Sharing Knowledge: Innovations and Remaining ChallengesWorld Bank's objective "to improve the quality of its operations and enhance the capacity of clients to achieve development results, through developing a world-class knowledge management system, and improve and expand the sharing of development knowledge with clients and partners of the World Bank.
In 1996, the World Bank made a commitment to become a global knowledge bank. The Bank’s stated intention was to develop a world-class knowledge management system and to improve and expand the sharing of development knowledge with clients and partners. The objectives of this commitment were to improve the quality of Bank operations and enhance the capacity of clients to achieve development results.
Since FY97, the Bank has spent some US$220 million for corporate, network, and Regional knowledge-sharing activities and more than US$60 million for its three main global knowledge initiatives, the Development Gateway, the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN), and the Global Development Network (GDN). These programs and activities have sparked a lot of innovation, with potentially significant benefits for the scaling up of effective Bank interventions and for empowering clients to improve development outcomes. But new knowledge-sharing programs and activities need to be much better integrated into the Bank’s core business processes to achieve the initiative’s broad objectives. For this, senior management must provide greater strategic direction and oversight to corporate, network, and Regional units.
The knowledge initiative aims to expand knowledge sharing as a way of doing business—not a separate line of business. It also proposes, appropriately, a comprehensive strategy to bring about both internal and external changes. This evaluation examines the relevance of that strategy and the institutional infrastructure put in place to implement it. It also reviews the effectiveness of the strategy’s three main areas of innovation:
- • Network and Regional internal knowledge-sharing activities among Bank staff
- • Regional and country external knowledge sharing with clients
- • The three Bank-supported global knowledge initiatives that have the broadest knowledge-sharing scope (The Development Gateway, The Global Development Learning Network, and the Global Development Network).
The Bank’s commitment to a comprehensive knowledge initiative was timely and appropriate
The transfer of knowledge and information has always been a dimension of the Bank’s role. And clients, partners, and the international community at large have long seen the Bank as a main source of high-quality development analysis and expertise. The 1996 knowledge initiative raises the profile of this aspect of the Bank's role, in order to foster the changes inside and outside the Bank needed to leverage knowledge for development more effectively.
The initiative, which was responsive in 1996 to rapid changes in information technology, has become increasingly relevant in the intervening years to changes in international development practices and the Bank’s own agenda. Both those changes have put increased emphasis on ownership, partnership, and results—all processes heavily dependent on sharing knowledge.
Bank knowledge has become faster and easier to access
The Bank has made good progress since 1996 in providing staff, clients, and partners with faster access to Bank knowledge and expertise. This improvement has been the result of actions in five areas: (1) substantial upgrades in the Bank’s information management system and global connectivity; (2) more systematic collection of Bank information and lessons of experience, and their active dissemination to staff, clients, and partners; (3) greater interaction among staff across the institution and with clients, around shared work areas; (4) innovations in collaborative analytical work and peer-to-peer exchanges across client countries; and (5) leveraging of technology for global knowledge sharing. Both staff and clients report that they value the improved accessibility and timeliness of Bank knowledge and information. This view emerges clearly from a succession of Bank staff surveys undertaken since 1997 and a five-country client survey conducted for this review.
But weak links to operations limit the effectiveness of the new knowledge-sharing activities
So far, the Bank’s new activities consist primarily of knowledge aggregation and sharing—processes that by themselves do not guarantee that the shared knowledge will be adopted, adapted, and applied. For that to happen, knowledge sharing has to be embedded in work processes. But, for the most part, the new activities have not been tightly linked to the Bank’s core lending and nonlending tasks. As a result, staff and clients do not view the new knowledge-sharing programs and activities as sufficiently relevant to their operational work.
The main internal innovations for improved knowledge sharing—thematic groups, advisory services, and expanded Web site use—are not well integrated with operational activities.
- • The 80 thematic groups are useful for networking, learning about cutting-edge studies and experiences, and finding experts on particular operational matters, but they do not provide enough direct support to task teams.
- • The Bank’s 24 advisory services aim to enhance Bank operations, but more than half of the requests serviced come from outside the Bank, and more than half seek help in finding publications or statistics readily available elsewhere. Far less of the advice provided focuses on supporting operational work than was originally envisioned.
