Knowledge Management… the fountain of resilience, adaptation, innovation and sustainability (and buzzwords!)

It goes back a long while that I’ve been asking myself what KM is and why it matters. This morning, while running, it struck me: it is just what makes us more resilient, adaptive and innovative, beyond the immediate challenge we are facing. Incidentally, KM is also dangerous with that ability to catch all buzzwords in its trail (resilient is the new adaptive, and innovation is the talk of E-town)…

Miracles of Evolution - Africa - Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

Miracles of Evolution – Africa – Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

What is KM trying to do? 

Of course KM supposedly helps organisations achieve their mission, be more effective in that endeavour, but KM focuses a lot (my expectation) on ever-learning, looking back to look forward, keeping track and avoiding to reinvent the wheel (though it’s sometimes ok), institutional memory curation, lessons learned, picking peoples’ brains and co-creating… so really KM is about developing a collective intelligence and finding ways to anticipate and prepare for what comes next, away from silver bullets, in the itchy corner of our brain where the next solution (trial) lies.

That is at the heart of being resilient, of adaptive thinking and working, of innovation.

Hmmm. Only given that some key things are in place. I am thinking about all these things right now when thinking about our local KM4Dev Addis Ababa/Ethiopia network, so I can progressively disengage myself from the coordination side to ensure that this network can continue on its own (without a non-Ethiopian to coordinate it). So what helps in strengthening resilience, adaptiveness etc.?

  • Thinking from the start about an exit strategy (and a good induction program) or some strategy to ensure that the initiative is embedded and owned by whoever is directly concerned, independently from the individuals involved in that initiative;
  • Developing capacity consciously, from the start and throughout, by questioning beyond the WHAT? and focusing on the knowledge, attitude and skills required to make the initiative successful;
  • Documenting the process throughout, so that all the generic context (simple or complicated, not complex) of an initiative, can be partly passed on to anyone else;
  • Making sure that there isn’t a single point of failure, that responsibilities are shared over teams so the success and transferability of good work does not depend on one person only (even though individuals matter a lot);
  • Mapping relations and expertise so anyone can find out where to go to find answers to their questions…
  • Organising conversations around these issues of resilience, adaptiveness, sustainability, long-term, roles and responsibilities, risks and how to mitigate them…
Diversity... also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Diversity… also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Now, away from that KM4Dev network and back into the reality of organisations…

The issue – and the problem of a lot of KM initiatives – is that the transition from ‘the team here and now’ to ‘the others out there, now and for the eternity’ often proves a real chasm and gets in the way of making use of all the good work by that team.

Scaling up, out, in space and time, that is the real challenge of resilient, adaptive KM.

And yet organisations are much better placed than individuals (and perhaps even networks) to make that leap. Because organisations (supposedly) have a coherent narrative to them, that all their employees can relate to, whether they like it or not. And crucially an organisation has some control over its employees. So it can probably enforce the transfer of skills, the curation of information and the sharing of knowledge to other teams and future employees (the latter is notoriously difficult still)…

Is it actually desirable to seen an organisation enforce this? And does it really happen? There are quite a few other questions to sharpen our critical thinking about the promised lands of resilience, innovation and sustainability (and yes indeed Nancy, critical thinking is subtle):

  • Is it better to go for KM below the radar (stealth mode) as I usually advocate, or to go for a slightly more ‘out in the open’ approach that perhaps has better chances of achieving that resilience and innovation at (a larger) scale?
  • Is there actually a point at encouraging organisations to be resilient, adaptive, innovative, if their finality is perhaps to disappear (I’m thinking about international, Northern hemisphere-based organisations working on global development). Isn’t there a risk of perpetuating structures when they may not be needed, or even helpful?
  • Related to the previous point: is it possible, over the long haul, to combine resilience/adaptiveness with sustainability? Isn’t that a contradiction in the terms?
  • Where does KM set the boundary in focusing on the organisation’s mandate or rather on the wider agenda that consider tradeoffs or compromises in space or time (more on that in another post)…, with the risk of going against the organisation?
  • What are the political options of KM to counter with the self-sustaining drivers of organisations (how can KM continue to promote the right ideas despite the organisation’s [hidden?] agenda to invest in its survival cost what cost)?

Perhaps these questions are some of the reasons why scaling up good KM (in space or time) does not easily take place… and why KM keeps focusing on the next buzzword to find another way to get at the same objective?

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Of partnerships, DEEP and wide

Partnership, an anchor and harpoon forged over time (Credits - Rob Young)

Partnership, an anchor and harpoon forged over time (Credits – Rob Young)


The holy grail of development!

Well, when you bother about collaborative approach that is. And some prefer to use partners for results rather than relationships. But for any development organisation with the right frame of mind, partnerships are central. Only it tends to be a lot of discourse and perhaps not enough action.

