Why we sometimes need to reinvent the wheel
We just put out a consultancy announcement to hire someone to work on a knowledge exchange toolbox for UNICEF. Creating a flexible set of simple tools that staff can use for different challenges they have with knowledge sharing is part of our overall approach to foster a culture of greater knowledge sharing and to give them the means to do it.
The consultancy advertisement was widely retweeted (many thanks to all) – but I was also called out for trying to reinvent the wheel.
A good question – why try to create our own toolbox when there are already a number of other perfectly good toolkits in existence already? UNDP, Swiss Cooperation, OHCHR and IFAD and many others have already produced some sort of knowledge toolkit and UNICEF is even a partner in the Knowledge Sharing toolkit which Nancy links to in her tweet.
But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.
People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.
The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:
- It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
- It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
- The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
- The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
- The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.
Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.
I’m a big fan of crowdsourced tools like the KS toolkit but it isn’t sufficiently adapted to meet our organizational needs – precisely because it is for everyone – and it’s not clear how to get help on when and how to use some of the tools in the UNICEF context. I’ve actively tried to promote use of the KS toolkit within the organization but with limited success – it’s a very valuable resource and reference, but not something that most of our staff seem willing to use as a daily guide.
I’m also a big fan of some of the existing agency toolkits but again they are not adapted for us and it’s not always clear how to apply them or where to go for help.
But to be clear, this doesn’t mean reinventing the sake of it. A lot of good work already exists, the key is to reuse it, build on it and adapt it where needed (and not just because). Much of the work will be in packaging or repackaging existing approaches, testing them out in practice in our organizational context and then adapting them to meet our needs. Quite a lot like regular knowledge management and sharing work in fact!
An additional element is to continually improve the tools based on experience in using them, and to slowly add to the tools over time as different approaches are tested. This will include the creation and prototyping a few new approaches but will mostly be incremental learning on the use of existing ones. A final point with all of these is to make the tools publicly available so anyone else can copy them share them – or more likely re-adapt and reconfigure them for their own use rather than just taking them “as is”.