Making Sense Of Knowledge Management To People Who Matter In The Development Sector


A key function of Knowledge Management (KM) is to make sense of information available in organizations. But the key challenge of many Knowledge Managers is to make sense of KM itself, especially to those in the senior management who created the KM unit, hoping that this newly created unit would do some magic to unleash the power of knowledge to multiply the impact of their programs, to energize all stakeholders including staff and donors and finally to make their organizations as leaders of development sector. All these are definitely possibilities in the long run, but expecting all these to happen by employing a KM specialist with a theoretical strategic plan, often developed by some international consultant who never implemented any knowledge management programs is ridiculous. Unfortunately KM impact happens through gradual changes in the culture, values, and interaction patterns in organizations.

Knowledge mangers are very convinced about the usefulness of KM techniques and processes in their sense making function. But the key stakeholders, namely the staff of development organizations are often not very convinced about the meaning, role, usefulness, impact and processes of Knowledge Management. There are widespread apprehensions and misunderstandings about the KM processes and possibilities in the development sector. Part of it is due to misplaced over expectations about the return on investment, replicability (without any adaptations) of corporate sector KM techniques in the development projects, and not being able to realistically appreciate potentials of KM as a change management technique.

It is true that more and more development sector NGOs – small and big are now aspiring to venture into the domain of KM. Many of them are doing this with a key purpose, namely, KM should help them in better realizing their organizational/program objectives. Most of these development organizations have set up KM units with varied understanding on the scope, methods and processes involved in KM, though they all were clear on the expected outcomes. This varied understanding on processes and inputs along with multiple players with divergent interests in KM domain have resulted in confusion regarding the application of KM processes and tools, especially in the development sector context. My objective of writing this essay is to demystify KM as practiced in development organizations today and to highlight some of the realistic possibilities for organizations or programs which are located in or working in developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Multiple Senses of KM
The term knowledge management has acquired multiple meanings, and the lack of a commonly accepted definition has been widely discussed in the academic literature. Strictly speaking, knowledge cannot be managed by anyone or anything; it is generated through a personal association built through many social interactions. Consequently, we can only manage the practices around these associations and interactions and the protocols we use to frame these practices, including construction, identifying, acquiring, sharing, applying, and evaluating knowledge for development. The multiple meanings of KM make it necessary to create a common understanding of it before engaging in activities within the organization or in multi-stakeholder environments in developing countries. These multiple meanings are around following aspects:

• Setting up and coordinating processes for developing and sharing knowledge
• Conscious and unconscious elements of everyone’s daily work which may be an educational strategy, pursuing a change process, or providing advice consistent with managing social change
• open critical inquiry

Just like there are multiple meanings of KM, there are multiple perspectives on KM too. For an individual, ‘learning’ serves the objective of KM whereas for organizations, the operational advantages justify its existence. At inter-organizational level, the KM objective could be sector wide learning and at societal level, benefits to the knowledge economy of the country could be a justification for KM. Knowledge is our sense making capability, it can only be shared through human interaction, it is contextual, and it increases our capacity to act. KM can be considered as management of intangibles which creates value from:

• combined value of people in organizations, their experience and skills
• organizational processes and procedures, data bases and repositories
• organization-specific ways of doing things
• relationships with partners, clients, stakeholders
• image, reputation and trust which increase the capacity to collaborate

The intangible value creation through KM is often overlooked, although it is important for a holistic and systemic understanding of the knowledge eco-system in development. Knowledge Management is the art of creating value from intangible assets and flows. In that sense, KM could be described as a way to see organizations as consisting of nothing else than flow of interactions, conversations and networks that create value for the organization and its stakeholders. The challenge for a KM manager is to understand the different dimensions of the intangibles and develop activities which increase the value of intangibles. For KM in development, such a strategic approach to KM is very relevant, because all KM efforts are ultimately about increasing collaboration and enabling actionable knowledge exchanges.

Beyond the jargons used by KM academicians, there is a general agreement that both tacit and documented knowledge should be widely shared and this sharing should improve program quality, outputs and impact. Despite this consensus, the processes and tools used as well as the understanding of the scope of KM itself varied in development organizations.

