Over more than 70 years, the UN system has accumulated a substantial amount of knowledge, particularly in the development domain. If captured and mobilized, it could greatly enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of the world organization. Yet, while most UN entities would describe themselves as “knowledge organizations,” there actually are few examples of effective knowledge management, in large part because of the transformations required. One of the UN’s knowledge managers describes his experiences and offers views on what would it take to succeed.
If knowledge is what one knows, then knowledge management (KM) is expeditiously getting what you know to the person who needs to know it. In practice KM has been a challenge for the UN development system (UNDS), whose value lies primarily with what its people know and can apply. Few UN organizations have been successful in achieving KM, in spite of repeated efforts.
The UN’s Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) is about to issue the results of its second study on KM in the UN system (the first was in 2007), “based on the conviction that knowledge is a valuable core asset of its organizations and its best comparative advantage.” The study has been extensive—some 175 people were interviewed and over 6,600 staff returned questionnaires. Twenty organizations were identified as having some aspects of a KM strategy, and some were working well. But overall the study concludes that “knowledge management remains a challenge for the UN system organizations in their attempt to systematically and efficiently develop, organize, share and integrate knowledge to achieve their cross-cutting goals.”
Why is knowledge management so important to the UN system, and why has its introduction been so difficult? This briefing briefly describes three UNDS initiatives: the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to strengthen professional competence; the UN Country Team in India to connect to the country’s professional communities; and UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to become a premier think tank on the continent. It offers insights about why they ultimately failed, and it suggests what could and should be done to improve the UN’s management of its knowledge.
Why the UN needs KM
Knowledge is acquired through study, observation, sharing, and one’s own experience. Knowledge itself cannot be “managed”; rather, KM refers to the management of knowledge flows—into, through and out of an organization. As such, KM enhances overall organizational effectiveness by consolidating collective individual knowledge and applying it to new situations and environments, continually improving and refining what works and what does not in a given context.
Three characteristics of knowledge make KM critical to improving the effectiveness of the UN system, and particularly organizations concerned with development:
• Knowledge is needed to improve professional competency. Only practitioner knowledge can improve the effectiveness of a practice—the processes that make up the features of a profession. For development professions, then, knowledge is required to improve development effectiveness.
• Experiential knowledge is as important as expert knowledge. Knowledge about “how” to succeed in any particular setting is very different from the knowledge about “what” the success looks like. The “how” is about the soft skills necessary to deal with the unusual and highly contextual set of circumstances for every situation, which is especially true for development knowledge. Development is essentially about change, and change does not follow a textbook.
• Knowledge is measured in person-years. Someone in a profession for 40 years has acquired 40 years of knowledge about it. And so a 5,000-strong community of professionals with an average of 20 years of work experience will have 100,000 years of knowledge.
With such a large pool of individual knowledge, every UN development organization striving for relevance and impact should be tapping into and applying what their staff members and professional partners know.
The three cases were serious attempts to introduce KM, but all encountered problems either starting up or being sustained. What can be learned from these three efforts? What are the common threads that held them back?
Essentially, knowledge is the lifeblood of a knowledge organization. To succeed, knowledge management must be fully integrated into how each organization operates. Introducing KM as a core business process requires transformational change, which is complex and difficult. No matter how sound, valuable, and relevant the idea, it will fail unless two conditions are met: that it is directed by a dedicated and persistent transformational leader; and that it has buy-in and commitment from the full management team.
The three examples demonstrate what happens when these conditions are missing. In the UNDP case, leadership from the Executive Office was absent from the outset. The initiative was championed by only one bureau, the Bureau for Development Policy, and was never fully accepted by the others in spite of the existence of an organization-wide steering committee. When the host bureau proposed moving the Roadmap’s management to the Executive Office, the offer was rebuffed.
For organizations to succeed with transformational change, an important job for the transformational leader is to win over the management by persuading them that such dramatic change is essential for their organization to adapt to a new environment. Many UN managers, perceiving that their organization is in no danger of being declared irrelevant, will not see why the leader has to shake things up. In addition, in the UN it is exceedingly difficult to remove or even to redeploy anyone. The result is that for many of the key managers, the motivation for change may not be particularly pressing or persuasive.
In different circumstances, UNDP could perhaps have become a leader on development thinking; the UNDS in India could have continued to empower the country’s professional communities as collective policy influencers; and ECA could have provided Africa’s policymakers with the best, most informed advice that global knowledge can provide.
The three cases show that bringing knowledge management into the UN system is not about the introduction of systems and processes but something more profound: transformation. And to succeed, such change in the UN requires inspired leadership, motivated managers, and fundamental alterations in organizational culture.
The world badly needs the UN development system to be the best that it can be. Transforming it through KM could make that happen.
Steve Glovinsky retired from UNDP in 2010, having worked since 1975 mainly on project and program design and organizational effectiveness—administrative decentralization; institutional capacity-building; planning; and structural reform. Most recently he was a special adviser to the executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.