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Knowledge in the era of decentralization

Aleem Walji's picture

Working in the innovation space actually means thinking a lot about how we source and organize knowledge. That's definitely an area that is changing fast. Here's how I am thinking about what this means for the World Bank.

We're moving away from a world in which knowledge is centralized and resides primarily in any one organization, even an organization as complex as the World Bank or even a university. Web 2.0, particularly interactive platforms such as blogs and other social media tools, now makes it possible for a wide range of actors to co-create, critique, and share knowledge in a variety of ways. What that means for institutions that aim to be knowledge centers is that they will have to source knowledge from wherever it lies (infrequently in one place), interact with it (critique it, interpret it, build upon it), and connect increasing numbers of people to it.

At the World Bank, we are accustomed to thinking of knowledge aggregation through the metaphorical portal. The portal model of knowledge anticipates what people want to know, puts it all in one place, and aggregates content centrally. Unfortunately for this approach, data/information and even knowledge sits in many places and cannot easily be corralled into one place. The key is recognizing that expertise and knowledge are inherently decentralized and ever changing. To add value is to make knowledge easy to search and find, easy to interact with, challenge, and improve upon. To be relevant, we need to add value as a node in a complex web of knowledge creators rather than think of ourselves as the hub of a large wheel.

When we think of knowledge in this way, our role becomes one of scanning the world for the most relevant, useful, and cutting-edge practice in areas of relevance to us, our clients, and other stakeholders. We need to connect to it, make it easier for clients to connect to each other, facilitate a conversation about what works and what doesn't, and distill lessons learned for broader dissemination. If we can do that effectively, we can add value in a world where more and more information is available in real time and for free. There is a reason why students still go to college in a world of open courseware. Good universities facilitate knowledge exchange but students often learn more from interacting with each other than from any one expert professor. The best educational institutions recognize this, aim to get the best student body, and by bringing them together, try to elevate and advance the quality of the conversation. More and more, that's going to be the role of organizations like the World Bank and other knowledge centers. What do you think?