Thread on Essential Elements of a Perfect KM Strategy

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On 29 January 2009, Gwen Wilkins ignited this thread by posting the following message:

For all you KM experts out there. If you were to design a regional KM / Knowledge sharing project that would have to work across several different countries (in a developing country context), work across several different technical program areas and work with several different organizations with varying levels of capacity – what would be the most essential elements of such a program?


Serafin Talisayon: Hi Gwen,

Before I jump into KM solutions and technologies, let me ask you: where is the motive or purpose? Do the participants want the project, or maybe it is only you (or the donor agency behind you) who wants it? Do the participants already constitute a community of interest, or are they mostly strangers you want to bring together? What is the problem that the group would like to solve together, and do they agree that it is a problem and they agree to solve it together?


Nancy White:

Gwen, what is the purpose of the project? In other words, imagine you are one year into the future. What would everyone be saying about this project? What will have changed in the network?


Gwen Wilkins:

Hi Apin, Good questions. In response to these (and Nancy's question as well):

Where is the motive or purpose? To develop the capacity and means to facilitate high quality, effective, sustainable knowledge exchange.

Do the participants want the project? They are hungry for information and for simple, effective means of accessing and sharing information.

Do the participants already constitute a community of interest? They do to the extent that they are all working in particular technical areas trying to achieve the same goal. They do not necessarily all know or collaborate with each other (yet).

What is the problem? The overall problem being addressed is the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with different participants addressing different aspects of the problem. They would like (for the most part) to work together to try and address the problem.


Joitske Hulsebosch:

Hi Gwen, thanks for the explanation, it gives some more context. Beyond this, I wouldn't assume that there is no knowledge sharing happening now. So you could interview people to find out how they are sharing and learning currently- what are there preferences? Whom do people consult/look up to? When you have an idea of how this is happening now, you will probably see where you can give a boost by organizing something or stimulating something. You'll probably have to look at how learning is structured at individual, team, project level, and see where connections need stimulation. Since tacit knowledge sharing needs intimate relationships I'd look at where you can connect people around certain topics and create communities of practice. They are a great vehicle for continuous and deep knowledge sharing.


Simone Staiger-Rivas:

I would focus on three entry points: 1)Build capacity of stakeholders in KS/KM. 2)Provide adequate KS / Km tools. 3)Work at the management level to include KS/KM principles and methods in the strategic business. See a framework of action and related activities in our KS project at the CG level at: http://www.ks-cgiar.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=30&Itemid=126


Jaap Pels:

The essential elements of such a program:

1)A knowledge fair or market place as start-up with a lot of space / time to interact; use a game for that or food-incentives; 2)A good newsletter with real stories (no salespitches); 3)Use of Facebook or something like that; better use Hyves but you need the youngest generation for that; 4)Crux is that e-mail is still the digital killer application; and 5)Last, remember that knowledge sharing goes along the lines people => domain => purpose. In other words, do not just network, find activities to do together. First create a buzz on what you want to achieve for, just start and formulate that perfect KM project later.


Sebastiao Ferreira:

KM should not follow models. My experience is that each group of people has its on way of expressing and sharing knowledge. I imagine that the people you want to work with are struggling with many problems, shortage of time, and strong restrictions in resources and institutional support, so to share knowledge by the sake of that is not something appealing, so my suggestion are: (1) to define a clear and shared objective that will drive the knowledge sharing, and (2) I would put attention to the particular way people express their experiences and thoughts, and which are their preferences for sharing what they know. These preferences (cognitive idiosyncrasies) should shape the activities you are considering. Clarity about these preferences makes much easier to cross cultural frontiers. (3) Put attention to expanding the cognitive space of people, put them in contact with all groups interested in the same issues, particularly with those that do not agree with your main constituencies (4) I agree with the idea of knowledge/innovation fairs, but I would suggest to organize for making everything to happen in one day. (5) Innovators need institutional and cognitive support, so think on how to create an enabling environment for them with local institutions. I hope these ideas on the fly are useful in some way.


Frey Faust:

I think "community of interest", although important, is a misleading condition for any humanistic undertaking. The common objective can be a trojan horse. When I select potential leaders/teachers form my students, it is because I like the person. Why do I like someone? They have demonstrated consistent respect, they have shown themselves to be capable, they have taken initiative without being asked and without the promise of monetary compensation, they have shown themselves willing to learn, and interested to research and progress even when I am not around to guide them. When this kind of "organically grown" confidence exists as a basis, all subsequent problems, solutions, mistakes and successes are simply occasions to learn. Project elaboration, management, and feedback about the results of projects can be honest and to the point.

My teacher's resource pool comes together regularly from all over the world to practice the act of knowledge transmission in a public setting. One at a time, a member of the pool will teach and open, free class, which most of the other members take, while some observe and take notes. This situation could be extermely stressful, if we were not all confident that everyone has respect for everyone else. I feel that respect cannot be engendered artificially, it occurs naturally.

