posted 3 Nov 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 3
Charity begins with KM
Knowledge management is no longer simply a tool for large, multi-national corporations. Non-governmental organisations are making use of KM practices to ensure knowledge is shared among employees, partners and funders. Jessica Symons describes the KM strategies at a UK charity that have been developed successfully without the luxury of a dedicated budget.
It is easy to take for granted the resources available for information management. In the public or private sector. Government departments spend thousands of pounds a year outsourcing their systems and the IT budgets in large private-sector organisations are still substantial. These budgets are starting to encompass knowledge-management requirements as recognition of the practice develops.
Developing and implementing a knowledge-management framework in an information rich but time-and-resource poor UK charity can highlight the challenges facing smaller organisations in today’s knowledge society. The charity in this case study is a research organisation with ten years’ of knowledge, spread across over 130 publications and a host of articles, research papers, reports, interviews and consultancy. It seeks to influence policy makers, companies, NGOs, schools and professional bodies on issues of social justice. It is a small organisation with an international reputation and it has spent the past two years trying to rationalise and improve its knowledge management.
The charity has a wide network of contacts. At the centre is the director and a triumvirate of strategy, communication and business-development managers who all collaborate with staff in a non-hierarchical manner to develop the organisational objectives and produce output. The staff work closely with associates who have a special relationship with the organisation – they have usually been published by it – providing intellectual input on particular projects according to their area of expertise – usually they have been published by the organisation. A board of trustees takes responsibility for the integrity of the organisation as a charity and contributes to its development.
Any third-party person or organisation who works with the charity is a project partner. Their relationship with the organisation and their input into the project can vary from funding only to full collaboration on the output. The charity also has subscribers and anyone who reads a publication or article, attends an event or watches an interview with a member of staff or associate is considered to be a member of the network.
A charity legacy
In 2001, similar to other charities, the organisation was centralised around the director who was the key contact for all project partners and funders. He also provided intellectual direction on each project and the organisation as a whole. There were no administration staff as each employee took on a company maintenance role, together with their research responsibilities. The staff arrangement included a high turnover of interns on three-month contracts who needed induction into all areas of the organisation. People stayed in touch with activities via Monday morning meetings where each person would go through their diary for the week. Every six weeks, the calendar (on a whiteboard) would be updated with events, publication dates and staff activities. Everyone knew what everyone else was working on and collaborated on most projects and the strategic direction of the organisation.
As so often happens in an organisation, the situation needs to become critical before change can occur. It became difficult to keep track of all the events and publication-launch dates as projects mounted up. The whiteboard proved difficult to keep up to date and stay current on where people were and what they were doing. The head count was growing rapidly with new employees and a greater number of interns. A virus attack in December 2001 demonstrated the value of the information gathered on office computers. It became clear that working practices needed to be formalised and the organisation made more robust and scaleable.
It was clear that researchers were starting from scratch each time, rather than building on research from existing work. A knowledge-management strategy was needed that gave access to past and ongoing work, and encouraged the exchange of information between people face to face.
Developing a strategy
The strategy focused on drawing out explicit and tacit knowledge in four parts:
Devising and implementing a knowledge-management framework that incorporated a structured file server, database and website, directory and document standards and good-practice file, e-mail and calendar use;
- Identifying and defining the project process including roles, practices and outputs;
- Developing a taxonomy to categorise projects, people and output;
- Encouraging face-to-face opportunities for knowledge exchange.
There was no budget for the project, so all initiatives had to be carried out with existing tools. This restriction was invaluable as it forced the focus onto techniques for knowledge exchange rather than tools such as an intranet.
Drawing out explicit knowledge
The implementation was iterative and introduced in different ways, with proofs of concept carried out by various staff members and teams. The results were monitored and introduced into or registered as organisational practice. Staff were already experimenting with their own initiatives that were monitored to be incorporated into the strategy if successful. Each measure introduced was evaluated on its own merit, without champions. Too often, organisational change becomes overly important to the individuals involved, restricting flexibility and fostering an unwillingness to drop measures that are not working. By using an iterative approach and reducing a sense of ownership, only those that worked with the organisation were adopted.
The first step was to get the basics right by developing good-practice working procedures. The personalities of the staff meant that each new practice was interrogated closely so the most effective measures were those that quickly became part of daily life and soon seemed as if they had always been there. Essential hardware and software were purchased and installed. The concept of following standards was introduced together with templates, file-naming standards and version control. Using intuitive language, the file server was restructured into organisational and project directories. The database was re-designed and meetings managed using Outlook calendars.
