posted 16 Dec 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 4
Knowledge sharing at the World Bank
The fad that would not go away
Although knowledge sharing is now an integral part of the World Bank’s operations and mission, it has not always been this way. Bruno Laporte describes how knowledge sharing established its roots at the bank, the challenges the strategies have faced and gives specific success stories.
Creating, sharing and applying knowledge has always been an important part of the World Bank's programmes to help its member countries promote growth and reduce poverty. It is only since the mid-1990s, however, that the bank has attempted to organise its knowledge activities in a systematic way to maximise potential benefits. The concept of the ‘knowledge bank’ was articulated in 1996 by James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank Group. By 2000, the bank had a range of knowledge-sharing programmes in place: communities of practices, helpdesk and advisory services, extensive knowledge collections on the web, tacit knowledge debriefings, indigenous knowledge programmes, and a platform to share knowledge with the development community through the Development Gateway website.
Professionals both within and outside the organisation recognise the fast implementation (by industry standards) of the knowledge bank. This quick success was made possible in large by the vision, leadership and personal engagement of the bank's president, and the commitment and dedication of change agents across the institution. Yet this journey has been plagued by doubt, resistance and attempts to derail the process. From the early years, knowledge sharing, as it became known, was perceived as a fad. The organisation viewed it as a distraction from the core business of development-project financing. This article examines the implementation of the knowledge bank, and shows how knowledge sharing, far from being a fad, is at the core of the bank’s operational work.
In the early years, most were sceptical that the bank could systematically capture and organise the wealth of knowledge and experience gained from staff, clients and development partners, and create links between groups and communities working on similar topics. Many staff could not comprehend the future benefits and regarded knowledge sharing as a waste of resources. Others felt threatened by the changes or were apathetic towards knowledge management. By and large it was regarded as the latest fad in the organisation and statements such as “the techies are doing stuff with the internet” were not uncommon.
The effort started with a pilot programme at the end of 1996, and later expanded to other parts of the organisation. By the late 1990s, over 120 communities of practice had been created, some 20 advisory services were acting as knowledge intermediaries, and a vast repository of information and knowledge on development had been created.
Are we done yet?
By 2001, knowledge sharing was on very firm ground and many of the changes appeared irreversible. However, a number of new developments started to affect the long-term viability of knowledge sharing at the bank.
The ‘strategic compact’ was an action programme aimed at lowering the institution’s costs, raising productivity and improving the quality of the projects and programmes. One of its areas of emphasis was a knowledge-management system. However, the first development to affect knowledge sharing was the return to pre-strategic compact funding levels, which reduced spending on knowledge communities and cut off useful activities. More importantly, this cut in investment sent out a signal that senior management did not view these communities as critical to the bank’s mission.
Second, attention in the organisation started to shift to learning, which was the object of far-reaching reforms. The new staff-learning framework aimed to improve the relevance and quality of training programmes and was supported by a new governance mechanism and funding arrangements.
Finally, the central co-ordination of knowledge sharing was moved from the operational vice presidency to the World Bank Institute, the external training/capacity development arm of the World Bank. This happened shortly after Steve Denning, the main architect of the knowledge-sharing programme, left the bank to pursue other projects.
It became very clear that the early success of knowledge sharing at the bank was threatened. Staff, who are very quick to respond to management signals, realised that their future in knowledge-sharing activities and careers was less than assured. Was the knowledge-sharing fad finally going away?
Can we afford not to pay attention?
Predicting the end of knowledge sharing may have been premature, however. In the last couple of years significant developments have not only kept it on the agenda, but have more importantly reframed the knowledge agenda to place it at the core of the bank’s strategy.
In 2002, a taskforce was given the mandate to re-examine the bank’s knowledge strategy. Most significant was that it included not only knowledge-sharing staff, but also staff who had had no previous involvement with this line of work. The taskforce reframed the knowledge strategy along three dimensions: improving the bank’s operational quality and effectiveness through knowledge sharing; enhancing the sharing of knowledge with our clients and partners; and enhancing client capacity to access and make effective use of knowledge, whatever the source. Box 1 outlines these three dimensions.
The World Bank Institute assumed a leadership role to continue the implementation of the knowledge bank across the three dimensions. A knowledge-steering committee at the VP level was formed, with a knowledge-bank secretariat located in the institute.