Let me offer, in this shoot post, a few ideas to work practically with partners:

  • Partners are not a category of actors. They’re not NGOs, they’re not governmental agencies, they’re not donors. They can be all of them. Partners are all the actors we care enough to listen to, to work with, to deliver together with, to enrich mutually, to develop each other’s capacities… They go way beyond the vague and slightly demeaning term of ‘stakeholders’. As was said in this week’s annual programme meeting of my employer:

Let’s turn ‘stakeholders’ into partners



  • Partners are not just for our own benefit, they should be mutually enriching. Otherwise we’re not talking about partners but about parties that we benefit from, like  fat sheep that we prey on. Is it the vision of development you wish to spread around? It most certainly isn’t mine.
  • Partners are not obscure organisations hidden behind generic terms of reference. They are groups of people that we know and that rely on individual relationships, hopefully formally or informally institutionalised enough that they don’t depend on just one person. But let’s not underestimate the deeply human nature of any meaningful (even institutional) ‘partnership’.
  • Building partnerships is hard work. It takes time to find the people that coalesce around some ideas; it takes patience to understand each other’s language, to accept each other’s vision and agenda, to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses frankly; it takes courage to want to bridge the gap, to invest in the partnership beyond the inevitable bust-ups and possible breaches of confidence; it takes resources to bring our organisational apparatus behind those partnerships. It takes years to achieve meaningful partnerships.
  • Maintaining partnerships is also hard work. It implies having genuine discussions about the end of funding for a given initiative, exploring other options together, but also keeping regular visits and holding ongoing conversations – even chit chat – throughout, as two old friends do, without always having an interest in mind.
  • Investing in partnerships is not about multiplying the amount of organisations that are mentioned in our initiatives and projects, it’s about deepening the relationships we have with them, the only way to build the trust out of which authentically well grounded, relevant, jointly owned, sustainable work can emerge. In this sense…

Partnerships are not necessarily about ‘widening’ the list of our institutional friends, they’re about ‘deepening‘ the relationship we have with them, increasingly bringing to the light the difficult questions that one day might threaten those very partnerships and finding ways to address them, together, with maturity.

  • Finally, for genuinely helpful partnerships to emerge, mutual capacity development and a collective eye for critical thinking and adaptive management are key. That is what helps partners understand how the situation evolves and take decisions in a better informed way.

Some of these messages are strongly echoed in the synthesis reflections about the ILRI annual programme meeting:

Partnerships are perhaps key, but they’re not a word to throw around so as to tick boxes, they’re a long term investment, philosophy and care for people of blood and flesh, of ideas and ideals, for development that makes sense and makes us more empowered, honourable and human every day.

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Global information systems, between the info monster ‘Charybdis’ and ghost town ‘Scylla’

I promised I would write this post quite quickly to a KM4Dev Ethiopia mate who is (perhaps unfortunately) seeing to the establishment of a global-local information system for a large organisation. The focus of that information system and the client organisation matter little really, as I’m here interested in the generic case – and you will undoubtedly have come across various examples of such information systems yourselves:

An information system that is global in its nature, draws upon the latest available expertise but also taps into indigenous knowledge (tick the box ;)), is magically updated all the time and works for pretty much everyone. Ha! and it is, will be or certainly should be sustainable. But right now the organisation that will be in charge of that system has asked a consultant (my mate in this case) to develop it for them. Eventually they should be in charge again. You know what I mean?

How to avoid the creation of yet another information monster?

How to avoid the creation of yet another information monster?

I told my mate: I don’t think these ‘catch-all portal / one-stop-shop / jack-of-all-trade’ systems are of any use and are in for any success… If anything, this mad idea is likely to end up as an unmanageable ‘Charybdis and Scylla‘ scenario: your information system could become an information monster or a ghost town. In the worst possible case it could even be a combination of the two.

But then with mad ideas we shake the world so why not give him the benefit of the doubt and focus on some safeguarding considerations instead…

Where would I start if I wanted to make such an information system sustainable? Here are some pointers…

  1. Look around, check what’s in place and carefully assess your value proposition
  2. Involve the people that should inherit the management of that system
  3. Play with the knowledge system in place
  4. Think about the capacity of the people in charge
  5. Focus on your content strategy
  6. Make your system conversant with other initiatives
  7. Develop your glocal network and alliances

In a bit more detail…

1. Look around, check what’s in place and carefully assess your value proposition

There are many other (delusional?) initiatives trying to offer the ultimate information system to all on a given topic. Some are totally global, some are totally local, some are (positively delusional) totally on both fronts. Some do that and are just brilliant (Wikipedia) but came up from long term investments efforts.