A series of one-to-one and group training sessions, quick-reference sheets and ‘bibles’ were provided, and saved to the ‘learning store’ directory. Staff were encouraged to use the standards and then left to it with occasional reminders and senior management leading by example.
Much of the bureaucracy that accompanies the introduction of ‘best’ practice was stripped away by the independence of the people involved. If they did not like a practice, they simply did not do it and it was not within the culture of the organisation to insist on it. This provided a significant challenge to encourage take up. Eighteen months later, the overall integrity of the file structure and IT systems remains reasonably robust and has withstood a tripling in staff. However, the uptake of standards within projects themselves has been patchy and difficult to bring about externally.
Developing a project process
The charity wishes to influence the development of policy, programmes, initiatives and projects in many aspects of social life, so any knowledge exchange made between anyone in the network at any stage, as a result of the organisation’s activity, is considered to be an ‘intervention’ and therefore achieves its objective. A publication or an event may be the physical outcome of the organisation, but the conclusions drawn and recommendations made in the publication and the perspectives gleaned and experiences exchanged at an event are more valuable. Mapping how to manage this onto a project process was, and continues to be, a real challenge.
For clarity, groups of interventions were combined together to make up a project, usually constructed around a publication but not always. Figure 1 outlines the lifecycle of a project with the different interventions, many of which could occur at any stage.
The key researcher writing a publication or organising an event becomes the project leader and takes responsibility for ensuring that the project is delivered on time. Their appointment has meant that the director can provide intellectual and thought leadership without needing to co-ordinate the delivery of the whole project.
Eighteen months later, the project’s identity and leads are well established with a strong sense of ownership over quality and delivery. A much needed project-management system is in development, starting with the usual intense discussion on the nature of the system itself. The charity has managed to take on over 50 projects and increased its turnover to £1m. This would not have been feasible without a more structured approach to output development. In a corporate environment, the division of work into projects and teams is such common practice that it was refreshing to consider the practice from first principles, drawing out the best elements of project management and rejecting the rest.
Developing a taxonomy
The research organisation’s key asset is the knowledge that sits in the heads of its staff and its written output. Therefore, a key priority is to draw knowledge out in such a way that it can be re-used across projects. Rather than use a knowledge base to provide information about information, an attempt has been made to develop content modules that can be re-used in themselves. Using the principles of object-oriented (OO) programming, the idea of information modules with associated properties was introduced.
The modules could be combined together to create outputs such as publications, reports and interviews, or used individually to inform projects. A module type might be a literature review (analysis of existing research on a particular topic), a methodology (a tool used to review the research subject such as surveys or case studies), a conversation (interaction with the network via interviews with experts, seminars or commentaries). Each module type would have a set of properties. The properties for the conversation module, for example, would include the name of person(s) involved in conversation, topics raised, recommendations made and references cited.
Conceptually this worked well. However, two very common challenges in knowledge management arose – the need for a critical mass of modules for people to want to use and produce them, and content that was similar enough across projects to be re-usable.
Several approaches were made to encourage the information-module development, starting with standardising file naming. If all literature reviews, for example, contained a tag in the file name that identified it as a literature review and it was always saved to the ‘existing sources’ directory of the project folder, researchers would be able to easily find the literature review for that project, even if they did not work on it themselves. They should then get in the habit of looking for certain types of material by looking at the file name and using that standard themselves. This approach did not work at all as it did not sit naturally with the researchers’ instinctive behaviour.
Although not really re-usable across projects, a project guide is common to all projects and contains the same properties, so it was a good vehicle for introducing the concept of re-use and developing modules. A project guide is a window into an initiative, defining the objectives, team, deliverables, related projects and documents. The project leads worked on the development of a pilot guide and after six months, the practice was rolled out to the rest of the organisation.
The project guides sank without a trace. The perception among the project leads was that they were a senior-management monitoring tool rather than useful to team members themselves. The proposal and face-to-face briefing that a new team member received were considered sufficient to provide information on the project. The format of the guides (in Microsoft Word) was also considered inaccessible for quick and easy reference.
Another information module was a publication summary. These summaries are externally focused and produced for every publication. They are still created and are available on the company website but are rarely used by staff. They do however prove the concept.
When the information-module folder was created in the learning-store directory of the file server, researchers started producing modules of their own volition. They focused not on the type (literature review, conversation, briefing) but on the topic (innovation, gender, education). Other folders containing third-party papers, reports and presentations started to appear in other parts of the file server. This demonstrates a willingness to share and spend time producing information outside the deliverables of a project. The next stage in the module-development process is to work with this enthusiasm.
