Knowledge Is Not Linear

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Exploring the Implications of Complexity Sciences for KM4Dev Practices

A KM4Dev Think Piece


Introduction: Why this topic? Why is 'knowledge management for development' worth examining from a complexity science perspective?

In the latter part of the 1990s, in an interview in Knowledge Management Journal, noted systems thinker Peter Senge was asked what he thought the key challenges were for knowledge management practitioners in the coming years. His reply was succinct:

  • “What is the nature of organizational knowledge, how is it generated, how is it diffused, what does it mean to develop more knowledge-based strategies? What happens at the interface between acquiring information and generating knowledge? These are issues that are deep and hardly trivial by any stretch. These are issues that people are really going to be wrestling with.”

In the years since Senge gave this interview, KM has taken off in many new sectors and industries, including among international development and humanitarian aid organisations.

Launched by the World Bank’s now infamous Knowledge Bank initiative in the mid-1990s, ‘knowledge management for development’ (KM4Dev) has now been taken up in some form most if not all international development and humanitarian agencies. Indeed, it has been argued that:

  • “international development can be viewed a true knowledge industry, as knowledge is a core pivot for both aid organisations as well as the intended beneficiaries”.

If this is the case, and the development sector truly is a knowledge industry, one would hope that the questions raised by Senge have been addressed, to some extent, in the development and humanitarian communities.

We should know more about the nature of knowledge, and what knowledge-based strategies should look like; we should understand better the interface between information gathering and knowledge creation, and we should be ‘wrestling’ to further our understanding in each of these areas.

However, by and large, and despite the groundbreaking work of research programmes such as IKM, RAPID. HIVOS (Knowledge and change programme) and the Impact Alliance, this understanding is not evident in KM practices. The perspective of knowledge underpinning much KM4Dev effort has remained narrowly focused on information, systems and products. Tellingly:

  • “this view has placed limitations upon the knowledge resource, primarily because it has hindered the development of a richer and deeper interpretation of what knowledge is.”

Bev - isn't this because knowledge is viewed as something static? Something to be shared, acquired, transmitted - even co-created. But it's not knowledge that keeps the species alive - but learning is i.e. it's not history but Darwinism that has kept the species alive. Maybe knowledge is the wrong thing to be looking at? Learning. Learning capabilities. Strategic learning capabilities. Aren't they one step ahead of "knowledge"?

Jaap - Almost all 'KM-practice', also within the development industry, is framed within an organisational setting - see also quote Senge, but also the WB initiative - what brings path dependency leading to the narrowly tangible focus because the business model of organisations demand thinking 'inside-out'; thinking in products and services; in tangibles. Ostrom - see quote below - refers to the complexity of reality. IKM and HIVOS start from 'multiple knowledges', which I understand as a complex reality manifesting itself in multiple views on that reality and thus resulting in multiple knowledges. Indeed learning, when wanted in co-creation, about that reality, making sense and 'outside-in', is more apt to look at. Btw, Darwinism kept the species alive up to the stone age. After that technology superseded evolutionary forces notwithstanding technology abuse might ruin our habitat in the future. PS I do not know this is the way to crowd source this article.

Bev - Not sure where you're going with that, Jaap! Anyway, yes, we learned to use and to develop technology. My point is just that! With so much uncertainty around the corner we need to get pretty good at learning 'coz knowledges - multiple or not - might not be enough.

Take for example this story, recounted by one of the contributors to this briefing paper:

  • “...At a recent conference, I listened while a colleague excitedly explained to another how the work of their specific sub-sector within the aid system would be transformed by the establishment of an electronic library of resources, providing a ‘clearing house for global community’. I listened carefully and then suggested that the information portal in question, although undoubtedly valuable in its own right, may not bring about all of the desired behavioural changes, and that they might also need to think about the way in which professionals in the sub-sector relate and interact with each other. In KM terms, this is Class 101 stuff - explicit knowledge is only part of the story, we also have to think about tacit knowledge if we are serious about delivering desired changes in behaviour and improved performance. The withering look I received made me feel like the child pointing out that the emperor was not wearing any clothes...”

