I recently conducted a study of eleven non-profits to find out how knowledge management (KM) was being implemented in developing countries. In this article I have 1) outlined the findings from that study, and 2) developed a knowledge management strategy based on the findings.
Many of the Aid Organizations interviewed provided some form of healthcare aid (reducing mother and child mortality, AIDS/HIV) however several provided aid in a different area such as micro financing, agriculture, or environment. For convenience, in this article I will refer to the local workers who deliver the service to recipients as “care givers” regardless of the type of aid provided, and refer to those who support the care givers through training, technical assistance, coaching, and mentoring as “aid workers.”
1. Non-Profits working in Developing Countries Have Come Late to Knowledge Management
In many industry sectors knowledge management has been in place for 15 to 20 years. However, most of the non-profits interviewed are at the beginning of thinking about using knowledge management to leverage what they are learning. This is illustrated by their level of staffing, the lack of identified KM roles, and 3) the lack of a KM strategy.
One explanation for the late uptake of knowledge management is that most non-profits are science based so their members naturally hold a strong belief in the value of evidenced-based knowledge. Aid workers typically offer technical assistance to their clientele, which is largely a one-way dissemination process of evidence-based knowledge. By contrast, knowledge management places a high value on experiential knowledge, viewing it as different but of equal value to evidence-based knowledge. Experiential knowledge is that which is learned as care givers attempt to implement evidence-based knowledge in a local setting, producing “how to” knowledge. Knowledge management also maintains that the exchange of “how to” knowledge brings great value both to the giver and the receiver of the knowledge and that sharing knowledge is best accomplished in a reciprocal manner among peers. This striking contrast in what constitutes valuable knowledge is a possible explanation for why non-profits have come late to KM.
Notwithstanding the lag, non-profits working in developing countries have begun to actively seek ways to implement knowledge management. They face a number of obstacles in that implementation including, limited staffing, low band width in many developing countries as well as the absence of computers in rural areas, and perhaps most worrying, the lengthy chain of organizations through which most Aid Organizations accomplish their goals.
Even given these obstacles, non-profits working in developing countries have a positive attribute that favors successfully implementing KM. That attribute is the willingness on the part of aid workers, at all levels, to share what has been learned with anyone who asks or anyone whom they encounter in their daily work. The motivation for this openness is the primacy of the mission. A strong commitment to the mission leads to a willingness to do what ever is needed to accomplish that mission. When I asked interviewees what was preventing more sharing of knowledge, none of their responses referenced the obstacles I would typically hear in corporations. In corporations I hear that individuals tend to hoard knowledge or that employees are unwilling to share knowledge because it would reduce their own chances of promotion. None of these concerns were expressed by interviewees in the study.
I have noticed a similar willingness to share knowledge among other mission driven organizations that I have worked with, the US Army, NASA, and the World Bank. In such organizations, where the mission is clear and highly valued, knowledge management has been very effective.
Staffing KM Positions
Among the eleven organizations interviewed four had no KM staff, five had assigned KM responsibility as an additional duty to an existing role, one had a full time KM staff member, and one had eight KM staff members.
No KM Role
Four of the eleven organizations did not have anyone assigned to a KM role, although two of the four did have someone in a KM role up until the time of the economic downturn that resulted in many non-profits downsizing. In all four organizations, even in the two that had eliminated the KM role, there was one or more employees who had taken it upon themselves to help the organization share knowledge, at least in some limited way. For example,
• In one organization, when staff members return from visits to developing countries, a volunteer sets up teleconferences so that staff in other parts of the world can learn from the presentation of the returning staff member.
• In another organization the headquarters person for one of the subject matter topics, brings together the field staff working on the same topic across 12 different countries, to make a site visit to one of the countries. This allows field staff not only to learn from the site, but also from each other as they travel together during the visit. Travel also facilitates long term relationships that can be drawn upon for assistance after the site visit is over.
KM as Additional Duty
Five of the eleven organizations had assigned a staff member(s), currently functioning in a related role (e.g. evaluation, publication) to take on KM as an additional role. To deal with the time limitation of a part time role the KM staff members tended to limit the scope of their KM actions to one or two activities. They were, however, fully aware that there were many useful KM processes in addition to the few they were able to implement. Activities that various organizations chose to implement include:
• Conducting reflection meetings
• Providing the technology and basic instruction for setting up on-line forums, but without time to coach forum leaders in how to make the forums effective
• Drawing “lessons learned” from evaluations (the primary responsibility of the interviewee) the staff member was able to provide relevant lessons to colleagues when they were initiating a new project – playing a kind of broker role
• Establishing a repository for lessons learned but not being able to facilitate the capture or transfer of lessons
• Establish a joint learning network across countries that are working on the same issue. The joint learning network holds in person meetings annually and uses Facebook-type software on-line as well as monthly calls. However the interviewee noted, “Everyone in headquarters can access it but not very many people are using it.”
