posted 26 Oct 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 3
Developing a holistic KM framework
When ODI, an independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues, received sponsorship to fund an internal knowledge-management initiative, it was determined to capitalise on its staff’s extensive knowledge. Ben Ramalingam and Mikko Arevuo take us behind the scenes of the project and explain how ODI decided how knowledge should be managed to best enhance competitive advantage.
The development of a knowledge-management strategy in the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK-based development sector organisation, has been a learning experience for all involved. The institute’s KM strategy objectives and results are explored in this article and the challenges that emerged from the initial knowledge management audit are also examined. The knowledge-management initiative was positioned as a key focus of the organisation’s strategy and the knowledge audit was used to identify existing organisational knowledge and knowledge gaps. Obstacles for successful knowledge management were identified and factored into the knowledge-management-development processes.
ODI is a UK-based independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues. The institute is engaged in a wide range of policy-related research based around the following themes: rural policy, international economic development, humanitarian policy, poverty and public policy. ODI works alongside partners in both the public and private sectors to inspire and inform policy and practice, leading to the reduction of poverty, the alleviation of suffering and the achievement of sustainable livelihoods in developing countries. This is achieved by combining high-quality applied research, practical policy advice and policy-focused dissemination and debate with policy makers and other stakeholders in both the UK’s industrial north and the developing south.
The ODI knowledge-management initiative is a three-year project undertaken in collaboration with London South Bank University and funded by the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme (KTP), which is sponsored by the UK Department of Trade and Industry. The KTP scheme provides substantial grant funding, expertise and resources to UK-based organisations seeking to improve their business performance over the medium term.
KM drivers and objectives
ODI operates in an increasingly competitive environment. The institute is fully reliant on research grants, commissioned research and sales of publications to cover its operating costs. In order to maintain its competitive position in the development-research marketplace, ODI recognised that it needed to develop an organisation-wide knowledge-management system to be able to capitalise on its staff’s extensive knowledge of development-policy issues.
From the outset of the knowledge-management initiative, a cross-organisational working group was formed in order to define and articulate what knowledge meant to ODI as a research think tank, and how knowledge should be managed to enhance competitive advantage. As a result of the evidence gathered from an extensive knowledge audit, five key knowledge-management-strategy aims were identified and aligned with ODI’s overall strategy objectives. It was clear to the members of the working group that if knowledge-strategy development were to succeed, it had to be made an integral part of the organisation-wide strategy. Furthermore, the knowledge-management strategy needed to be supported and accepted by all members and stakeholders of the institute as a strategic orientation.
The working group defined five specific knowledge-management-strategy aims:
- To improve institutional memory;
- To develop internal and external communications;
- To reduce unnecessary duplication of work around the institute;
- To improve the way that current and historical knowledge was used;
- To extract maximum value from knowledge held both internally and externally.
Once implemented, ODI hoped that the knowledge-management strategy would make the work of the institute better co-ordinated and more coherent as a whole. Knowledge-management-strategy implementation would establish an adaptive framework for using knowledge, within which members of the institute could operate effectively as individuals and as members of inter-disciplinary and inter-departmental teams. Finally, the institute hoped that the knowledge-management strategy would develop working practices that were simple, systematic, measurable and easy to maintain.
Below are five key knowledge-strategy outcomes that were formulated to guide the KM development process:
- Increased efficiency and effectiveness of core business activities through improved learning and knowledge sharing across the institute;
- Easy access to essential information for core business activities through improved electronic systems and processes;
- Employees learn more and share their knowledge more effectively through enhanced capacity, improved culture and appropriate incentives;
- A physical and electronic work environment that fosters learning and knowledge sharing;
- The short-term capacity to implement the knowledge-management strategy established.
As the key outcomes indicate, the knowledge-management initiative would aim to cut across the organisational fabric, including culture, incentives and performance measurement, as well as systems and processes. In the long term, ODI anticipated that knowledge-management-strategy activities would become integrated within its routine programmes and plans as a seamlessly integrated component of the overall strategic-management process.
The knowledge audit
Much of the initial work was focused on an extensive knowledge audit – a six-month qualitative research programme conducted across the entire organisation. The audit was conducted in two phases: the first phase set out to gather data on the existing knowledge-management practices and pools of knowledge within ODI; the second was used to test out the initial knowledge-management-strategy hypothesis. The audit methodology included different semi-structured interviews, know-how workshops and after-action reviews, depending on the working practices and preferred communications methods of target groups. Raw data from both phases of the audit was analysed in a number of documents that were made available to all staff through the institute’s intranet, in keeping with the organisation’s strategy of openness and inclusiveness to promote debate and buy-in.
The knowledge audit found that the knowledge used in the institute fell into three major categories, which included both tacit and explicit forms of knowledge:
- Research knowledge – including explicit knowledge, which the institute published in various written media. Crucially, it was found that ODI staff also had a wealth of tacit research knowledge regarding both their subject area as well as research methods, and many staff members had an implicit understanding of how their work fitted into the wider development sector context;
- Operational knowledge – this tended to be largely tacit and hence undocumented. Operational knowledge was generally centred around the understanding of how a staff member was able get things done in the organisation. This category of knowledge ranged from how to book a room to where to go for specific information; from how much fundraising is required for research fellows to meet their annual performance targets to understanding the conventions of writing a research literature review;
- Project-management knowledge – this was about the work of the ODI; for example, knowing what projects were currently active across the institute, how many times a funder had been approached in the past, knowing what percentage of funding bids were won and so on.
Based on our previous experience with other organisations, the knowledge-audit results were unsurprising in both their nature and their form. Most organisations report similar findings in terms of their knowledge base, be it product-development knowledge or operational knowledge in a sales or customer-service department. However, the challenges and obstacles to successful knowledge-management development are always organisation specific. These roadblocks are usually a manifestation of the organisation’s business, or raison d’être, which are deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of any organisation.
ODI’s knowledge audit identified a number of obstacles to developing successful knowledge management within the institute:
- Lack of time, often compounded by the pressures of the performance-target system and other financial considerations;
- Internal processes that were not conducive to knowledge sharing;
- Absence of incentives that related to knowledge sharing and learning activities;
- An individualistic academic research culture;
- The incremental nature of change within ODI;
- Working conditions that were not conductive to frequent and informal knowledge sharing.
The knowledge audit respondents also made it clear that any strategic response to resolving knowledge-management problems would need to tackle these obstacles.
Tackling the challenges
By combining the knowledge-audit results with identified knowledge-strategy outcomes, the working group commenced a systematic development of knowledge-management tools that would enable the outcomes to be realised. A number of specific actions and enablers – both people and information-systems-based tools – aimed to address each of the five outcomes separately. The following specific actions were designed to address the five outcome areas:
In order to increase efficiency and effectiveness of core business activities though improved learning and knowledge sharing throughout the institute, a systematic application of simple, quick and time-efficient tools were developed. These included:
- Peer-group assistance, after-action reviews, and challenge sessions;
- Project pages for all projects on the intranet to provide easy access to basic information about each activity, with links to project documents;
- Project-cycle templates for all projects with clear procedures and guidance notes for key stages;
- Resources for information, communication and knowledge in all project budgets.
To provide easy access to essential information for core business activities through improved electronic systems and processes, a number of actions across various administrative areas of ODI (including the finance office, administrative services and the library) were undertaken. The purpose of the actions was to align the various activities across the institute by:
- Including a set of basic project information within the financial MIS and an interface on the intranet, which provided links to other information systems;
- Establishing a set of online systems and electronic document archives on the intranet, including contacts, funders, projects, proposals, internal capacities, attendance records and other support processes;
- Expanding the role of the information centre as a hub for internal information sharing as well as access to external resources;
- Developing a set of standards for document and other media production, including workflow procedures, templates, logos, presentations, CVs and so on.
To empower the staff to learn more and share their knowledge more effectively through enhanced capacity, improved culture and appropriate incentives were critical to the transformation of the institute into an efficient learning organisation. A set of specific actions were designed to supplement the institute’s existing personnel management and development procedures:
The promotion of learning and knowledge sharing as critical to ODI’s success and future by senior management;
The incorporation of learning and knowledge sharing within the organisation’s human-resources procedures, including job descriptions, recruitment, induction, annual appraisal and personal-development plans, exit interviews and hand-over procedures;
Provision of formal and informal, real and virtual training and support in knowledge-management approaches, systems and tools;
Fostering inter-departmental working groups on knowledge-management issues to promote increased inter-departmental knowledge sharing.
A physical and electronic work environment that fostered learning and knowledge sharing was essential to facilitate electronic and face-to-face learning and knowledge sharing. Work in this area is still underway as ODI will be joined by another KTP associate to work on the design and implementation of the IT-based components of the knowledge-management strategy. Furthermore, a major re-organisation of the physical workspace is underway that will make substantial improvements to the working conditions for all staff and will create an environment that fosters collaboration and knowledge sharing.
By providing dedicated resources, both human and financial, to operationalise the strategy, short-term capacity to implement the knowledge-management strategy was established.
The next step
Knowledge management is often viewed as a discrete and separate organisational activity that falls outside the mainstream strategic domain. As a pure knowledge organisation, ODI made a decision to incorporate knowledge management into its overall strategic focus and capability. This decision has been endorsed and is being advocated by senior management, and will therefore have a wide-ranging impact on all organisational activities.
The knowledge-management-process flow was programmed in a systematic way from the outset. The process was designed to identify the institute’s existing knowledge bases and identify any roadblocks that may prevent effective knowledge management. The knowledge audit was a critical component in this process as it enabled the project team to design specific knowledge-management interventions and tools, and perhaps most importantly, the knowledge-audit forum was used to empower employees and encourage them to own the knowledge-management initiative.
ODI is currently action testing its knowledge-management tools and, based on the pilot results, will then review them. The institute is also developing knowledge-management measurement criteria that will include both quantitative and qualitative indicators to measure the impact of the knowledge-management tools on the effectiveness of the organisation as stated in the strategic outcomes.
Once this work, including the new systems design and implementation, has been carried out, ODI’s knowledge-management strategy should have been embedded into the organisation’s routine working practices. At this point, there may not be a need to use the term ‘knowledge management’ as it has become internalised as part of the every day business strategy.
Ben Ramalingam is KM associate, Overseas Development Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mikko Arevuo is KTP supervisor/visiting lecturer at London South Bank University. He can be contacted at email@example.com