There is a clear and widely acknowledged need to adopt a “more reflective approach to the application of knowledge”, which is accepting of the fact that knowledge “requires practitioners to operate in a context of uncertainty and one of constant change.” In taking this approach, it is worth reflecting on the words of the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Elinor Ostrom:

  • “...When the world we are trying to explain and improve... is not well described by a simple model, we must continue to improve our frameworks and theories so as to be able to understand complexity and not simply reject it...”

This brings us to the lens which will be used to examine the KM4Dev movement in the rest of this paper. Complexity science is a now growing movement in both academic and policy spheres, with dedicated think-tanks (Santa Fe, Plexus), growing numbers of research departments and programmes, new initiatives in realms as diverse as natural resource management and schools reform, and many individuals engaging with the ideas in the context of their own day-to-day practice.

Emerging from the physical sciences (See Pripogine dissipative structures theory [1]), ideas of complexity science have now seen application in diverse fields of human endeavour, from economics and business strategy to military science, political science and information technology.

Stephen Hawking famously said that the 21st century will be the century of complexity. There are some who agree wholeheartedly. Certainly, ideas from complexity science have found their way into popular usage – from non-linearity, tipping points, black swan events and scale-free networks. But while such concepts and related insights are becoming more prominent at the level of policy rhetoric, it is much less clear what progress has been made in putting the ideas to use in policy and practice. As in many new ways of doing things, ‘talk-up’ outweighs the ‘take-up’.

This may also be because of the work-in-progress nature of the complexity science landscape. There is ongoing and active debate about:

  • what exactly the implications of complexity science are
  • whether the implications can be ‘put to use’ in some way
  • whether or not they should be ‘put to use’

This debate has its echoes in the take-up of complexity in international development and humanitarian aid.

Increasing numbers of organisations and individuals work in development and humanitarian efforts are turning to ideas of complexity theory as a means by which to rethink the problems they face. The different problems include:

  • Strategies: how to develop strategic capabilities that prepare us for a rapidly changing world
  • Performance and Accountability: how to monitor and evaluate programmes in ways that take account of the reality of change and the limitations of attribution
  • Organisations: how to think about organisations as complex adaptive systems, and the implications for the nature of change, management, and control
  • Knowledge and Learning: how to re-think ideas of knowledge and ongoing learning in the context of complexity

This KM4Dev Briefing Paper is focused on the last of these areas, and draws from interviews undertaken with KM specialists. It sets out findings in four broad sections. It first provides a synthesis of knowledge about the KM4Dev movement, then will then move on to a broad introduction to the ideas of complexity science.

Following this, it will attempt to look at the strengths and weaknesses of knowledge management for development through a complexity lens, and then make some preliminary conclusions and set out further questions to explore in more detail.

KM4Dev - Where art thou?

The state of the art?

Knowledge management can no longer be said to be in its infancy in the international development and humanitarian sectors.

While some principles can be traced back much further, at least to the participation movement which started in the 1970s and 80s, the key ideas were first expressed the best part of two decades as part of the knowledge revolution launched by the World Bank. KM4Dev, the leading knowledge network for actors interested in these issues, is now over 10 years old.

What have we seen as a result of this effort? On the surface, the picture may appear to be a rosy one. Knowledge management is now established in the aid management repertoire of tools and techniques, and the terms have firmly entered the aid lexicon, appearing frequently in organisational strategies, evaluations and job descriptions, and even media reports. The different contexts in which KM is now mentioned are many and varied.

However, there are some long-standing issues with KM4Dev efforts which the research undertaken indicates are still not resolved.

Mike Powell, in a summary of the state of KM, suggested that the findings of a 2005 review were familiar to most with experience of the area, and cited the following as especially pertinent.

1. That there is a continuing problem:

'major challenges of knowledge and learning in the development sector still need to be addressed’ (p. ix).

