How can knowledge management (KM) improve food and nutrition programming? Alyssa Lowe of CARE and I posed that question last week at the Food Security and Nutrition (FSN) Network “Knowledge Sharing” Meeting held July 10-11 in Washington, DC, sponsored by the USAID Food for Peace Office’s Technical and Operational Performance Support (TOPS) Project.
Our session focused on how the valuable insights we acquire from experience—especially insights about how to make programs more impactful and efficient—can easily be lost when programs and organizations don’t pay attention to how such learning is gathered and made available to others.
We talked about KM strategies and practices that can be readily incorporated into programs to identify, generate, diffuse, and enable adoption of the valuable “how-to” knowledge that resides in implementers’ heads.
Some of these are connecting practices that bring together people with “know-how,” providing them with opportunities to learn from one another, share experiences, and generate new ideas about their work. Others are collecting practices—methods of capturing information, although often this best occurs as a result of new insights gained through connecting practices that transfer knowledge through conversations and relationships. Both are needed and can be mutually reinforcing.
We placed around the room large posters with key KM concepts from experts like Dr. Nancy Dixon and asked participants to choose the poster whose idea most resonated and to talk about it with others who gathered at that poster.
One of my favorites is “We learn when we talk.” It recognizes that the knowledge in our heads is fragmented; only when we try to access that knowledge in a way that allows us to explain it to others do ideas take shape in a coherent way. Dr. Dixon notes, “Listening provides us new ideas but as long as those ideas are just swimming around in our heads, they are neither fully formed nor implementable. It is only when a participant puts an idea together in a way that allows him or her to explain the idea to others, that the idea takes shape for the participant, as well as for the person the participant is talking with… Giving participants the time needed to put their thinking into words, not only shares knowledge, but creates it.”
Another key KM concept we discussed was “Experience is inevitable; learning is not. Learning from experience requires deliberate reflection.” We talked about the value of simple techniques like After Action Review for creating the habit of a short group reflection on what was learned from an activity and what can be done next time to make it better.
This latter idea was echoed in another session led by Joan Whelan of USAID where she spoke about the importance of inquiry in deliberately seeking how to make programs better. In that session, we brainstormed on the range of methods that can help the inquiry process, from dialogue with community-level beneficiaries to controlled evaluations of whether a program had the intended impact. Creating a culture of inquiry among implementers—a habit of regularly reflecting on how well we’re doing and what we can do better—makes learning from experience an everyday task.
There many simple KM practices that can be easily incorporated into any activity or project to support program learning. We shared a handout that described 15 KM techniques we have used in our work, as well references like the TOPS Project’s very own guide to designing participatory meetings, the Liberating Structures manual and resources from ASSIST on synthesizing and sharing learning from improvement.
In sum, managing knowledge begins with what you do every day:
- Build time for reflection into your routine work
- Focus your documentation of learning on what you would recommend, not what you did
- Leverage your living databases—connect people to enable them to share their insights with each other
- In team or project work, build in regular moments of synthesis to ask as a group, What are we learning? What do we know so far?
- Organize your team or organization’s knowledge around critical topics: What do we know about X?
Everyday KM really can improve programming if you ask the right questions, with a spirit of inquiry.