Knowledge and development – beyond KM

I have much appreciated the attention given to issues of knowledge and how it can be applied to development in recent issues of The Broker. Your contributions on access to knowledge within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, development research policy and knowledge management within NGOs all reflect different aspects of these issues and their complexity and difficulty. I believe they also reflect an alertness in the Netherlands to their importance, which is not as widely appreciated elsewhere.

The article ‘Aid is a knowledge industry’ ( The Broker 5, December 2007) looks at practice within Dutch NGOs through the prism of knowledge management. In particular, it illustrates how there are differing approaches to knowledge management as a practice – a basic ‘knowledge as stock’ approach, which tries to manage explicit knowledge, and a more considered ‘knowledge as a learning process’, which attempts to contextualize knowledge and its use and allow for the expression of tacit knowledge. The article usefully allows the strengths and weaknesses of different understandings of knowledge management in development NGOs to be explained and analyzed, but it also begs certain questions.

The first, which is general problem of terminology rather than anything specific to the article, is that any discussion of ‘knowledge management’ rapidly falls foul of the fact that people interpret what it is in many different ways. Personally, I have no problem with the definitions used in the article but it needs to be recognized that others think the practice/subject is about all-embracing computer programmes, about algorithms, about process re-engineering: the list of interpretations is long.

Second, the question must be posed as to whether knowledge management practice, as it has evolved from its origins in organizations like British Petroleum and the US Army so far, actually has sufficient answers for sectors like international development or foreign affairs. The article ‘Foreign Affairs and knowledge management’ ( The Broker 2, June 2007) begins ‘No Dutch government department is involved in a more complex sphere of activities than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It encompasses the whole world, in all its facets’. Of course we should learn from what has gone before, but perhaps the challenge is not how to adapt existing knowledge management practice to development but, as a by product of working through the multiple challenges of knowledge in development, to revolutionize knowledge management. It is not as if knowledge management, however it is understood, is a static set of concepts and practice.
Finally, agreeing with the point that development is a ‘knowledge industry’, there is the question of whether good knowledge management alone is all you need to manage an organization effectively in a knowledge industry. I would argue that the demands of a knowledge industry have implications for all aspects of management. Unless you choose to expand the definition of ‘knowledge management’ to cover ‘all management functions’, the other implications for managing in the development sector, other than knowledge management, also need to be explored.

‘Aid as a knowledge industry’ ends with the statement ‘To make knowledge management work, NGOs need to adjust their vision of knowledge and their organizational structure’. This is, I would suggest, a misformulation. The issue for us is surely not about making knowledge management work but about making development work. What are the knowledge related challenges of specific relevance to development and how can they be met?

I would draw attention to four areas.

First, as you observe, ‘Without knowledge, providing aid is rather like taking a shot in the dark’. Knowledge management theory may wax lyrical about the long term organizational benefits of being a ‘learning organization’ and learning and improving is of course very valuable. However, the fundamental point about knowledge and development is that, on an operational or policy level, you cannot do your job without it. If you do not know what you are doing, you not only greatly increase the chances of wasting money you also run the risk of doing positive harm. However, and this is where development begins to get challenging, there are very few development decisions which offer a simple right or wrong choice or which rely on a single set of unambiguous knowledge. The history of agricultural development, for example, is full of initiatives that have successfully increased production without necessarily improving the local livelihoods of the poor, nutritional levels or the social position of women to think of just three of the possible developmental benefits which may be sought. Nor is it simply a question of reconciling competing technical solutions from diverse disciplines. Local knowledge, the residual impact of past initiatives, local perceptions on the history of past initiatives are all pivotal to the success or failure of an aid intervention. Study after study of development research, of monitoring and evaluation processes, of knowledge management in development organizations report problems with the flow of information from the grass roots upwards, particularly of types of information not already prioritized by senior managers. Yet without such information, how can decision makers really know what the reality is on the ground which their intervention is supposed to improve? As importantly, how can they have any confidence that local populations, on whose involvement and cooperation the outcome of most interventions depend, will respond in the way predicted? ‘Knowledge management’, as generally conceived, is not enough. Working in the development sector requires a capacity to source, handle and use multiple knowledges: in other words, the issues that arise in any situation where the people involved bring different types of knowledge and differing perceptions to bear. This is not yet something that many of us, or many organizations, are very good at.*1

Second, the development sector, like all others, is operating at a time of fast-moving informational developments in the way people produce, handle, use and exchange information. This is a challenge everywhere, but the cross-cultural and international character of the development sector creates additional issues. Contrary to the hype which surrounded the world summits on the ‘information society’ and the vision of a handful of global media conglomerates, the ‘information society’ is not a homogeneous global reality. To the extent it can be said to exist at all, it is a disorganized compilation of diverse informational developments with differing characteristics in different places.*2 Your article mentioned the enormous opportunities that ICTs offer for handling data, but they also facilitate many other forms of expression. The problem for the development sector is how to respond to new realities. Internally, most development organizations are informationally sclerotic. Staff struggle under an avalanche of emails and technical reports written by staff or by external consultants, which sometimes appear to have commissioned by the kilo. These long documents are used as ‘proof’ that issues have been properly researched and considered but in fact, due to time pressure, are increasingly seldom read apart from their executive summaries. Formal research, as study after study has indicated, is underutilized, whilst rapidly increasing volumes of often relevant information are circulating through other channels. Participatory videos, oral files and other forms of local expression are produced, often with development sector funding, but are seldom archived or disseminated in a way which makes them easily accessible or used within development organizations. Particularly in the North, and perhaps particularly amongst younger staff, a further tranche of development-related information circulates through websites, blogs and wikis, flagged by a plethora of social bookmarking initiatives. The internet may have been hailed as the greatest invention since the printing press, but most development organizations still face a huge challenge in working out how to use it and other new information artefacts to either improve their capacity to absorb multiple knowledges or to operate more efficiently.