2. That the centrality of knowledge to development strategies is not recognised or, if it is, is not acted upon: ‘even in those organisations where knowledge is central to the overall mission, systematic knowledge-based approaches are not widely accepted and applied. Moreover, in several organisations, the knowledge and learning agenda is in direct contrast to core processes’ (p.19).

3. That the common prioritisation of internal, and often headquarters-oriented, information and knowledge-management issues often distracts from exchanges with those immersed in the Southern realities that organisations aim to be changing:

‘continual demands for information “from the field” by head office create a tension that makes learning difficult in many of the organisations concerned’ (p.15).

‘a large number of participants identified the need for knowledge strategies to address internal issues before addressing these broader issues…. Interestingly the focus on internal knowledge work belies the fact that all the study organisations relied on activities in the South as a key source of their most valued knowledge, and that eventually, all knowledge that is ‘value-generating’ must by necessity be tied back to a level of knowledge sharing with those in the South’ (p. 26).

'In practice, it appears that the incorporation of Southern knowledge occurs at the tactical, rather than strategic level – and then only in an ad-hoc manner’ (p. 27).

'the slow penetration of knowledge and learning activities into different organisations may explain the relative homogeneity of knowledge and learning work across the organisations covered, which seems to prevail despite the oft-stated need for context-specific approaches’ (p. 30).

4. That knowledge and learning work is often marginalised:

'the typical response to the difficulty of re-organising core processes along knowledge and learning lines has led to the widespread conceptualisation of knowledge and learning initiatives, which supposedly drive organisational change, as a support function’ (p. 30).

'A danger is that where one particular support function (say, IT) dominates the others within an organisation, this may be overly emphasised in the implementation of knowledge strategies’ (p. 20).

Five years on, and despite the good work of the IKM Emergent programme in shedding light on the ongoing challenges and complexities of knowledge for development, these issues have largely not been resolved.

A 2008 assessment of foreign aid paints a bleak picture:

“...the bottom line is that aid agencies... need to be flexible, “learning” agencies... in reality [however] aid agencies tend to be highly centralized with most decisions made at headquarters... to have rigid programming systems, to use the quantity of funds spent as a measure of the effectiveness of projects and programs while having weak and underutilised learning systems...” Reinventing Foreign Aid, 2008, p 467

Across the board from the research participants, there was a clear sense that that KM practices, as distinct from KM theory, were still stalled on this focus on the visible, the tangible and the electronic; and largely failing to add value to the core business of making positive change happen in developing countries.

In common with other areas of aid management practice such as performance, strategy, and accountability, KM efforts may be failing to deliver on their early promise. All of those interviewed for this Briefing paper agreed that there were still some significant hurdles to overcome, and that KM as an organisational imperative had some way to go.

As one participant put it rather pointedly, ‘the fundamental problem is that we always talk about ‘knowledge for development’, but actually we are mainly doing information for aid’.

This distinction is worth exploring in a little more detail.

Knowledge for Development or Information for Aid

Mark McElroy, writing in 1999, characterised first generation KM using the following example:

“...A knowledge worker is sitting at her desk performing a task, then suddenly develops a need for information to complete her work. Where does she turn? Is the knowledge readily available? How long does it take to get it? Does she tap her relationships with other workers? Has technology been effectively placed at her disposal? Is her knowledge source current? Is it complete? Was the task successfully carried out? It’s all about getting the right information to the right people at the right time so they can do their jobs more effectively...”

Compare this to the story Steve Denning told to ignite the imaginations of colleagues at the World Bank at the start of the ‘development knowledge revolution’:

“...In June of last year, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and got an answer to a question about the treatment of malaria. Remember that this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it was in a tiny place six hundred kilometers from the capitol city. But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for us, is that the World Bank isn’t in it. Despite our know-how on all kinds of poverty-related issues, that knowledge isn’t available to the millions of people who could use it. Imagine if it were. Think what an organization we could become...”

While there have certainly been some useful developments in the theory of KM, it is not clear that the practice of KM4Dev has moved on significantly from first generation KM.

