Four levels of knowledge management for development
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.