Finally in 2003, the operations-evaluation department (OED) conducted an extensive review of the knowledge initiative. It assessed the relevance of the initiative as well as the effectiveness of new knowledge-sharing activities and global knowledge programmes undertaken to implement it. The review examined the institutional infrastructure that had been built over the past six years to support the initiative. The methodology for this evaluation was impressive in scope, including surveys, structured interviews, expert reviews and stakeholder consultations with five client countries.
The evaluation concluded that: “The bank’s efforts to improve development outcomes, by fully exploiting both the revolution in information technology and the bank’s comparative advantage as a source and aggregator of development knowledge, are highly relevant to client needs.” At the same time, the report recognised the need to do more to apply its knowledge-sharing tools directly to the bank’s core business processes and to develop a more strategic approach to the knowledge dimensions of the bank’s service to its clients.
Staff cannot afford to not pay attention. The developments in the last two years show that far from being a fad, knowledge sharing is at the core of the bank’s strategy. If anything, there is a renewed determination to accelerate implementation and to take the programme to the next level.
Making it possible
Today, staff within the bank have a range of information and knowledge resources available to them though an enterprise portal. They have access to knowledge collections, sector statistics, project databases, people directories, dialogue spaces, net castings of learning events and distance learning, for example. More importantly, they are creating and sharing knowledge within thematic communities and multi-sector learning teams. In practice, this is a tremendous change in staff behaviour, as they continue to understand the need to build on each other's knowledge, improve the quality and speed of service delivery, and promote innovation.
The impact of knowledge sharing is greater for client-government relationships. The vision of the knowledge bank calls for sharing knowledge internally and with clients and partners, and also learning from and with them. This is a shift in the development paradigm: empowering clients through access to knowledge, and facilitating knowledge and learning among clients. Communities of practice are seen as a precondition to sustainable capacity building. This again necessitates tremendous changes in the way staff members behave in terms of listening to the client, understanding local conditions and learning from local knowledge. Ayuda Urbana (below) provides an interesting example of a community of practice among urban practitioners in the Central America and Caribbean region.
There were a number of factors involved in making this change possible and ensuring that knowledge sharing became central to the bank’s core business, rather than just a fad. We examine three of the main reasons for success at the bank: a compelling business case, the vision and effective leadership of the bank’s president, and the active engagement of change agents dedicated to the creation of an environment conducive for knowledge sharing.
In the mid-1990s the bank was under pressure to bring greater transparency and accountability into its activities. Moreover, several decades of development had revealed that traditional models needed to be challenged if the development community was to tackle the issues faced by poor countries. The business case for developing a knowledge bank alongside a lending bank was very compelling. Like any organisation in the private or public sector, knowledge sharing would increase the speed of delivery, improve quality, foster innovation and reduce costs. From a development perspective, it would also bring new actors into the development process, and enhance their capacity by providing access to critical knowledge and skills.
In 1995, James D. Wolfensohn became the ninth president of the World Bank Group. A year later, in a major speech at the annual meeting, he outlined the vision for the knowledge bank. “We have been in the business of researching and disseminating the lessons of development for a long time. But the revolution in information technology increases the potential value of these efforts by vastly extending their reach. To capture this potential, we need to invest in the necessary systems, in Washington and across the world, that will enhance our ability to gather development information and experience, and share it with our clients. We need to become, in effect, the knowledge bank.”
Wolfensohn convinced the board to support the strategic compact. As well as emphasising the development of a knowledge-management system aimed at creating a corporate memory of information, lessons learnt and ‘best’ practices from the bank and other organisations, it also called for the bank's KM programme to be benchmarked against other world-class systems. In 2000, the bank became the first non-commercial organisation to receive a Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise Award. The president’s vision and personal engagement has been key to the success of the knowledge enterprise. He has consistently communicated the vision, set ambitious goals, and demonstrated a personal interest in knowledge communities and initiatives.
The presence of innovators and change agents was also an essential ingredient in the far-reaching changes. Most influential of all, Steve Denning was able to shape the agenda and to show the path. He and several change agents worked relentlessly to communicate the business case and demonstrate through quick wins how knowledge sharing could make a difference. Changes introduced to the staff-performance appraisal reports in 1999, or the introduction of knowledge-sharing standard profiles in 2003, provided incentives for staff to participate. Informal incentives contributed even more to the transformation. Stories on innovative practices and presentations of knowledge products and services at knowledge fairs, contributed to raising the visibility of knowledge communities.