“...This view of knowledge as a structured resource, which is essentially the result of a process of data integration, can be identified with what has been called first-generation KM. This view tends to emphasise the management of data. It brings to the fore data management, taxonomies and the application of ICTs through information systems. It is a popular view because it offers what organisations are usually looking for: a practical means of getting access to a valuable resource, in this instance knowledge... Ironically, the identification of knowledge as a valuable resource is related to the need to move away from this position and recognise the importance of being able to respond within a context of rapid and continual change. To do so requires us to focus on our ability to act knowledgeably, rather than to seek to create stores of knowledge...”

As one participant put it rather pointedly ‘we always talk about ‘knowledge for development’, but actually we are mainly doing information for aid’.

Learning in crisis?

The global system of aid, already under strain from internal pressures and stretched by political ambiguities, has in the last two years been buffeted a series of interlocking global crises. The so-called triple F crisis – Finance, Food and Fuel – have created pressures in terms of diminishing or further politicising the inputs to the aid system. They have also carried dire consequences for many developing countries. Declines in exports, trade and investment as a result of financial turmoil have proved hardest for those countries already suffering from food and fuel price inflation.

Understanding how aid agencies have dealt with these crises has proved very revealing about numerous aspects of the aid system. Of particular interest here is what, if anything, these crises and how they have been handled tell us about the progress of the ‘knowledge management for development’ movement.

Recent research published in the leading development journal Development Policy Review has used the crises as a means to examine aid agencies’ commitment to knowledge and learning. It found that there was a great deal of knowledge production around the crises, but that agencies found it difficult to interpret this in operational terms and tended to focus instead on delivering against their core mandates.

While many aid agencies worked hard to present themselves as ‘knowledgeable organisations’ that have credibility and status in the eyes of external stakeholders, this may have been at the expense of working to be ‘knowledge-based organisations’ that seek to use knowledge and learning to inform decision making and advocacy.

There is still a clear sense in the response to the crises that relevant knowledge is generated in Washington, London or Rome before its local dissemination really takes place. This ‘overlooks much of the complexity of the phenomenon’ (DPR, 2010, p48), a finding that is supported by previous work by the author:

“...The assumption that ideas can be transferred as ‘best practice’ from one place to another has driven much organisational learning. Rather than scanning globally and reinventing locally, as Joseph Stiglitz famously suggested, most learning initiatives in the development sector have tried to scan globally and apply locally. This ‘pipeline’ approach to learning seriously underestimates the complexity of aid work...”

Why are things so hard?

The reasons given as to why KM was still found wanting were varied, as highlighted below:

• Poor focus on how key concepts and definitions translate into the real world:

“...there is this idea of knowledge as tacit and emergent, as being a result of conversation, as something that you can never know you have until it is needed, and that knowledge is something that cannot be managed... and I think everyone’s personal and professional experience would reinforce this... but when it comes to designing learning processes and knowledge systems, these social aspects, without fail, get overwhelmed by technical apparatus... it’s as though we think technological connections can replace, even supplant, the social...”

• Lack of understanding of how institutional context shapes and possibly dilutes the knowledge and learning imperative:

“ any given international agency, from the World Bank to Send a Cow, KM and OL represents an amalgam of influences, including individual approaches, professional norms, adult learning approaches, action learning processes, organisational development, information management and systems, and human resources management. How is anything coherent going emerge from all of that?”

• Lack of engagement with operational realities of aid agencies:

“... KM efforts have, in general, failed to engage with those people doing the cutting edge work in the organisation... they don’t know about, or care about KM... and nor should they... they are concerned to make effective decisions while facing numerous constraints, and KM hasn’t, despite its best efforts, managed to deliver practically at this level...”

• Lack of understanding of the effects

“...we still don’t really have a practical handle on what effective knowledge sharing and learning actually achieves - what things look like when it works. We have idealised pictures of people talking energetically in meetings and accessing intranets and making connections but there is little tangible evidence of what happens as a result...”

