KM and Coronavirus

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Original Message

From: Chris Zielinski, posted on 2020/03/30

As readers of this list may be aware, the KM4Dev Core Group has been planning a series of online discussions on various KM topics for the last few months. We were about to start a discussion on one of the topics suggested earlier. However, with the advent of coronavirus/Covid-19, we felt it would instead be more appropriate to select a more immediately relevant first topic.

Thus, the first discussion topic is: “What is the role of KM in a time of crisis – with specific reference to the current coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic?

The discussion starts on this list today. Some introductory thoughts from the Core Group:

  1. KM outside the walls, across organizations and sectors: KM is a well-established set of procedures, tools and behaviours used within organizations to maximize their efficient operation. It is “well-established” in the sense that it rests on a sizeable body of organizational theory and experiential practice. However, KM is also used, more loosely, “outside the walls”: for example, we talk about “the knowledge economy”, “KM in the health/agriculture/etc sector” and so on. Is knowledge a private or public good? Is there a theoretical basis for KM applied “outside the walls”? How can KM be applied to a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic? Another point is that the crisis we are currently facing relates in the first instance to human health, and thus to the health sector. Of course, the immediate downstream effects are felt almost everywhere else – starting with personal freedom – and therefore social interaction. It also has striking effects on the economy, agriculture, communications, among many others. How does KM cross sectoral walls? Thinking of coronavirus, what is the best approach to interaction between KM in health and KM in other sectors? How should organizations interact with discrete sectors? What are the applications, practices etc. that make KM really meaningful in a crisis?
  2. Current applications to the Covid-19 crisis: How are you currently using KM practices or principles in response to the crisis? What do you need urgently in order to apply them? What are the implications for our own KM practice? Any practical suggestions for KM in emergencies? Any specifically for KM and Covid-19?
  3. What is the role of knowledge and KM in communicating information about the virus at the grassroots, and avoiding 'fake news'?
  4. What are the broader development implications of the virus? In many cases, those who are already struggling will bear the brunt of the pandemic

Of course, further issues can be raised in the discussion. All list members are invited to offer comments and express opinions about this topic. Comments received will be numbered and collected. Messages should be self-explanatory: there will be no message trail, so you need to quote previous comments if you are discussing them.

After two weeks of discussions (longer if there is a lot of interest), the responses will be summarized for posting on the KM4Dev Wiki and publication in the KM4Dev Journal. It has been suggested we could also issue a Policy Brief, something that can be shared with politicians, media, etc in a language that all understand… a knowledge product for people outside of KM4Dev/K4DP to better understand why KM is relevant to the world.

Please post your thoughts on this list by responding to this message - the discussion is now open. Chris Zielinski


All replies in full are available in the discussion page. Contributions received with thanks from:

Aseem Andrews
Benjamin Abugri
Bruce Boyes
Carlos Rodriguez
Charles Dhewa
Chris Zielinski
Christina Merl
Denise Senmartin
Euphresia Luseka
Federico Sancho
Francois Stepman
Helen Gillman
Jack Merklein
John Hoven
Jorge Chavez-Tafur
Kristin Strohecker
Larry Hiner
Matt Moore
Meghendra Banerjee
Michael Hill
Nancy White
Patrick Lambe
Paul Corney
Peter J. Bury
Ram Shrestha
Randhir Pushpa
Rocio Sanz
Sarah Cummings
Sebastian Hoffmann
Srividya Harish
Stephen Bounds
Sue Griffey
Suzanne Kiwanuka
Veronique Sikora
Yacine Khelladi
Yannicke Goris

Related Discussions


Between 30 March and mid-May 2020, the Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) listserv was host to an online discussion on KM & Coronavirus, moderated by Chris Zielinski. Some 30 participants submitted some 80 contributions to the discussion. A summary of the discussion is given below.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by what WHO’s Director-General has termed an “infodemic” – an over-abundance of information (some accurate and some not) – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. The focus on information and misinformation is striking, as this has always been a relatively ignored and unfunded component of the international development effort. Some of the problems in this area – notably the scarcity of indicators, the relative lack of research in methods for disseminating good information and countering bad information – are very much current concerns with COVID-19.

Clearly, the pandemic has put enormous strains on the public health systems around the world, and it has raised questions about its potential impact on food supply, food demand as well as on the global economy as a whole. The distinctively different local contexts mean that each country in the world has since been challenged to come up with both national and international responses to the knowledge management of the crisis. The cross-linking of international centres of knowledge excellence appears to be a new form of trans-sectoral knowledge management.

The knowledge landscape presented by COVID-19 includes:

  1. rapidly emerging information,
  2. distinctively different local contexts,
  3. real-time iteration between data collection, storage, distribution, action, impact, and analysis.

This could be termed Rapid Knowledge Management or New Knowledge Management. Characteristics of KM in the face of imminent disaster include:

  1. the need to take bold action;
  2. the urgency to learn, even though we are ignorant of the exact nature of the threat; and
  3. the need to act flexibly as we learn.

The rapid iteration between data collection and analysis (e.g., rapid prototyping, qualitative theory building) generates new knowledge.

KM for COVID-19 was not necessarily different from the application of KM in other fields. But it was necessary to understand how best to adapt KM concepts, methods and tools to support COVID-19 management. Do we just need to do KM better and faster, adapting to new situations what we already know how to do? Do we need to learn how to make a stronger case for KM and learning in a crisis? Do we need to demonstrate the value of KM approaches and tools in helping communities, governments and organizations to learn and adapt rapidly. Do we need to get better at coming up with solutions and acting very quickly?

The uncertainty and ambiguity caused by the new and unexpected leads to the need to consider multiple narratives, each of them potentially valid. The alternative narratives highlights the importance of "multiple knowledges and multi-stakeholder processes in the solution of “wicked” problems,"

Managing the acquisition of new knowledge may be more important in KM than codifying and storing. This crisis poses a challenge for knowledge brokers. What is important is to produce a synthesis: not just culling and selecting, but identifying trends and generating new insights in a responsive and timely manner. We need to think how to strengthen processes of collective impact, positive (centralised and decentralised) leadership, joint planning, joint capacities, networking, transparent communication, systems of incentives and mutual accountability.

For more information, read the full discussion thread.