Speaking of respect, I have a ton of it for you heavy weights out there on the front lines with global issues like AIDS and so on. I feel that my own experience is pertinent to this exchange, even though I am not on the global catastrophy team... well I hope so anyway.


Serafin Talisayon:


Hi Gwen,

From your post, let me summarize the situation: 1)Demand for information and knowledge is present; 2)There is common interest in a social problem (HIV-AIDS) but the people involved are not yet communicating with one another (no community yet); 3)They are geographically dispersed (only my guess - is this correct?) and they have not yet met face-to-face as a group; and 4)Preferred communication mode of most of them is unknown (my guess is most of them use email - is this correct?)

KS is more likely to happen if it is demand-driven or problem-driven. From the above summary, I think a cost-effective KS model you can consider is that tried out in India by Gopi Ghosh of FAO: the Solutions Exchange (see their main page at http://www.solutionexchange-un.net.in/en/index.php and their AIDS thematic community webpage at: http://www.solutionexchange-un.net.in/en/AIDS/introductionhtml There are other thematic communities). This thematically-organized communities are problem-driven: any member can send (by email) a query on a practical development issue or problem he or she is facing. Over the next few days, members who had addressed similar problems respond by describing how they solved it, the results, what worked and what didn't, success and failure factors, etc. Typically, 15-25 responses come in for each query (I am not from India but Gopi made me a member). After a week, Gopi then summarizes/organizes the solutions into a single document and sends it to the community including the person who initiated the query, and the solution is archived. That is why it is called "solutions exchange". Unlike most e-groups, where all sorts of information are posted that are not always useful to each member, this virtual community focuses only on real-world solutions to real-world problems.

This is less costly (not "perfect KM project") than face-to-face modalities because the only effort expended is setting up the virtual community and participation revolves around collecting (by email communication) solutions for specific problems of members. It is a mechanism to tap into the experiences of thousands of development workers in India. The total membership of Solutions Exchange is now about 12,000.

But of course, if you have enough financial resources to bring people together in face-to-face meetings then there are much more that you can do such as those suggested by Jaap, Sebastiao, Joitske and others. The advantage of face-to-face modalities is the opportunity it creates for building personal and group relationships, far richer exchange of experiences than mere email and building of trust.


Eva Schiffer:

I have a methodological recommendation that doesn't cover the whole process but might be an interesting starting point / ingredient for your bigger strategy, to address some of the points made by other contributors.

I have been working with a project called RENEWAL (http://www.ifpri.org/renewal/), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute, that aims at developing networks around Aids and nutrition research in East and Southern Africa. My role was to facilitate that the participants develop a vision for how this knowledge network should evolve in the future and how knowledge and implementation could be linked.

What we did was to get groups together to draw networks of the current and the envisaged future situation, indicating different kinds of links (e.g. flow of money, flow of info) with different colors. This did not only help us to understand the situation better but also allowed participants to compare the different challenges and potentials that they brought to the table and learn from each other's experience. In the process the group got really enthusiastic about their potential and developed a strong sense of ownership. Have a look at www.netmap.wordpress.com for more on the method and feel free to contact me directly, if you want to know more about this specific project.


Valerie Brown:

I ask whether one can EXCHANGE knowledge? it seems to me we can only share it? or jointly construct it? Asking questions seems to be the key to the perfect project. How well Apin and Nancy's questions led to clarifying Gwen's task!!! Here in the Local Sustainability Project we use two frameworks/guidelines for establishing collective learning (also known as the collective management of knowledge):

1. Collective thinking: Identify people from the following knowledge bases: leadership individuals, affected communities, specialist fields, influential organisations, and holistic thinkers (can be 1 - 10 from each group, but must be even) - these are then the full teams for decision-making. Have them develop a focus question for all concerned, such as "How can we have a fully collaborative action plan to address HIV/AIDS in our area of practice?"

2. Collective social learning: Pursuade them to follow the adult learning cycle as a shared social enterprise; have the mixed groups answer the following questions:

a) What should be? Their ideals: Their individual ideals that drive their hopes for a solution (all valid, no prioritising or averaging). b)What is? The facts: Supporting and inhibiting factors for achieving the ideals. c)What could be? Their ideas: Ideas of how the result could be achieved, including blue sky and rejected ideas. What can be? Their next actions. A practical action plan that services ideals, takes account of facts, includes new ideas and delivers on a timetable, with performance indicators.


Sam Lanfranco:

I would like to add a small contribution here, based on research a colleague and I have done on KM and e-governance in Slovenia. In brief, the data supported the idea that knowledge management (KM) and knowledge networking (KN) took place best when there was a learning organization (LO) culture within the organization or the group, and that there had to be some incentives/rewards to sustain the process. Without that collective learning organization culture valuable knowledge just piles up like driftwood on the shore of the ocean.