• Lack of appreciation of how hard it is:

“we clearly could envision how our organisations would be different through KM / OL. But in terms of how this was operationalised, it was almost always using a language and a rhetoric that suggested that those who engaged would get something for nothing. It is only slowly seeping in that learning doesn’t necessarily make your life easier or simpler, that the knowledge-based approach may be the road less travelled because it is in fact a much tougher, but also more authentic, road to be on...”

It hardly needs pointing out that these are considerable challenges. Underlying all of them is a issue of how KM is understood. If development really is a knowledge industry, then knowledge should be a survival imperative for aid organisations, just as it is for organisations working in knowledge-intensive industries such as information technology and telecommunications.

In these other sectors success depends on active and high level engagement with the importance of knowledge by:

“...making sure there is a clear strategy, building the conditions within which people’s creativity can be deployed to help [foster success] and ensuring close and effective networking with a range of outside organizations...”

It hardly needs pointing out that these are considerable challenges. One of the most critical issues is that KM was grounded “stems from organisational sciences rooted in Taylorism”. Frederick Taylor was famous for time-and-motion studies on factory floors, and a Newtonian model which assumed predictability, linearity and control.

One of the most interesting points raised by the participants was that KM was grounded “stems from organisational sciences rooted in Taylorism”. Frederick Taylor was famous for time-and-motion studies on factory floors, and leads to a particular managerialist perspective on the role of knowledge. And as Duncan Watts has argued, the linear Neewtonian model is staggering about the global stage like a mortally wounded SHakespearean actor.

New theoretical frameworks such as complexity science are not a silver bullet for all of these problems. As has been argued elsewhere, complexity science concepts do not provide you with ‘what to do on Monday morning’ but instead are ‘Sunday morning’ ideas which help you think differently about the world (Beinhocker, 2006).

So key question now is, what exactly are these ideas, and how do they help us think differently about knowledge management for development?

The Releveance of the Complexity Sciences

Complexity: A Rapid Tour

“...The world economy, financial markets, air transportation, pandemic disease spread, climate change, and insect-driven deforestation are examples of truly complex systems: They consist of multiple components... interconnected in ways that lead to emergent collective behaviours and spontaneous re-organization...” Santa Fe, 2010

Complexity science is increasingly being seen by analysts in the development sector as a useful, potentially powerful way of reframing key issues around knowledge and learning. Work led by ODI in 2008 identified three broad sets of ideas that are at the heart of complexity thinking, which were used to explore the relevance of complexity science for international development and humanitarian problems.

  • Interconnectedness: The world is characterised by complex systems of elements that are interdependent and interconnected by multiple feedback processes. System-wide behaviours emerge unpredictably from the interactions between component parts.

Implications: Serious mistakes in public and political life are increasingly being attributed to a bias of seeing interconnected, messy problems as simple and straightforward, and the ill-advised actions that are taken as a result of such biases. Although this bias is ubiquitous, transcending sectors and geographies with ease, it arguably finds some of its most startling manifestations in the aid world. Tools such as network analysis and systems thinking can help to shed light on these issues. Aid agencies can use such lenses to better understand different aspects of the complex systems in which they increasingly operate. The range of phenomena which might be better understood is wide ranging, but first there is a need to accept and work with complexity as a norm rather than as an exception.

  • Non-Linear Change: In complex systems, change processes are non-linear, discontinuous and highly sensitive to initial conditions. This carries implications for the relevance of planning and learning approaches

Implications: Despite the fact that much real-world change is in fact non-linear, aid work is still largely informed by linear, reductionist frameworks such as the logical framework. These and other existing tools may need to be radically adapted if they are not to become irrelevant and symbolic exercises. If they are serious about operating in dynamically changing contexts, aid agencies should try to take a more collective and systematic and shared view of the uncertainty that the future holds.

Tools such as scenario planning are a good starting point, as is building a realistic understanding of the uncertainty inherent in development processes in order to produce programmes and projects that are robust under a variety of feasible circumstances.

  • Adaptive agents: Complex social systems are populated by adaptive agents that act in their interests with their own view of the situation, and react to and influence other actors and the wider system through dynamic processes of communication. They co-evolve with the wider system and each other through variation and selection.

