Where is the Cooperation in International Development and Cooperation

Warning: The following was written in haste, has repetition and can very much stand a good edit. But if I don’t hit post, this won’t go out. Life is busy.

Earlier today my friend and respected KM/KS practitioner Ian Thorpe Tweeted a link to a consultancy announcement.


I blithely responded:

Now, I was pretty tough on Ian and did not offer any context. Later this morning he posted a really thoughtful blog post on the thinking behind his organization’s desire to have their own internal Knowledge Exchange Toolbox. I started to post a comment, but the comment grew so large I decided a post here was called for.

I’m going to quote a sizable chunk of his post and then my response. But if this interests you, please go read the whole thing.

But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.

People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.

The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.

Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.

Thanks for adding really useful context, Ian. I find your reasoning totally logical. I have also heard it many times at other organizations.

First, can we connect usage to the factors you noted above in the context of ownership? Has anyone objectively looked at how usage of such a tool matters if it is internal or external?

I strongly suspect usage is driven by other, less visible, more informal things like seeing other peers use the tools, having colleagues they value endorse or role model, etc. I don’t have data. But in considering this,  I wonder about our assumptions about

  1. the use of these toolkits in general, and
  2. the importance of the points you make toward use (and improvements going forward).

Or are we just masking or missing the deeper, underlying issues? I really don’t know and I’d really LIKE to know.

I confess, I get totally frustrated when my own clients hire me to do things that are already done. The KS Toolkit came out of that frustration after three separate clients asked for the SAME thing and the differentiating factor was not whether the tool was on a private intranet or public, but branding. Yes, branding. Does that change the value of the toolkit? Should it?  Now, that said, over time the existing Toolkit product needs improvement. And your focus on adaptation is to me SUPER IMPORTANT. The issue of how to create and improve cooperatively sourced products alone deserves another blog post. (Note to self). But lets go back to rationale for internal vs. cooperative, shared resources.

I think a lot of the points you make are right on, but I also worry about some of the underlying causes that make these ideas of “needing internal validation,” “our language” and stuff so important in a field like international development and cooperation. From where I sit, I thought our field has shared goals.   So why do we have these counterproductive insider, invented here, not invented here, we are different from everyone else, etc attitudes? What do they represent? Control? Power? Fear? Territoriality? Reliance on the status quo?

Do we really understand if and why we need our unique products? Or is our vision too limited to see both the value and possibility for, and the mechanisms to cooperatively create, use, and improve resources?

Let me get more specific and look at each of Ian’s reasons for a customized product.

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand. Having a sense of identity and ownership is important. But reinforcing organizational buzzwords and jargon does not help wider cooperation in the development field, no? Why might we want to reinforce this behavior? Think of the “beneficiaries” as well. Doesn’t our insider language and jargon distance us from them? 
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context. This is a compelling argument for internal platforms. Curation, adaptation and tailoring are really useful “value added” to a toolkit. But why not do that adaptation in a public, cooperative platform where others can learn from what you do, particularly those closest to your organizational domains. Why not do it WITH those others? Hm, as I write this, I wonder about shifting from “organizational” context to “practice” or “domain” context. So if tool X is more useful in working with Y population, lets make sure all of us working with Y population have access to that tool adaptation and can contribute towards its ongoing improvement?
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better. I can’t figure out the value of this being internal to an organization. Again, it relates to the practice, no? The global public good here is pretty darn high…
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects. Why can’t this happen in a cooperative platform? Heck, it might even contribute to better interorganization practices as a whole? And who is the arbiter of quality at the tool level when we rarely seem to care or pay attention at the application level where the IMPACT happens, right?
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.  Again, I can imagine this same value on a public/cooperative platform.

Adaptation is an important thing we ignore very often in KM. There is too much sense that replication and scaling are the solution. So I deeply respect this aspect of adaptation that I sense in Ian’s response.

My “yes, and” perspective  is that what you learn/do through adaptation is of value beyond your org. And insights come from beyond your org. And your org exists for public good, right? Why not build more nuanced structures that facilitate open, public, crowdsourced resources, ones that add that layers of adaptation – for example there are other orgs sharing UNICEF’s targets and goals who might also benefit from this need to improve tools.

