Knowledge Management at ODI

April 2004 to March 2007

Effective use of information, knowledge and learning is central to ODI's mission to lock together high-quality applied research, practical policy advice, and policy-focused dissemination and debate. ODI has recently developed, and started to implement a strategy to improve internal knowledge and learning processes and systems.

The strategy is based on the results of a Knowledge Audit undertaken in two distinct phases over six months. The first phase, between September and November 2003 gathered data on knowledge and operational practices within the Institute. The second, between December 2003 and February 2004 used action research methods to test initial hypotheses and possible approaches (See box for phase details). The Audit found that the knowledge in the institute falls into three major categories:

  • Research knowledge: This includes explicit knowledge which the Institute publishes - books, working papers, the website, literature reviews, and training guides etc. ODI staff also hold huge amounts of tacit research knowledge about their subject and research methods, and have an implicit understanding of how their work fits into a wider development context.

  • Operational knowledge: This is wide-ranging knowledge about how the institute works, as well as about operational issues in developing country contexts; for example, knowing how to book a room, understanding conventions for writing a literature review, knowing how much funding each staff member must raise, who to ask to get a certain piece of information, how to work with partners, or how to establish contacts within a particular country. This knowledge is often held tacitly within ODI and it could be more useful to others if made more accessible.

  • Project management knowledge: This is knowledge about the work of ODI; for example knowing what projects are ongoing across the institute, how many times a particular funder has been approached in the past, knowing what percentage of funding bids are won, monitoring and evaluations, etc.

The Audit revealed a strong internal demand to improve systems and processes in all of these areas, and a number of obstacles and barriers. These include lack of time; internal processes that discourage knowledge sharing, a lack of incentives; the specialised nature of much of the work, which is often not considered to be of organisation-wide interest; the immediate pressure to complete assignments compared to the delayed returns on knowledge sharing activities; funding structures; and the incremental nature of change within ODI and the development sector as a whole.

The strategy for knowledge management and learning aims to improve the integration of ODI's work; facilitate a more productive dialogue on development issues within the institute, and improve ODI's capacity to engage development policy-makers and partners in the North and South. It will do this through improved internal and external communication and information systems and processes, reduced duplication of work, and improved use of current and historical knowledge and information.

The strategy will make the work of the Institute more 'joined up'; better co-ordinated and more coherent as a whole. It will establish an adaptable framework and a range of simple tools (see figure on right) to help staff learn and share knowledge as individuals and as members of interdisciplinary and interdepartmental teams. The strategy will promote working practices that are simple, systematic and easy to maintain. While the initial emphasis is on internal knowledge systems, the scope will expand later to include mechanisms to improve access to and use of external knowledge as implementation proceeds.

ODI already has a number of processes for internal knowledge sharing and plans to improve the intranet and other knowledge stores. The strategy will build on these activities, working towards three key outcomes:

  • Outcome 1: Increased efficiency and effectiveness through the application of learning and knowledge sharing tools throughout the Institute;
  • Outcome 2: Easy access to essential project management information through improved electronic systems and processes;
  • Outcome 3: Staff learn more, and share their knowledge more effectively, through enhanced capacity, improved culture and appropriate incentives.

Work in two other areas will improve the organisational and infrastructural environment for learning and knowledge sharing within the Institute, and establish the staff capacity and resources to launch the strategy:

  • Outcome 4: A physical and electronic work environment that fosters learning and knowledge sharing;
  • Outcome 5: Establishing the short term capacity to implement the KM strategy.

The strategy has been formally endorsed by the Director, senior management has been reorganised, and additional resources secured to ensure effective implementation. The strategy is now being promoted across the Institute and work has begun on a series of pilot initiatives in each department. The pilot projects recognise and build on the distinct knowledge processes (creating, storing and sharing of knowledge) as well as distinct types of knowledge (tacit, explicit and implicit) in each department. They provide tools to be used before, during or after particular activities to improve organisational learning and knowledge flow.

Work has also started on an improved database-driven, content-managed, intranet, linked to financial and management information systems. A range of knowledge-related incentives are being explored alongside opportunities to incorporate knowledge and learning into job descriptions and appraisal procedures.

The knowledge management strategy is a key element within other new programmes and strategies designed to change the way the Institute works.