KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for May 2013

Give and take in the public sector

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“No good deed ever goes unpunished” – Ferengi Rules of Acquisition

A recent McKinsey report “Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture” looks at a couple of topics dear to my heart, improving corporate culture, and improving how people share knowledge and information with one another.

It concludes that by rewarding those who share their knowledge to help others, encouraging people to ask for help when they need it, but “screening out” those who take from others but who don’t provide reciprocal support businesses can greatly improve their effectiveness (and presumably profits).

Knowledge Management is of course all about asking and answering questions, so I don’t need convincing.  In fact there are a number of KM approaches that help foster this including communities of practice and peer-assists. Nick Milton did a great blog post exploring some of these knowledge management tools and approaches that support the kind of asking and answering that the McKinsey report talks of.

But putting this into practice in the public sector poses its own challenges because of the way we organize our work and how we hire, manage and reward our staff. Here are a few thoughts on the challenges:

1. In public sector organizations you can’t easily weed out the takers. It’s therefore especially important to hire the right people and train and develop them well to encourage a culture of askers and givers instead. We  need to think in particular how we can look for the right kind of characteristics in our selection and promotion processes.

2. In the UN (and elsewhere) we often have narrowly defined job roles and performance rewards that reflect individual job performance but don’t adequately take into account contributions to the work of others and the organization as a whole (thus disincentivizing sharing which ultimately brings down everyone’s performance). This is particularly the case with people who are posted in a country office with responsibility and rewards linked towards helping that country, but little explicit encouragement, and sometimes active discouragement towards helping people in other countries/offices. I think there needs to be a rebalance or more explicit recognition in job roles and performance assessments that recognizes helping others beyond your own organizational unit or programme as a legitimate part of the work.

3. Mechanisms are needed for asking and answering questions both in person and virtual. Communities of practice and internal social networking tools have a great deal of potential to help support asking and answering of questions – and also making that process visible and accessible to others. This is still work in progress and used unevenly in the public sector but it is changing for the positive. Where we are making less progress, perhaps surprisingly, is in encouraging more face to face asking and answering of questions. This probably needs use of more face to face knowledge sharing techniques such as peer-assists, but it probably also requires more attention to creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation through regular work and social interaction whether through techniques such as scrum or “stand up” meetings, but also things like Nesta’s interesting experiment with randomized coffee meet-ups.

4. Creating an environment where people are encouraged ask questions. I’ve covered this topic before under “creating a demand for knowledge”. It’s important to align our incentives to encourage (or even coerce!) people to seek and make use of existing knowledge and  expertise in their work.

5. Creating a culture that recognizes and rewards the givers. Giving recognition and visibility for those who help others can be helpful but is often not done in the public sector. This can be done through acknowledgements in documents, highlighting useful contributions, and frequent contributors in a community, and remembering to thank a staff member for help along with a copy to their supervisor. Visibility through public blogging and public expertise profiling (such as through UNDP’s speaker’s corner), can also help recognize those who make important contributions to the work of others.

6. But it’s also important to protect givers from exploitation. A particular feature of public sector offices is that if people know you are helpful you will be overloaded with requests, but without any obvious rewards from responding. Instead you might have guilt if you don’t help, a greater workload and potentially complaints when you are not able meet the new demand – hence the quote at the top of this article. In the private sector your help to others might be billable, or your reputation as a helper might get you the better and more interesting projects, or you might be able to add small financial rewards for givers, whereas in the public sector it can lead you to be given more of the difficult jobs that others don’t want to tackle. I think this might be an important reason why the public sector gets an unfair reputation since the reward for helping can seem to be yet more work, which over time actively discourages people from being too helpful. I like many of the suggestions to deal with this given in the McKinsey article – but they seem more easily suited to private sector organizations, and we also need to find ways to better spread the load of giving that would work in the public sector. And of course leadership is critical here when there are more constraints on what can be done – and leadership example is critical in both rewarding asking and answering behaviour, but also in avoiding giving all the dirty, difficult jobs to the givers while allowing the takers to take the easy path.

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Written by Ian Thorpe

May 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Some Perils of Public Sector Planning

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I’ve just gotten mostly through with a major strategic planning exercise which  made me think back on the many, many planning processes I’ve been involved in over my career. I thought I’d share a few of the recurring challenges in how we develop and use our plans in large public sector organizations such as the UN (which I also saw in DFID and the EU when I worked there, but that was a loooong time ago so I’m sure they’ve fixed it all by now Smile).

1. Over ambition – in most areas of our work it’s easy to see lots of things that need to be or could be done, especially when you are new and eager to please. In the context of trying to “do more with less” then it’s especially tempting to try to add everything you know that needs doing, you want to do or is suggested to you in your plan (like my own workplan for the first year in my current job). One way to avoid this is to try to realistically map out how much work effort is required for each, and to prioritize carefully to pick those things which are likely to have the biggest impact for the time/money invested.

