KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for July 2012

Follow people, not just communities

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This post was adapted from a post written for an internal audience in UNDP about how people can/do use the internal social business platform Teamworks. Although it was written with this specific audience in mind – these same points could apply to any social business platform in any organization where there is already a tradition of communities. It is about the need to augment knowledge sharing through thematic communities with knowledge setting through individual social networks.

UNDP has a well established tradition of developing communities of practice or networks of practitioners. Many of these networks long predate Teamworks and web 2.0 technology having been developed on an e-mail based platform, and many have long standing membership and well established working procedures that have survived and thrived because they offer value to their members. Most of these networks have now also been “migrated” to Teamworks, UNDP’s Web 2.0 social platform where they are represented online by “corporate spaces”. They have also been joined by a large number of “user spaces” and “event spaces” created for teams, themes, events and various other spontaneous groupings of people around a specific topic or purpose.

But while Teamworks has replicated the electronic structures of the networks, and added new features, there is another feature of Teamworks which seems underutilized. Teamworks, like many corporate Web 2.0 platforms, is a kind of hybrid between a community platform and a social networking site, yet the “social” side of Teamworks is still only being fully used by a few. What do I mean by the social side?

The social aspect of Teamworks is that it allows you to:

1. Post status updates to let people know what you are working on, to share interesting links and information, and even to ask a question and hold a conversation. The conversation here is not based around a specific established thematic network or functional spaces, but around a network of colleagues. This can be very spontaneous, unstructured but much faster than interactions within communities of practice. Quick updates on what you are doing i.e. “narrating your work” can also spark all kind of new ideas and make connections between people doing similar work who otherwise might not now what each other was doing and how they might collaborate.

2. Find out what other people are doing based on your professional or personal relationships, or around interests, not just around pre-established themes or projects. That colleague who wrote something interesting on poverty-net – perhaps she has something interesting to say about gender, or living in new york, or using social media. Following people rather than topics allows you to learn more about your colleagues – their skills and interests – and helps build relationships for knowledge sharing and collaboration whether on Teamworks, some other tool or offline.

3. Profile your own work and experience to help share your work and that of your team beyond your immediate circle or networks to others who might be able to use it. And as a bonus this can help develop your reputation and profile and improve your job prospects.

A key element of the social aspect is that it is more explicitly about relationships, reputation and trust than communities of practice. It is more individualistic than collective. It is also more about serendipity – finding useful connections and knowledge that you might otherwise not find if you stay within your usual thematic interactions. These can be especially valuable for sharing knowledge across functional silos. Even well run communities can become silos if they are made up of people with similar interests and experiences, discussing familiar topics. The social allows you to reach outside your usual sphere of knowledge to look for potential ideas or solutions from other areas of work.

So how do you make use of the social?

1. Add people as colleagues. This works in a similar way as “follow” in twitter. It doesn’t mean they are literally your colleagues – it means your Teamworks feed will show you whenever they add something, whatever space they add it to (even if you are not a member of the space), and it will show you their status updates.

2. Post updates on what you are doing using the “change your status” box on the main page, or by posting files, blogs etc. on your profile (in addition to in the relevant thematic spaces).

3. Check your feed regularly (or at least from time to time) to see what your “colleagues” are doing, and when it’s something interesting then thank, comment, ask questions and engage with them.

Who should you add as colleagues? Whoever you like (they don’t literally have to be your colleagues) – but a few suggestions might be:

i) people from your unit/section – that way you can get to know them and their interests better

ii) notable people from the main spaces you are a member of, or functional area in which you work – by notable I mean people who are practice leaders, people you know as real experts in their field, or people who post regularly on topics of interest.

iii) senior people – they might not post much – but when they do isn’t it interesting to find out what they are doing and thinking and have the opportunity to interact with them in a way you might not normally in a work meeting.

iv) interesting people – look around to find people who regularly share interesting links, post provocative articles (even if you disagree with them), or who span multiple disciplines. These are the people who will introduce you to new things and help you know what is happening within and outside your organization.

This isn’t a replacement to the well established tradition of thematic communities of practice – but it is a valuable complement to it. Right now there still relatively few people who add colleagues or post updates. But if more people start adding colleagues and posting updates in then the platform will become much more interesting, and much more valuable.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Why do we need KM when everything is on Google?

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This is a blog post I’ve had in draft for well over a year after being irritated at hearing this very question several times in succession – while I might be able to improve it if I ponder over it longer, I thought I might as well publish it now – since otherwise how could anyone find it?

I’ve heard a  few Knowledge Management skeptics saying something along these lines “in the days of Google we easily have access to the latest news, research, opinion and data directly from our desktops, why do we need knowledge management, and knowledge management experts and systems?”