I fully know that what I’m suggesting is not easy. We have learned through the KSToolkit.org that people DO have different needs, need the material organized or expressed differently. But those reasons don’t appear to be organizational. They appear to be driven by the users context and practice. And that these contexts and practices vary WITHIN organizations, and are often shared ACROSS organizations. And cooperatively creating and supporting a shared resource doesn’t fit into most organizational process or budgeting parameters, so when we see things like the KSToolkit.org we are seeing the work of committed individuals who make things happen, often in spite of their organizations. (And deep bow to all of you, including Ian who has been a toolkit supporter.)

I think there is a much larger, more valuable proposition of opening up some of this work across organizations and getting off the  focus on our organizations. Lets focus on our goals and the ultimate reason we are doing this. So every human being has the right to and access to food, clean water, housing, education and human dignity.

So what are the barriers? What is it we are really avoiding by sharing this “knowledge infrastructure?” Is it convenience? When we work for global public good, what is the cost of this “convenience?” What is keeping us from shifting towards more cooperative and networked structures which can tap a potentially broader and more diverse set of expertise, share the burden of refinement, adaptation, improvement and just simply reduce this recreation? We all need and benefit from the process of adapting and improving tools.  Many of the tools in a Knowledge Exchange toolkit will have relevance to wider audiences. At the same time, so much of what is in these toolkits is not rocket science. What IS rocket sciences is the organizational shifts and changes that actually enable people to USE this stuff. Toolkits are just a resource. And this opens another Pandora’s box for another blog post!

I’ll say it. Lets start breaking down more walls instead of using what is convenient and conventional to maintain the status quo. And a little starting point like KM and KS toolkits seems like an ideal laboratory to find new, cooperative, networked ways to maximize value and minimize waste. Let’s recreate and improve together. Otherwise we are supporting wheel reinvention.

And Ian, thanks for lighting me up to write about this today. You have helped me clarify my thinking. The next two things we need to consider is what it takes to cooperatively create global public goods (and a lot of good people have been doing some great work in other domains from which we can learn), and how to move the tools from toolboxes into practice!

via Why we sometimes need to reinvent the wheel | KM on a dollar a day.

  1. Hi Nancy

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Good points all in the rebuttal. I won’t try to add another layer of reply on your arguments as I agree with most of what you have written.

    I think perhaps part of the choice to develop an in-house toolkit rather than using a pubic crowd sourced one is primarily a tactical judgement on how best to foster greater knowledge sharing in UNICEF. While I agree in principle with the more open approach, and do try where I can to advocate for it and to use it, I’ve also not had that much success in promoting use of the KSToolkit or other fully open tools in the organization, and my recent experience with UN coordination tells me that we still have a way to go before we are ready to put ourselves into the hands of the collective 🙂
    So the current approach is to meet my organization half way by producing something which “belongs” to the organization but which draws extensively from the experience and wisdom of others. And something that will be shared freely with others for reuse and feedback afterwards.
    I want to change the status quo – but I’ve decided not to stand on principle right now because my gut tells me we’re only ready to go part way on this journey at this point in time.

    • My rational, practical brain is agreeing deeply with you Ian. My curmudgeonly crazy granny brain is continuing her effort to dominate me. 🙂

    • Ian, you continue to stimulate my thinking today. The 3 other challenges of toolkits (regardless of internal or external). I mentioned one (adaptation for specific practices.) Another one is that big chasm of “what tool should I use, when and what options do I have.” Toolkits, if we are unfamiliar with the tools, beg for a scaffold. Any insights there?

      Finally, I want to recognize that there is a great deal of quality and format variability on the KS toolkit which all of a sudden resurfaced the question of “what would be 2-3 really useful criteria to evaluate the quality of a toolkit page?” Does anyone have any ideas? I’d like to try them out on the KS toolkit. We also have, by the way, a user survey open on the toolkit if anyone wants to add their insights. https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KsToolkit

  2. I have had similar experiences…. being asked to build toolkits in general, but especially KM, is particularly painful, when you know there is something perfectly awesome out there with the KSToolkit. No amount of pressure has worked to discourage the reinventing of the wheel, so I had to painfully watch as the new wheel is created. I’ve decided that the point of a toolkit is never the final product in itself anyway, its the exercise to create it. Its the PROCESS to create it that helps build commitment, and more importantly, understanding of what is in the toolkit and how its used and how its organized. So I equate new KM toolkits to something of a whiteboard – type it up, draw it out, do some sense making, and then erase it at the end of the day because nobody will ever use it. I would say this about any toolkit and any research project for that matter. Like grad school,,,, its not the final paper that we commit to memory, its the research and sorting of information in our brains that builds our understanding of the subject area and help us form an opinion on it. So the exercise of building something from the ground is one way some people and organization just need to learn.

