Principles for Knowledge Management for Development – lessons from innovation
This week UNICEF is partnering with the Government of Finland to organize a big innovation shindig – the rather grand sounding “The Global Innovation for Children and Youth Summit“. I’m not involved in the event – but I thought this would be a good opportunity to think about what Knowledge Management can learn from Innovation in UNICEF (and that’s probably a lot since they are much more established as part of UNICEF’s work).
One thing that I particularly like was the establishment of a set of “Principles for Digital Development” which provide a kind of both ethical and practical framework for doing effective ICT for Development programming. UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA and a wide range of other partners have signed up to these and are promoting their use by others.
The key principles are listed below (with links to more detail/explanation on each from the Digital Principles website)
- Design with the User
- Understand the Existing Ecosystem
- Design for Scale
- Build for Sustainability
- Be Data Driven
- Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation
- Reuse and Improve
- Address Privacy & Security
- Be Collaborative
Taking a look through these I realize these are also very useful considerations when looking at how to support knowledge management for development. A large component of knowledge management work involves technology platforms, although of a different nature from those mostly used in innovation projects. But a larger (and often underrated and underappreciated) component of knowledge management is about people and processes so it’s interesting to reflect on how well these principles also apply to the non-technological aspects of KM. And they translate quite well, probably because a big factor in success for ICT for Development projects is also about people and process and not just the products themselves.
Below is my brief take on how the Digital Development Principles can be adopted/adapted as Principles for Knowledge Management for Development (KM4DEV):
- Design with the user
In KM this means doing work that meets the needs of users and contributes to help them meet their goals. Building a KM system for its own sake (e.g. because we need a place to keep all the knowledge) without reference to how it will help meet people’s needs is a recipe for failure. Any KM initiative needs to help meet the goals of the users and support them in their day-to-day work – it also has to be designed to make it easy for them to use.
- Understand the existing ecosystem
In knowledge management terms this means understanding how people currently share knowledge – what tools do they use, what technologies do they have access to, what are their preferences or comfort zones. This may mean supporting or building on an existing initiative or building using familiar tools rather than trying to find the perfect tool or building something that competes with something that already exists (competing platforms or repositories are common in KM but in the end they damage knowledge sharing by fracturing people into silos).
- Design for scale
In KM terms this means that although you can do good work by carrying out KM work on a single activity or project, if you really want to make a different you need to think systems. Sharing lessons on a specific project is good, but if every project does it differently and there is no shared approach or single place you can find them then the impact is much less. There are many standalone KM projects but these are hard to sustain over time and the knowledge is lost if they are not able to connect to something larger within an organization or a sector.
- Build for sustainability
This is also critical for knowledge management – too often I’ve seen a project to create an online community or lessons database that has focussed on the creation of a platform or the initial launch and population of content and not enough on how to maintain it afterwards. More than technology, the human dimension of how something will be supported over time is the most challenging, and often the best solution is to mainstream the initiative into everyday work and avoiding having a parallel set of KM tools and activities outside of the area of work they are supposed to support.
- Be data driven
This applies in any project. Bu in KM (as with platforms and tools) tracking the numbers of people who use them is important, as is capturing feedback on how useful the tools and how relevant is the knowledge provided. But it’s important not to stop with what can be quantified. Real value of knowledge management comes change in outcomes as a result of improved practice informed by knowledge. Sometimes this can be quantitative such as time saved or money saved through improved approaches, but often this is qualitative information in the form of stories of how a critical piece of knowledge changed a decision which led to a better result, and so it’s important to start but not stop with what can be counted.
- Use open standards, open data, open source and open innovation
Too much knowledge is hidden behind journal paywalls, restrictive copyrights and lack of transparency. Making material available using creative commons formats, and making platforms that are not “pay to play” is important in trying to level the playing field for knowledge exchange. There is also a big benefit in “working out loud” that is sharing what you are working on while you are working on so others can see and respond. The aim here is to share as much as possible what can be shared in terms of data, research, experience and to lower whatever barriers and bottlenecks are in the way of this. That said, open knowledge is a little different from open source development – for me at least while “open source” is good I don’t believe it is as strong a need as open sharing of content. For me the focus is on making whatever you have sharable so others can reuse it and in an organizational context that might occasionally still use a proprietary platform.
- Reuse and improve
This is a fundamental tenet of knowledge management – the whole purpose is to start from using what knowledge already exists and adapt it, and to capture knowledge from your own project so others can reuse it. More than with innovation, knowledge management is all about building on the work of others. Many problems have already been at least partially solved elsewhere yet all too often we try to create our own solutions without looking at what is already out there that we can adapt.
- Address privacy & security
The usual meaning of this expression also applies to KM i.e. when collecting data being clear how it will be used and with whom it will be shared and making sure that confidential information is adequately protected from unauthorized access. There is also a tension in KM between encouraging open participation and providing a safe space where people can be candid, share their experiences including their failures – here it is also critical to be clear to people how the knowledge they share will be used in order to develop trust in the systems and processes – without this people will quickly stop sharing information of importance which at best means not learning from mistakes and at worst failing to notice serious problems that no-one dare speak up about.
- Be collaborative.
As Chris Collison says “All of us are smarter than any of us” – knowledge management is about collective wisdom and sharing what we know with others and learning from others. Communities and social networks in particular foster cooperation and collaboration across functions and locations and can help connect people together that might not otherwise collaborate or learn from one another. In the age of social computing I always like to say “I store my knowledge in my social network”.
There is one additional 10th principle I would add for knowledge management that might be implicit in the 9 principles but deserves singling out. This would be:
- Learn before, learn during, learn after
A key element for any successful knowledge management system, strategy or approach is that it contributes to organizational and individual learning.This is critical to ensure that we continually improve both the current and future projects as a result of learning from our experience. This could be part of “be data driven” or “reuse and improve” but it is more than that. We need to learn from what can be gleaned from the monitoring data, and we need to reuse and adapt tools and approaches we have developed – but it’s important to remember that most knowledge us not stored in databases or tools, but in the experience and expertise of individuals. We therefore need to ensure that any knowledge management system helps individuals and groups to reflect on their experiences to extract the lessons and to help transfer those to others. This can happen at the end of a project – but it’s important to keep learning during a project too since often our memories of what happened and why are more unreliable after a project is completed (and subject to confirmation bias) and by learning while doing we may be able to make improvements to our project, and to grow professionally on a faster cycle.
Actually, while this last principle is an important part of knowledge management – I’d argue that it should be an innovation principle too – since one of they key reason to innovate is to learn. Maybe it’s just a good principle for development in general.