Who Owns Knowledge in Development Cooperation?

FROM: Norbert Pijls , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 23. January 2020

The question “who owns knowledge?” may sound irrelevant. Because it’s possible that there’re no barriers to the generation, acquisition and ownership of knowledge. Meaning, everyone owns some form of knowledge.

Yet, to the most part, knowledge isn’t spread evenly in development cooperation: it seems to stay as tacit knowledge with few people. Simply stated, knowledge generation and its use are, significantly, project focused. Experts work together as project members. When a project is over, people disperse in different directions, looking for the next opportunity and leaving few traces of the knowledge they've generated and used.

Even if learning happens, it’s just owned by development projects. There’re scant cases of development projects working with actors, such as universities, in order to keep knowledge available after the end of a project. There obviously is a big need for organisations to proactively nurture learning and innovation to be owned by systems actors in the countries where we work.

In this blog post, Zenebe Uraguchi spoke to Norbert Pijls, Project Director of the Decentralization and Municipal Support Project (DEMOS), on critical issues of knowledge management and learning in development cooperation.  

Zenebe Uraguchi (ZU): Development practitioners are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that their work is relevant, and that it contributes to sustainably addressing key challenges. For this, knowledge management and learning is a source of strategic asset and competitive advantage. Sometimes, I am not sure if development practitioners are really generating knowledge and sharing learning.

Norbert Pijls (NP): I think we are! Of course, we work in development cooperation with some form of knowledge – from education and from experiences in different fields. For me, project implementation is like a journey with members of a team. Projects are about people who develop ideas and translate those ideas into actions.

Let me be practical and give you an example from Kosovo. When we started a Performance-Based Grant Scheme (PBGS), the only thing we had was a manual from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). We copied some elements and developed them further, first by the team and then we brought in international experts. The ideas became better and we also discovered new things which others didn’t pay attention to or didn’t know about. In the next three to four years, we generated a lot of new knowledge on how PBGS in local government can work.

More so, we didn’t just sit on what we generated and what we did; we actively shared it through our networks and other formats. Indeed, we should improve in sharing our knowledge and learning in a more systematic and consistent way.

ZU: The benefits of knowledge management and learning are obvious. It helps us in becoming more relevant; it significantly increases the impact of our work. In addition, it increases efficiency by reducing the time invested in re-inventing wheels or trying to find critical information.

To be honest, I know colleagues who are wary of the time it takes to be involved in knowledge management and learning initiatives; they also don’t easily see its benefits. I hear time and again it’s hard and occasionally frustrating to practically generate, document and share high quality knowledge and learning. There may be some explanations to the concerns, and if not all, some are genuine.

NP: I may sound defensive, but I’d say that the concerns are genuine. A project team is assessed on how well it’s able to achieve targets. I do recognize that such assessment is narrow, static and linear. In the process, I fear, such an approach limits the space and time for knowledge management and learning.

The main challenge is that project teams see the effort to improve knowledge management and learning as extra; they’re willing and ready to do something related to knowledge management and learning when the rest of the work – seen as a priority – is done and completed.

For example, the conversation that I’m having with you for this blog is happening at 20:30, and I’m sitting at home! I’m doing it because I care. Perhaps I should have done this as part of my eight-hour work? Of course, knowledge management and learning efforts should also be evaluated as part of my work.       

ZU: To be fair, not everything is doom and gloom. I saw open, critical and collaborative behaviours of staff and partners. I’m also aware that knowledge isn’t something that can be easily quantified. In Eastern Europe where you and I work, there’s a wealth of knowledge and learning accumulated by project staff and partners.

However, what I wished could be improved is: knowledge seems to remain largely “tacit” – that’s to say, it isn’t systematic, explicit or well documented (the stuff people hold in their heads). When a staff leaves a project, the knowledge disappears. This means that there’s a lack of “retrievable knowledge”.

NP: You’re touching a critical issue. It’s true that knowledge leaves when a staff member is no longer part of a project. This doesn’t happen frequently; we try to address root causes of staff turnover by offering attractive packages and working environment.