One Staff Member in the KM Role
One of the organizations interviewed had a full time person in a KM role. Through this staff member the non-profit was able to put into place a number of KM activities, many of which did not require the staff member’s on-going direct involvement.
• “Learning after” provides this organization a way to continually improve. The KM staff member set up a process for “learning after” meetings which were then facilitated in a number of ways; 1) the KM staff member facilitated “learning after” for strategic events, 2) there were key people who took responsibility for facilitating “learning after” sessions for some groups, and 3) some groups conducted “learning after” reflections on their own.
• Cluster groups had been established around specific topics. These groups, that were lead by subject matter experts, periodically came together for face-to-face knowledge sharing, but also sometimes use Skype, conference calls, and email groups.
• Disaster Relief – one part of this organization deals with disaster relief. When relief workers returned from assignments they were debriefed by other program staff and still other staff took it upon themselves to analyze the learning from the debriefs and use that knowledge to update the disaster relief manual. Knowledge sharing is made easier by the nature of disaster work, which is periodic. Workers have periods of “down time” to learn and share what they have learned and periods of “up time” to put that knowledge into action.
Eight Staff Members in the KM Role
This organization has a centralized group that primarily provides technology tools and trains staff to effectively use the tools. They are not responsible for content, which is generated in projects, but rather they are responsible for receiving and distributing that content through the technology tools. The technology tools include:
• Intranet - an online collection of resources for all employees that includes information about projects and programs, countries, technical expertise, employees, policies and procedures, and news. The KM staff tracks usage and coordinates with content managers.
• Newsletter - the KM staff publish a weekly electronic news update sent by email to all staff. It is designed to forward links to useful and timely information on the intranet to staff worldwide.
• Social Networks – the KM staff provides and continuously improves an online platform for staff to create their own social networks.
• Subject Matter Expert Networks – the KM staff provides technical assistance, capacity building, and assistance to the moderators of forums that are designed for subject matter experts. Forums include live virtual meetings and ongoing virtual discussions.
• The Institutional Memory database – The KM staff maintains an internal archive and document management system for project activities and technical information.
This sample of non-profits indicates that the KM staff have been most effective when they have established processes, both face-to-face and virtual, through which the organization can share knowledge, but have then left it to project personnel to facilitate the actual transfer.
There was a surprising lack of on-line Communities of Practice (CoPs) among the eleven organizations interviewed. Within most industries, communities have become the gold standard of knowledge management. It would be hard to find a Fortune 500 company that does not have effective communities to leverage the organization’s knowledge. Among the eleven organizations studied only one had a CoP where aid workers shared “how to” knowledge through Q&A. Two had tried communities of practice and finding that there was minimal activity, abandoned them. During the interviews both of these talked about the lack of computers in rural areas and as well as limited bandwidth as factors in the lack of activity. Two others had developed list serves that were largely one-way communication vehicles for headquarters to communicate with the field. However, both held periodic forums that lasted from 3 days to a week. Each forum was focused on a specific topic and was typically led by an expert. Participants would send in questions sometimes directed to the expert and sometimes to each other. In addition, to answering questions, the expert would ask stimulating questions of the participants to encourage conversation. A daily summary was produced and sent out to those who participated
Most of the organizations in the study had a presence on Facebook as well as an external website, both primarily used for public awareness and fund raising.
One organization had been very effective in producing toolkits, which are constructed as an electronic library on a topic. The organization formed working groups of subject matter experts to bring together evidence based practices and protocols on the topic. The experts met to review what others had developed so they were able to say, “Of the 100 research articles related to family planning, here are the 10 you want to read”. This organization now has 50 toolkits. The toolkits bypass the bandwidth problem since they can be sent as CDs.
With the exception of the one organization having 8 staff members, the use of technology appeared to be limited both by the lack of technology expertise at headquarters and by the lack of computers and bandwidth in the field. The bandwidth issue is gradually improving in many developing countries, which holds promise for developing effective communities of practice over the next few years.
The Lengthy Sequence of Organizations Through Which Aid Work is Accomplished
Non-profits working in developing countries are tasked with giving aid to hundreds or even thousands of people, often across several countries. Their aid work takes place through a chain of sub-organizations. A typical aid chain is described below although there are variations, some having more and some with fewer sub organizations involved.