Implications: Aid agencies need to become more aware of the vital importance of human agency in effective international development and humanitarian work, and understand better the ways in which their organisations (and indeed the system as a whole) enable or inhibit adaptive behaviours.

This requires a focus on the extensive adaptive capacities that are present and arguably under-utilised: from beneficiary communities and local partner organisations to often-overlooked and administrative staff working in headquarter offices. Agencies need to consider whether their policies and practices inhibit adaptation and innovation across the sector as a whole.

Aid agencies may do well to consider adaptive management approaches as a means of enabling decision making processes and management systems that are more flexible and responsive to local context and changing relationships. Aid programmes would need to be re-framed as collective learning processes in which diverse stakeholders can express their respective interests, and achieve mutually beneficial goals. As such, aid agencies need to move towards becoming facilitators and brokers, enabling representatives of beneficiary communities to best apply their own adaptive capacities to solve the problems they face.

  • Principles for working in a complex world

In a 2011 Santa Fe Institute paper, six key principles were raised as a useful starting point for all sets of actors working in complex systems to challenge their way of thinking and acting.

1) To work to understand the systemic nature of the problems faced in development and foreign policy and how these problems evolve over time.

2) To involve those people who matter the most in the decisions that matter the most.

3) To avoid ‘silver bullet’ strategies and instead attempt multiple parallel experiments.

4) To establish real-time strategic analysis & learning as a key form of operational feedback.

5) To be open to the fundamental adaptation of efforts, along with changes in local contexts and conditions.

6) To reframe the overall development / foreign policy policy effort as dynamic networks of multiple systems and actors

Applying these principles to the issues faced in KM4Dev efforts is a useful thought experiment. Taking a systemic perspective can lead policy makers to engage more substantively with development dynamics, and improve how KM efforts might help this fundamental form of learning. Involving those that matter most in the decisions that matter the most points to a speedier and more encompassing approach to creating networks and communities. Focusing on the involvement of those that matter most could also lead to a more grass-roots approach to KM, focused on 'networking the fringes' of the system. Implementing multiple, parallel strategies can enhance knowledge efforts, rather than waiting for the single silver bullet (the new intranet, the new system, etc). Learning from what is happening on the ground in real-time will guide KM efforts towards greater relevance for the critical issues facing the organisation. And, if the organisation worked in a networked fashion with others, using 'open knowledge' principles, it would be of much greater benefit for those on the ground, reducing transaction costs and enhancing shared learning.

Reflections from informants

Those interviewed for this process fell into two camps. On the positive side, the complexity sciences were seen as most useful in helping to challenge assumptions inherent to KM4Dev practices. These fell into three areas - assumptions about the world, about the organisations these practices are brought into, and about knowledge itself.

  • A complex world: Some argued that complexity science has the potential to extend and enhance our knowledge of development processes, with one senior manager arguing that in fact CAS approaches were the best framework available for understanding processes of development and recovery.

“...Learning is simply put the effort we make to improve the business, to make a better contribution to poverty alleviation. This brings learning specialists directly to complexity of social systems. And this complexity is apparent in a range of different ways – looks at transport systems, and the way that in Hanoi, old ladies can cross a road that incredibly complex without batting an eyelid, while the Western tourist causes havoc...”

“...can we improve our work by realising social change is a complex issue, and by identifying those situations where a blueprint approach is not appropriate? We need to develop our understanding of specific social / ecological systems, helping poor people and those in developing countries to change their systems in line with poverty alleviation goals without pre-empting the specific kinds of change, how they should happen, or how fast it should happen. But in the aid sector to be humble, to focus on something particular, to move beyond blueprints, is very difficult...”

  • Complex organisations: Traditional thinking posits the possibility that an organisation can achieve equilibrium, with the implication that KM helps an organisation achieve such a ‘balanced state’ of being a knowledge-based organisation. Complexity suggests instead that an organisation may never reach such a stable equilibrium, but may move around the space of possibilities, constantly co-evolving with a changing broader environment; the implication being that KM should be focused on helping to navigate the inherent uncertainty of a constantly changing environment (Ramalingam et al, 2008).

