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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Making change happen - KM in a WSH team

It is cheaper and easier to change information flows than it is to change structure.
Donella Meadows




Identifying what causes change in organizations and attempting to identify the impact of specific projects is the kind of conundrum that keeps consultants and academics in profitable and engaging work. To borrow from Outcome Mapping language, it’s a major step to be able to identify whether those people or organizations directly connected to a project, within its’ potential sphere of influence, change their behavior and work differently in ways that could at least be linked to the activities in the project.

Donella Meadows’ seminal work, “Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System”, in particular her description of the role of information and feedback loops, was one of the framing ideas for a review workshop of the KM project in the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) portfolio. Meadows’ work explores systems, their complexity, and the enormous effort and time required to achieve lasting change. Meadows’ work highlights the importance of power and paradigms, reinforcing the central importance of leadership, a point we’ve made consistently in this series of blogs.

The WSH team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation organized the two-day workshop in September 2015. Its’ purpose was to review 18 months of KM initiatives by the BDS team, as well as Foundation-wide KM experiences, and consider activities for the WSH team as a whole that would lead to stronger networks among foundation and grantees, improve availability and access to specific knowledge, and strengthen the organizational culture, improving the flow of knowledge.

The whole WSH team was involved in the workshop. The BDS KM team shared summary findings from a grantee survey, giving responses on elements of the BDS KM program they valued and whether or how it had affected their work. This graphic below illustrates the relative valued add of program activities, according to grantees.

(click on the graphic for a larger view)

And although 18 months is a short time in which to achieve the more fundamental changes in behavior that are the basis of sustainable change, there were clear indications that grantees believed the BDS KM activities were helping them integrate more effective KM into their work. For example, from the pre-program survey in 2014 we identified grantee KM priorities and in general, in the concluding survey, grantees rated the project’s impact positively. 

(click on the graphic for a larger view)

Mainstreaming KM into the Rhythm of Business

Everyone in the WSH team had ideas and experiences to share, so much so that when it came to prioritize proposals, a senior member of the team responded that he felt almost promiscuous because there was so much that turned him on. It’s hard to summarize such a free-flowing, well-informed and thoughtful conversation but the remarkable graphic facilitation of Nancy White at least conveys some of the richness.




The main theme that emerged was the necessity of integrating KM in the normal ‘Rhythm of Business’ (RoB). There was a consensus that KM has to be ‘mainstreamed’, not seen as something discrete, made up of specific periodic activities. The most fundamental recommendation was that the WSH Director would ask WSH team members to put KM activities into individual goals on basis of common team goals to be developed by management, based on a menu of Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to choose from. This would be supported by including KM in the job description for the then-about-to-be-appointed Deputy Director for Strategy, Planning and Management.

The team agreed also to determine how best to incorporate KM into the grant management cycle, and include it as a standard item on regular ‘Feedback to Action’ meetings. For example, two members of the team planned a pilot of a peer-assist format for part of an upcoming meeting, and they agreed to communicate lessons learned back at the next meeting. Finally, the team planned to institute regular meta-analysis of grant results, one or two times per year, which would feed into the planning process.

Active curation of information and widening access to resources behind paywalls was another theme. The team agreed to put resources towards a service or function that replicated the ‘Curated Updates’ experiment run throughout the BDS KM project. There was also a commitment to exploring how grantees could benefit from Foundation access to publications.

As ever, the longer-term impact of the workshop, and the KM project more generally, will probably be more influenced by the ‘normalization‘ of the concepts through the commitment of so much time to discussion, and the personal engagement of staff in the issue, very much led from the top. The WSH team have committed to reviewing their progress on improving KM, so expect some more blogs in due course.

Meanwhile, what about long-term behavior change in organizations that has demonstrably improved knowledge flows, learning and information management: do you have any examples or ideas?

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