1. An Aid Organization in a developed country, for example, the United States, Great Britain, or the Netherlands, receives funding from their government or other funding source to provide a specific type of aid (e.g. reducing mother mortality, teaching farming techniques) in specified countries
2. To accomplish this the Aid Organization makes an agreement with one or more local non government agencies (NGOs) that regularly work in the specified countries. Any one NGO may have contracts with several Aid Organizations
3. The Aid Organization employs a headquarters staff as well as staff in the field whose job it is to oversee the work of the NGOs
4. The NGOs accomplish the work by interacting with local government agencies, for example, the Ministry of Health, or Ministry of Education, with whom they have established long terms relationships. The NGOs provide training and technical assistance for the specific aid process to the local agencies
5. The local agency workers, in turn, provide training and technical assistance to care givers in the local setting, for example a clinic, or a school.
6. The care givers then provide aid to the recipients (patients, students, small business owners) using the processes designed by the originating Aid group.
7. To complicate matters still further, many different Aid Organizations may be working on the same issues within a country.
Typically, it is the Aid Organization headquarters that puts KM into place; however the lengthy chain of sub-organizations makes it difficult for Aid Organizations to implement knowledge management.
“We don’t have a mechanism for getting information about what is working well in the field to headquarters. The extent of the KM practice is a report-out from headquarters personnel who have been in the field.”
“We still have to learn how to share across countries, we don’t do that well now.”
“It is difficult to get learning going South to South.”
Each of the sub organizations receive money and must make reports to the organization providing their funding. It is in the interest of each organization writing reports to assure their funder that their money is being well spent so the reports are primarily activity reports (number of people trained, number of ARV drugs distributed to HIV patients). Each organization along the chain specifies its own report requirements for the subsequent organization it supports, and then in turn writes its report to the organization supporting it, often based on a different set of requirements. Reports from farther down the chain may not be made available to the originating Aid Organization. The originating Aid Organization, which is promoting knowledge management, is several organizational steps away from the care givers that are learning from their experience, leaving the care givers with little or no relationship with or felt responsibility to the originating Aid Organization.
The objectives Aid Organizations would like to achieve through implementing knowledge management include the following:
1. More effectively transfer knowledge from the field to headquarters including:
• Results for Recipients – accurate outcomes that have occurred for recipients as a result of the practice (e.g. TB patients screened and receiving medication, increase in bushels of produce per acre)
• Effectiveness of Dissemination - effectiveness of the teaching, communicating, and/or motivation provided to care givers by the NGOs and local agencies (e.g. number of care givers that have been trained; the number that are using the practice; how correctly the practice is being implemented)
• Implementation Lessons - what care givers are learning about how to implement practices in their local setting (e.g. put up reminder signs about hand washing to prevent MRSA, provide a private space to obtain sputum from TB patients)
2. More effectively transfer knowledge from headquarters to the field including:
• Evidence Based Practices - transferring practices that have proven to be effective (e.g. providing bottled milk for new born babies whose mothers who have HIV, so the mother will not transmit the disease through breast milk) to local care givers
• Synthesized Guidance - guidance about how to implement the practices in the local setting gleaned from the reports and stories from multiple care givers
3. More effectively transfer knowledge within and between countries including
• Effective Knowledge Sharing Processes - knowledge sharing activities that successfully transfer knowledge between care givers within and across countries about how to implement evidence based practices more effectively
Primacy of Mission
Writing and Learning from Written Lessons Learned
As discussed earlier, aid workers and care givers are willing to share what has being learned because they see the mission as primary. But the primacy of mission also tends to make aid workers reluctant to take the time to write up what they are learning for others. Interviewees explain that they are unclear who or how their knowledge would be made use of if they did take the time to write lessons up.
This concern reflects their own experience in being unsuccessful when they search for knowledge from repositories.
“Many lessons describe what someone did, but it doesn’t tell you enough to be able to do it yourself.” (from a potential user of lessons learned)
“We produced a format for submitting lessons learned from field staff but it has been difficult to obtain documentation from the field.” (from an Aid Organization)
“There is a visit report that is on the Sharedrive so it is available to everyone to access. The difficulty is getting people to use it or even to know where it is.” (from a sub organization)
Holding Reflection Meetings
Rather than asking care givers or aid workers to write up what they are learning, the Aid Organizations studied have been much more successful in transferring knowledge when they have brought people together to exchange their knowledge. For example, one of the organizations in the study holds quarterly learning sessions where care givers from facilities across a large region are convened. The meetings are an opportunity for local facilities to share their best practice with each other and to get help from peers as well. Unlike writing reports, such meetings are highly valued by care givers. Participants acknowledge that they learn a great deal from the exchange with others and look forward to attending. The difference between writing up lessons for others and face-to-face learning sessions is the essential element of reciprocity. Setting in an office writing up a lesson feels one way - just giving – whereas regional meetings are both give and take. Moreover when a care giver offers an idea to others in a small group, he/she can see the appreciation in the eyes of those who are listening and believes they will make use of what is offered. When Aid Organizations are able to bring care givers together to learn from each other, knowledge flows and relationships that can facilitate continuing exchange are built.