What matters is that you look at what’s out there, what has been done in similar fields and how this new initiative you promote offers something new and unique. Perhaps it has a better interface, perhaps it much more focused on local information, perhaps it has access to an unprecedented pool of expertise. If you can’t determine what that ‘unique selling point’ (USP) is then your system seems pretty flawed from the start.

So: do your literature and practice check and scratch your head to find your USP – in fact, better ask the people that you’re doing this for what they need to work more effectively, what their current needs and questions are.

2. Involve the people that should inherit the management of that system

If you’re building that system for third parties and plan to hand it over to them, involve them as early as possible, not only the management of that third party organisation (to think about the purpose and aforementioned USP) but also the people that will be in charge of the information system, both technically, in terms of communication and promotion. They need to be part of the project or the post-consultancy graft will be doomed at handover phase… and then you end up again in ghost town (they really don’t bother), or with an information monster (they’re not managing this well and the system quickly gets messed up…).

3. Play with the knowledge system in place

Building a cadillac of a system in a Trabant garage is not going to work out. Adapt to the local environment. All the bells and whistles will not be of any help if the people that run the system later cannot easily embed that system in their routine work. Look at existing information and knowledge management & sharing practices, protocols, responsibilities, capacities and tweak your system to adapt it to this environment. Otherwise you end up in infomonsterland – at least that’s what it might feel for the organisation that will be in charge of that monstrosity of a system later.

4. Think about the capacity of the people in charge

Which derives from the previous two points… Make sure that the people in charge are properly trained and coached in using the system and running it both technically, in terms of communication and promotion. Prepare good tutorials, good communication materials, a good coaching process to ensure a smoother handover, ideally spanning a few months so that the coaching centres around effective practice. Perhaps they need specific training on other types of skills (language, typing, database management, social media) which would help them perform their function better. Perhaps the people that are supposed to use the system also need some kind of information and skill training in order for the information system to work?

5. Focus on your content strategy

Think carefully about your content strategy (Credits - Raphaelle Ridarch / FlickR)

Think carefully about your content strategy – it’s not just about social media, it’s about getting great content quality and process (Credits – Raphaelle Ridarch / FlickR)

A lot of information systems and ‘databases’ (the magical word that means nothing but means everything to its proponents, hoping that it contains all their hopes and semi-conscious aspirations in one big can of wonderful data) are developed with the idea that once they are set up, the job is done. Yet it’s precisely when they are set up that the real job starts: keeping the system updated, relevant and interactive.

This is where you need to focus on who’s going to provide information, via which protocol or process, in what format, at what frequency, on what basis (remunerated or not – and if not why would they bother). What template (if any) will you provide for third parties to submit information, who will be quality checking it, who will be entering it and double-checking that it’s not duplicated etc.? And finally, who will be dealing with interactive content e.g. comments, questions, interactions etc.? If you build a system to be interactive and by chance there are interactions around that system, you need to be out there attending to them. Who will take care of it, on what basis, at what frequency etc.? It’s that kind of strategy that is likely to prevent your system from being another sad ghost town…

6. Make your system conversant with other initiatives

As part of your content strategy over the long run, using open data standards would be a useful decision to let others (re-)use your information, both when the system is up (to connect with other relevant information systems) and if/when it’s down for ever, i.e. closed, for others to use the legacy of your information system.

And while at that, you might want to document the process of using that system, to help others make use of your information and processes as best possible. So keep working out loud and get your system to work in a net rather than in a silo that will quickly sink to the bottom of our consciousness’s ocean…

7. Develop your glocal network and alliances

Finally, your system is part of an environment and the people in charge of it too. Make sure they weave links with relevant global and local organisations, networks and people, that the word gets out and that you test (and fail) that system at soonest and repeatedly, to find out how it is received by others and what needs to be tweaked – assuming that the system itself is of any use to someone.

As content or community managers, the people in charge will have to build alliances to extend the potential reach of the system, both to be used and to be fed/fuelled with regular information flows. And this once again takes a lot of time and effort, usually not planned and paid well – but this is the best way to keep your info town lively and the monster at bay…

And perhaps with all of this your system might reveal some usefulness, robustness, perhaps even some signs of sustainability?

Final considerations…

A final idea I gave my mate was to submit his work to a ‘peer assist‘ in our upcoming KM4Dev Ethiopia get-together so that he could pick our collective brains to go ahead with more informed ideas.

I’m still not convinced that such broad information systems should really come up in the first place (unless spearheaded by massive coalitions of respectable organisations that have decided to gang up – unfortunately that’s rare), though the question is not really about those information systems but rather about systemic expectation management… in itself that’s perhaps well worth a post in its own right. You reckon?

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