KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Why we sometimes need to reinvent the wheel

with 12 comments



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.

Nancy White@NancyWhite

@peterballantyne @ithorpe @GH_Knowledge Sounds like wheel recreation & many others!

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”.


Written by Ian Thorpe

October 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. […] I was pretty tough on Ian and did not offer any context. Later this morning he posted a really thoughtful blog post on the thinking behind his organization’s desire to have their own internal Knowledge Exchange […]

  2. My half-baked, hastily typed response to your very well articulate post…. it was too long for a comment! Thanks for engaging, Ian. I love learning from and with you!

    Nancy White

    October 8, 2014 at 3:53 pm

  3. Thanks Ian, fully understand all the arguments you are mentioning. Had a little déjà vu when seeing this discussion because also we produced a toolkit and we developed the Share, Learn and Innovate toolkit for OHCHR and we are a big fan of all other toolkits out there (KS toolkit and so on). The most important thing I learned when we were working on all this projects we never mentioned the word toolkit or toolbox. What do I mean? example OHCHR … during a period of six months we were sitting together with several OHCHR managers, conducted two Knowledge Sharing events where more than 60 OHCHR staff participated, had a project wiki where we documented all the reflections and experiences and only at the end of this entire exercise the final documentation of this collaborative journey got packaged into something what we would call a toolkit and even a publication . Some interesting facts:
    – The funny thing was that the writing was almost done by the colleagues themselves based on their own projects that incorporated knowledge sharing factors (it did not contain a lot of jargon or buzz words but it increased the recognition factor quite a lot and the ownership of the tool, even a sense of proud that they were part of the project, not just an external organisation or consultant who did all the work, writing and thinking for them).
    – The project did not start from the need for a toolkit, but the need for an institutional KM policy. Writing up a policy when the KM practice is not yet consolidated is quite challenging. Hence the idea of creating some momentum by organising some events, meetings, which finally ended up in this toolkit which was just the start for their longer journey that will finally end up into a institutional policy that gives them strategic direction.
    – The project really started to get shape when we started to apply ‘design thinking’ to the overall challenge, mapped out carefully some of the core needs, started to prototype the edges of what could be the road to follow, identified the entry points that all colleagues could subscribe to, etc. It was a messy road with a high degree of complexity that you could not simplify in organisational world cafés or fishbowls but required in-depth knowledge of the organisational context, not only knowledge but rather sensitivity because a lot of language is just unwritten (or invisible) for the ‘outsider’ .. and sometimes a simple word can provoke resistance for the entire initiative.You have some complexity experts in your team, pretty sure that some interesting Cynefin stories could already help to pave the way forward.

    Same lessons learned for our own institutional compass toolkit. We never asked a toolkit, we connected in the last three years with a bunch of superb interesting knowledge exchange specialists and gradually started to document our journey which ended up into this toolkit, which now is even produced as a deck of cards with augmented reality and very soon maybe an app will be on its way. The output was always a bit of a surprise in the sense of ‘organised’ serendipity. That’s why I would be careful if you stress the ‘writing’ and ‘research’ part of your assignment. I would focus more on the creation of some collective KS momentum in your organisation which can be documented, outlined or framed by someone else but in deep collaboration with your staff.


    Tom Wambeke

    October 9, 2014 at 4:43 am

    • Tom – many thanks for sharing your experience, some good points to keep in mind as we do this exercise.
      One interesting point you raise is experimentation versus research – which is of course a big KM issue in general. Our initial thinking was that we would buildup the toolbox over time rather than writing it as a one off publication – but that to kick start the effort we would begin by finding and adapting existing, often quite well known techniques which people could start using already (because we would benefit greatly from starting to use what is already well known to others)- but over time we would also experiment, develop and add our own tools using more of a design thinking and test and response approach.

      Ian Thorpe

      October 9, 2014 at 12:46 pm

  4. As often, I have a “yes, but…” response! I do agree that finding / developing / adapting your “own” system (even if it is just off the shelf with new tweaks) is good. But with the caveat that the people finding / developing / adapting the system really understand the users, so their views are genuinely reflected, and it isn’t HQ-driven (which – knowing Ian – I am sure it won’t be)!

    Mark Hereward

    October 9, 2014 at 5:47 am

  5. […] So I’m happy to recommend his latest post: Why We Sometimes Need to Reinvent the Wheel. […]

  6. Hello Ian,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts – and I enjoyed the conversation here and on Nancy’s blog too!

    Just to add a couple of thoughts here:

    – Perhaps the trick is to use the same ‘base build’ (the current KS toolkit) and to create a bespoke toolkit WITHIN that environment.

    – There must be more sophisticated ways, using XML and other technical programming issues that I’m not following – to make all elements of the KS toolkit directly update-able from another place (i.e. in another toolbox) if branding really is an issue – but personally I don’t like branding and that’s the reason why I left my previous organisation (well, not branding per se but the insane level of navel-gazing that was going on there).

    – Would be great, if you proceed with this toolkit, to have proper metrics and qualitative monitoring approaches to find out how well this has worked and, over time, compares with the KS toolkit.
    At last, obviously it would be great to have you follow the KS toolkit survey and improvements closely since it comes at such a timely moment for you 🙂

    Oh, and fyi I also think some degree of wheel recreation is actually helpful:

    Thanks and glad that you’re coming back to the KS toolkit in addition to this UNICEF toolbox 🙂


    Ewen Le Borgne

    October 10, 2014 at 2:02 am

  7. I’m now trying to cross reference comments on both blogs. 🙂

    Nancy White

    October 10, 2014 at 2:10 pm

  8. […] valuable (and read a very interesting conversation about this and re-creating the wheel on Ian Thorpe’s blog and on Nancy White’s […]

  9. So it isn´t so much about re-inventing the wheel but re-shaping to fit into your own vehicle… 😉

    With regards to what you expressed, “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’.”
    I think it’d doubly beneficial if besides sharing the ‘toolkits’ or their building blocks, development organizations were willing to also share their experience in implementing them (whether it was more starting from near-scratch or just adapting a thing or two). To the extent their corporate policies/practices would allow (or could be stretched into…), of course. In other words, sharing the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. And then, as you say, keep the ball rolling and then share your own.

    Thanks Ian for another thoughtful note, and the interesting responses from other folks.


    Manuel Acevedo

    October 11, 2014 at 1:20 pm

  10. […] 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 challe…  […]

  11. Interesting question! It makes me think of two things: the first one is the difference second- hand knowledge when sometimes you need first-hand knowledge (going through the learning process). The second one is that a toolkit ‘fits the practice’ as Etienne Wenger once called it. Hence a toolkit may be shared online but may not fit somebody else’s practice like a glove as for the people who developed it.

    Joitske Hulsebosch

    October 13, 2014 at 3:04 am

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