The story of the knowledge bank is still unfolding, and there is no doubt that it will take more than seven years to complete the transition to a knowledge and learning organisation. Most likely, in a fast-changing environment, it will require continued attention to nurture knowledge communities both within the organisation and in client countries. There is no doubt, however, that the contribution of knowledge sharing to the transformation of the organisation and its business model has been significant. This fad is just not going away.
Box 1 – The three dimensions of the knowledge bank
1. Making effective use of knowledge to support the quality of operations – The bank relies on knowledge communities (thematic groups), which are charged with capturing the information the bank and other institutions have acquired in their areas of specialty, and processing this information into useful knowledge;
2. Sharing knowledge with our clients and partners – This has led to new ways of working, such as participatory activities that involve government officials, NGO and private-sector representatives, and donor-government colleagues. They become part of a team that shares knowledge and information and are therefore able to build programmes that have genuine ownership and commitment on the part of the government. These activities are also supported by a range of new technology-based programmes that greatly enhance our knowledge-sharing capacity, such as the Global Development Learning Network and the Development Gateway;
3. Helping clients enhance their capacity to generate, access and use knowledge from all sources – Ultimately, the success of national development efforts depends on the trained human resources and institutional arrangements available to carry them out. Supporting countries to enhance their development capacity is therefore central to the bank's mission of poverty reduction. The World Bank Institute (WBI), which enables client-learning activities, has developed a number of thematic programmes aimed at enhancing capacity. Moreover capacity development is supported through special initiatives such as the Global Development Network, the African Virtual University, and infoDev.
Box 2 – Ayuda Urbana
Urban development policies in Central America and the Caribbean are critical for millions of people who live in hundreds of crowded cities. The quality of transportation, water and sanitation, social services, and more, depend largely on the ability of local, urban officials to analyse problems using reliable information and learn from the experiences of their counterparts in other cities in the region. However, getting relevant and timely information and establishing a dialogue with others present difficult challenges.
The Ayuda Urbana initiative (Urban Help) was established as a direct response to these challenges. By linking staff at municipal governments in Guatemala City, Panama City, Havana, Managua, Mexico City, San Jose, San Salvador, San Juan, Santo Domingo and Tegucigalpa, it serves as a forum for sharing knowledge on pressing urban issues and priorities. What distinguishes Ayuda Urbana from other programmes is that it originated from a request made in early 2000 by several mayors in the Central American and Caribbean region who recognised the value of collaboration across borders in addressing problems in their cities.
Ayuda Urbana comprises dozens of practitioners specialising in various aspects of urban planning and management in the above cities. While the World Bank played a significant role in convening and guiding the preliminary discussions, the mayors and their staff chose the eight topics of most concern to them: e-government, urban upgrading, environmental sanitation, municipal finance, urban transportation, the renovation of historical city centres and poverty alleviation, disaster management, and integrated urban development. Members of Ayuda Urbana share knowledge through workshops, an interactive website and online discussions.
The result of these different activities has been continuous learning for Ayuda Urbana members. Eight thematic communities of practice contribute to better decision making on important issues, serve as a means of problem solving for the entire group and generate the type of knowledge that urban practitioners need in their daily work. For example, one question raised recently was on the price of waste-management services. A member in San Salvador explained how the price was determined in his municipality, and this information was shared with other members.
Ayuda Urbana is a partnership in every sense. It works closely with the municipal governments in the ten cities mentioned above and with the CAMC (Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean) region of the Unión de Ciudades Capitales Iberoamericanas (UCCI), a partner organisation actively involved in training technical staff in metropolitan areas.
Ayuda Urbana was designed from the start as a sustainable project that will be completely owned and operated by its clients. Not surprisingly, the members have now assumed the co-ordination and facilitation, allowing different cities to alternate as hosts of the website and developers of new content. The project is also serving as a model that can be replicated in other countries as they seek to form their own communities of practice on urban issues.
1. Carayannis, E. G. and Laporte, B., ‘By decree or by choice? A case study, implementing knowledge management and sharing at the education sector of the World Bank Group’ (World Bank Institute, 2002)
2. Sharing Knowledge: Innovations and Remaining Challenges (OED report, World Bank Group, 2003)
3. Annual meetings address by James D. Wolfensohn, president, The World Bank (1 October 1996)
Bruno Laporte is manager, knowledge and learning services at the World Bank. He can be contacted at email@example.com