An External View of the IFAD KM Assessment

Structures for Reflection and Meaning Making

Nancy White, Full Circle Associates
Last week I was in Rome at IFAD's headquarters working with their knowledge management (KM) core team on an assessment of their KM strategy for the last year. It is gratifying to work with an intelligent and engaged team and to participate in a thoughtful reflective process. Over the five days, I learned and deepened my process knowledge and was able to witness an inflection point in IFAD's KM strategy. I'd like to share some of that experience. Please, take this simply as an external reflection!

What Does KM Mean at IFAD?

Our mandate was to assess what has happened in the last year of implementation of IFAD's knowledge management (KM) strategy. First off, this is interesting to me because while I recognize the organizational and corporate acceptance of the term "Knowledge Management," I personally don't believe in it. I believe information can be managed, but we can only create the conditions for knowledge. The term "Knowledge Sharing" (KS) approximates the meaning of knowledge flow, but it is still insufficient to embrace all the bits and life cycles of knowledge and its application. What about knowledge creation, re-appropriation, blocking, sharing, reifying, etc.? These are important bits!

As we began to "unpack" people's perceptions of the state of KM at IFAD, this question of a fuller view of KM came up. People's understanding of "what is KM" at the start of the initiative was probably fairly simple and theory based. Something they could agree was "good" but probably not very connected to each person's day to day working reality. That's one way to introduce something new.

Over time, that understanding grows. Over the course of five days of paired, small group and large group conversations, we surfaced a more complex vision of what KM means at IFAD.

One concept that may be useful is that of "stocks and flows" to help people understand that not all knowledge can or will be codified, thus support for knowledge flow through communities, networks, reflections and conversation can be a key asset for IFAD.

Another issue around the definition of KM is the role of technology. Some people place a lot of faith in technological solutions and urge a move away from "spoon feeding" people the materials they are looking for, particularly people who are in a position of power to demand this sort of service. Others recognize the importance of the "social filter" of a knowledgeable person in finding the correct document. Both are important, but developing appropriate technologies and use practices to reduce the human cost of ordinary retrieval would provide more time where the expertise of the individual really made a difference. So both are needed.

My external view across the conversations was that some have developed a deeper understanding of KM, while some still are thinking information management or information technology were KM. They are elements of KM. We created a visual to capture some aspects of KM and it seems useful to continue the dialog until there is a wide spread understanding of the depth and breadth of KM. From that, it is easier to see value, practice strategically and see results.

Collison's and Parcel's KM Self Assessment

Last year IFAD used Chris Collison and Geoff Parcel's KM Self Assessment framework to get a baseline understanding of IFAD's KM and KS work. Basically it identifies 8 key KM practices and asks people to evaluate them across a maturity continuum:

Consistent action
The way we work

In the first year, the self evaluation sat between the "reaction" and "action" areas. Again, this year, most of the self-ratings were at the same place. But the question is, did people have a deeper understanding of what the competencies really meant, thus an ability to more critically evaluate them in action? There is always a risk of "check the box" with these sorts of instruments. It recalls the challenge of evaluating the innovative nature of and knowledge sharing components of IFAD's investments. What do they really mean?

To situate the self assessment in people's real experiences, we set aside organization-wide conversations about the competencies, and invited stories of knowledge at work. We asked participants to situate their STORY along the developmental continuum.

In the concluding large group meeting, we asked people to again rank the organization as a whole. The placement of the stories generally rated a particular event well above the overall organizational placement, suggesting that there are "leading indicators" of strategic use of KM and KS in the organization. The one area of consistency was in "measuring the value," which was a weakness both in the stories and the organizational ratings as a whole. (I might add, it is not so easy to measure much of this stuff!)

What this differential might mean is that once people start consciously considering KM and using KM methods, they are more able to consistently apply and value them. From this, my recommendation would be to continue to surface stories in use and leverage them as both learning what do to, how to do it, but more importantly, WHY to do it -- strategic application. The time for "preaching" about KM for some of the staff is past. But for those who have not yet internalized what it really means, there may need to be more preaching. This leads us to another element I like about the Collison/Parcell framework: the concept of a developmental path.

Developmental Pathways

You'd think that we, as practitioners of international development, would fully understand that things are always changing. We move from beginning, middle and end of projects. New theories and practices emerge and evolve. Politics and cultures shift, albeit slowly. And there is strategic value to going through phases of change. So it should be obvious that practices like KM should reflect the developmental stage of the individuals and the organization as a whole. Because of the diversity of the individuals, not everyone will be at the same point at the same time.

