KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for April 2014

Making the United Nations fit for the post-2015 world

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While the consultations and negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are ongoing, inside the UN discussion is already moving to whether or not the UN is ready and able to support this new agenda. This discussion has been labeled internally as the “Fit for Purpose” discussion the general gist of which can be seen in this statement by the Deputy Secretary General.

As a core member of the UN Transformation Network I’m very happy to see this internal soul searching. I have been marginally involved in some of the discussions (I was co-drafting an issues paper based on a high level meeting – which has since gone into another part of the internal policy machine) but wanted to share a few thoughts of my own about some of the things can and should think about in order to stay relevant and effective.

[huge disclaimer: this next part is a few of my own thoughts on how to make the UN fit for purpose, it’s incomplete, and doesn’t in any way represent any official UN position – although I do hope they take some of these ideas into account] So here goes….

The UN was created over 60 years ago in a very different world from the one we are in today. It continues to change rapidly with a number of key trends to consider including the increasing number of middle and higher income countries, increasing disparities of wealth and access to rights and resources including in those higher income countries, an increasingly pressing need to deal with environmental sustainability and climate change, increasing availability and use of new technologies (for good and ill) and an increasingly crowded and diverse field of development actors.  Given that a new development agenda is also in the making, and one that is likely to be more comprehensive and universal than the MDGs it makes sense for the UN to reexamine its role and current business models.

Although UN was designed for a different world, it has gone through several rounds of reform during its history and continues to do so now. Unfortunately change is often slow in any bureaucracy, but in the UN this is made even more difficult by its complex governance structure, and the large degree of consensus that is needed among agencies and UN member states for change to happen, something that is often lacking.

So what are some things that can be done? Much of recent UN reform has focused around increasing efficiency and effectiveness through strengthened accountability and reporting and administrative reforms, and to a certain extent on improving “coherence”  – which in everyday language is the extent to which different parts of the UN work together effectively, or at least do not duplicate or contradict one another.   While these three are important, I’d argue that the most pressing challenge the UN faces right now is to ensure it remains relevant to a changing world and a changing agenda.

One way to remain relevant is to try to predict the future and then to adapt the organization to be best suited to it. However rather than tying change to any specific demographic, ecological or economic shift I’d suggest three approaches the UN might use to be better able to stay relevant whatever the content of the new development agenda.

1. Listening to the people we work for – If the UN is to stay relevant it needs to listen more to its clients. Traditionally the UN’s key partners are member states  – donors and programme countries. But we also need to listen more to the beneficiaries themselves – to know better what they want and need, and also to get feedback on how we are doing and what we need to improve. The post-2015 dialogues are a good example of this, and the current discussion on participatory monitoring for accountability could help inform how the UN (and governments and other partners) do this more systematically and effectively in the future.

2. Listening to staff – Typically in the UN when we face a systemic issue we form a task of senior level officials or a high level panel of external experts. While this approach can have the value of credibility and representation, it can also miss out on the wealth and breadth of experience and ideas within the UN system. Some of the best sense of what is needed in day-to-day work, as well as some of the most practical and innovative answers on how to address them are most likely to come from frontline staff. We should think therefore how we can better listen to staff when we are looking for ways to improve how we work, and what we work on.

3. Acting as a knowledge broker – connecting development partners to relevant knowledge and expertise from wherever it comes from, not just from within the ranks of the UN. The UN is uniquely placed with its global presence, normative role and technical mandates to be able to bring together expertise from diverse sources and help make this accessible to partners (although we still struggle to share knowledge internally between agencies at present). This includes doing more to foster South-South knowledge exchange as well as North-South and South to North. This role is unique and is needed whatever the content of the post-2015 development agenda and whatever constellation of country typologies we have.

All of these three approaches are actually part of a broader strategy that I believe the UN needs to take which is  to find ways to be more nimble and quicker to respond to emerging issues whatever they are. Right now change is often slow and thus we can be quickly overtaken by events, and sometimes we can’t find agreement to make changes for the most important challenges. Rather than preparing the UN for any particular future it might be better to make the UN better equipped to reinvent itself and change course more easily both substantively in terms of the issues it is addressing, but also to be able to quickly make the necessary changes in policy, structure, budgets and particularly human capacity in order to be able to adapt to any possible future. In a rapidly changing world, we need to be able to change rapidly too, if we are to remain relevant.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 16, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had

Scaling up: how to spread good ideas

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Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with colleagues at UNDP who are organizing an event about “scaling up”.

The idea of scaling up successful pilots or innovations has long been one of the holy grails of aid work, and it seems we’re still quite not sure how to do it, or at least how to do it consistently, or how to “pick winners” i.e. ideas that can be scaled successfully.

The conversation reminded me of a presentation I attended and an internal blog I wrote some years ago about how to spread good ideas when I was back with UNICEF. It occurs to me that quite often in looking at scaling up a successful pilot or prototype we tend to focus on i) identifying those ideas which have been successfully piloted and ii) for which we can use the evidence of success to mobilize resources from donors and domestically.

However even when new ideas have been shown to work in a successful pilot or prototype (or have even been “proven” through extensive research and clinical style testing), i’s not a guarantee that they will scale. A big challenge is the issue of “adoption” i.e. how can you persuade others to apply them other than with scientific evidence and cash – because those are not enough.