Historical and Social Moorings of KM in the Corporate, Political and Social Development Sector

It was probably in the 1980s, when knowledge workers started leaving organizations thanks to new opportunities emerged in the context of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization, and Mergers and Acquisitions the concept of KM was widely discussed and applied in the corporate sector to create systems within which knowledge can be retained within organizations. Corporate sector had some definite goals for introducing KM – like maximizing profits, improving production, sales and so on. 1980s were also turbulent years in the political arena where new ideas like ‘peristroika (re-structuring) and glasnost (openness)’ came into governance, in countries like former Soviet Union where secrecy rather than openness were the norms of governance.
Followed by corporate sector and the UN system (particularly the World Bank), many development organizations have entered into the KM space. The arrival of the HIV and the global response to contain the virus through preventive measures of unprecedented scale, supported by huge donor funds could probably be the trigger for many organizations to introduce KM. NGO sector may not have a burning desire for profit, but they wanted to maximize impact of their work and wanted to showcase their achievements to their funders.
Development sector NGOs are late entrants in the field of KM, though UN system including the World Bank and some of its consultative organizations have been consistently exploiting KM possibilities for some time since 1990s. Large NGOs operated in multiple countries have implemented interactive intranets. Setting up of a ‘community of practice’ etc. made sense in large organizations like Bank, though its value add in meeting Bank’s overall organizational objectives remain inadequately researched.

Today in most of the NGOs, KM is essentially a combination of Research, M and E, advocacy, documentation (including distilled lessons learnt), communication mechanisms for dissemination, and helping in incorporation of lessons learnt in program implementation. There is also a consensus that all KM efforts should offer the right knowledge at the right place, at the right time in the right format to all those who need it.

Implementing KM

The rationale of KM in social development projects lies in KM’s potential to enhance project impact by helping to bring in new ideas, new ways of doing things in a faster, efficient and effective way, innovations and learning from good practices within and beyond the country of operation. Organizations which aim at creating big, sector wide impact may start with mapping key players in the knowledge ecosystem which includes multiple stakeholders and multiple knowledges. Multiple stakeholders include Governments, implementers, donor agencies, international NGOs, beneficiaries, national NGOs, communities, media, specialists, consultants, researchers, evaluators etc. Each of these actors in the ecosystem has a different value system related to their perspective and they can be either knowledge users or knowledge creators. A similar strategy is useful in initiating organization-wide KM too i.e. mapping of organizational knowledge and then finding out possibilities to effectively gather, improve and share this knowledge.

KM should create/record knowledge while implementing programs, through research and documentation and disseminate it to a predefined audience. Thus Knowledge managers should be leading a series of research, documentation and communication processes and products regarding a project’s own work and on relevant programs at local/national/international level. A typical Knowledge manager should be busy in implementing the following tasks in a development organization.

  1. Document effective/best Practices for capacity building of project’s own staff and of the development sector nationally and internationally
  2. Conduct evaluations, impact Assessments, and other research activities to inform project’s policy advocacy work and to increase efficiency and effectiveness of its activities
  3. Publish appropriate materials for knowledge sharing and to increase visibility of the project among key players in the sector
  4. Help the projects in ensuring quality of their communication products and to support production of all advocacy, workshop, training, and technical program materials
  5. Gather all the relevant knowledge products related to project’s work and store, retrieve and distribute to all stakeholders including staff

Knowledge managers should grab all possible opportunities to create a knowledge base that will serve as a repository for its work. Their knowledge gathering mechanisms should have scope for continuously scanning, sorting and providing information from sources across different states and projects locally, nationally as well as globally. A key role for the Knowledge manager will be to equip their projects as well as stakeholders with evidence on new interventions and innovations to help policy advocacy and debate with stakeholders (government etc.) depending on the scale and objectives of their organization’s work. An effective knowledge manager in a development organization has the following rights, duties and responsibilities.