2. Underestimating the time it takes to get stuff done – related to the above, things just take longer than you think they do. Apart from the actual working time it takes to do something, major reasons that things take longer than you expect is “waiting time” i.e. the amount of time you are waiting for other people or processes. The major culprits in this are i) length of time taken to get feedback/comments on your work that are needed at various stages ii) procurement and hiring processes – these always take a lot longer than you think they should and there are often unforeseen complications iii) personal calendars – when you need to wait for something because a key person is on leave or off sick or travelling iv) approvals and sign-offs  – things often get stuck on some busy higher-ups desk.

3. Undervaluing the contributions of others – Often your work requires inputs of others – if these are financial or material inputs they might already be in someone else’s plan, but time contributions from others for commenting and technical inputs are often not budgeted or even communicated in advance to the people you need them from. If you expect others to spend significant time providing inputs or support to your workplan it’s important to let them know so they can plan for this, and also include this in your assumptions and risks as your priority might not be their priority (and it’s also good to ask others what they are assuming you will do for them that they are not aware of).

3. Planning yourself into a straightjacket – complicated projects might require detailed timelines and budgets together with  flowcharts of activities and dependencies, but it’s good to be careful as to what exactly you will be held accountable to and how far you want to commit to specific things to others including managers, donors, executive boards etc. It’s fine to have a detailed plan to keep yourself on track – but its good to avoid being micro managed by others, especially if your detailed workplan is built on some guesswork and subject to extensive change based on experience, it’s good to have enough leeway not to have to go back for approval for small changes to the plan. This also applies in budgets i – it’s useful to avoid needing to get approvals for every small change in budget within an overall envelope, especially where actual budget costs are heavily dependent on items with a lot of potential variation such as for specialized consultants and expertise – getting budget changes approved, especially if they need to go back to donors can cause large delays.

4. Poorly thought out indicators – it’s a good thing that we are now required to include indicators in our plans but I’ve seen a lot of poorly thought out ones. Everyone knows indicators should be “SMART” but there is a tendency either to i) choose indicators that are really just measures of inputs or activities e.g. report produced, money spent that don’t really look at what you are trying to achieve or ii) which are at too high a level of  impact which can’t be measured easily or which won’t show results within the timeframe of the project or iii) indicators which sound like a good assessment of progress (like “number of national plans that fully follow gender mainstreaming standards”) but for which there is no existing or easily created method of regular monitoring and so either they won’t get reported, or it will be a one-off exercise that requires additional costs itself to collect.

5. Focus on the activities rather than the purpose – a workplan with specific activities is good to ensure we know what to do and whether we are on track – but we need also to review our activities against our intended outputs and outcomes to see whether we are still on track to achieve them or whether the activities need to be changed to achieve our desired goals. Once we have developed our plan we often focus our monitoring on whether we followed the plan and are on schedule rather than whether we are making progress towards where we want to be in terms of outputs and outcomes, and whether the activities are still actually appropriate.

6. Developing a plan to look nice on the shelf. Sometimes plans are developed in response to demands from others rather than as something we actually intend to use ourselves to help us do our work e.g. because a donor or our board has asked for it or to get a funding allocation. If you are going to take the time to develop a plan, it’s important to make sure you can/will actually use it yourself to manage better rather than having parallel processes to monitor yourself and to report to others.

6. Not leaving space for the unexpected. We often end up planning 100% of our time not accounting for delays, but also not allowing space to deal with unexpected developments, new opportunities, demands or emergencies. In reality there are always unexpected developments that will need urgent response or which will provide opportunities to advance our work. Not allowing space for these will either mean delays in our plans as we take time away to deal with emerging issues, or lost opportunities and poor response when we fail to address new developments because they weren’t in our plan.

7. Not planning for failure (or success). We often plan assuming that our pilot projects or new initiatives will be successful, but they will not always work. we need to plan in time for reflection and revision of our plans or even ways to drop or scale back unsuccessful initiatives. But similarly if an approach is very successful then there might be an opportunity and even demand to scale it up. But if our resources are already 100% committed we won’t have the capacity to scale up or hand over. Similarly if we don’t think about what might happen if something is successful, we also might plan a pilot in a way that is not easily scaled e.g that relies on non scalable factors such as key personalities.

8. Or maybe we are just using the wrong planning tools in general. Much of the work we do is in trying to influence complex adaptive systems and maybe some our current linearly focused tools just aren’t up to the job. That could be the subject of a whole other blog post but a couple of references on this are i) a previous blog I wrote on “Who’s afraid of complexity in aid?” and Duncan Green’s latest blog on “What to do when you don’t know what’s going to happen?”

I’m sure there are many other pitfalls that I’ve missed. What are your lessons learned?

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Why aren’t there more UN bloggers? – an insider’s view

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mike lynch blog cartoon 03

Duncan Green of Oxfam and author of “From Poverty to Power” book and blog recently did a bunch of presentations at the UN on “what’s hot in development”. I attended his UNDP talk which you can see here, which was lively and thought-provoking. But I almost wish I had attended his talk at UNICEF where there was apparently an interesting discussion on why (unlike the World Bank for example) there are so few UN bloggers.