However, what I see as a big loss of our investment in generating and using knowledge is in short-term local and international consultancies – it’s like water flowing into colander. The only thing that stays behind is a trove of documents that few cares to go back and refer to.

It’s a serious problem. Unfortunately, I can only describe the problem better than provide a solution. Perhaps having a good database of expert pools who are readily available to provide support in using and sharing knowledge and learning is the first step towards addressing this challenge. This can also include knowledge products.

ZU: Let me dig a little bit deeper on the reason why we aren’t documenting and sharing in a systemic and consistent way – to improve our work and to be also taken as credible development agents. Often, we claim that we don’t have time. I doubt this's really the case. We don’t have to necessarily sit in front of our computers and nicely write our stories. Knowledge, learning and sharing come from people and their relationships with one another, not necessarily from the tools, databases and technological aids used.

Using technology, I believe we can facilitate better communication and overcome the challenges to have an up-to-date, secure and organised knowledge base. An increasingly large mix of methods and tools are available to facilitate learning and capacity building, for example: storytelling, e-learning, images, video, face-to-face workshops, on-the-job learning, coaching and peer-to-peer exchanges.  

NP: I must say that since I started working for Intercooperation, the development organization that later merged with Helvetas in 2011, that knowledge and learning became an important theme. If I am not mistaken, it was the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) that pushed for this to happen and impacted project implementers.

An example is the Democratisation, Decentralisation and Local Governance Network (DDLGN). This network facilitated knowledge exchange and learning through online moderation and face-to-face meetings on different themes. Initially, the online tools such as using simple email exchanges didn’t work well because there was an avalanche of messages. As soon as the technology for communication improved, it became easier for people to document and exchanges ideas.

Our collaboration in writing this blog post is also a good example. You just suggested that I can record my thoughts on key questions on this topic. We then simply transcribed the message in a dialogue format. It makes so much easier for me to do this which otherwise would have been difficult to materialize. We’re now frequently using a range of ICT tools such as webinars and video calls. It's motivating for staff to easily do such exchanges and share and learn on different topics.           

ZU: Sometimes I ask myself: if we have a good culture of knowledge management and learning, will it help us improve our work and therefore the development impacts that we can contribute to? By culture, I mean recognizing that knowledge management and learning is part and parcel of what we do, not an add-on.

I think there’re scant cases of development projects working with actors such as universities and research institutes – in broader sense the education system. This means, we’ll need to proactively nurture learning and innovation to be owned by systems actors in the countries where we work. Without this, the experiences will remain limited to few individuals who dare and feel safe to share their knowledge and learning.

NP: You make an important point. This isn’t about how we learn or how we share our knowledge within the organization. Rather the focus is on how the knowledge and learning generated is used by actors, including target groups, and that it sustainably contributes to better impacts. Not only in Kosovo but also in other countries on transition, I should say that there're serious problems of ensuring that knowledge and learning is owned and improved.

For example, in the field of local governance or public administration, mainly public sector institutions don’t have well-functioning internal training systems. People who work for state institutions have general academic credentials. In most cases, the occasional training opportunities they get is from projects financed by foreign donors. These're temporary training initiatives which often happen in a venue like a hotel or restaurant.

What is disturbing is, most local educational or training institutions aren’t part of the training initiatives. They therefore don’t take up the knowledge and learning and archive them in their libraries – to be retrieved for later use. Part of the problem is availability of resources. It’s also due to the recognition/awareness that such processes are relevant.

I should also be frank that development projects are part of the problem – they tend to substitute permanent actors like educational and training institutions – and we fail to engage them from the start of project design and implementation. There’re however good examples, like for instance in Romania where a national training institute coordinated training efforts of international projects.

Additional sources


Cover picture: M&PF

Norbert Pijls is the Director of the DEMOS project in Kosovo. Before that he managed the LOGOS project, a predecessor of the DEMOS project. He has been working on decentralization and municipal support programs for almost 20 years. He mainly worked in East European, South East European and Caucasus countries.
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses, & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies