posted 14 Mar 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 6
UNAIDS: When knowledge sharing saves lives
Applying knowledge-management techniques to help combat the spread of the HIV virus. By Geoff Parcell
I’ve just returned to BP after a fascinating and meaningful secondment to UNAIDS, the UN agency tasked with co-ordinating the response to HIV and AIDS. It’s the best thing I’ve ever applied my KM skills to. I knew I could save money for BP using KM techniques, but I didn’t realise they could also be used to save lives.
But what does an energy company like BP know about AIDS? The answer is, very little, though it is becoming more aware of it as a business issue among the workforce and the communities it works with. My knowledge of AIDS was limited to what I had picked up from the media, most memorably images of death and despair in
So how did I get involved? Jean Louis Lamboray of UNAIDS had learnt, after living in a village in northern
Before I realised what I had let myself in for, I was flying out to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to learn first hand what the issues were from those infected and affected: from carers, health centres, school teachers and monks. After the first visit to a Thai village, I insisted we stop in a café to do an after-action review (
I presented work I had done with the operations community in BP – engineers and operators from refineries, factories and offshore production platforms who were striving for operational excellence. I learnt from the Salvation Army about local responses to the crisis and about the notion of ‘human-capacity development’. We saw some remarkable parallels and, over the next three months, worked with a group of people from a number of different organisations to develop an approach that relied on creating a facilitative environment, and included self-assessment, knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer.
In conjunction with UNITAR (the UN Institute of Training and Research) and the Salvation Army, we developed a project called AIDS Competence, which helped communities identify their existing strengths to respond to the issues of AIDS, as well as areas for improvement. Over the year, we visited a number of countries and communities – villages, retreats for people living with AIDS, cities, non-government organisations such as the AIDS Coalition and the Red Cross, and church-based organisations – and facilitated the sharing of experience. We visited three continents, but our approach extended far beyond.
The project culminated in a knowledge fair in Chiang Mai in July 2004, a festival where 140 people from more than 30 different nations came together and shared information on the basis of their strengths and what they needed to improve.
The approach to the crisis that we developed depends on a facilitative environment, one where interventions are less about providing material goods and more about encouraging societies to recognise their existing strengths and build on them. Ian Campbell of the Salvation Army, who has spent a lifetime working with communities around the world, says, “The capacity to respond is there locally. Human-capacity development is founded on the belief that local response is possible, that people can take charge and transfer what they learn to other communities.” From the assumption that communities are already doing something well, self-assessment helps them identify things to share and things to learn. This level of understanding is then reinforced with learnings from other communities, and lessons learnt can be captured and re-used by others facing similar issues.
The AIDS Competence approach acknowledges what is already happening to fight the spread of the disease, and encourages self-assessment as a tool that leads to the identification and exchange of strengths and practices to improve. It leads to knowledge sharing either in knowledge fairs or via electronic discussion forums, and to the capture of experience and principles for action in the form of knowledge assets. These elements, undertaken in a facilitative way, lead to an improved level of response. The collective capacity of the group to respond effectively to the HIV challenge is enhanced.
One of the concepts I shared was that of self-assessment. Diverse operations across an energy company like BP have a lot more in common than people suppose, which means we have plenty to learn from each other. To help in the sharing process, it is possible to create a common set of measures that uses a common language. In BP, a diverse group of knowledgeable people from the operations community came together and defined 26 practices that were common to all operations, for instance safety operations and managing spare parts. For each practice, the group was able to outline five levels, level five relating to high performance and level one describing a more basic level of performance. Each operating site used this self-assessment framework to communicate with a cross section of the workforce to determine strengths and potential areas to improve operations. They each set themselves targets for a few practices they wanted to improve within a given timeframe.
After the meeting in Chiang Mai, those involved sketched out 16 practices that seemed to contribute to a community becoming AIDS Competent. They defined five levels, from basic to high. The resulting self-assessment framework was sent to the
The self-assessment framework proved to be a valuable tool in encouraging communication between a diverse group of people. We used it inside the UN, at BP, in a rural community in
When a number of communities or groups had completed their self-assessment it was possible to benchmark their results against the range of responses from others to determine who there was for them to learn from and share with. We worked according to the principle that everyone has something to share and everyone has something to learn.
We used this approach at a retreat for about 50 people living with AIDS, each representing an individual district. They were enthusiastic about the approach and I recall two specific reflections: “I thought I was level five on this practice, but now I realise I have a lot to learn from others,” said one woman. Another said, “I thought we had to wait for an expert to tell us what to do next, but now I realise we can learn from others in this room.”
In a similar vein, the knowledge-sharing events we developed were generally energetic, productive, positive occasions, as the following example illustrates.
UNITAR was running a project to help municipalities share their practices in HIV-focused services. We held a workshop in
Indeed, it was far more than knowledge that participants left with. Lyon, as the host city, was committed to the process, but there were those who felt
A similar workshop had been held in
Building knowledge assets
One of the lessons we learnt in BP was the value of replicating ideas that had worked in one refinery in other locations around the world. In northern
What lessons can we share with
Experiences are also summarised to make them more accessible to those who join the discussion late. In a sense, these appear in a similar way to the FAQs one encounters every day on the internet. Many of these summaries look like common sense. There is, however, a huge difference between common sense and common practice. The latter relies on a good network of practitioners who realise they are facing the same issue and may have some insights that could help others.
When a new experience runs counter to established principles, it is debated by the community and the advice is amended if appropriate. In this sense, the work is never completed. A knowledge asset is not something to be published and then put on a shelf, but rather a living, organic process of sharing experience and drawing out common principles.
Evidence of success
We believe that what we are doing and sharing in this project is having a massive impact, but it is naturally very difficult to measure progress. It typically takes eight years from contracting the HIV virus before visible signs of the immune system breaking down emerge. During that time, a person appears and feels as healthy as someone without the virus. That’s a long time to wait to see if what we are doing is making a difference.
The clearest signal we have is that communities, municipalities and organisations are taking responsibility for their own response to HIV and AIDS. They are actively working together to improve the quality of life for those affected. There is an undeniable spirit of solidarity. For example, Mumbai is committed to sharing successful approaches between different neighbourhoods of this huge city.
In Brasil, organisations have already shared what they are achieving with cities in neighbouring countries. And in north-east
I have had a fascinating opportunity to be involved in making a difference to people’s lives using knowledge-management techniques honed in a business setting. I am now back at BP, but cannot let go of what we have started at UNAIDS. The work continues, and our aim is to spread the self-assessment approach faster than the HIV virus travels.
Geoff Parcell is a senior adviser in knowledge management at BP. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.