He wrote a blog on it here which I recommend you to read, and this is now doing the rounds inside UNDP and possibly other agencies too.

So as one of the few UN staffers who blog I wanted to share a few thoughts of my own as to why we don’t blog more.

1. Political sensitivities and neutrality – at the UN we obviously need to be especially careful about not discussing publicly political or other sensitive or controversial topics, and to behave in a way that reflects positively on our role as international civil servants and avoid doing anything that would reflect badly on the UN. This isn’t particularly about blogging or social media – it’s part of the UN rules that apply to us all the time – including when we are not at work. We also need to be careful not to speak officially for the organization except when authorized to do so.

But this means we need to be mindful – not that it’s not allowed. These types of rules are also typical in other public bureaucracies including DFID, the US State Department and the World Bank who have a number of public blogs.

2. Risk aversion – I’ve written before that the UN is quite risk averse as an organization and often for good reason. In addition to political sensitivities there is also concern about saying things that might upset donors (institutional, corporate and individual), or for “being wrong” about something or making a mistake which might also reflect badly on the organization’s reputation. Again this isn’t unique to the UN – but I think this is more acute in the UN (and probably in organizations like Oxfam that raise money from the public) than it is in the Bank or DFID where there is less perceived risk to funding from a bad blog post.

3. Lack of publishing culture and guidance – the lack of blogging is perhaps the tip of a bigger iceberg which is the much lower level of publication of UN staffers at least when compared with the World Bank. Our internal procedures make it relatively difficult to get permission to produce an official publication in terms of approvals, reviews and timeline. These systems are largely put in pace for some good reasons e.g to ensure quality and deter frivolous proposals for publications that haven’t been well thought through. But at the same time they way they are implemented can seem a little stifling and so you are only likely only to pursue publication selectively. UN publications often don’t clearly identify staff contributors further reducing incentives and it’s “not done” to seek personal recognition. Publishing externally (such as in a journal) or blogging suffer from this overall approach to publishing and this is further compounded by the fact that the rules on what is permitted, or what permissions you might need and from who mare not clear. Is it an official activity, or is it an activity for personal time? do you need permission from your boss, your ethics department, you communication team? can you identify your affiliation? well it depends on who you ask.

4. Platforms and tools – There is no official UN blogging platform, so if you want to blog, you need to find, learn and maintain your own tool. It’s not difficult but it means that blogging skews heavily towards the technology savvy. Some organizations have internal social networking platforms such as UN Teamworks,  Yammer or UNite Connect. These are great for encouraging internal dialogue and sharing, and allow people to “get their feet wet” with blogging but they are usually agency specific and closed off to the outside world. But this means that they are missing out on some of the best discussions and feedback which come from sharing your ideas with the outside world and we risk to mistake the internal dialogue with the real development conversations taking place “out there” (see here for a comparison of internal and external blogging I did some time ago).

5. Lack of people with interesting things to blog about? – one commenter on Duncan’s blog suggested that qualified, clever people were few and far between in the UN. I have to say that in my experience – this in NOT the case. There are lots of very smart, dynamic, dedicated people who have much interesting knowledge and experience to share.  Sure not everyone has something to write about – but there is no shortage of people who do.

6. Leadership support – probably the biggest difference between those organizations that do and those that don’t is that blogging organizations have support from the top. Basically if the leadership of a public organization decides it want to use blogging as a means of outreach and as a way to show intellectual leadership, then many of the other issues can be resolved. In the UN it’s not that we’ve been told not to blog, but we haven’t been explicitly encouraged to do it either and so it’s just too difficult or unclear for many people to make the effort. By contrast in blogging organizations it’s accepted as part of business, there is guidance and support on how to do it (and what not to do), there might well be a technical platform made available, and it might even be reflected in job descriptions, and it factors positively into how you are viewed by your colleagues and bosses (and will also reflect back positively on your organization).

In the meantime you will still have a few UN bloggers pop up here and there, especially in knowledge management since blogging and exchange form part of our toolkit, but we will probably remain the exception.

Despite that there are more UN blogs, official and non-official that you might not have heard of. Here are some highlights.

Some official UN blogs that are not just promotional in nature:

Some personal blogs by UN staffers that are well worth a read:

  • Buridan’s Blog – on knowledge, information and change management.
  • Stepping Higher – Johannes Schunter’s blog on knowledge management
  • Gauri’s mumblings – Gauri Salokhe of FAO on knowledge management (unfortunately not updated recently)
  • On the road to discovery – by Roxanna Samii of IFAD on knowledge management and organizational development issues
  • Sebastian Rottmair’s blog/webpage – features “The Little Peacekeeper” as well as the extremely useful (but unofficial) UN Job list.
  • Talk-Share-Learn – by Luca Servo of FAO on communication for development
  • A Digerati Wannabe – by Michael Riggs of FAO on knowledge sharing and development work

Have I missed any?

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm

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