Yet, our organizational structures focus on log frames, "results frameworks" and initiatives that run three years. We want some sort of fixed measure, out of context. We value the "highest ranking" or level, but ignore the value and learning to be gained along the way. I asked one manager to tell me a story where knowledge sharing made an impact. He told an amazing story that we could easily say "yes, that is the way we work!" But when asked about stories of getting to the level of "awareness" or "action" brought a shrug. Are we missing the value and learning along the developmental pathway? Are we only rewarding the output we want, not the outputs that get us to where we want to go?

Building on this gap, managers who are tasked with delivering for their division focus so tightly on those deliverables that the ability to scan and understand the implications of work across the house may be compromised.

This brings us to the challenge. To be able to "turn on the tap of KM practices" amounts to a change in the way we work. And change is not binary; no simple "on" switch. That's what KM implies: changing the way we work to appropriately value knowledge and learning in the service of our mission. I don't think most of us could give you a plan to do that. The Collison/Parcell framework also allows us to step back and reflect not only on where we are, but why we are there. To focus on priorities rather than do everything and get nothing in return. Done both within divisions and across the house, and taken to the next level, it may provide some key insights to the next strategic framework.

On the eve of our first set of meetings, I re-read the original KM Strategy document written in 2008. It is a lovely piece, filled with the theory of KM, examples from other organizations and a very lofty, high level set of goals for a three year initiative. It "set the scene" for KM in IFAD. I reviewed the overview of the year's activities (well documented in a blog in lively storytelling fashion) and noted that the activities focused on very ground-level practice capacity development in Web 2.0 tools and face to face meeting practices - both very pragmatic, but very different, and perhaps even removed from the lofty language of the plan.

It struck me at that moment that the plan was about building the "awareness" level. The lofty goals gave "permission" to say "hey, pay attention to this." In looking at the interview notes, story session notes and conversation with both line staff and managers, there was a "yes, that is important but I'm too busy" nod to the strategic plan, but a refreshing sense of "yeah, this was useful" to the tools and practices.

So what is needed to bridge this gap? My educated guess is that it is time to retire the formal, lofty plan, renegotiate or leave the existing results framework behind and shift to a strategy of application. It may mean digging deeper into the Collison/Parcell assessment and using their "River" strategy to focus on priorities - and these may be diverse across "the house." (I was somehow tickled by the use of this term at IFAD. I liked it!)

There are challenges with this approach.

First, if people are still at different levels of understanding about what KM is and how to use it strategically in their work, there still needs work in this area. So to some extent, there is still a need for "preaching" and advocacy. The "house" is not all at the same point, so a more complex set of activities may be needed to address the diversity.

Second, it anecdotally appears that the most tangible application of KM so far is by mostly younger staff who have either the internal motivation or a supportive manager to experiment with KM. There are few examples of a strategic approach to KM. This may indicate that leadership has not found common ground on the value of KM, nor of its inclusion in their own planning and prioritization. Leadership, role modeling and supporting is key.

Third, one of the most common things we heard was "yes, but I don't have time." It is important to dive underneath this and find out if it is a cause, or a symptom. Is there something that people should STOP doing? Is there not yet a clear value proposition for the appropriate application of KM (and I stress, appropriate - as in for a specific reason!) Without understanding the time dynamic and having a clear value, wider adoption and valuing the role of knowledge in the organization won't have much chance getting beyond "lip service."

Dancing with Dualities and Snowden's Cynefin Framework

Like the example of "no time," there is also the inherent complexity of IFAD itself. From one perspective, you could say it is a bundle of contradictions. Throughout the conversations, contradictions came up, barriers that seemed to suggest "either/or" instead of "and," as well as divisions that might prevent the flow and use of knowledge in the organizations. Headquarters and field. Program division and supporting groups. Top down and bottom up. For example, some felt the way to have a strong KM effort was a very top driven approach, while others said "let 1000 flowers bloom."

These might be seen as opposing forces, or simply as extremes of continuums that exist. I'm applying the term "dualities" but it may not be the best label. In my experience, they are signals that something is worth exploring and discussing. The tension they raise can be creative or destructive. But to simply ignore them and say "it's complex" is not useful. The question is, can we dance with these dualities?

