posted 1 Jul 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 10
knowledge management can help to wage peace in Kosovo
When war ravages a country, it does not only destroy a land and its people; it also brings down all networks of communication, educational structures, history, rules of law etc. In this article Barry Ryland-Holmes shows how knowledge management was implemented effectively in Bosnia to reconstruct the free flow of information for those who needed it to rebuild the country. This approach will also be used to rebuild war-torn Kosovo.
We are all aware of the advantages to businesses, large and small, of creating and implementing an effective knowledge management system. Less obvious, however, is the potential of knowledge management systems to aid and enhance democratic institution building and to help in the creation of civil societies, particularly in the emerging economies of Eastern Europe. The application of strategically oriented information systems is not limited to commercial purposes, however, as recent events in Bosnia have clearly demonstrated where access to information played a particularly important role in the process of democratization and the resolution of conflict between societal leaders.
In January, 1996 three members of the Sarajevo law faculty visited Villanova University Law School in Pennsylvania, USA. After the visit, they received a donation of a laptop computer and a modem. It was at this time and from this simple gesture that Villanova recognized the potential of knowledge and the internet to aid Bosnia in its reconstruction: Project Bosnia was born.
In Bosnia, the greater part of the physical infrastructure of the country had been destroyed during the war. It was quickly realized that rebuilding those physical resources that had been destroyed would take years, yet, at the same time, it was equally apparent that the information infrastructure necessary to restore and maintain the economic, educational and legal bases of the country were needed immediately.
The internet, combined with an effective knowledge management strategy, provided the most efficient and inexpensive way to restore a functioning civil society in post war Bosnia. The creation of electronic databases, which included governmental rulings, operations and legislative documents, together with the free and open exchange of such information, were seen to have the potential to begin to strengthen the legitimacy and accountability crucial to the democracy which was slowly taking root in Bosnia.
Building a stable and lasting democracy based on the rule of law begins with a free flow of information. To achieve a civil society, therefore, there must exist the ability to exchange information and to communicate effectively. Information flow breeds truth and effects change. Equally, a civil society is premised on the rule of law, a market-oriented economy and a fully functioning educational system, all of which had been severely damaged in Bosnia during the hostilities.
A single desktop computer, linked to another computer anywhere in the world, can access potentially vital information that business professionals, educationalists, lawyers and state officials require. Through careful management of such information, obtained from the internet and elsewhere, a virtual infrastructure replaced the mortar, bricks and paper destroyed in the war and provided a temporary framework within which the emergent state could function until the physical infrastructure was rebuilt. In short, a national intranet was created which specific sections of the Bosnian population could tap into.
Unlike a conventional information infrastructure, the internet based system used in Bosnia utilized the international network of computers to provide access to information by connecting the economic, political, legal, social, educational and media communities to the outside world. Apart from making this connection to the wider international community of states, accessing much needed materials and information to aid in the reconstruction process, the internet and the national intranet were able to link members of the Bosnian community to each other. This was essential in a country where the ravages of war had destroyed other means of communication and disrupted the transportation system. Thus, by the strategic use of information technologies, businesses, libraries, government departments and court systems could begin to function again and legislative processes could be put into place almost immediately.
Access to information is equally important to conflict resolution. Conflicting parties who are unable to communicate or lack essential knowledge are much less likely to resolve their differences and establish a more cooperative relationship. Thus, in Bosnia, the potential for a lack of consensus among political opinion leaders could have proved to be a major setback to the establishment of sustained democracy. The virtual infrastructure that had been put in place supplied valuable information for the decision making processes used by the opinion leaders in Bosnia and greatly facilitated the peaceful resolution of a number of conflicts that had the potential to destabilize the civil society building which had gone before.
The systems put into place in Bosnia also facilitated the move away from the hierarchical decision making which had been a feature of all the old command economies and towards the hastening of team working and consensus based decision making. The system also demonstrated its potential to provide the flexibility needed by modern governments if they are to respond quickly to changing economic and political situations.
One issue of great importance in Bosnia, as to any modern company, was the phenomenon of information overload. To be able to capture what was relevant, important and necessary to the country and to discard what was not, was of essential. Thus, Bosnian academics, officials and others learned the difference between what was mere information and what was knowledge. Although advanced information technology was made available, it was emphasized throughout that people were more important to the process than any technology. Hence, a comprehensive program of training was initiated on an ongoing basis to develop the skills essential to the emergence and maintenance of a democratically based economy.
Even since Project Bosnia, undertaken only a relatively short time ago, technology and its applications have improved. Of particular relevance to what has become an ongoing programme, are the advances that have been made in knowledge and information management systems which will, to an even greater extent, facilitate the speedy implementation of the kind of virtual infrastructure developed in Bosnia. This project clearly demonstrated the potential of modern technologies to replace a physical infrastructure - in this case, one that had been severely damaged by war, and to provide the kind of information exchange essential to the day to day operations of a democratic civil society.
Yet knowledge management and the effective application of information systems are generally greatly under utilized in emerging economies and in the reconstruction of those countries in areas such as Asia Pacific damaged in the recent financial crisis. The Global Democracy Project now encompasses a wide range of private sector and US governmental partners. It has undertaken many other projects and missions around the world and is continually extending its remit.
Drawing on the experience of knowledge and project management in Bosnia and around the world, the Global Democracy Project will build on this and implement it in the US Joint Regeneration Programme for Kosovo. It will seek to use these tools to help in the economic, legal, social and educational reconstruction of Kosovo. This is a powerful example of how the application of knowledge management techniques can help society in the broadest sense.
Barry Ryland-Holmes is a Senior Counsel with New England Law Inc. and an independent consultant and trainer. He is Principal European Technical Consultant to the US Joint Regeneration Program for Kosovo. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org