Knowledge industries have different requirements of people and systems than do industries based on repetitive processes. Receiving, adapting and using knowledge becomes so central to the core tasks of so many staff that they have to become aware of and competent in the knowledge management processes relevant to their job. They can and should have access to specialist support but it is no longer sufficient for them to rely on ‘buying in stock’ from experts. This perhaps is the underlying dynamic of the controversies you describe in the article and the subsequent discussion of knowledge management in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To talk of ‘knowledge’ implies knowing, but also going beyond basic information. For that reason managing a knowledge industry may require more sophisticated understanding of information than that provided by predetermined workflow processes and data-driven management information systems.*3 In the development sector, seeking to promote change in a world scarred by long-standing power relationships and requiring an understanding of multiple perspectives and knowledges, much knowledge is likely to come from successful communication with others, a process which requires people, time and trust.*4 All of this has implications for how development organizations should be structured and staffed and how they should operate. This may not be easy in the various environments in which development ministries, NGOs and research institutes work. For all their differences, they share a strong external pressure to be productive, and to be seen to get work done. Rob de Vos may be impressed that in the UK, ‘70% of those selected for the civil service choose DfID’, but sadly, once they get there, their best hope of promotion is to conform to current British government dogma. This is that government is a service industry, the efficiency of which can be demonstrated by ever-fewer staff handling an ever greater throughput of work, or in DFID’s case, cash. This may be anathema to the type of development that even the British government may want to see, but the overall targets of the government take precedence.

Finally, there is the challenge of the public good. Most knowledge management theory focuses on the strategic and competitive benefits it offers individual organizations. This is certainly the most common reason also for its use within development organizations. Very few, except those which define themselves as information services, think of the wider development information environments in which they and their stakeholders operate or how their own informational work can support them. If they do, it is usually in order to push information out rather than to create channels for listening to others. The development potential of overlapping, collaboratively built information environments that offer development actors, working in whatever area (thematic or geographical) or at whatever level, spaces in which to deliver and receive information relevant to them through interactions over which they feel some ownership is seldom recognized. Yet surely if we are talking about knowledge for development, as well as knowledge within development organizations, the existence and health of such spaces are crucial.

Perhaps, in answer to the question as to how can the knowledge-related challenges to development be met, the answer is that we do not know. Paradoxically, this probably represents a significant advance on the position of ten years ago when the World Bank could imagine itself as the stockholder of sufficient knowledge to resolve all development problems if only it could be made available to those who needed it. I hope we know now that there is not one single type of knowledge which will lead to ‘development’; that knowledges and perceptions of knowledges have to flow in multiple directions within changing technological environments and organizational cultures, North and South; that a good governance agenda includes both listening to people and ensuring they have sufficient information to make their own choices, and applies to rich development organizations as much to cash-strapped Southern governments.

But how we build on these perspectives to make the development sector and the organizations within it more effective in the fight against poverty, ill-health and injustice is another question. There will not be a single answer. Each organization will need to find its own ways both to the necessary internal changes and to contribute to improving the development information environments as a whole. Hopefully, the exploration can be a collaborative exercise in which common research agendas are shaped and experiences shared. That at least is the purpose of the DGIS-funded networked research programme, Information and Knowledge Management and International Development: Emergent Issues (IKM Emergent). It is also shaping up to be a process to which I hope The Broker will continue to contribute.

Mike Powell, director, IKM Emergent Research Programme.



*1: This is discussed in more detail in Powell, M. (2006) Which knowledge? Whose reality? An overview of knowledge used in the development sector, Development in Practice Journal, 16: 6.

*2: UNRISD (2005) Understanding Informational Developments: A Reflection on Key Research Issues, Conference Report. Geneva: UNRISD.

*3: For recent research on the impact on local development processes of Northern insistence on using set management tools, see Wallace, T. (2006) The Aid Chain. Rugby, UK: ITDG Publishing.

*4: Rosalind Eyben, former head of social development at DFID, offers a convincing explanation of the centrality of good relationships if communication is to work and, from the perspective of this contribution, necessary knowledge and understanding is to emerge. Eyben, R. (2006) Relationships for Aid. London: Earthscan.


I have much appreciated the attention given to issues of knowledge and how it can be applied to development in recent issues of The Broker. Your contributions on access to knowledge within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, development research policy and knowledge management within NGOs all reflect different aspects of these issues and their complexity and difficulty. I believe they also reflect an alertness in the Netherlands to their importance, which is not as widely appreciated elsewhere.