Let's take a specific example that showed up in a number of conversations about the culture of IFAD, a place where many very smart people work, where success is highly valued, so risking failure to learn something may need to be avoided or at least hidden. Not knowing and being wrong or failing are liabilities. At the same time, all the answers that are needed to wisely invest in agriculture for the poor are not known. What works in situation A doesn't always work in B, and yet could work in C if C only knew about it.

Like viewing the KM competencies along a developmental path, with logical reasons for being at any one place at any one time, it seems IFAD could use a framework that creates space for embracing dualities, unknowingness and even contradictions. This framework could help increase discernment of when dualities are acting as sources of diversity, or as blockers.

One framework that I'm familiar with is David Snowden's Cynefin framework which helps situate conditions across four domains. The first is the "simple" domain where actions are predictable and repeatable. The practice in this domain is "sense-categorize-respond." Financial accounting should be predictable. Filling out time sheets. These become rules-based in organizations and are often top down for uniformity's sake. So in IFAD's work as a lender, there may be many things that fit in this area. But they aren't what make IFAD valuable or unique in the development sector. (Note: the image is not an accurate representation of the framework, just a post it we had to capture some of the ideas!)

The second domain is the area of "complicated" work - work that you can predict if you are a specialist or expert, but the rest of us probably could not do. It is through the experience and learning of the specialist that she or he can work in this domain. Past learning is highly valued in this domain, both from academic and field experience. I would guess, for example, that much of the work of Country Program Managers (CPMs) fits in this domain and that much of IFAD's day to day work is here. It is not clear, however, how much of this knowledge is shared and maximized, perhaps due to the crush of work and lack of time, or a low value put on such pursuits. The practice in this domain is "sense-analyze-respond."

The third is the domain of complexity, where you can't explain what happened until after it happened. Snowden calls this "retrospective coherence." It seems that much international development work happens - or at least FEELS like it happens in this domain because we work in complex systems. Inventing a new irrigation device that works from a scientific perspective doesn't guarantee it will work within the socio-political context of a very poor, rural area. Highly productive plant varieties may be rejected for reasons unseen or poorly understood until after the fact we say, "oh, yes, now I see!" The practice here is "probe-sense-respond."

It is in this domain of complexity that it is USEFUL to embrace one's "unknowingness," to design a series of small experiments to find the path forward, something Snowden calls "safe fail experiments." The probing. This is the practice of learning as you work, not past learning that informs current work. I'd suggest that this is a ripe area for IFAD to embrace appropriate risk, open conversations about what is not known or understood, rapid experiment/learn/refine practices and a very explicit set of mechanisms to both engage diverse thinking and share results. It is the place of innovation that is also valued in the house.

The final quadrant is a place few in IFAD as a lending organization will face in their day to day jobs: chaos. It is the domain of crisis, unpredictability and the chance that you not only won't know what to do going in, you may not be able to understand what happened afterward. A rare example may be IFAD's staff now on the ground in Haiti, post earthquake. Here the motto is "act -sense- respond."

Where to next?

So where does this ramble-y reflection on theory, practice and reflection lead us? Here are my distillations and recommendations.

  1. The first "wave of KM awareness" has peaked and the first KM Strategy has served its purpose and should be retired. While there is still a need for raising awareness of/deepening understanding of KM, there needs to be a shift to strategic inclusion of KM into plans at every level in ways that support goals at every level. It should focus on ways that are pragmatic, practical and show value. This includes actually creating space to notice and reflect on that value "along the way." The upcoming strategic framework development exercise is a key opportunity, but I'd suggest that this should be seen as a "house wide" opportunity, beyond the core group of writers and it flow out to plans at every level.
  2. Who can and will "weave" across the gaps, finding the strength of the diversity without letting it reduce the flow of knowledge and the process of learning? It suggests that there are paths which include top down, bottom up and from the side KM work. The trick is the wisdom to know which is best in any particular context."At every level" suggests that IFAD leadership recognizes the many dualities and lets them be triggers for learning rather than reinforcements of isolation and silo-thinking and action.
  3. The trick" is not really a trick, but an ability to discern when something is complex, simple, complicated or chaotic and choosing the appropriate approach. Discernment doesn't happen without diverse conversations, time for reflection and an openness to "not knowing." These can be risky propositions in the current IFAD environment. While they may feel "squishy" or "fluffy," they are valuable to the mission of the organization.


