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Breaking Down Barriers to Sharing Knowledge

Nena Stoiljkovic's picture

In international development, knowledge is our most valuable commodity. The right knowledge applied at the right time could change the lives of roughly a billion people who now live on less than $1.25 per day. In response to their plight, the World Bank Group has set two ambitious goals: to end extreme poverty by 2030, and to boost shared prosperity for the poorest 40% of people in developing nations.
 
To achieve these goals, we need to use all of the World Bank Group’s assets: our finances; our global presence and convening power; and especially our vast store of development knowledge and experience. If we assemble the best global knowledge, share it quickly, and help countries apply it to local problems, we can empower the poor to shape their countries’ future.
 
Not all of our knowledge is on a shelf, or in digital and multimedia products. Much is in the minds of our thousands of experts who work in over 120 countries around the world.
 
But we know that our knowledge does not always move fast enough, or get to the right people at the right time. A recent working paper, written by two World Bank Group colleagues, highlighted this problem (and also got some media attention — not all of it accurate).  It’s not just technical problems that stop our digital knowledge from flowing (such as PDFs that are not easily searchable) — our knowledge is also often stuck in organizational silos. Our staff in East Asia don’t talk enough to their counterparts in Africa, for example, and our water experts don’t always connect enough with our health staff. These impediments are a legacy of our organizational culture, structure, and incentives. We can do better.
 
On July 1, we’re going to break down the walls of those organizational silos, in one of the most significant reforms in the World Bank’s history. We’re reorganizing our knowledge services to create Global Practices and Cross Cutting Solution Areas, to assemble the world’s best experts and knowledge, and make it more accessible to our clients. Wherever our experts are sitting, whatever issue they work on, they will be linked in a much more active way with their colleagues, in areas like education, trade and competiveness, transportation and information technology, environment and natural resources, and energy.

Our client countries and businesses say they want the best experience from around the world, so they can adapt it to their local circumstances. A water project in Senegal can influence what happens in Nicaragua or Bangladesh, and vice versa. Development knowledge should have no boundaries or borders.
 
The Global Practices will provide a direct link between knowledge and our implementation, adapting based on evidence, improving our work and learning from our clients — all for the benefit of our clients. We have recruited a new team of Global Practice Directors who are global experts in their respective fields, and who will ensure that all Practice staff produce, capture, manage, and share knowledge widely.  This will not be limited merely to knowledge the World Bank Group produces. A growing share of our work involves making "South-South" connections to put practitioners facing similar issues in contact so they can learn from one another. 
 
As for our digital knowledge, we already share free of charge a virtual mountain of reports and data. They were downloaded more than 3.4 million times over the past two years alone. Among these are some country-specific technical reports, such as our economic sector work (ESW) and technical assistance (TA) reports. They are very valuable reports to our clients, but they are not light reading for anyone. The authors of the recent study decided to look only at this very narrow and technical class of reports — not all of our reports, as some news reports suggested. The authors discovered, not surprisingly, that nearly a third of the economic sector work and technical assistance reports were never downloaded. Some were actually distributed the old-fashioned way — printed and distributed in the countries that commissioned them, something that is still common in the developing world.  Popularity is not the only measure of utility. 
 
Yet parking detailed technical reports in a database after they have been delivered to the Ministry isn’t enough. To reach our ambitious goals, we need to get knowledge into the hands of a wider set of practitioners, citizens, entrepreneurs, civil society experts, and other development actors.  Many, if not most, of our knowledge products have lessons that are valuable to countries and companies around the world. Yet we also need to ensure that our future reports are relevant to our clients’ most critical challenges. The Global Practices will allow us to be more strategic, keeping the clients in mind as we plan and produce new knowledge products
 
Our changes in knowledge sharing require more interactive technology and smarter systems. More important, we need to change our organizational culture. Our global practices will help unlock our knowledge and expertise, to ensure that it remains – and grows – as a global public good.

Comments

Submitted by David Crate on

The World Bank is full of knowledge. But searching for it on the website is a real pain. Outdated reports appear on top, new ones are burried on page 17, maybe. This is not rocket science to fix and would show that the Bank cares about those with whom it says it wants to share. A related problem is that nobody reads many of the reports written by the World Bank. Several weeks ago this article appeared:

Literally a Third of World Bank Policy Reports Have Never, Ever Been Read Online, By Anyone

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/05/08/world_bank_reports_unread_policy_recommendations_go_undiscovered.html

It's impossible to tell whether this hidden knowledge is useful because the list of burried (undiscovered) knowledge has not been made known. An unknown unknown.

At least the Bank could post a list of these burried treasures, with links to the pdf's. Some will be downloaded as a result It's called dissemination. Some of these reports may yet become hits! They still remain hidden because of inept dissemination. Undiscovered knowledge is a global public " bad."

Of course there are other ways to disseminate, but if the discoverability of knowledge items on the Bank website is as impaired as it seems, fixing it should be a priority.

Submitted by Ferreira on

WB will need much more than to breaking down silos to achieve goals. An international powerful influence is required to change bad economic incentives

Submitted by Barbara Gruden on

Making sure it's actually knowledge is important as well. You write: "Our changes in knowledge sharing require more interactive technology and smarter systems. More important, we need to change our organizational culture. Our global practices will help unlock our knowledge and expertise, to ensure that it remains – and grows – as a global public good."

Please do add quality control as well. When the World Bank promulgates half-truths, damage can result.

For example, just a few weeks ago, in April, the Bank organized a half-day event to push for universal health care by 2030. Putting aside the ambition of this specific target, the World Bank provided this knowledge for the event:
"The recent Lancet Commission on Investing in Health shows that improvements in health may account for as much as 24% of economic growth in low- and middle-income countries. With appropriate mobilization of resources, the Commission suggests that low- and middle-income countries could improve their maternal and child survival rates to equal those found in upper middle-income countries within a generation.
The way forward is dependent on reforms towards universal health coverage (UHC)."

The last sentence is false and unsupported by cross-country evidence. The vast majority of improvements in health of the poor (and this is the goal) come from measures like sanitation, education of girls, reduced pollution, access to safe water, childhood vaccination, prevention and control of infectious diseases, higher tobacco taxes, etc. Access to health care has a far smaller and even an ambiguous impact (when quality is low, hospitals serve to spread disease). See review of the evidence by Princeton professor Angus Deaton, e.g.

In this case, the World Bank's knowledge "unlocking" included also more than 30 tweets in the same spirit, that UHC by 2030 is necessary and "central" to development. But the knowledge supporting this conclusion simply does not exist. In poor countries, UHC is the least impactful and most costly among the measures that can improve the health of the poor.

So there should be more quality assurance before the World Bank conveys knowledge. If that is not done, its credibility will suffer and over time even fewer valuable reports may be downloaded.

Submitted by Mats Kontanto on

This is an important point. When the World Bank makes an erroneous statement or unsubstantiated assertion, it is not knowledge but a misleading advice. A reputable newspaper would publish a corrigendum. How long will it be before the World Bank admits errors and disseminates corrections? Does it ever do this?

I believe the World Bank should take responsibility for correcting false and misleading statements in its knowledge. This will increase the global public good because of more trust in the quality of its analysis and advice.

World Bank website does not have an "errors and corrections" section. With the shift of Global Practices and Areas toward still more generation of knowledge, such a section would certainly be helpful and transparent.

Submitted by Muhammad Riaz on

I fully agree that knowldge sharing is very important and we need to put systems in place which makes sure this happens. With the new SOE submission one needs to attach reciepts otherwise request is not allowed for processing. The same can be applied to all knowldge products that payments are allowed only if those products are shared on the Bank data base. There are also many such products which are paid from the bank funded projects but they never come to the knolwdge of the Bank except a few people on the project team.

Submitted by Daniel de la Morena on

Sticks and carrots are required, too, to improve how we create and share knowledge. Organizational structures and systems are part of the solution, but if we don't get incentivized to produce and share knowledge (and penalized if we don't), little will happen.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Dear Nena

You are right when you talk about putting aside ambition. A notable barrier to knowledge sharing is cronyism and appointment by managers of their friends, to supervisory positions to take credit for the hard work of staff.

And this is another method of creating silos (which does not even need a global divided). So what are you doing about it?

Why would anyone share inherent knowledge, if it means that someone else is getting the credit and award?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Hear hear! The many crony managers and directors have managed to run functions into the ground. Staff are left to rebuild time and time again until we lose motivation. Just ask many an IFC industry specialist.

Submitted by Atomz on

For starters, the World Bank should stop thinking that they are the experts and that all knowledge resides at the bank or with the bank staff. The Bank has a lot to learn from its client countries. Knowledge sharing is not about producing 120 paged PDFs and try to force client countries to read those reports and implement recommendations. Far from it, knowledge sharing is about working with the developing countries, hear what they have to say and need (demand) to accelerate development results, and the role of the bank is to mobilize knowledge to meet the demand for specific knowledge (supply). Its not about having the so-called experts from World Bank trying to drill certain ideas in the minds of people in developing countries

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