Knowledge management: connections not collections

4 min read
Partners learning and reflecting at a training session called 'Think, link and communicate for change' in Otukpo, Nigeria, March 2016.
Image: WaterAid/Behailu Shiferaw - Partners learning and reflecting at a training session called 'Think, link and communicate for change' in Otukpo, Nigeria, March 2016.

Sharing knowledge and building on lessons is important both within and between organisations in international development. After identifying our learning systems as a weakness, WaterAid commissioned a knowledge management review to help us pinpoint and address shortcomings – Aditi Chandak, WaterAid’s Knowledge and Learning Advisor, discusses the findings and what we can take forward.

Knowledge management is a key concern in the current international development agency space, as organisations try to achieve ever more complex objectives with finite resources. Programme quality and effectiveness is very important for any development agency, and knowledge sharing and learning help in achieving it. 

At WaterAid, we conducted a Knowledge Management Review to identify existing effective practices that promote knowledge sharing and learning and to examine how our processes and repositories support information management. 

The review was undertaken with a view to improving our learning systems, which evaluations of our country programmes have identified as a clear weakness of our operations; there was a growing concern about losing valuable knowledge and learning from our projects and programmes. It is known among practitioners that development agencies struggle with the same issues; this review has provided actionable recommendations that could be used by any organisation.

When one mentions knowledge management, people often assume that this is the same as information management – it is not. In this review we unpacked knowledge management and what it means to us. We defined it as a collection of activities and practices including:

  • Knowledge sharing: a set of practices that enable people to share what they know in the application of their work  

  • Learning processes: both individual and collective, focussing less on ‘sending’ and more on ‘receiving’ 

  • Communication: a sense of meaningful exchange  

  • Information management: the collection and management of material from one or more sources and making that material accessible to and usable by one or more audiences

We used ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ methodology, moving away from the deficit model which looks for negatives, and asked questions that would strengthen the systems and processes and heighten the positive potential.


Five themes emerged from the knowledge management review:

  1. Learning does happen at all levels across WaterAid, but there are islands of learningand it can be sporadic. 
  2. Learning is usually a top-down injection of ideas and initiatives. 
  3. There is a failure to consistently use the results to adapt the programme, project and the organisation. 
  4. There is a lack of a systematic method for collecting and documenting project processes beyond routine donor reporting. 
  5. Not much effort and time is put towards reflection, which makes it difficult to identify content that could help to inform programme decision making.

Recommendations and way forward

The review presents us with actionable recommendations. It directs us to build a supportive and enabling culture through small changes to organisational procedures and leadership behaviours to inspire staff to work differently:

  • Knowledge management should be embedded in the organisational structure.Resources should be explicitly allocated to knowledge management. These resources could be allocated to capacity and skill development of staff and partners that improve learning and knowledge sharing.  
  • Learning should be embedded in the normal ‘rhythm of business’ by all staff, supported by specialists where necessary. 
  • Identifying, sharing and acting on learning should be prioritised. Country programme strategies and plans should detail how learning and continuous improvement is implemented and monitored. Learning objectives should be embedded in personal development plans. Learning objectives and outputs should be included in the programme design and embedded across the operational processes for programme delivery across the project cycle. 
  • Leadership drives the process and provides an enabling culture for learning and knowledge sharing.  
  • Standard WaterAid processes embed good practice in learning and knowledge sharing. Learning and knowledge sharing are consistently addressed in regular meetings, supported by audience-specific written and audio–visual material. Time is allocated for reflection and learning – individually and in teams – to capture learning from informal sharing. 
  • Individual knowledge management. Individual behaviour is the basis for effective organisational knowledge management. The People Team maintains a knowledge management competency framework for managers. WaterAid gives awards for exceptional projects, and should hold more competitions and awards to incentivise good practice. To maximise learning across the organisation these should be crowd-judged. 
  • Knowledge flows within and between teams should be improved. Peer review of projects should be promoted. Effective knowledge brokers should be identified and supported for mentoring. There should be follow up to e-discussions and webinars, and they should be converted into learning initiatives.

The main lesson

The key conclusion from the review is that behaviour change should be the target of activities aiming to improve learning, knowledge sharing, communication and information management. 

The review highlights that accountability cannot be devolved to a small group of specialists – for real change to happen all staff have to engage with a different way of thinking about learning, sharing and communicating their knowledge. This extends to how they store and manage records of their work. 

This change in engagement does not require significant investment but systematic attention, led from the top, to how WaterAid’s culture, business processes, and reward and management systems can be adapted so that they ‘nudge’ staff to behave in ways that ensure knowledge and learning flow more freely around the organisation.

WaterAid plans to take these recommendations forward through an 18-month project in which learning will be systematically embedded in the systems and processes of three country programmes, which will act as a model for other countries and also contribute to sector learning around knowledge management.