given issue. A particularly promising if challenging example of this in the context of the UN’s work is that of South-South cooperation where there may be excellent country level experience in one country that could be relevant to another but without the matchmaking and even material support for the exchange that opportunity will be lost (possibly in favour of bringing in more expensive and possibly less relevant western expertise just because it is better known, and there is a donor who will support it). However this still treats knowledge as something that is provided to development partners to support their work rather than something they themselves have the capacity to generate or acquire and manage effectively themselves.

4. Building knowledge capacity – building the capacity of development partners to generate, acquire, share and use knowledge effectively. This is perhaps the most challenging but also most fundamental way to put knowledge at the service of development. Government, civil society and other development partners ultimately need to be able to have the skills and capacities themselves to decide what knowledge is needed to support them in their work; to take the steps needed to generate or acquire it whether through research, evaluation and data collection; to network with external partners to get the support they need; to better share and apply  available knowledge across government departments; to have the critical skills required to assess what knowledge is of high quality and has relevance in the local context; to be able to learn from their own experience and apply what they have learned; or through increased openness and transparency to make government more accountable and citizens more engaged. Building a country’s knowledge capacity is a critical element of the overall development aim to build sustainable local capacity. Without knowledge there is no capacity. Knowledge is not sufficient to ensure capacity but it is necessary and so needs to be a key element of any capacity building strategy.

Each of the four levels I describe has its value, yet none of them are sufficient by themselves to support development through knowledge. For different organizations different roles will be more appropriate based on their mission and the level of maturity of their knowledge work – but all of them are needed, and the last two roles that of brokering and capacity building, which are more challenging to do but which have such great potential, are often under utilized and under-supported by many of the big development actors.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 14, 2012 at 11:50 am

Knowledge sharing as a piece of software

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I was recently doing some research on how different development organizations profile their knowledge management work on their public websites and trying to think how the UN might better profile its work in this area.

In a sense everything an organization puts on its website is knowledge whether it is publications, stories, policy positions, research, statistical data or even press releases. Some organizations don’t explicitly have a “knowledge” section on their website at all and don’t explain the work behind the scenes to generate knowledge and make it available, whilst others go to great lengths to stress all the different knowledge products they have produced. Still others focus both on knowledge products (research, evaluations, lessons learned, policy briefs etc.) and on the knowledge processes they manage (communities of practice, knowledge fairs, trainings, peer-assists etc.).

But I was surprised to see the approach of one very prominent development organization, well known for its work in the area of knowledge management (which shall remain nameless). It has one web page devoted to KM that is linked to prominently from across their public website, and that page features one thing. It is a description of their home-grown tool for workplace social networking/social business. If you want to access the knowledge, learn from others or contribute what you know, whatever you need it’s all there in the platform.

Bold or foolish?

(Here are some of my own views on whether or not platforms should be the main focus of KM  – one of my first posts on this blog)

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm

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