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Knowledge Management and Global Development: Who, What, and How

This week, I attended a working group meeting at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Communication Programs that focused on knowledge management in the international development sector. We heard presentations by two KM thought leaders:

  • Jay Liebowitz, Orkand Endowed Chair in Management and Technology at the University of Maryland University College and author/editor of several books, including Making Cents Out of Knowledge Management, and
  • Stacy Young, PhD, Senior Knowledge Management Advisor for USAID's Policy, Planning, and Learning Bureau and author of a range of publications on global health and development. She is developing a knowledge management strategy for USAID.

Two common threads struck me as very interesting:

1. Innovation. We need to share knowledge, so that we can grow, improve, and even survive— whether we are a business, a program, a group, or a nation.

2. Knowledge Retention. We need to pass along our knowledge as we develop professionally, move, or transition in other ways. Jay quoted Jim Goodnight, CEO of the SAS Institute. Goodnight says that as employees leave the office every evening, 95% of his competitive edge (i.e., knowledge) walks out the door; his job is to make sure they return the next day.

Based on my review of the KM theory and scholarly literature that continues to evolve , and my on-the-ground experience developing knowledge-sharing websites, I approach knowledge management on very practical levels. To me, it is helpful to answer questions about the end users. What kinds of knowledge do they need—or have—to share? Answering such basic questions simplifies the strategy for how to make it happen and how to get knowledge into the right hands (especially to and from the field).

For example, global development programs' top level needs can be arranged by the following:

1. The Who: Who needs knowledge? Who has something to share?

  • Policy makers (both domestic and international)
  • Researchers
  • Universities
  • Strategic Partners—donors, multilaterals, foundations, etc.
  • Funding recipients, program staff
  • Local partners, and local staff on-the-ground (we need to remember that they have a lot to share)

2. The What: What do we need to share, from and to the field? 

  • Best Practices
  • Stories/lessons (good ones and mistakes)
  • Technical know-how (e.g., what is the best way to build a latrine in a tropical setting? How can I set up a local group for an advocacy campaign?)
  • Data
  • Analysis
  • Opinions
  • Connections/contacts
  • Experiential knowledge
  • Institutional memory
  • Human resources information
  • Project management tools

3. The How: Based on the above, what tools will work?

  • Libraries (physical or digital)
  • Informal online sharing- e.g., blogs, wikis
  • Email lists
  • Video libraries
  • TED for development
  • Meetings, conferences, events
  • Podcasts
  • Reports
  • CD-roms

4. The How: What processes and strategies will ensure success? 

  • Adapt the way key constituents work
  • Manage change
  • Learn from the private sector
  • Learn from peers
  • Define incentives
  • Develop a culture: A culture that values learning is a culture that sees more learning
  • Make it interesting/creative
  • Ability to adapt as we go, and still stay on track
  • Determine who owns the processes, tools, and building of community
  • Monitor, evaluate, tweak, refine, re-launch, monitor, evaluate…in a feedback loop

(Both Stacy’s and Jay’s presentations touched upon many of these process factors.)

From the definition of this set of core needs can come a robust strategy for implementation, research, advocacy, staffing, change management, funding, and all of the other necessary pieces.

Forum One has developed in-depth strategic plans for a number of organizations charged with knowledge sharing and strategic collaboration, including the Global Health Council, UNICEF’s Global WASH Cluster, and USAID-funded programs.

When implemented successfully, knowledge management enables staff to work smarter and faster, and to increase overall efficiency by building upon the successes of others. These organizations utilize best practices, templates, and strategies that have proven most successful elsewhere.