However, when a team is asked to reflect for the purpose of providing lessons learned for others, reflection meetings are considered a poor use of care givers time. This concern reflects the past experience of aid workers and care givers that have taken the time to participate in team or project reflection meetings but then had no way of knowing whether what they provided was of use to those others. Given this experience aid workers and care givers are unlikely to put the needs of anonymous others over the needs of clients who are in plain sight and who need their help.
Much valuable knowledge remains in the heads of workers and is available only to those who are in the same location. Many interviewees acknowledged, “A lot is trapped in people’s minds.”
Based on the study I have proposed a design for implementing knowledge management in developing countries. I base the design both on the findings from the study and on the US Army’s implementation of knowledge management with deployed troops. Many of the issues Aid Organizations face in developing countries are similar to those faced by the US Army, which is also a mission driven organization.
• Soldiers need to quickly find out what other units have learned - what they can borrow without having to discover everything for themselves
• Soldiers do not have time to write up lessons learned or to search for them in a database.
• Soldiers meet together to reflect on actions they just took in order to improve their own actions for the next time.
• In battlefield situations, soldiers often do not have access to computers or the bandwidth to reach headquarters
The Army has addressed the flow of knowledge from and between deployed units by developing a brokering system called the Lessons Learned Integrators (L2i) network. The L2i network members are analysts; each based in a deployed unit and also stationed in the Army’s schoolhouses, training centers, and doctrine centers. With this distribution, what is learned in the field can be quickly transferred to what is being taught to soldiers in the schoolhouses and updated in manuals (guidance documents). To accomplish this exchange the group of 29 lessons learned integrators:
o hold a teleconference weekly where lessons that have been learned in one unit are shared with other units
o participate continuously in an on-line discussion forum where they ask each other questions on behalf of their unit and receive immediate replies, not from one person, but from many other LL integrators
o meet face-to-face three times a year, to strengthen their relationships within the network so that knowledge continues to flow among them.
To gather and distribute what they learn in these network interactions, the L2i network members interact with soldiers in their unit while in the mess hall, sit in on reflection meetings (AARs) and participate in the unit’s high-level meetings. Through these means they know the problems the soldiers in their unit are facing which helps them know what to ask other L2i’s about on the weekly calls, for example, “Has anybody found a solution to X?” Lessons learned integrators are brokers of knowledge in both directions - they bring the lessons that were learned elsewhere to their unit, and they share the lessons their unit has learned with other units. It is a reciprocal system.
There are differences as well as similarities between KM in developing countries and in the US Army. But in both situations the following KM principles apply:
• Processes for sharing knowledge should to be established. Although it is often and accurately said, “knowledge sharing is everyone’s job,” the reality is that it is necessary to put practices into place through which “everyone” can share their knowledge.
• To be useful lessons from the field need to be synthesized into guidance documents rather than remain as a collection of individual lessons.
• When the intended recipients of the knowledge lack access to computers and/or bandwidth, brokers are needed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge.
• Those who are learning lessons in the field are more willing to share what has been learned if they receive feedback that what they gave was received and used.
• It greatly assists a team or project to learn from its own experience, to periodically meet together to reflect on their actions and outcomes.
• The receivers and givers of lessons across a region gain the most when they are in face-to-face conversation with each other where they can ask the questions that allow them to modify each other’s lessons to fit their own context.
• To be sustained, knowledge exchanges need to be reciprocal. Over a period of time, people are uncomfortable if they always give without ever receiving, nor do people want to be on the receiving end without also being able to help others. Reciprocity needs to be designed into any knowledge sharing meeting or practice.
Suggested KM Processes and Roles for Non-profits Working in Developing Countries
Knowledge Manager Role
For each project topic, (e.g. infant mortality) that is established in each country or region the Project Manager appoints an in-country Knowledge Manager (a broker role) who the Project Manager holds accountable for seven knowledge management tasks. The Knowledge Manager role can be full or part time, depending on the size of the project. In either case these seven tasks should be included in the individual’s performance objectives. The Project Manager insures that the Knowledge Manager receives training to carry out the assigned tasks.
The practices and the Knowledge Manager’s role in establishing the practices are listed here:
1. Develop a Knowledge Plan - Meet with the project team (NGO level) at the beginning of a project to develop a knowledge plan for the project. Monitor the knowledge plan over the life of the project to update it and assure its completion. The knowledge plan is developed at the same time the project planning meeting is held. The knowledge plan includes:
a. The identification of 1) what knowledge the team needs to gain in order to do their work more effectively, 2) which team members will be responsible for seeking out each specific knowledge needed from other projects or experts, and 3) by when the knowledge will be obtained. The Knowledge Manager assists with the plan by identifying where needed knowledge might be located through his/her contacts in the Knowledge Managers’ forum (see below)
b. What knowledge the team is uniquely positioned to learn that will add to the knowledge base about how to do this work. What activities the team will engage in to make that learning a reality and by when.
2. Conduct Reflection Meetings
Meet with project team members as a group, according to the schedule identified in the knowledge plan, to facilitate reflection meetings about what the team is learning that could improve their own performance. Make audio and video clips of useful stories told in these meetings. Note any lessons that would be useful to others.
3. Conduct a Retrospect
Meet with the project team members as a group, according to the schedule identified in the knowledge plan, to assess what has been learned that would be of value to projects in other regions or countries. Make audio and video clips of useful stories told in these meetings
4. Participate in a Knowledge Managers Community Forum
Continuously engage with Knowledge Managers in other regions or countries through an on-line community forum and through monthly teleconferences
5. Provide New Knowledge to the Project team
Bring ideas gained in the Knowledge Manger community teleconference and forum to the Project Manager for possible implementation.
6. Facilitate Care Givers Knowledge Exchanges
Facilitate in-country/region knowledge exchanges among care givers to share what has been learned with each other. Make audio and video clips of useful stories told in these meetings
7. Provide Lessons to Subject Matter Owners
Provide the Subject Matter Owners (see below) detailed knowledge about practices when asked, including audio and video clips
Initially the Knowledge Manager will need to facilitate the team reflection meetings. However, once established the project team members can implement the reflection activity on their own.
Subject Matter Owner Role
The Aid Organization appoints a Subject Matter Owner for each improvement topic (infant mortality, crop yield). This position is part time and is held by someone with expertise in the subject area, typically stationed at headquarters. The Aid Organization holds Subject Matter Owners accountable for the following four responsibilities:
1. Facilitate the monthly Knowledge Managers teleconferences for their topic area and participate in the on-line discussion forum
2. Interact with individual Knowledge Managers to gather more detailed understanding of knowledge that has been gained through the monthly Knowledge Managers teleconferences and on-line discussion forum
3. Develop on-line, synthesized guidance for the topic based on what is learned across projects. Incorporate audio and video clips in this guidance document.
4. Keep the guidance document up to date on-line.
Synthesized guidance is written, not from the perspective of what a team has learned, but from the perspective of what a “user” would need to know. The synthesis is the summary, collation and integration of multiple sources of written knowledge into a single set of guidance documents (rather than multiple files of individual lessons). The guidance document is often enlivened by stories from experience, linked to people and documents for further detail, and structured in such a way as to be of maximum use to the reader. The synthesis of lessons into guidance documents serves several purposes:
1. to keep headquarters aware of what is being learned in the field
2. to on-board new employees,
3. to provide a source of up dated and accurate implementation knowledge to the field
o Provide suitable technology to make on-line guidance documents easily available
o Provide suitable technology to make on-line teleconferences (webinars, go to meeting) effective
o Provide suitable technology for Knowledge Managers to meet in an on-line community forum
o Provide training for Knowledge Managers
o Provide training for Subject Matter Owners
o Hold a yearly in-person meeting of Knowledge Managers that provides time for them to learn from each other and to build relationships that will facilitate their on-going learning during the year
o Hold a yearly in-person meeting of Subject Matter Owners that provides time for them to learn from each other and to build relationships that will facilitate their on-going learning during the year (The meetings of Knowledge Managers and Subject Matter Owners can be combined depending upon the number in each category)
It is essential that non-profit organizations working in developing countries have a viable strategy to manage their knowledge. Without such a strategy 1) much knowledge must be re-learned in each region or country, wasting costly time and resources, and 2) Aid Organizations do not learn what is working and what needs to be changed in order to make their aid efforts more effective. This model proposes a strategy with roles and processes that make knowledge management possible for non-profits working in developing countries.