The next iteration of project guides could yet be the ‘killer module’. They are being produced as project portals, initially for public viewing on the website and then for sharing information with project partners on an extranet. The project leads can see the benefits of sharing information with the network more clearly and are therefore inclined to update the portals. An immediate advantage is that they would be able to direct callers to the website for information on a particular activity, and be able to get to the specifics of the project more quickly.
Despite patchy progress in developing information modules, it is still a key priority within the organisation. The challenge remains to find more blocks of content that are similar enough to be recognisable and re-usable across projects, and useful enough to encourage the team involved to create them.
Sharing tacit knowledge
The staff may have resisted attempts to standardise output, but they innovate well in exchanging tacit knowledge. This reflects the traditional flexibility and openness of the independent and NGO sector, possibly due to the lack of commercial motivation behind their activities. There are a variety of areas where this can be seen, including communities of interest, blogs and company away days:
Communities of interest – Thirty topics have been assigned as interests to every person, publication and project. People are matched to projects, events and publications using this categorisation. The 30 topics are sorted into five themes and communities of interest were established around them. Each theme was allocated a leader who took responsibility for co-ordinating meetings and defining objectives for each group. The working groups were left to evolve naturally.
Twelve months later, the website uses the themes and interests to group the publications, and the events manager uses interests to identify potential event speakers and attendees. The theme teams have disappeared due to a lack of direction but other teams have since clustered around different topics, mainly due to related projects.
Conversations – A central part of the organisation’s research is to meet with experts in a particular field and talk about the issues being examined. Almost all the conversations are unpaid with the individuals providing their input to inform and develop the research. This allows the researchers to produce an almost unique perspective on the issues, making the output very valuable to all the people involved in the project. Some conversations are individual meetings, others are events. These range from small seminars with invited audiences and debates to speeches, ‘an audience with…’, parties and dinners.
The efficacy with which the knowledge exchanged is collected and stored varies according to the nature of the conversation. Seminars are usually written up and will feature highly in the project portals. Minutes of conversations are usually shared between the people involved. The re-use value that these exchanges might have on other projects is to be worked through.
Blog – A weblog was introduced by a member of staff and is updated regularly by a blog community, people in the network and another research organisation that has linked their blog directly to the charity’s. It allows staff to communicate with the network more informally and has been very well received.
Brainstorming – A research team introduced the use of concept maps into the organisation, which are very popular in brainstorming sessions. Researchers usually invite all staff to at least one brainstorming session per project to discuss ideas in development and produce a list of experts who might want to participate.
Thursday seminars – Every Thursday, staff get together over lunch to discuss subjects from reviewing books to sharing experiences from conferences. The organisation regularly receives visits from journalists, researchers and politicians from overseas and are often invited to Thursday seminars to exchange experiences and ideas from across the globe.
Away days – The whole organisation, trustees and associates are invited to spend a weekend at an organic farm every summer to discuss the experiences of the previous year and plan the organisation’s future. Quarterly away days are also held locally to ensure the continued planning and sharing of the charity’s future strategy and intellectual development.
Social – There is a lounge area at the office and cake for birthdays and celebrations to build on the natural sociability of staff.
Successes and lessons learnt
The measures that were most successful were the ones that barely interfered with people’s working activity and immediately improved it. Key successes are the defining of a project process and outputs – especially identification of project leads – restructuring of the fileserver, the advanced use of Outlook, categorisation of people and output, and the increased opportunities for informal exchange of tacit knowledge.
The projects themselves are still black boxes where information goes in and comes out but it is not clear where it is stored or how it is processed except to the project team. However, the deliverables for projects are being broken down into components such as literature reviews, papers and presentations, which should contribute to the development of standardisation across projects and encourage re-use.
The staff are naturally drawn to face-to-face communication and tacit knowledge exchange; this has evolved and kept pace with the increasing size of the organisation. However, the exchange of explicit knowledge still needs a lot of work. Although technology is not essential to a knowledge-management framework, it would have been useful to have the funds to implement an intranet, facilitating access to the different KM initiatives.
The current knowledge-management approach is to ensure that all new measures introduced are framed in the context of improving contact with the outside world. If the organisation’s core objective is to create influence via the network, then there is a massive incentive to take action to improve the quality of this communication.
Jessica Symons is knowledge manager at a UK-based NGO. She can be contacted at email@example.com