As the core team and I review our reflections, notes and do our analysis, we seek to understand what are the overarching or "meta" issues for knowledge at IFAD. Underneath, we can then identify potential action. While this analysis is not yet complete, here are the things that rise to the top for me at this point in time. These must be evaluated in terms of cost and benefit, placed in context and prioritised. So take them fairly "generally" at this point.

What divides us? Gaps between the rooms in the house.

  • Bridge the silos and the hierarchy. Work with managers and leaders to identify how to better balance vertical and horizontal needs and focus. Include these issues in your plans and policies. The divide between divisions and even within the layers of a division is to some extent natural. From where I sit, it may be getting to the point of damaging both the flow of knowledge and the cohesion needed to function at everyone's best.

  • >Weave the IFAD Networks. Beyond silo bridging from a structural perspective, there is the flow of knowledge that courses informally across the house. Network weavers are people who notice something in one place, considers how it matters to someone in another place and makes the connection. Most often this is informal and facilitated through conversations. Who is weaving conversations between managers? Up and down divisions? Across program and support? The champion could be the leader and role model for this movement, and then help it spread across the house.

  • Visualize the network. IFAD is complex, as is its work. Consider a social network analysis to help IFAD see itself. Some of the gaps will be painful to see, but the existing connections will be gratifying and assets upon which you can build.
  • "No Time." Is this is symptom? A cause? Both? It would be very productive to get "underneath" this issue, starting with managers. What would happen if you asked people not to utter those words for a period of time and instead probe to identify core issues? What if you could identify what people can "stop doing" in order to do the things that really matter? How does leadership help discern which is which?

What can we build upon?

  • Knowledge Enabled Processes. There are many existing processes in the house that can become more "knowledge enabled" (a new term coined by Roxy!) Any quality, monitoring, evaluation or planning process is a moment in time for reflection, learning and knowledge sharing.
  • Trust. Specifically, space and trust is needed to learn from both successes, mistakes, and so much of the work that is "in between" along that developmental pathway we have been making visible through the KM Self assessment. IFAD is full of very smart people, so there is a risk of appearing "dumb" or for "failing." Yet in development, sometimes the only way to learn is to embrace failure.
  • Useful Meetings. Meetings are a core practice at IFAD, both productively and as things that leave no time for anything else. A gradual review of meeting practices may reveal where there are strengths and what might be changed. Simple, short, regular After Action Reviews (AARs) could be a mechanism to steward meetings into consistently useful engagements, and eliminated where they do not provide sufficient value for the time invested. It is crucial that this self reflection include not just managers, as they have the ability to design meetings to suit their needs but which may not suit the needs of others. Where is the appropriate level of compromise?

What is emerging?

  • Look for early adopters. Younger team members appear to be quicker to embrace and understand the value of new ways of working, including knowledge sharing meeting processes and web 2.0 tools to enable more direct, peer to peer sharing. Consider how to support and stimulate this activity and consider how these new capacities will inform your next generation of leaders. Work to support their movement into leadership. Sometimes old habits are hard to change, but still we must prepare for the future.

  • Watch for leading indicators. The stories told in our week together give a sense of possibility that can be examined and amplified where appropriate. Keep this going.
  • >Support thematic networks and communities of practice - with more than general conceptual support. These can be mechanisms for knowledge flow and network weaving, but they can't be at the bottom of people's priorities. Neither can they be strictly top down as the voluntary nature of knowledge flow (compared to the potentially more structured support of knowledge stocks) is both very valuable and often fragile.
  • Map the knowledge stocks and flows. This may be something for a bit further down the road, but maybe a pilot that looks at knowledge stocks and flows in a particular initiative to reveal the often invisible richness embedded in your work.

What is needed as base support?

  • Understanding knowledge at IFAD. Continued work to bring more people to a fuller understanding of what knowledge at IFAD means. (Notice, I'm moving away from the words "knowledge management!") Be on the watch for "surface" understanding - enough awareness that someone can say what they think you want to hear, but really haven't dug into the implications for their own work.
  • <Tie the knowledge value to the loan portfolio. I'm not sure this fits in this category, but as IFAD always has its next loan on the horizon, there needs to be some mechanism to really value and use the knowledge from past and current loans to inform, as appropriate, going forward.

[1] Parcell, G., Collison, C. (2009) No more consultants: we know more than we think. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.