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Putting knowledge into practice

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:30


Bonnie Cheuk – Director, KM, The British Council
John Borton – ALNAP Learning Support Office, ODI

John Young – Programme Manager, RAPID, ODI

  1. John Young introduced the meeting, pointing out that 'knowledge' and learning are at the core of evidence-based policymaking, and raising the questions: How is information converted into knowledge, and when is knowledge influential? How do organisations use knowledge, and are they able to learn from past experiences?
  2. Bonnie Cheuk presented the different ways in which the British Council is trying to promote internal knowledge sharing. The mission of the British Council is to promote understanding abroad of the UK's values, ideas and achievements. The Council works in 109 countries and deals with hundreds of enquiries every day. With staff spread out across the globe, it is vital for them to be able to access information quickly and easily. Bonnie suggested that in this context, KM is about 'connecting employees with the right information or the right person at the right time'.
  3. In December 2002 three existing divisions in the Council (with responsibilities for the intranet, global databases, and records management) were grouped together to form the KM Team, headed by Bonnie. She has spent the past five months conducting a knowledge audit of the organisation, and has found many encouraging trends. For example, there are over 100 Communities of Practice (CoPs) that have been set up already. However, there are also many challenges. Just one example of this is the fact that many intranet sites are outdated, and staff contact information is missing.
  4. The British Council is developing a KM strategy which includes elements such as a content improvement project, institutionalising a knowledge sharing network, continuing to build and nurture CoPs, improved technologies, and new ways of monitoring and evaluating the benefits of knowledge sharing.
  5. A few visible results of the KM strategy have already appeared. The Development Services Team of the Council needed ready access to specific information, such as consultant CVs and lists of partners. These have now been placed on a specific intranet page and are easily accessible to all employees worldwide. A similar support and resources page has been set up for other groups, including the Justice Information Network.
  6. Achievements so far include: improved access to key contacts, two dedicated knowledge management staff; raised awareness of KM including in the business plan; strengthened CoPs; and revamped intranet pages. There are still many challenges ahead. How can the KM Team ensure that new content comes onto the intranet and old content is taken off? How can they encourage staff to contribute and see the benefits of KM?
  7. Bonnie concluded with a model of their KM framework and some key elements of their strategy to build a knowledge sharing culture.
  8. John Borton presented the results of the Learning Support Office Test in Malawi, run by ALNAP (The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, hosted by ODI). The ALNAP concepts of KM and learning Annual Review 2002 represented the first attempt to assess KM and learning in the humanitarian sector. The LSO concept had originated in 1999 and had been market tested in Orissa, East Timor and Sierra Leone, but it still needed to be operationalised. It was decided that the concept would be tested out in a 6 month trial project, a Learning Support Office (LSO) in Malawi.
  9. The LSO was set up at the end of August 2002 (and ran until the end of March 2003) to support learning by and between organisations, teams and individuals involved in the ongoing humanitarian operation. The office was staffed by around 10 people, half of whom were locally recruited.
  10. LSO activities cover three broad areas: 'learning in', 'lateral learning' and 'learning out'.
  11. Learning in (i.e. learning from previous operations):
    1. The LSO set up a resource centre with a thousand documents, both general and Malawi-specific. Documents were delivered to relief workers as and when they needed them.
    2. LSO carried out literature reviews and analysis, e.g. on HIV/AIDS and food security.
    3. A lot of 'oiling' had to be done, i.e. participating in meetings and inputting/transferring knowledge.
  12. Lateral learning (i.e. learning between organisations during the operation). This was the most successful part of LSO's activities. A manual for relief workers in Malawi was developed and tested through a workshop-manual-training cycle. LSO arranged 3 workshops for 70 field officers, developed a manual from the information gathered at the workshop, which then formed the basis for training over 250 other relief workers.
  13. Learning out (i.e. retaining knowledge for use in later operations). This was a rather brief phase and included archiving and handing over the resource centre, as well as sharing lessons with C-SAFE. A collective lessons learning workshop had been envisaged, but the agency personnel did not have the space to start such a process due to programme implementation pressures.
  14. Provisional lessons from the LSO concept: Most importantly, a LSO can add value in an ongoing operation. However, the office must be set up early t be present during the planning stage. Other lessons are to bring key items of equipment with you rather than relying on local suppliers. Take more care in staff recruitment. Ensure more explicit support from agency HQs.
  15. Lessons for learning and KM: There is a lack of readily accessible documents in both hard copy and electronically (CDRoms would be useful). But in an emergency situation it is not enough to make existing and information available; information has to be condensed and individually tailored to the needs of busy relief workers. There was some defensive behaviour, especially from the larger agencies, and this must be taken into account when setting up a LSO.
  16. In conclusion, there is a definite need for an independent and respected learning office that can distribute information, provide advice, facilitate connections, and host meetings and evaluations.
  17. Comments and Questions from the audience:
    1. Good knowledge systems are expensive and time-consuming. Learning systems are not new. Rockefeller was doing this sort of thing systematically over 20 years ago. Senge's book The 5th Discipline (which was written over a decade ago) covers much of this ground and it was surprising that the humanitarian sector was still in the early stages of implementing such thinking. Donors are often unwilling to provide the resources to maintain good learning systems over the long term.
    2. Is the British Council KM strategy only concerned with internal knowledge? Bonnie: No, this is only one part of the picture. We also want to capture externally generated knowledge that is useful to our work.
    3. Could the LSO activities have been undertaken by existing institutions in Malawi rather than setting up a new and temporary office? John: In Lilongwe it was most expedient to set up a new office, as the university is three hours away and the library did not have many documents on relief operations. But in other countries the situation may be different and then it would be advantageous to align with existing institutions.
    4. Does the British Council encourage individuals to communicate directly as well, rather than relying mostly on technology to carry the KM process forward? Bonnie: We try to do both.
    5. What would the implications of the LSO lessons be for researchers who write big reports? Will anyone ever have time to read them? Should we be doing something different? John: Busy relief workers need very practically oriented knowledge and many products of research are not of direct or immediate use to them. The humanitarian sector desperately needs an easily searchable library of useful materials: they exist, its just that they need pulling together and being made readily available in ongoing operations in appropriate formats.


The sixth event in the 'Does Evidence Matter?' meeting series looked at knowledge and learning, which are fundamental to evidence-based policy-making. The event touched on several key questions like: Do organisations learn? What incentives do people need to learn? How to convert information into knowledge. How can we best manage knowledge in international networks? Who buys knowledge?