My response is this. No doubt improved internet access and powerful search engines have made it easier to find knowledge. But it’s not as simple as that. Not everything is on Google, and it’s not so straightforward to sift through and understand whatever you can find.

Here’s another way of looking at knowledge management and why it is important: “Knowledge Management – It’s about helping you capture, store, share and use everything that isn’t on Google (yet), and making sense of what you can find there”

So what isn’t on Google? More than you might think. Here are a few examples:

  • Most of the material that is currently on organizational Intranets. In many organizations only a small proportion of their total information is available on their public website, or on other public websites and is thus searchable by Google. I’ve argued before that more of this should be available publicly – but right now it isn’t so you won’t find it.
  • All those documents on shared drives, hard drives, paper records, internal databases etc. examples include trip reports,  work plans, draft reports and studies, datasets etc. More and more of these are being put online but still more are held behind organizational firewalls, or are not online at all, even on an internal system.
  • Premium access electronic journals and databases. Abstracts are usually available online but the detailed papers (let alone the data sets on which they were built) are not. One day more of these will be available for free, but not yet.
  • Information about the expertise, interests and activities of your organization’s staff (or of most people for that matter) – again people are increasingly creating public profiles, but there is usually much more information on private networks, or which is shared in person to person exchanges.
  • Tacit knowledge inside people’s head such as lessons learned and good practices from our experience, or person to person exchange of ideas in online and offline communities that can generate new ideas and improved ways of working.
  • Relationships with people who can help you. Yes you can find experts on the web, but how do you know who is the person who is able to help you, and why would they? this is where networks and communities come in.
  • Synthesis – analysis, rating and context for the vast mass of information that is out there on Google so you know you are using the best quality and most relevant material and don’t need to spend ages looking for it. Of course a lot of synthesis is already available on Google – but often not the one you need – and how do you know if what you are reading is any good in the first place (or as Abraham Lincoln famously said “”The thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity.”). Even with the trend towards more and more open and published data – we still need expert help to interpret it.
  • Knowing what knowledge is not there that we critically need to do our work – and finding the best way to generate or obtain it.
  • Transforming knowledge into action and learning i.e. knowing how to use the knowledge you are able to obtain and apply it effectively in your work, and then reflect on the experience and internalize what you have learned.

So we can think of knowledge management as dealing with all the things that Google can’t yet do for us such as those listed above. And In the course of our work, I think you’ll find we need to use these resources quite often, but we often don’t yet have the best skills, systems, tools and behaviours in place to make these easily available when you need them. And however good Google gets, this or any other technology is only part of the answer on how to tackle this. There is a lot that needs to be done around organization culture, skills, behaviours, accountabilities and work processes, policies and governance. Technologies (such as Google) are just an enabler. And there is a lot to be done around developing personal capacity and skills for which you can find information online, but which you only experience in the real world.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 24, 2012 at 1:20 pm


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I’m often asked where you can find out about knowledge management job and consulting opportunities in the UN. Unfortunately these opportunities are not very frequent, and are often not well publicized.

One of the best sources of information for information on UN job opportunities is UN joblist an independent site aggregating job feeds from the UN set up by Sebastian Rottmair. It’s a great site for all kinds of UN jobs, but there is also a “knowledge management” feed (or feed to any search term you like).

Beyond the UN system, David Gurteen maintains a list of KM job opportunities, although these are mostly from the private sector.

Another place where job and consulting opportunities in KM within the development sector is the Knowledge Management for Development mailing list. This is not a jobs board but rather an online community for people workin on Km and development, but opportunities are frequently posted there –they can be found on the KM4Dev jobs centre or are posted in the d-group e-mail exchange.

I also try to tweet out interesting opportunities I hear of from time to time (and might also plug your vacancy if you ask nicely)

Do you know of any other useful resources – if so, let me know and I’ll add them here.

Bonus – some tips on applying for a job at the United Nations.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 23, 2012 at 11:33 am

Field focused

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It’s a ritual for people working in aid organizations “in the field” to complain about headquarters. And often with some justification.

In theory headquarters exists largely to support the field operations of an organization by mobilizing resources, hiring staff, setting guidelines and standards and providing support and advice. But quite often headquarters work can take on a life and momentum of its own, creating its own objectives and feeding off rather than supporting the frontline operations of the organization (where the work really gets done).

Even staff who have recently come to HQ from the field start out as advocates for greater consideration of the field in HQ work, but within 6 months they get subsumed in the HQ way of looking at things (presumably because that’s how they keep their bosses happy).

So it was a nice surprise that in a recent office retreat one of the biggest calls from colleagues was that we weren’t sufficiently field focused in our work and that we needed to reflect on how we could change our working methods to be able to be better oriented to serving UN’s country operations. We were all asked to reflect on what “field focused” means in the context of our work as a coordination office to see if we have a common view within the office and also whether there were any practical actions we could take to embody this in our work.