Some saw the relevance of complexity as helping to re-frame the organisation in this way, seeing aid agencies as complex adaptive systems, and seeing knowledge and learning mechanisms as the means by which ‘feedback’ can be consciously directed to positive change. The challenge of KM and OL is in the impossibility of directing such a system, as one respondent put it ‘example of trying square the circle’.

  • Complex knowledge: For some working in KM4Dev, adopting a “complexity approach means re-thinking the very meaning of knowledge and how it is ‘used’. Complexity was seen by contributors to the current piece as having potential to help navigate some longstanding and poorly understood problems. These informants suggested that work on knowledge and learning had a strong affinity with complexity theory, highlighting areas such as tacit knowledge, the emergent nature of communities of practice, and the non-linearity of learning as good examples of how the ideas might have traction.

For others, complexity was more limited in its value – a source of interesting ideas and insights which can help further understanding in some contexts, but which is not the ‘silver bullet’ for the aid knowledge conundrum. Some also questioned whether ideas of something such as complexity can in fact be ‘used and applied’ – the most extreme interpretation is that it cannot be understood because it is fundamentally about limits on human cognition and action, and that any attempt to ‘use complexity’ is an expression of the linear, traditional, mindset.

In the extreme, some felt that complexity has little to offer knowledge problems or aid problems more generally, and may express cynicism about complexity as being ‘old wine in new bottles’.

What was clear from all informants was that making effective use of knowledge — however defined — represents a major development challenge for today’s global aid community. Almost every participant highlighted problems with KM / OL approaches in general terms – either in how they have been conceptualised or operationalised. Personality types were cited as one reason that particular approaches have been prominent, as well as agency cultures, donor imperatives, the drive for growth in funds, the increasing fear of media, and so on. If knowledge for development is to evolve with the changing context, it needs to find ways of navigating these issues and adding value throughout the organisation, and not just in narrow enclaves.

In summary, there are many across the KM4Dev community and more widely feel that efforts to bolster, reform or reconstruct knowledge efforts must engage with ideas of complexity - to understand interconnected realities of aid, to accept the emergence of knowledge in context-specific, diverse ways, to grasp that learning is a self-organising process, that knowledge cannot be managed, and learning cannot be directed.

Against that, complexity-informed approaches to knowledge for aid remain at best a work in progress, partly because the bureaucratic mentalities and organisational imperatives which shape aid demand visible, tangible, simple ways to engage with knowledge, which gives clear prominence to the idea of knowledge as information, to be downloaded and used in rational, mechanical ways. The ideas of complexity, where they do play a role, often do so ‘by stealth’, and have helped practitioners by not only clarifying the need for doing things differently but also for doing different things.

Then there are also sceptics who are yet to be convinced of the value of such ideas. Interestingly, these informants frequently suggested that 'something is needed to improve things [in KM4Dev], but I don't know that it is complexity'.

INSTALLMENT 4: From knowledge management in a simple world to knowledge leadership in a complex world

If the fundamental differences between the assumptions of traditional KM and the ideas of complexity science about real world systems are accepted, then clearly we need to rethink the knowledge imperative in international organisations. As Mark McElroy put it:

  • “This creativity, together with the ability to create knowledge, has been undermined in first-generation KM, primarily because it allows only a limited view of knowledge as complex information. To remedy this there is a need to re-visit the nature of knowledge itself and, in particular, to consider the ability of individuals and the organisation to create knowledge. In doing this we must, to some extent, be prepared to operate in a context of uncertainty where there is not necessarily an answer or a piece of knowledge waiting to fit a given problem. Rather, there is an element of faith involved in terms of how able individuals within an organisation are at coming up with an answer to a specific problem. In other words, can the individuals within an organisation act knowledgeably? The answer to any given problem, within this context, is not what is important, but how the answer is arrived at. Was it arrived at efficiently and effectively? Were the individuals involved able to identify the answer to the problem quickly and apply a creative solution to it? Underpinning this is not the certainty that is often sought in relation to organisational management. Instead, we must recognise that, at best, we have only a degree of certainty, not in the knowledge that we have, but in our ability to act knowledgeably.”

