In order for staff to collaborate, learn, and adapt effectively, there needs to be a culture in place that supports openness to new learning, processes that help capture knowledge and bring evidence and institutional memory to bear in decision making, and resources to support the planning, facilitation, and execution of these activities.
By creating and implementing effective processes to capture, distill, and share knowledge - especially institutional memory - within our organizations, we can ensure the best use of an expansive knowledge base that is built over time and is often forgotten about. A critical part of organizational growth is institutionalizing the processes that help individuals, teams, and programs to manage knowledge, preserve institutional memory, and incorporate them into decision making.
Without institutional memory systems and processes in place, we risk repeating past mistakes or may fail to capture and apply good practices simply because we don't know what has already happened. With key processes and systems in place to capture and use this knowledge, individuals and teams are better equipped to engage in strategic collaboration and adaptive management because they know how and why things have happened before. Having processes for managing knowledge to capture and share different kinds of knowledge, including institutional memory, both internally and externally can lay a foundation for stronger, evidence-based decisions. When knowledge is shared rather than hoarded, we have access to the information we need to make informed decisions. The processes behind managing knowledge (source, capture, distill, and share) enable applying knowledge are crucial for making sound development decisions. When we source and capture knowledge, we are making determinations - either implicitly or explicitly - about whose voice matters in decision-making. It is then important to include and value a variety of voices when documenting knowledge. Distilling and sharing knowledge ensures that the right information gets to the right people at the right time and in the right format so that it can be used to inform current and future programming.
USAID and implementing partners have effective organizational processes for managing knowledge when they do the following things consistently and systematically and resource them appropriately.
Managing Knowledge involves:
- Asking for and capturing relevant technical, contextual, and experiential knowledge from a variety of stakeholders and team members.
- Reviewing whether documented knowledge requires further analysis or distillation to inform decisions.
- Sharing knowledge in user-friendly formats via appropriate communication channels and internal and external knowledge management platforms.
Retaining and Using Institutional Memory includes:
- Using knowledge management platforms and systems to document and access up-to-date information and knowledge in a timely manner.
- Implementing processes that help transfer organizational knowledge, understanding of the local context, and key relationships between outgoing/current and incoming staff.
- Valuing longstanding and local staff members, who make vital contributions to institutional memory and personnel onboarding and transition processes beyond their extensive technical and local knowledge. Their leadership in operational continuity and maintaining strong relationships inside and outside the organization are invaluable and not to be forgotten. Periodically revisiting the sources of institutional memory to adequately reflect diverse knowledge from relevant parts of a team/office/mission.
- (Source) Assess and Expand Current Knowledge Sources: Think about what knowledge you need to better inform your decisions, and determine whether current indicators and quantitative data provide sufficient information. If not, what qualitative data and experiential knowledge would be most helpful to complement existing data, and how can you access that knowledge? Who has knowledge that would be most helpful? When broader perspectives are included, you will benefit from a richer and more nuanced understanding of the context when making critical decisions. Engage community stakeholders and local staff who are most familiar with the local context.
- (Capture) Capture and Store Information Regularly: How are you capturing critical knowledge on your team? Ensure there are processes in place at different levels to document the important knowledge on the team. Good knowledge capture seeks to make tacit knowledge explicit for others, so don’t limit your capture to data alone; capture critical stories, context, and reflections. Consider using network mapping tools to document relationships. Look at starting small by ensuring meeting agendas and notes are kept regularly and stored in an easily accessible place for team members, then scale up your efforts over time.
- (Distill) Provide Knowledge in User-Friendly Formats for Key Decision-Makers: Large reports often sit unread on shelves, in email inboxes, or online. To avoid this, consider how knowledge can be shared in user-friendly formats that are more likely to be opened, read, and internalized, such as two-page briefs, short reports, infographics (using data visualization techniques), or videos.
- (Share) Make Sure Knowledge is Easily Accessible: Start with structures your team already has in place, and remember that managing knowledge effectively is about people and what they need to know, not the technology. Invest in the human side of managing knowledge. One way to start small is by creating space to talk to each other more frequently -- for example, by adding a “what I learned” item to updates in weekly meetings. Technology can also be a powerful tool, but don’t over-emphasize its role. Build on existing team habits, using shared online drives and fixed file structures.
- (Apply) Make a Plan to Apply the Knowledge That’s Available: When planning to start a new project or activity, intentionally look back at what your team or organization may already have done. Think about doing a before action review, connect with relevant team members, or review relevant documentation from previous activities to reference lessons learned. Making a plan to apply knowledge that has been collected can lay a strong foundation for adaptive programming.
- Keep it simple. Start small and think about your priorities so you can be strategic. Effective knowledge management seeks to get the right information to the right people at the right time and in the right format. Be sure to keep barriers low and establish systems that easily facilitate this, such as easy-to-use templates, a knowledge management platform, or making space to share knowledge in regular meetings.
- Develop a knowledge-sharing mindset. We learn continuously throughout the day, but how often are you prompted to share that knowledge? Consider asking questions like: Who else needs to know this? Have I shared this with them? Where should I share it? Where can this be stored so it is easily accessible by others? Challenge yourself to think broadly about sharing knowledge beyond your team; think about your office or organization and the wider development community.
- Set clear expectations that everyone is responsible. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you don't have time for knowledge management or the responsibility is assigned to the KM specialist and therefore not your job, but everyone is responsible. If you don’t manage your knowledge effectively, you will spend time correcting for problems that could have been avoided by making decisions based on past experience and the best knowledge available. If you are in a management role, focus on people, setting clear expectations. Don’t assume teams know how to manage knowledge effectively. Provide guidance and training when appropriate.
- Be inclusive about sourcing institutional memory. Institutional memory can be found in a variety of positions within an organization. When seeking to source, capture, and share institutional knowledge about USAID’s work, institutional memory may come from outside your organization and from more than just local country staff.
- Dedicate resources for knowledge management in everything you do. Don’t let it be an afterthought. Reinforce a knowledge-sharing mindset by setting aside time in daily/weekly schedule to document and share tacit knowledge you think others may need. To reinforce the practice of managing knowledge, allocate space in the budget and the schedule for capturing lessons-learned and applying what you learn along the way.