    • Natalie, I think that is a very rational way of looking at it. I often say “wheel reinvention” = learning. So if we can ENGAGE the USERS in the wheel reinvention, it does equal learning and can be very powerful. (Though I’m not 100% convinced about “erasing the whiteboard!!” LOL )

      If the people doing the reinvention are not the people who will use it, well, I think it is still wheel reinvention. 😉 So PROCESS and WHO IS ENGAGED IN THE PROCESS are really useful criteria to use as we think through this. I might add, it is also making good use of scarce resources. Thanks.

  3. Nancy

    On your other three challenges:
    1. What to use when. I think this is a critical element of a good toolkit especially if it is to be used by non-KM specialists (and will be part of the template for ours). Some of the what to use when is quite generalizable across organizations – and some is more specific. Providing examples of use can further help to reinforce this.
    2. On quality – I think the variable quality of contents on the KS toolkit is partly a function of the low bar to entry – which is a good thing but also comes at the expense of a lower level of ownership for ensuring quality. One possible way of dealing with this is as you say to have some kind of review team who review and identify quality material and give it some kind of “seal of approval” which helps users identifies what is thought to be the best content and also gives an incentive for contributors to polish their work. Another option which could be done in parallel is to include some form of user ratings where people can like or rate pages which also identifies “people’s choice” materials.

    What kind of criteria could we use to rate entries: I’d say completeness (does it fully describe an approach with enough information for you to be able to understand when to use it and to try it out), clarity (are the steps spelled out in a comprehensible way written in plain English), and feedback on how well it works in practice based on the information provided.

  4. Its simple to me.
    We pay UN(ICEF) (and they do not allow others to look into the admin books!!!!!) so we should be able to see / join / use whats going on in UN(ICEF).
    I have the same problem wit all the internal CoPs in other UN bodies.
    Indeed the first thing is always about the logo and the color(s).
    Which soon ‘develops’ in flagship publication.
    The WB released a report on KM lately: same strategy – look inward!! and same disasters.
    In the ninetees (indeed last century) companies like Arthur Anderson etc also (re)created their own KM practice with tools / methods / procedures / training ect, so I guess the UN is going the KM corporate way.
    UN: open up now!
    Cheers, Jaap

  5. Jaap – sometime I think you just follow me around to troll me 🙂

    I agree it’s simple in principle and the right way to go – but changing a large organization and creating effective communities of practice that are open to the wider world is a significant culture shift. There is an increasing interest and willingness to do it as there is a broad recognition that the best expertise is often outside the organization, and that we should be sharing what we are doing and learning with others on an ongoing basis not just though formal reporting – and we are starting very slowly to open up (and a few externally facing communities are forming)- but the reasons why we struggle with this and what we might do to shift it could be the topic of many blog posts.

    On the issue of opening up the books – our toolbox will of course be “creative commons” and in terms of what we do with the money we’re given – it’s actually more open that you think. UNDP were ranked no 1 in the recently released Aid Transparency initiative and UNICEF were one of the most improved over the previous year.

    My guess is we share the same ideal that the UN should soon be equally open with its knowledge as it now is with its finances, evaluations, audits and statistics (most of which only happened relatively recently) – but it’s easier to say than to do.

  6. Hi Ian,
    Yep, it’s a small world working/ thinking out load about IM and KS.
    Kudos on the UN(ICEF) progress and yes I do think development has to be done on the ground. I am not conversant with the list/ prize/ ranking of UN orgs.
    I ran into this/ your thread through Nancy’s company FullCircle on being busy knowledge sharing and learning on the ground; topics I follow.
    But be assured, it’s not you I troll, just the insane admin/ overhead/ reinventing square wheels volume in development.
    Perhaps the need for KM in UNs is an expression of Stiglitz adagio ‘scan global and adapt (or re-invent) local’ 🙂 The within UN orgs struggle to develop is the local and KM4Dev is the global! Do re-invent KS-tools 🙂
    Last, I look forward to your blog and I miss Ewen’s.
    Cheers, Jaap

  7. Hey Nancy, all,

    Thanks for the great comments and conversation (and Jaap for the invitation to blog ;). I didn’t blog about this – though my next post relates to this somehow – but have commented on Ian’s blog, fyi.

    Great, Nancy and all, that you/we all keep championing open knowledge in #GlobalDev. Considering the amount of people wanting to set up the latest ultimate portal on xyz, toolkit on abc, that gives all the more reason to go for the most collective efforts. On this line, Ian, I really like your suggestions re: user feedback and reviewers’ comments to ensure a better quality – that’s part of the reason why Wikipedia keeps getting better: it is actively monitored and continually improved based on gaps identified.

    Should the KS toolkit be moved over to Wikipedia even?



  8. Nancy, Ian …

    First, I’m with Nancy on this, having worked in international development for some years, particularly

    “Adaptation is an important thing we ignore very often in KM. There is too much sense that replication and scaling are the solution. So I deeply respect this aspect of adaptation that I sense in Ian’s response”.

    Adaptation is key, which is why I use ‘complex adaptive’ systems … etc to inform the theoretical and practical work I do.

    However … the other ‘elephant in the room’ is that stuff (‘knowledge’, etc) only really gets shared when there is something in it for the sharer.

    So in our small corner (i.e. with Jenny Mackness, Simone Gumtau) we start with developing tools for reflection, which are, really, tools for the practitioner / learner / worker to reflect on and research their own practice, for themselves.

    And then … later … to decide whether, how, and with whom they are prepared to share that stuff.

    Currently working on two such tools – nested narratives, and footprints for emergence. And also trying to reflect and theorise on these kinds of expressly collaborative tools, which create value in TWO domains – the personal and the collaborative, the private and the shared,not one – whether it is collaborative or not.

    And we are now shifting the perspective on our own ‘adaptive tools’ to design them explicitly as ‘probes’ – see here: http://learning-affordances.wikispaces.com/Probes

    • Roy, good to “see” you here in the comments. It has been a while since our path’s cross, but I’m always picking up threads, particularly via Jenny’s blog! Second, I looked into the wiki (http://learning-affordances.wikispaces.com/Probes) and WOW, you may have singlehandedly diverted me from what I’m supposed to be doing today. RICH RICH RICH and very resonant to one of my roles as a tutor/mentor for a course in the Netherlands (via Skype and Google hangout). I’m going to mine that! Thanks.

      It might be really interesting to convene an online conversation (synch or asynch) with folks like you and Jenny, Ian, Jaap, Tom Wambeke (who commented directly on Ian’s blog) and others about this, along with our volunteer team from the KStoolkit. I think there is some great learning we can all use/share/create!

  9. First of all many thanks to you all for sharing your passions and thoughts. That allows me to literally see you engaged in this conversation and wanting to join in!

    … and it evokes my memories about the km4dev gathering in Brussels 2009, when I met you all for the first time. After 10 years of implementing projects in organizational learning, you helped me jump over the fence into facilitation. Now reflecting why I actually never really got deeply into KM/KS in the development sector … The first thing that comes to mind is that I’ve actually never been good at fighting against barriers.

    However, the jump I made was significant, and I strolled around in various practices around and found out for myself, that no single profession or approach can be the solution. What stood out for me, was the threefold of practices of DESIGNING – MANAGING and LEADING, which need to dance together for purposeful action, significant results, and thriving organizations and people.

    The question that emerged from there for us: How can we discover a simple path to thriving projects? Or in other words – how to have a great garden party where the different harvests of all neighbors are welcome? And what does it take for people to engage “over the fence” across disciplines, organizations, regions for thriving projects?

    A huge playground to have fun playing on and help making it better.

    With the intention to start with one little thing, to make projects better and if that creates value for people, we’d love to continue and co-write a book together with people from different disciplines. Now we get very positive resonance for our project canvas and are happy to continue. (www.overthefence.com.de)

    My dream actually would be to first focus on a over-the-fence academy and to co-author a book from there. The picture at the moment is a diverse group of practitioners who would love to share and learn simple tools and practices to make people in projects thrive and deliver significant and purposeful results… and develop an emerging curriculum together. Across organizations – over the fence – focused on projects in complexity.

    What do you think about this? Would love to hear your thoughts / feedback.