  1. The knowledge manager should have access to relevant and appropriate technology, ideally those that enhance knowledge creation and sharing. However, there is no value addition in creating technology based systems which are never or insufficiently used by staff and stakeholders.
  2. Knowledge manger should be able to document the processes and achievements with the help of evidence. In case development projects do not have inbuilt research components (implementation science/operations research etc.), they should at least have scope for gathering evidence on process, output, and outcome level indicators.
  3. KM should ensure continuous analysis and use of data at all levels and work to bring the project visibility at national and global level. They should also be equipped and empowered to carry out evaluations, impact assessments and other research activities.
  4. In order to make a development project truly responsive, Knowledge managers should continuously assess training, capacity building and advocacy needs of the project team and use innovative and traditional ways of meeting these needs.
  5. They should spearhead all project communication activities including development of materials for advocacy, workshops, technical program materials and documents and ensure that these are produced adhering to the highest quality standards in collaboration with communication experts.
  6. They should ensure quality, consistency and adherence to their project’s monitoring, evaluation, documentation and research activities and cull out best practices form various components of the program.
  7. They should be positioned in a manner that will enable them to leverage the resources of multiple internal and external partners especially to facilitate an integrated approach in project implementation.


Currently KM agendas in most NGOs are donor driven. A Knowledge management unit is created in many organizations just because the donor has asked them to have one, rather than their own felt need and convictions. In some cases the managements of NGOs wanted stories from the field to use for further resource mobilization. In both cases Knowledge managers are under pressure to come up with so called ‘best practices’ from the field. In many cases what is Knowledge is pre-defined by donors and NGOs often need authentication from the donors before they disseminate any knowledge products. Hegemony of donor perspective in knowledge creation and sharing processes hamper the potential of creating any objective knowledge based impact of development projects. When we need ‘authentication’ by others (e.g. big donors) the sense making nature or the ‘rightness’ of knowledge disappears. Consequently only certain type of knowledge gets circulated.

Quite often people in the rural and tribal communities have better ideas on dealing with their problems based on time tested methods they have learned through generations. Such knowledge is often over ruled by knowledge created elsewhere (e.g. foreign universities). As urban educated elites, Knowledge Managers themselves have bias towards the knowledge generated by community at the grass roots through years of their experience. Thus wisdom at the ground level is not often circulated as knowledge!

These days many of the enthusiastic IT companies are coming up with systems to manage knowledge. Some of these systems are useful, especially when programming needs define such technologies. However, these systems are not essential means to promote knowledge sharing in organizations. Elaborate IT systems created in many organizations could not unfortunately play a facilitating role in Knowledge management. IT often manipulates Knowledge and the systems it create are not always conducive for effective knowledge sharing.

In addition to these external challenges, there are many internal challenges too. In most cases Knowledge managers do concurrent documentation of ongoing projects which are yet to make a sustainable impact in the field. Getting fool-proof evidence for best practices is often difficult.

Knowledge mangers are not omniscient people who has all the knowledge; rather they are custodians of existing knowledge. An organization with a poor technical team cannot lay knowledge nuggets every day!

Organizations which have visible symbols of hierarchy cannot promote a culture of knowledge sharing.

Adult learning happens only when adults are convinced about the short term and long term personal benefits. If there are no visible incentives for learning, staff may not be seriously involved in genuine knowledge sharing.

Concluding Remarks: Though there are considerable doubts about the value of KM in development sector, leveraging knowledge from multiple sources for the overall ‘public good’ is a non-negotiable in development work. The challenges highlighted above should not disappoint KM practitioners- rather they should facilitate creation of a credible body of knowledge, systems and practices which would ultimately help development organizations to use KM for creating real social impact. There are already many promising examples of ‘self-organized knowledge’ winning over ‘doctored knowledge’. The scope of KM is promising, though KM professionals may have to struggle some more time to obtain serious buy-in and recognition from the larger development community. They also need to demonstrate their usefulness by demonstrating their impact.

(About the Author: Kandathil Sebastian started his work as a Knowledge Manager in the social development sector in India when the idea of Knowledge Management was beginning to make sense in the sector. He still survives as a Knowledge Manager in the sector, despite challenges as mentioned above. The views expressed here are personal and not of the organization where he works.

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