And again:

  • “The identification of knowledge as a valuable resource is related to the need to move away from [the tradtional linear view of KM] and recognise the importance of being able to respond within a context of rapid and continual change. To do so requires us to focus on our ability to act knowledgeably, rather than to seek to create stores of knowledge”

To paraphrase John Bessant, the complex, unpredictable and uncertain nature of the world amounts to a demand not for 'knowledge management' but for knowledge leadership’.

The difference is not a semantic or trivial one. It can be seen as corresponding to the much-debated distinction between management and leadership. Recent research indicates that we can distinguish leadership from management rather more precisely than the old adage ‘management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things’ permits.

First of all, leadership and management are closely related but distinct endeavours. The literature indicates that management and leadership share four common areas:

• Creating an agenda • Building the capabilities to achieve the agenda • Execution of the agenda • Achieving outcomes

These common areas are all the more important to grasp because the function of leadership and management is different, and ideally complementary, in each. The table below sets out distinctions between management and leadership in relation to each of these four areas, drawing from the work of John Kotter and others.

Image to be inserted

This provides us with some useful insights. Why are some leaders criticised for being ‘all style and no substance’? Why are some managers seen as being ‘solid, but unimaginative’? Why are the tensions between leaders and managers often so palpable? Although beyond the scope of this briefing paper, these questions are all worth further exploration and might be usefully guided by the framework provided above.

The purpose for introducing the distinction is to look at the way in which ‘knowledge management for development’ has evolved. When one looks at the evidence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are still very much rooted in the left hand column. We seek to optimise, maximise, improve more than to explore, challenge and innovate. We are still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, hypnotised by the potential of slick IT systems. We still think networks that are successful are 'more net and not enough work'. And so on.

The difference between ‘knowledge management’ and ‘knowledge leadership’ is not a semantic or trivial one. It can be seen as corresponding to the much-debated distinction between management and leadership. Recent research indicates that we can distinguish leadership from management rather more precisely than the old adage ‘management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things’ permits.

First of all, leadership and management are closely related but distinct endeavours. The literature indicates that management and leadership share four common areas:

• Creating an agenda • Building the capabilities to achieve the agenda • Execution of the agenda • Achieving outcomes

These common areas are all the more important to grasp because the function of leadership and management is different, and ideally complementary, in each. The table below sets out distinctions between management and leadership in relation to each of these four areas, drawing from the work of John Kotter and others.

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The purpose for introducing the distinction is to look at the way in which ‘knowledge management for development’ has evolved. When one looks at the evidence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are still very much rooted in the left hand column.

In the final analysis, it is helpful to be able to see knowledge behaviours in organisations for what they are: self-organised, emergent, with uncertain outcomes. This view should be more central in informing how we approach KM strategies and interventions, and in distinguishing those strategies that are likely to make an active contribution from that are not.


• START TALKING ABOUT COMPLEXITY: KM practitioners must commit to honest internal dialogue about how to navigate the multiple goals and challenges involved in working to improve knowledge for aid, and the potential relevance of complexity ideas

• THINK STRATEGICALLY ABOUT COMPLEXITY: KM practitioners should develop strategies that acknowledge the complex, diverse ande emergent nature of (a) the wider world and (b) the organisations they are trying to change and (c) knowledge itself

• SURFACE TENSIONS AND CONTRADICTIONS AROUND REQUIRED CHANGES: KM practitioners should focus on identifying and surfacing tensions and contradictions as a means of triggering - rather than avoiding - learning.

• GET SERIOUS ABOUT THE KNOWLEDGE FOR DEVELOPMENT CHALLENGE: Senior leaders must make a clear public commitment to knowledge strategies as a fundamental means by which to adapot organisations to an increasingly turbulent world, and find ways to highlight the importance of the tacit, emergent and creative aspects of knowledge, Knowledge leadership starts at the top.