One of the lessons I have taken from the Honey Bee (technology transfer database) effort in India was that having the knowledge, and wanting the knowledge, remains a hit-and-miss affair that is hard to sustain unless the gathering (org, community of interest, whatever) also has a collective learning organization culture,....and some system of rewards. Knowledge may be the valuable "bricks" but a culture of learning is the glue and the lubricant that puts them to use in context.


Tarrant Jim:

Sam’s comment describes the dilemma facing so many organizations very well and one we hear over and over again – how to develop a learning organization environment? In large organizations, e.g. the U.S. military or some large multinational corporations, knowledge networking and management is mandated from above and people are organized into teams to address management or technical problems and sharing of solutions and best practices and these may also be directly linked to training.

However, for development organizations, it seems to me the challenge is much more complex. On the one hand, for organizations that rely on donors (official or private) KM/KS or KN often may be a diffuse and vague concept or one that simply ends up being reduced to archiving documents and carrying out quantitative performance monitoring, which is not a bad thing but not sufficient for a learning organization. On the other hand, for organizations that are basically services delivery perhaps - but they may not have the ability or resources to create a sustainable community of practice (here I am excepting certain religious movements like some of the south Asian Buddhist movements and no doubt others). Clearly in some countries, KM/KS has political perils. My own feeling (and it is only that) is that cultivation of a learning environment requires an international movement. KM4Dev is a really great catalyst and medium for the exchange of ideas, experiences and methodologies/technologies, which directly relate to the needs of the development community (and, I would argue, for the global community). But, networks like KM4Dev can’t become a worldwide movement to create a global learning community and that is exactly what is needed.

Whether it is through using social network sites or through a combination of networks of networks of KM/KS organizations, the ethos of learning and sharing knowledge has to be leveraged up to a higher level. This implies a dialogue with the big multinationals and state corporations that dominate our globalized economy on what constitutes a win-win learning environment. (By the way, I don’t mean to imply advocating the MNCs ripping off indigenous knowledge/technology or genetic resources; there are many other issues where knowledge transfer can really be mutually advantageous.) grassroots, KM/KS or KN are essentially often what they are all about - in addition to specific. Climate change may be one area where this dialogue and KM/KS/KN is highly relevant. Just a thought. Let’s talk.


Pryor Tony:

And let me add a comment to this very interesting post. We sometimes ignore the fact that some of the absolutely best KM examples reside within a unitary entity, be it Shell, BP, Xerox, Care, USAID or the US Army. Building in a learning culture is pretty tough if the tools of learning, and the levers of reward and disincentive are not within the same culture, and preferably the same organization with the same culture. We've for years been beating ourselves up for not being able to take ideas that frankly depend on common behaviors and then try to use them across disparate organizations. When you try to reach across organizations with disparate cultures, incentives, AND objectives the ability to glue on top a commonality of "let's all share" becomes a lot tougher than we often expect it to be.

Not that it's not possible to do so; certainly the work of the CGIAR network on agricultural research in developing learning networks is instructive, as is the work that Stacey Young has promoted within AID on micro-enterprise learning networks, but it's a lot harder. I think that's why tools/approaches such as Outcome Mapping attract me, since they target from the get-go trying to make those differences not only transparent but also variables that are in fact worthy of improvement, rather than being invisible and immutable.


Ernst Bolliger:


Hie Gwen, If you still have some capacity left for yet another contribution, I'd try to share my lessons learnt in regard to your question. First of all, I think it is helpful to acknowledge what has been done so far. Most people practiced a form of knowledge sharing for as long as they were professionals. In your case I would probably start with an appreciative inquiry about existing KM-practices. All too often we tend to assume that we have to invent a new KM project from scratch -- and your mail sounds very much that situation. Try to create a spirit of "We practice KM, and we can do it even better!"

Secondly, I would have a closer look at the purpose and the expected benefit or value added. (I just repeat the suggestion you have got already about five times):

1)What can a participant of a KM project do better after some time? What benefits does s/he expect? 2)What can a team participating in a KM project do better after some time? What is its benefit? 3)What is the expected value added for the organisation(s) and the country/ies involved? Try to be as specific as possible.

Thirdly, I would try to identify for a few hot topics ("technical program areas") people with a vivid interest and motivation in these topics. I learned that KM works best with people who are "addict" to a certain degree. And it works best with a core group of people who all are a bit addict ("having the same disease"), who all feel committed and somehow members of a secret group. This is the main driving force and motivational factor of a KM project. Committed people make a KM project successful.

Lastly: Based on what you see developing you can construct supporting features, cross-connect people and emerging networks and organise fairs for sharing. Maybe my key-lesson is: KM is action oriented and people centered. It can not be organised -- it can be facilitated.