Thursday, April 14, 2016

Knowledge Management in a portfolio of WSH projects

Learning never exhausts the mind1

Learning is something we all do personally, more or less effectively. It’s when we work in groups, in organisations, in programmes and projects that we fail at learning and sharing what we know more often than we succeed. And it’s a problem that has been written about for as long as you care to look back, in Business, in Government, in International Development.

Learning comes home to Seattle

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WSH)  team recently met to review the progress and outcomes of an 18-month long project that explored how to improve Knowledge Management within the Building Demand for Sanitation portfolio of grants. At the end of a two day process the team committed themselves to a series of actions aimed at improving the way that they do their work of listening, discussing, reflecting on and sharing what they and their grantees are learning from the large and strategic investments made by the Foundation.

This is the first in a series of blogs describing the process leading to that meeting in Seattle. In the final blog we’ll share some of the outcomes of the Seattle WSH team meeting in September 2015. But it’s important to understand first the context, the goals set for the KM project, the activities and outputs and, importantly, what grantees said about the process. In this blog we introduce the BDS portfolio, the conception of KM that underpinned the work, the process by which the KM project was designed and the different work streams. What we did in those workstreams, what happened and what people said about the activities and their impact will be described in later blogs

Building Demand for Sanitation 

The Gates Foundation is committed to helping establish sanitation services that work for everyone, especially the poorest. The Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) portfolio was one of five distinct initiatives within the WSH program. It focused on stimulating demand for improved sanitation in Africa and Asia, where the vast majority of those who lack toilets are living2. The core BDS approach includes stimulating demand for sanitation within communities, as well as working to improve the evidence base on effective practices to better influence the policy and regulatory environment, and to help improve the effectiveness of local governments and implementing organizations. The initiative works with a range of partners, including government and private providers, focusing on evidence-based programming, community-level demand creation, development of appropriate technology and service options, etc. The goal is to scale up implementation of effective rural sanitation approaches in order to end open defecation, as well as to help ensure sanitation facilities are safe, hygienic, and used by all – especially the poorest

KM is….?

The term Knowledge Management has always been contested: “you can't manage knowledge — nobody can. What you can do is to manage the environment in which knowledge can be created, discovered, captured, shared, distilled, validated, transferred, adopted, adapted and applied”3.  This quote from the venerable Chris Collinson gives a sense of the range of activities that need to be considered in thinking about KM. (Note: Collinson is now working with DfID on improving its KM, following the Amber/Red 2014 assessment of it’s organisational learning by the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) in 2014. DfID is not alone: interest in and a determination to improve Knowledge Management is sadly something that ebbs and flows in a regular cycle in most large organisations).

For the BDS KM work we focused on four activities that would included in most definitions of KM:

  • Information management: the collection and management of material from one or more sources and making that material accessible to and usable by one or more audiences;
  • Knowledge sharing: a set of practices that enables people to share what they know with others in the application of their work;
  • Learning processes: both individual and collective or social, focusing less on the “sending” and more on the “receiving”, particularly the processes of sense making, understanding, and being able to act upon the information available.
  • Communication: in the sense of a meaningful exchange, as a foundational competence for the interactions that are at the center of learning, sharing and managing knowledge

Context is all - participative design

Rather than take a pre-formed template or follow one of the countless KM models we set up a process to engage grantees in a collective project design process. A preparatory survey confirmed that reliable, affordable Internet access remains a problem outside larger, well-resourced organisations for many people across the globe.

We queried grantees’ information and communication seeking and sharing habits. The responses confirmed that the explosion in social and other digital media has had little impact on development actors’ behaviour:

  • To gather information, grantees asked a colleague first (50%); then either research online or ask other WASH colleagues (outside BDS programme), then contact other Gates grantees, then go to specialist online communities
  • Grantee preference for sharing ideas, in order:
    • email individuals they know working in the same area
    • share ideas face to face
    • contribute at technical workshops/conferences
    • phone individuals they know to talk through the idea
    • publish an article in a specialist magazine or paper in a journal
    • send an email into a specialist online community or discussion group
During the 2014 BDS annual convening we ran three sessions exploring in more detail the kind of activities that grantees thought would be useful in their contexts. Two primary themes emerged

Connections not collections:

Ask for a definition of KM and sadly often people will fall back on describing the process of recording and documenting ‘knowledge’, storing these ‘content objects’ in databases and disseminating documents and other products. If anyone had any doubts as to the limitations of this definition they’ve only to look at the results of the World Bank’s study of how many of it’s fabulously rich databases of policy document are downloaded. And almost none of the BDS grantees prioritised databases or content repositories in their recommendations. Rather they confirmed the importance of strengthening ties and connecting with each other. From a standard list of KM activities and functions grantees prioritised:

Increasing the signal to noise ratio:

Once upon a time the introduction of email and other Internet services to Development organisations was seen as a wonderful advance. Today people battle, complaining loudly, with unmanageable inboxes. Meanwhile, the range of information sources continues to multiply exponentially. So grantees were keen that the project explore ways to address the problem.

Knowledge Flows in the Gates Foundation

Having synthesised the inception workshop output we discussed the ideas and recommendations with the WSH team in Seattle, seeking also to learn about integrate the project with related Foundation initiatives. The Knowledge Flow initiative was a set of activities investigating and aiming to improve the flow of knowledge within the Gates Foundation. Their simple and elegant conceptualisation of the work provided a framework that mapped onto our emerging proposals (illustrated below) and, we hoped, would enable us to develop our work in alignment with thinking in the Gates Foundation.

In the following blogs we will discuss the main activity streams in turn, turning next to a discussion about KM leadership.

1 Leonardo Da Vinci
2 The BDS portfolio has now merged with another to make up the Measurement, Evaluation and Dissemination, for Scale (MEDS) initiative, whose first annual convening takes place this September
3 Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell, Learning to Fly - Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations (2005), Chapter 2, pages 24-25