    Nancy, I found you writing out laud about the liberating structures and love it… the intention of “Including and Unleashing Everyone” sounds very familiar to me …

    Once I started playing with the “over the fence” metaphor, I found it everywhere, e.g.: What does it take for development organizations to engage over the fence?

    Would a focus on a concrete challenge they all share – like sustainable projects – be a chance?

  10. Hi Nancy, nice to cross paths again. Lets set up a synch conversation sometime soon – let me know when it would suit, and I’ll get Jenny on board as well.

    Lets do it …

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  12. Nancy

    thank you so much for your wonderful questions. I don’t have the answers, but will try to share my thoughts …

    So what would an over the fence academy look like?
    In my mind, I see a crew of diverse group of people from different organizations and contexts collaborating in service of offering simple and powerful tools and practices for people in projects. Starting to create prototypes that serve projects of crew members and testing the value we create by it with a wider audience as we go… in circles of acting, reflecting, and connecting. Developing as a thriving living organism.

    What might its relationship be to “over the shoulder?”

    I feel it is as connected as it is a complementary perspective. Over the should learning to be is a beautiful metaphor for how we learn, while over the fence is more focusing on where we learn: Who’s shoulder do you want to look over in order to learn?

    Maybe the short version of what overthefence learning could be about is: widening our horizons while watching over the neighbors’ shoulder. A neighbor seen as someone who works and thinks differently, with experiences in other contexts.

    There seem to be different levels of #overtheshoulder and #overthefence learning, which can dance together beautifully:
    You can stay where you are and watch over the shoulder of someone in your own garden…
    You can stay where you are and watch over the shoulder of your neighbor…
    you can move within the comfort zone of your garden and get closer to the fence to see a bit more and have a chat, too…
    Or you can jump over the fence to work together in the same field, while watching over the shoulder of each other….

    I wonder if we are talking at finding a place between the individuals co learning and organizations facilitating collaboration?
    What we would love to bring in the world with overthefence.com.de, is a space for individual co learning and making projects thrive within and across organizations”. That might be a different lens than “organizations facilitating collaboration” or I am not sure I understand what you mean with the term (organizations facilitating). People can facilitate and people want to create sth. of value. Projects are (hopefully) supposed to create something of value and still so many projects are not delivering what they intent to for many reasons.

    Isn’t that a wonderful playground for facilitation? What if successful projects are the purpose of collaboration that bring people from various departments within one and across organizations together? What if that’s the cross-silo playground to build momentum for a thriving culture and practice of collaboration?

    does that makes sense – or parts of it?

  13. Karen, Nancy …

    Over the fence / shoulder learning … great metaphor. And looking over someone’s shoulder / fence requires a bit of trust to allow for ‘being looked over’.

    So the question is, how to establish that unobtrusive trust …

    This is exactly what we had to deal with in developing the nested narratives method / ‘probe’ (http://learning-affordances.wikispaces.com/Methodology).

    We wanted to find out how and what people were learning – people already working in professions – from Early Learning to Paramedics. And we wanted to avoid them just saying ‘we are learning what’s in the curriculum’ – we already had that information. We wanted, precisely, to be able to look over their shoulders and find out what and how they were learning things that mattered to them.

    So we set out to find, refine, test, and develop a method in which learners would allow us, in a sense, to eavesdrop on how they were learning the stuff that mattered to them – in their lives, their work, their professions, their communities (or all of the above).

    Here is an extract from a document about the key aspects:

    “Nested narratives provide a prompted – but non-intrusive – conversation in which the narrator can explore, capture and (if they wish) share stories about what matters to them in their own learning and personal development. These narratives often overlap with stories about what matters to the institutional providers of projects and learning events. But nested narratives are, firstly, stories about what matters to the narrator, and are often deeply personal, tacit knowledge, embedded in much wider contexts – and narratives – than the learning event / course / institution.

    The narrators of nested narratives are generally willing to share their stories with others, but not necessarily immediately. It can take a while for them to process and become comfortable with sharing this knowledge. Almost invariably they do share their knowledge, and are happy to use if for further collaboration”.

  14. Roy,
    thank you so much for bringing trust in here. I absolutely agree. It is so important… using story for sharing and learning is beautiful and powerful at the same time. What I’d love to see is the #overthefence learning starting with a diverse group of practitioners ourselves, inviting more and more people to join. I think participating and creating the space for sharing, as well as an open reflection within the system does also help to create trust. That’s my assumption without having a research based evidence…