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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?



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Submitted by Anonymous on
The Bank really is not "scanning the world for the most relevant, useful, and cutting-edge practice in areas of relevance". It is only interested in the economics of every sector. The actual science is of little interest and/or left up to some consultants, whose credentials really no one can take the time to check. This is how the Bank in fact got out of agriculture. All we ever talk about is prices, not the science behind it. And then it got mixed up with rural sociology and the like, for further blurring. And of course it hires generalists who often have no idea about the science of their sector.

Just wanted to present some examples of where we as the Bank actively engaged in learning from other experts in the Crisis Community. In the case of Haiti, we engaged, we learned, and we move more quickly than before ( This is certainly not the rule but something to feel hopeful about. Many more examples upcoming. Stay tuned.

Submitted by Paul Cadario on
I agree with the 50,000 foot vision Aleem has offered. So what is the Bank going to do, exactly, to put those principles into practice? ( The principles aren't new, by the way: network theorists and practitioners on the US West Coast framed knowledge sharing this way around 2000.) Looking at some of the other Bank blogs lately, it's clear that many colleagues "don't have time" for Scoop, or even Staff Connection, and other social media experiments that, as Aleem rightly implies, are how knowledge now gets shared, accessed and reported on. "Don't have time" means "something else is more important": so how do people see the new tools of knowledge as fundamental to how we do our work and serve our clients? One of the big obstacles in the Bank is turf, e.g., early suggestions and leads on Haiti were welcomed by those to whom they were offered, but others crudely asserted their roles as 'gatekeepers', a role that will no longer depend on hierarchy and org charts, but on credibility and humility. One of the other challenges is the language that we use to discuss the new tools. Even I find "Web 2.0" a meaningless term. An organization like the Bank that has its own jargon won't see any meaning in this. In fact, many practitioners and aficionados of social media oppose this term. If we want to built interest and acceptance, we have to use words people won't reject from the start. And, yes, I am awfully busy, too.

Submitted by Mario Trubiano on
To Paul's point above, when the knee jerk reaction to any new tool is "I'm too busy to learn, contribute to, or use this," the organization--in this case the Bank--needs to create an incentive if there will ever be pervasive use. At least at the upstart. I personally think that SCOOP could be very powerful, but its use needs to be encouraged in a way that enhances the work we all do. At a conference session this morning at the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishers (AAP/PSP)division several companies demonstrated new tools that have been developed that can help connect all of the disparate knowledge and people that live out on the Web, aggregate the data, highlight the key concepts, and visualize the results. Using this kind of "semantic technology" experts can be identified by the concepts, subjects and specialties they possess, and in bringing them together fosters knowledge discovery. These tools exist, are powerful, and I think will make a huge contibution to the next evolution of the internet. In the realm of the entire internet, successfully creating and applying these tools for research is an accomplishment. But these tools could be employed behind, say SCOOP or another internal collaboration platform, to help connect geographically decentralized Bank experts working in different parts of the Matrix to foster collaboration, share research, and make the work they do more efficient by avoiding replication. One particular tool that struck me as almost immediately applicable to the Bank and particularly to SCOOP is called Collexis. But just because we build it does not mean they will come. Bank researchers would need to embrace the spirit of collaboration, social interaction, and ultimately decentralized knowledge creation, and also have an incentive.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The question of incentives is indeed a very important consideration. In our Post-Innovation Days workplan, we're looking very carefully as an institution at how we stimulate innovation within the Bank which is closely tied to taking measured risks. Unless we're willing to make mistakes, we're unlikely to learn from them. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts to innovation. IDEO for example, tried several internal knowledge management cum social networking platforms. I understand 4 of them failed. Each time they painstakingly learned what wasn't working and why staff didn't use them. The Tube they currently use is a 5th generation tool that staff feel adds value to their work and captures their corporate knowledge more effectively. I don't know much about SCOOP but we certainly can't give up if it's not working in its first iteration. The trick is try fast, fail fast, learn fast, improve. That's what is happening around us and that's what we have to learn how to do. You mention the semantic web. Tim Berners-Lee, one of the early founders of the web, gave a fascinating TED talk on the possibilities of "linked data" He talks of a virtual world that is comprised primarly of segregated offline databases. He speaks passionately about the possibilities of raw data coming online in ways that link data for multiplinary purposes, like combining genomics data and protein data to address Alzaheimer's. Imagine linking climate data with povety data and seeing links with WB project data. It certainly would give us another way to think about what we do and where we do it. There are already advanced examples of the semantic web which we would do well to notice. Efforts such as dbpedia, a project aimed at extracting structured information from Wikipedia, and OpenStreetMap, an editable map of the world. These are the communities we can start connecting with in an effort to amplify the impact we can have. If knowledge is core to who we are and what we do going forward, these are the tools that can help us.

The point you make: "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" is of course true. But your remedy: "of scanning the world for the most relevant, useful, and cutting-edge practice in areas of relevance to us, our clients, and other stakeholders" sits oddly in a world where repression of freedom of expression is a growing not diminishing problem, despite the spread of web. While its true that 'students often learn more from interacting with each other' try applying that lesson to the 80 or 90 countries worldwide where there is little freedom of expression. Its hard to imagine the knowledge centered nirvana you describe in a world where responsible journalists and bloggers get chucked in jail at the whim of a minister, embarrassed and angered by a revelation just published. Over 1000 local journalists were jailed worldwide in 2009 and thousands more were silenced by censorship and violence. While some may be scoundrels who deserve to be behind bars, this cannot be true for the overwhelming majority. Perhaps a change of focus from an idealized world of knowledge sharing, to leveraging some changes in freedom of expression on the ground are in order. Repression of the media is a bit like domestic violence. There's a lot more of it about than you ever imagine. Most governments put their best foot forward while engaging with international institutions. Meanwhile back home the worst of them are busy putting the boot in.

Submitted by Anonymous on
From a self-admitted fuddy-duddy, relic, throwback, luddite: I worry about the pace and accuracy of this new "information flow." There is no guarantee that at any one time, the relevant data, knowledge, information will be available when needed, nor that the people interacting on it will be best suited to process it and make something useful of it. Given the sheer amount of information out there, and the speed at which it changes and is being "consumed" there is a very real danger of completely erroneous conclusions, passing as "knowledge." This is not to say that we shouldn't participate, but that we should be fully aware of the potential for error.

You are right to point out that there are differences between data, information, knowledge, judgment and even wisdom. All data is certainly not useful in making informed decisions. But getting the right information at the right time to the right audience is a powerful possibility and one that is more likely today than ever before. For all the dangers of information overload and data bombardment, it is certainly a liberating day when people from far-flung corners of the world are able to access knowledge, contribute to it, and critique it in ways that previously was available to only a select few. To be sure, it takes judgment to sift through the mounds of content available to us and figure out what is really useful. That is a role we can certainly play. But the fact remains there are multiple nodes of knowledge around us and one way to add value is to link up with these nodes and help them connect to us and each other around the topics that are most relevant to our work. Stay tuned on how we can best do that.

Submitted by Paul Cadario on
What I think the world expects from the World Bank is insight, with some humility. We do data very well. We're not bad on information (once we get our websites cleaned up, dated and supervised). Knowledge is more personal than we corporately want to admit. And insight is not something that comes from a website, data base or, frankly, a blog. The Bank has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on knowledge management over the last 15 years. The Bank has the worst chaired meetings I've ever attended, and the aggregation of comments ("Shall we take three or four questions?") is a sure conversation killer. You cannot have knowledge or insight without conversation. We need to get back to organization and management arrangements, good behavior, and respect, if we want to do "knowledge" right, and be recognized for the insights we ought to be placed, uniquely, to provide.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Paul. Agreed on the importance of a conversation. And agreed on the importance of insight, which takes time and careful consideration. I'm intrigued by your comments "We need to get back to organization and management arrangements, good behavior, and respect, if we want to do 'knowledge' right, and be recognized for the insights we ought to be placed, uniquely, to provide." How do you suggest we do that?

Submitted by Paul Cadario on
Aleem wrote "it takes judgment to sift through the mounds of content available to us and figure out what is really useful. That is a role we can certainly play." I agree. But you get judgment with experience, not just looking at databases. Only with judgment (and curiosity) can you figure out what's really useful. On the matter of incentives, anonymous posters can't be rewarded, and I presume that they remain anonymous because they are afraid of penalties. It's easiest, unfortunately, to continue to do what you do and keep your head down. You have to be brave to do that. With term contracts, you'll have to be really brave. And, Aleem, given the outspoken reaction in other fora to the time needed, who, exactly, is "we"?

Let's start with you and me, Paul. "We" is the people of the Bank and "we" is a pretty good place to start. I'm suggesting that we ought to be part of a larger conversation, sometimes leading, sometimes following, but always participating. What that means for you and for me is that we listen to what's happening around us, engage when appropriate, and keep the conversation flowing. My original blogpost was meant to provoke thought and reaction. I think that's happened. Let's keep listening to each other, to those around us, and stay humble enough to know when to lead and know when to listen. I often think that perhaps the most important role we can play as an institution is to help frame the wider discussion in the development space. Gone are the days of a single expert standing in front of a group and imparting knowledge. It's about asking the right questions and then standing back listening, learning, and joining the conversation. You're right to point out the importance of intellectual humility. It's a necessary precondition to learning and growth.

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