KM for Development

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Knowledge for Development?


Manuel Flury of SDC posted the M4Dev list:

Dear friends,

The recently published book edited by Kenneth King and Simon McGrath ("Knowledge for Development?" Comparing British, Japanese and World Bank Aid) has raised our interest within SDC. We have circulated a summary of main statements and questions for further internal discussions. Lucie encouraged me to share this piece with you! Here it is.

With my best regards

Manuel Flury

Link to the text of Focus on Knowledge No 5


Development, knowledge managment, knowledge

Detailed Description

What is KM?

Knowledge management makes sense of information in the context of it's users. Practioners summarize, contextualize, value-judge, rank, synthesize, edit and facilitate to make information and knowledge accessible between people, either within or outside their organization. It concerns itself with the social interactions around the sharing and use of knowledge. KM is largely based on tacit interpretation and less on rules. Some question if knowledge can be "managed" at all. KM has often been framed in terms of knowledge in action for an end purpose. KM implies that the most important drivers relate to human behavior and interchange.

What is Development?

The goal of international development is to alleviate poverty among citizens of developing countries. International development is a multidisciplinary field that may impact poverty reduction, governance, healthcare, education, crisis prevention and recovery, and economic restructuring.

International development is distinct from disaster relief or humanitarian aid. The latter is a response to a specific crisis that generally involves temporary manpower or donations. Development, on the other hand, is intended as a long-term solution to a set of problems or situations. It may incorporate a single tranformative project or a series of projects targeted at several aspects of society in the developing nation.

One illustration of the spirit of international development comes from a speech by Harry S. Truman in 1949:

"We must embark on a bold new program from making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. The old imperialism - exploitation for foreign profit - has no place in our plans. What we envision is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing."

International development is looked upon by some, especially conservative thinkers, as an obligation of developed countries towards developing countries as a way to alleviate the economic inequalities.

KM4Dev Discussions

Other agencies were provoked and challenged – and suggested a number of solutions to the “our house” vs “the South” debate. One was to explore how to become a knowledge brokers – and whether this role could achieve development efforts. DFID, the Bank and other agencies all agreed that this was vital – in fact, the Bank had it confirmed from the results of an OED evaluation (

How should this happen? The King report was seen as falling short of making recommendations. Elsewhere, building trust and creating communities which cut across the organisational boundaries and focus on external knowledge was seen as vital. (The more successful thematic groups in the World Bank in the late 90s saw external members as predominant.)

The difficulty of setting up internal networks with external inputs was highlighted, and the issue of power inequalities were touched upon. One fascinating scenario was raised: imagine a future where a major donor has no money to spend, except to pay staff costs and limited travel. Would its work continue to be valuable? Would its relationships with its former 'beneficiaries' change - would they stop listening? If this were the case, would the relationship between North and South would become more about persuasion and real value added? This was contrasted with experience that communities in fact listen very hard to those that help them to connect up, clarify their identity, define their purpose, show the potential of "all of us are better than any of us" and help the members to meet face to face on a regular basis. The cost-effectiveness of this approach was also highlighted – small funds could go far. The key was to shift from a community of practice, to a community of purpose. The latter requires some leadership and financial commitment. Overall, the approach that the "development organisation knows best" was seen to lead to solutions that don't work because “they are imposed on those who are supposed to be grateful”. Practical benefits were also stressed in this debate. Communities, in the final analysis, exist in order to help the individual members perform better and deliver their day to day work, not for some theoretical or political reason.

Partnerships were another solution, although admittedly a somewhat utopian one. At the heart of the partnership model was the idea that the “them and us“ model was seen as flawed, and agencies should not be competing in the same realms of knowledge due to funding incentives. To alleviate this, the role of KM practitioners was to focus on organizational change, shifting organisations towards boundary-spanning partnerships, and building staff capacity to operationalise such partnerships, utilising KM tools to maximise benefits to all parties.

But problems clearly remain. Senior management perceptions was a key one – they often saw knowledge-based work as being driven by websites and systems – despite their miserable track record in the development sector and more widely. With all communities, two key issues are how to cover the cost implications of face-to-face sharing, and how to manage the size of global communities. Mark Hammersley's Aid Workers Network (AWN) was cited as an excellent example, of how connections could be made between Southern partners, and a model whereby the northern agencies facilitate the exchange of southern knowledge.

A specific critique was made of the lack of Bank staff participation in Bank-hosted e-discussions. The response to this was useful not just in terms of the Bank, but many other agencies too. The reasons for not responding were cited as follows: (1) fear of official misrepresentation and quotes being used out of context (2) fear of intellectual inferiority, due to the intimidating nature of e-discussions (3) staff don't think that e-discussions are a productive use of their time - if you don't participate in an e-discussion you're not going to miss a promotion (4) many of the e-discussions the Bank holds are to hear what others have to say. It is worth noting that these reasons for a lack of Bank participation in e-discussions are applicable more widely to justify not participating in KM approaches. The role of managers were seen as key, and an example of a community which is so fundamental to an organisation that if individual staff members are seen to be not participating, then they receive an email from the CEO that says something along the lines of "I notice you have not been contributing to our community discussions lately, how can I help you to do this more?" A couple of tools for assessing community participation were suggested.

