Originally published on April 3, 2012
Knowledge, or the lack of, is often associated with the success or failure of development initiatives. For decades, communication’s main role was to fill the knowledge gap between what audiences knew and what they needed to know, with the assumption that this would induce change. We now know that this is seldom the case. In the modernization paradigm, media were expected to provide needed knowledge through messages that could fill knowledge gaps, build modern attitudes, and eventually shape behaviours. After years of under-delivering on their promises, development managers and decision-makers are increasingly realizing that it is not enough to have sound technical solutions and disseminate information in order to have audiences adopt the innovations.
Of course, knowledge is still crucial for successful and sustainable development initiatives, but the way knowledge is collected, organized, communicated and shared needs to be significantly rethought. Knowledge is not the same as information; similarly, to inform does not carry the same meaning as to communicate. We live in the age of information, but there is little doubt that the information at our disposal in most cases far exceeds the amount of information we are able to access, process, retain and use. That is why knowledge management (KM) should no longer focus on the collection and dissemination of knowledge products, but rather on the packaging and marketing of the products.
Globalization has greatly increased choices and competition in most sectors, and knowledge is one of them. My experiences lead me to believe that there are two priority features that need to be considered in developing an effective KM system. First of all, the starting point should not be the knowledge that we collect and we want to disseminate, but the audience we want to reach and for what purpose. In this way we are “revolving the pyramid”, taking a necessary step in order to have a competitive advantage in the knowledge market.
While at the World Bank, I learned that to reach audiences at different levels, effectively, especially those higher up, I needed to think like them. I also needed to find the right hooks to get them interested in reading the intended knowledge piece, rather than just providing access and making available what we had prepared. Many times, this meant one had to offer solutions relevant to challenges specific audiences were facing in their roles. That implied that packaging the knowledge product and presenting it with an appealing headline made a lot of difference. Access to knowledge is certainly a necessity, but it is not a condition sufficient to guarantee that the knowledge will be accessed, used or even understood by audiences.
To conclude my piece, I would like to emphasize the growing role of KM in all institutions, but especially those in the development context, and the need to think differently about this area. KM should be conceived less as a purely technical information-based area and more as a communication and behaviour-change area, because putting knowledge to practical use needs a certain degree of behaviour change on both sides. Knowledge producers need to package the product in a way that can be easily applied, while the users need to be “persuaded” to conceive knowledge as a practical tool that can be applied in their field. In other words, KM should close the gap between the theoretical and conceptual constructs and the practical applications. An effective knowledge management program that goes beyond collecting, producing and disseminating information will be able to reach and make an impact on the intended audiences. And it will also help to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, while promoting the replication of successful initiatives and approaches.