I’m sharing here some of the thoughts we had in our small knowledge management team about what field focused means for us. I’d be interested to hear what those of you who are working in the field think, and what would you consider the appropriate field focus for headquarters.

We agreed that the work of our team needs to be primarily “field focused”, that is oriented towards supporting UN country teams to do their work more effectively. We noted that we, like most HQ teams have limited capacity to provide direct support, less than is really needed. But we also identified several principles which could be used to guide our work in order to ensure that it is as supportive to the field as possible within our limited means. Here they are:

  1. Wherever possible we should give the highest priority in our work and resources to those products and services which directly benefit the field. If the services we provide serve several audiences then the field audience should be given the highest priority in terms of design and resources.
  2. Our next priority should be given to developing systems that help other parts of  our organization (or HQ) be more effective in providing support to the field (e.g. to supporting better standardization of responses to field queries).
  3. In embarking on any activity we should to consider how it will impact the field in terms of the benefit it will bring (direct or indirect) and the potential burden it will place on them (e.g. in terms of additional reporting) and should seek to design it in such a way that will maximize the benefit and minimize the burden.
  4. In designing any product or service to assist the field, we should involve the field in the design and development it in order to ensure that it really meets their needs.
  5. We should routinely seek and incorporate feedback from the field on the adequacy of the support we provide and this feedback should be one of our main ways of judging our performance.
  6. We should, even within the limited capacities outlined above, seek to be as responsive as possible to individual queries received from the field either to provide the requested support, to provide references to other sources of assistance or to explain clearly and promptly why we are not able to help.
  7. Knowledge management teams have a particular responsibility to listen to the field to hear when there are challenges, and to advocate for the field within the organization on their behalf.

Many of the products and services typically provided by knowledge management teams are intended to benefit the field, but the question we always need to explicitly ask ourselves  explicitly is whether in developing and managing these we are following the principles outlined above.

Any comments/thoughts?

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had, rants

How am I doing?

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Summary: If we are trying to measure the results of knowledge management work, or any type of development work for that matter, we could do worse than ask our clients what they think of what we are doing.

Some years ago, when I was interviewed for my first “real” KM job, one of the questions I was asked was “how will you measure the results of what you are doing?”. At this stage we didn’t even know what we would be doing, so I gave an instinctive answer – but one I’d at least partly stand behind now. I told the interviewer that the best way to know whether the knowledge products and services we were doing were any good would be to ask our clients what they think – on a regular basis.

We are often struggling to find ways to measure the results of our work. We are looking to measure impact, but often this requires complex, potentially evaluation and identification of a clear theory of change. If we aren’t able to do this we often fall back on measures of output such as budget spent, work plan tasks implemented, supplies delivered, workshops carried out, website downloads and the like which tell us about our efficiency in getting things done, but not about the effectiveness of what we are doing.

But if we can’t easily measure impact, how about going half way? While beneficiary/partner feedback isn’t the same thing as “impact” it can be a very valuable proxy to look at what you are doing and where you need to improve or put additional focus. You can ask about their perceptions or ratings of what you do, as well as asking for their direct feedback on what they need, and what they want you to do differently.

The biggest criticism of asking for feedback is that what you get back is perceptions on you and what you are doing, rather than what you are actually doing, and that the people you are asking might not understand what you are doing well enough to comment on it, or might not value the “right” things.

While to some extent this can be true, knowing what people think about your organization, your image, what you do and what you should be doing can still be very illuminating. If people don’t know who you are, or misunderstand what you do, or think you are doing a lousy job when you think you are not then you might have a communication problem. And what good is it doing great work if no-one knows about it? Not just for your own ego, but also so you can build goodwill in your “client” populations for the work you do in order to make your work easier, or so you can have something to show to donors on how what you do is responsive to the needs of those it is supposed to help.

But lack of recognition or negative feedback isn’t just about how well you communicate. It might well be that you, and what you are doing is not seen as relevant or high quality by the people you are supposed to serve. If they don’t know about you and your work, it might well be because you are not reaching them or having any meaningful impact on their lives (whatever your monitoring statistics tell you). If they don’t like what you are doing, it might be that what you are doing doesn’t meet their needs, or that the way you are doing it isn’t respectful of them.

Asking for feedback reminds us that ultimately we are there to serve our beneficiaries (or “clients”) and to a large extent its they who determine whether or not we are doing a good job. Asking for feedback also has the added benefit that it can help build trust by showing that we value the opinion of those we are helping rather than simply deciding what is best for them, and it can also help elucidate important information about their aspirations, priorities and the realities they face which we can easily overlook in how we design and execute programmes.

There are a variety of means of collecting feedback which can include formal surveys, phone polls, in person interviews, focus group discussions, suggestion boxes etc. The correct tool will depend on your audience/clients, what you want to know and the resources you have to do the work. Simple survey questionnaires and suggestion boxes can be a relatively simple and inexpensive way of collecting data – but if they highlight an issue you might need to use face to face questionnaires or interviews to really probe and understand an issue in depth.

You can also develop standardized tools for collecting feedback which can be used to track performance over time, and which could be used to compare different services or programmes with each other (or similar programmes across different locations).

But one word of caution. if you ask for feedback, you also create expectations – in particular that you will share the feedback you received, or at least a summary of it, even if it isn’t positive, and that you will take action to respond to any negative feedback you receive. If you don’t do this, then next time you ask, you won’t get any feedback, or worse you will have damaged your recommendation and increased the cynicism of those you surveyed about your sincerity to listen to them and “really” help them.

Aid agencies are not particularly good at systematically seeking feedback from their beneficiaries, or from partners who might be intermediaries in their work, but there are a few encouraging signs. For example as part of its ongoing reform process the UN recently surveyed Programme Governments and partner NGOs about their views of the UN Development system and some of its coordination mechanisms and initiatives, and published the results (see here and here) – I hope we will now also see the next round of reform building on some of this feedback.

Digital technologies also make it easier and cheaper to collect and analyze this data than ever before through use of tools such as help lines, SMS polling etc. These can potentially reach large populations that would have been costly and logistically difficult to survey using traditional survey methods, and can also be more quickly tabulated.

So let’s not forget who we work for and regularly ask them what they want, and how we are doing both as an input to our planning and as a measure of our performance.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 12, 2012 at 11:45 am

Who’s afraid of transparency?

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Readers of this blog might know that I’m a strong believer in openness and transparency and applying them in knowledge management and development work.

There are an increasing number of initiatives, conferences, papers, articles, interviews all extolling the virtues of greater transparency and openness in government and in development. This is a good thing.

But with all the buzz this topic is getting, it might be worth considering that if transparency is so great, why aren’t we doing it already?

In some instances it could really be that elites have something to hid or something to lose and don’t want you to know what they are doing with your money, or in their name, or that people are covering up fraud and other nefarious activities. But I don’t think these are the most prevalent reasons why transparency of public money or aid funding, or performance feedback isn’t more widespread. Here are a few more mundane reasons:

1. Transparency is expensive. Yes, you heard right – it’s actually quite time consuming and potentially expensive to set up the necessary mechanisms to make your finances public in a timely, standardized way online. Those organizations which have signed up to IATI have needed to make careful preparations in order to meet the reporting requirements including looking at their accounting systems, cleaning up their data, designing the web interface where the data is made available. This requires, time, money and technical expertise. The degree of work might depend on the size and complexity of the organization, as well as the state of the existing financial reporting systems within the organization (Of course the flip side is this is also a great opportunity to get your internal financial reporting in order). The challenge here is that while the benefits of transparency (greater trust, improved efficiency etc.) are hard to measure the costs are very visible.

2. Anything you say could be used against you in evidence. Some organizations (certainly including the United Nations) have a groups of people who are looking for any evidence or story that can be used to highlight how inefficient, inept etc. an organization is. Providing a whole host of new information on the internal working of your organization provides a whole host of new angles to explore and data to (mis)interpret to prove your point. This means that you need to be prepared to receive this (possibly unfair) criticism and have a plan to deal with it including prepping your communications team on what is likely to come up and how to handle it. Similarly, in the context of shrinking aid budgets organizations are afraid that whatever comes out through greater openness may be used by a donor as a pretext to reduce funding.

3. Data for micromanagement. A less frequently discussed fear among agencies which receive significant external donor funds is that greater data can lead to more external micromanagement i.e. donors using the data not only to identify and prioritize fund well performing programmes, but also to intrude into project management, or insist on having a say on budgets not only at a strategic level, but at a more detailed operational level too thus hampering the ability of project managers to do their jobs. This can be a particular risk of budget planning and executing is the only available information on project performance. If parallel efforts are put into place on results reporting (and results are being achieved) then there should be less temptation to micromanage around budget inputs.

4. You first. Relating to the points above both in terms of costs and possible negative scrutiny, then even when transparency is a hot topic, there is little incentive to move first, and a greater one to wait to see what happens to others, learn from their experience (or see whether it all works out at all) and let them deal with the hardships while you sit back smiling knowingly.

I don’t think any of these reasons are insurmountable in the face of strong leadership commitment and public pressure, but it’s nevertheless important to recognize these real and practical challenges and to try in some way to mitigate them if we want transparency to be adopted more widely.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 10, 2012 at 3:26 pm

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