Below is a slight reworking of my old blog post that looks at some of the challenges of spreading (or diffusing) good ideas:


Have you ever wondered why people don’t readily adopt new ideas, despite their seemingly obvious benefits, or why the same idea might flourish in one setting and wither in another?Today I attended an excellent presentation by Nancy Binkin from Health Section who very neatly summarized some of the main observations coming from the paper “Diffusion of Innovations in Service Organizations: Systematic Review and Recommendations“. This is a wide-ranging literature review of research around how innovations and new ideas are spread in the public sector, especially in health which was commissioned by the UK National Health Service. The full paper is well worth a read if you have the time.
The paper looks at what characteristics of innovation are more likely lead to them being adopted, what type of people are more likely to adopt new approaches, what kinds of organizational factors affect likelihood of adoption, and what are some strategies to help promote adoption. The focus of the paper, and the presentation was to explain why certain key health interventions have not been adopted, or have been adopted only slowly – for example why has artemisinin based malaria treatment taken so long to be adopted when the benefits so clear, or why do some families and communities still refuse to vaccinate their children against polio- and there are many more from the across UNICEF’s areas of work.What was striking for me was that although the focus was external, all these same issues were strikingly true for our work on knowledge management within UNICEF. We face many of the same challenges in identifying promising innovations, sharing and scaling them up within the organization (for example getting people to assess and use innovations and lessons learned in one country and then adapt and applying them elsewhere). Similarly many of the more successful approaches from the paper would be extremely relevant to take on board when planning our innovation and knowledge management/sharing work.Many of the observations from the paper will be very familiar to those working on KM such as the need to adapt, build on and localize solutions to the local context and to build local ownership, the importance of social networks for sharing ideas, the need to prove the relevance of the idea to people’s daily reality, the need for involvement of opinion leaders and champions, and the need for a “learning culture” to name just a few.

Colleagues working on communication for Development (C4D) at the meeting also felt that the conclusions of the paper were highly relevant to their work, and it seems there could be a promising common interest in different parts of the organization to pursue these ideas further. One obvious challenge both within UNICEF, and in disseminating innovations externally is that often quite a few of the ideal conditions for successful diffusion are not present, and we may have a varying ability to foster them. We therefore also need to do some thinking about what we can do that is useful even when we know we are not able to create the kind of environment that we would ideally like in order for new approaches to be adopted.

One particularly resonant issue that was raised is that ideas spread more effectively in organizations where people have some “space to think”, and the perceived lack of this in the UN due to some of our current working practices. For example, I almost put off attending this meeting so I could finish my outstanding Performance Appraisals. I’m so glad I didn’t!


From the paper, one important aspect of whether a new innovation or approach is adopted is the nature of the idea itself. Below are highlighted some aspects of an innovation which can have an important impact on whether it is adopted (The text below is adapted from Nancy’s presentation with some added commentary from my side).

Relative advantage
Is the new approach more effective than the current strategy? Is it more cost-effective? If it is not perceived to have an advantage, it could be dead in the water,  though even having an advantage does not guarantee adoption. (Note: this benefit needs to be clear to the adopter and the benefit for the adopter might well be different from the perceived benefit to management or to the promoter of the approach) 

Is it compatible with user’s values, norms, ways of working, and perceived needs?


Simple is good! If it is complex, can it be broken down into smaller bites? The perception of complexity can also be partly overcome with demonstrations and hands-on experience.


Is there space given to try it out on a limited basis?

Are the effects of the innovation readily observable? (and preferably measurable)

Is there room to adapt it to local realities or to refine it? This seems particularly important for dissemination of “good practices” spread through horizontal networks (and is very relevant to our work on lessons learned – and would seem to imply that these should be seen more as an idea bank than templates or how-to guides)

Fuzzy boundaries (related concept)

i.e. an innovation should have a fixed core of common elements used in all cases, but with other elements that can be adapted around the edges to meet different circumstances and needs. These should preferably emerge from repeated trails in different contexts. What’s is important here is that there is a set of core principles to the innovation that make it successful, but a n accepted range of modifications that make it suitable for different applications.

If there is a high degree of uncertainty in adopting the new approach, then it can be perceived as personally risky and thus it is less likely to be adopted (especially in a risk-averse environment).

Task issues
If a new approach is relevant to user’s work and improves their performance, it is more likely to be adopted, especially if it is feasible and easy.

Augmentation support
To spread an idea you need a support system for new implementations  – help desk, training, customization, implementation advice (even if you can see the benefit, it’s hard to do something new if you don’t know how – in this context I’d also add that being able to be in contact and share experiences with others who are have tried or are also trying out the new approach can be invaluable).

An implication of this seems to be that incremental changes are easier to promote than radical ones – since they fit more easily into existing norms and values and the benefit can appear more tangible, even if the potential improvement is less. At the same time just because and idea is easier to spread, it doesn’t mean that it is better. There are some interesting trade-offs here between ideas that can be easily implemented and spread and those which might have a more profound impact.

So, what do you think of these?
Do they hold true from your own experience?
What do you think are the lessons we can learn for our own work in trying to share new approaches between offices, for adopting good ideas from the external world, or in getting our partners to take on proven approaches that for they themselves are new?


Post script: back when I wrote this I had planned to write something about the types of people and organizations that effectively spread new ideas. I never got to this but I’ve now put it on my list for a future blog post.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 11, 2014 at 9:00 am

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