One respondent denied that the internal to external perspective was an opposition, and argued that this process followed many successful agency initiatives. Moreover, the complementary nature of these dimensions was key. A consultant chipped in with the call for greater clarity on the “business need” – did the aid business need stronger donors or empowered Southern partners? The "business" need must be clear before the appropriate knowledge management approaches can be put in place. In some agencies, this was articulated in a strong desire to work from both ends towards the middle somehow. The Bank 2001 strategy was raised because of its three overlapping focus areas of (i) Sharing knowledge within the Bank, (ii) Sharing knowledge with our clients, and (iii) Learning from our clients and partners, which recognises the essential complementary nature of the internal and the external dimensions of knowledge. (link to 2001 strategy).

The contrast between the two areas was also argued for in other ways – that the external aspects of knowledge sharing was in fact a subset of the internal aspects. A third area was also cited, around how external Southern organisations become better at using KM approaches to enhance effectiveness. From this perspective, a strategy to enhance KM/KS for internal organisational effectiveness is not a bad place to start, as a means of 'testing ideas and theory’. King and McGrath were seen as being overly critical of internal efforts in knowledge management, especially as focusing on Southern knowledge required a culture change that could only come about internally.

The idea of knowledge that is “pushed” or “pulled” was seen as a problematic one. Part of the challenge comes from the idea of knowledge as something that's pushed or pulled in the first place. Knowledge is useful because of its ability to solve problems, but the ability to analyse issues was seen as more important than the availability of "best practices" or someone else's "knowledge". Development effectiveness and political does not automatically emanate from the availability of knowledge, whether this is from the North or the South. Building peer relationships rather than donor-recipient relationships was seen as vital, but it was highlighted that this applied across all of an agencies operations, not just in the knowledge field. The importance of promoting knowledge and learning at 5 different levels which were pertinent to aid agencies was raised – individuals, groups, organisations, partnerships, and political, legal and socio-economic frameworks. No easy task!

Within agencies, knowledge brokerage was seen as potentially hampered by the thematic focus as opposed to the geographic focus.

Incentives were raised in an intriguing point about the UK, where Freedom of Information legislation means all files become available for public viewing – even emails and personal files! These drives for greater transparency are threatening to make DFID much more accountable for its knowledge processes. Another point was related to core function s – the example of the Bank’s lending services strengthening its knowledge services (in China) was cited. The potential of KM for development was that it has the potential of really changing the way agencies “do business” with clients, and points towards a much more effective "development partnership model", as opposed to "development assistance model."

Staying on the incentives point, to what extent do agency staff actually actively want to learn? What incentivises this? Even on the internal side of KM, agencies may have been far too supply driven to date and not paid nearly enough attention to why and when people desire to learn. The issue for time and availability was seen as such a frequent problem, that it may simply be “accepted wisdom” - and one participant pointed to the possibility of the “un-learning organisation”.

What makes people learn in the development context? Humour - a lot of development-related is presented in a very dry manner, and audiences have not been considered. De-familiarisation - whereby old ideas resurface in new ways (for example, participation re-emerging as part of KM). Timeliness/Opportunism - a big promotion board is looming where everyone has to show how they share knowledge, time to launch a knowledge management workshop. Connections/Camaraderie - people are often isolated and want to belong, connecting them is a useful precursor for their learning from each other. What’s in it for me - Make them pay for what they want by getting smarter - learning requires change = justifiable pain. Time - find ways to give people back some time and space to learn Where are people going? what do people want to learn themselves regardless of what you are promoting?

The discussion broadened out at points to look at how to get open knowledge systems (gear to users current behaviours, tap the power of gossip).

Related FAQs


Southern institutions...

Cross-organisational learning...

Further Information

Some key contacts on KM in Development:

  • Kenneth King
  • Bruno La Porte
  • Manuel Flury

Links & Web Based Articles

Articles and books:

  • David Snowden [ed] Virtual Collaborative Environments
  • The Knowledge Management Puzzle :Human and Social factors in Knowledge Management

  • King, Kenneth, 'Knowledge sharing in development agencies: lessons from four cases', presented at the KM4DEV workshop in The Hague [1] There you find the workshop outputs. Just click on Kenneth King's name and you find his study.
  • Forss, Kim et al, "Organisational Learning in Development Co-operation: How Knowledge is Generated and Used", by Kim Forss, Basil Cracknell and Nelly Stromquist; EGDI Working Paper 1998:3 (The EGDI Working Papers can be ordered via
  • Dietvorst, Cor,Making Knowledge Networks Work for the Poor workshop - the World Summit on the Information Society [2] (This document that collects and categorises major issues and recommendations related to information and knowledge management (IM/KM) that have appeared in recent international conferences and meetings both in the water sector)
  • Examples of World Bank innovations can be found at:

  • An innovative fractal community for the humanitarian sector:

  • CommKit - an affordable (for NGOs, NFPs and other famously budget limited bodies) next generation community platform that has been designed to take into account psychology and behaviour:

  • The IBM Babble interface and is basically a circle with blobs in it - depending on how active you are within a discussion your blob (representing you) moves closer to the centre of the circle. You can see dozens of discussions in this kind of schema at the same time and instantly see where a discussion is lively (lots of blobs in the middle) and where it isn't (lots of blobs on the periphery), who is being active and who is 'lurking', equally you can track how active people are in discussions over a period of time, and could use this for performance purposes. You'd need to combine this with a rating mechanism a la Amazon or something like Ask-Me where other participants could rank how well they thought of your input
  • Wikipedia definitions of knowledge management

If anyone wants to find out more on Babble there's a good article in IBMs System's Journal Vol 40, No.4 2001 page 783-4 that goes through this and shows the interface.

Original Author and Subsequent Contributors of This FAQ

Ben Ramalingam

Date first offered/Revisions

November 21, 2005

FAQ KM4Dev Source Materials

KM in Development Raw Background Notes