- • While the Bank’s Web sites have become a much-used resource, current usage suggests that the Bank needs to do more to tailor its Web-based content to its multiple audiences. Internally, staff find that the Intranet has not provided enough detailed information relevant to core work processes and practices, and
- internationally, people in client countries still account for only some 10-20 percent of the total use of the public site.
There are strong examples of external knowledge-sharing innovations in Bank lending and nonlending activities. But, on the whole, knowledge sharing is not being well integrated into country programs and projects. Few country programs contain explicit knowledge objectives and strategies as summarized in recent country assistance strategies (CASs), and most of those programs are in countries where Bank lending is limited by country performance or need. For most countries where lending dominates the Bank’s program, knowledge sharing is not yet being treated as a strategic activity. Moreover, only one-third of operational staff interviewed for this evaluation think that the initiative has changed the way projects are designed and supervised; slightly less than one-third think that the initiative has increased support for knowledge capacity building in operations.
Progress in launching the three global knowledge initiatives reviewed—the Development Gateway, GDLN, and GDN—has been rapid, and the Bank’s leadership has mobilized the participation of partners. It is too soon to see evidence of the contributions of these programs to actual development results. But so far the programs have not met four major challenges that must be surmounted to ensure their success: (1) ensuring their continuing utility in a rapidly changing technological and development environment; (2) achieving financial sustainability; (3) consolidating governance and oversight arrangements; and (4) defining and managing the Bank’s evolving role as each program matures. Also, the three programs are only beginning to be integrated into Bank country programs and projects as ways of leveraging Bank and other development knowledge in support of development objectives.
As a result of these weaknesses in reach, content management, and operational linkage, the new knowledge-sharing activities and programs have had limited impact on Bank client countries. Improvements in client access to Bank knowledge can be ascribed primarily to increased use of the Internet and e-mail. Clients also view staff as less arrogant and more open to collaboration and knowledge sharing. Still, dissemination of the Bank’s knowledge remains inadequate at the country level, beyond central government personnel and a narrow circle of other individuals. More use of local expertise is needed to align the Bank’s knowledge with country conditions. Knowledge capacity building and capacity utilization are, therefore, key to the successful leveraging of knowledge for development. But clients find the Bank more effective in supporting individual training than in helping to build sustainable institutional capacity for acquiring and using knowledge.
Inadequate oversight and incentives are major impediments
High-level leadership in the Bank has stimulated implementation of the knowledge initiative. But there have been three main shortcomings in the institutional infrastructure put in place to support programs and activities. First, management has not adequately defined the roles and responsibilities of corporate, network, and Regional units for making knowledge sharing a way of doing business and embedding it in core lending and nonlending processes. Second, in sharp contrast to
practices of industry leaders, knowledge sharing is largely unmonitored within the Bank, and self- and independent evaluation of knowledge-sharing activities is much less systematic than for other Bank processes. Third, despite the introduction of knowledge sharing in the Bank’s mission statement and in staff performance evaluations, staff continue to feel that they lack the incentives needed to make knowledge sharing a routine part of their work.
Overall, the Bank has made more progress in establishing the architecture to support its knowledge initiative than in creating the governance arrangements and work processes for carrying it out. As a result, the strategic intent of making knowledge sharing a way of doing business has been only partly realized —a process that in other leading knowledge management organizations has tended to take from three to five years. The Bank, now entering the seventh year of the knowledge initiative, needs to move deliberately to embed knowledge sharing in its core operational processes by providing more direct support to task teams and more knowledge capacity enhancement for clients, and it needs to manage its knowledge services for results.
To realize more fully the knowledge initiative’s potential to enhance Bank operations and empower clients to meet their development goals, three sets of actions are needed:
- 1. Management should exercise more strategic direction and oversight over the Bank’s knowledge processes. To accomplish this, management should: define clear responsibilities and accountabilities of corporate, network, and Regional units for integrating knowledge sharing into the Bank’s core business processes; ensure that incentives are aligned with responsibilities, especially at the task-manager level; and establish a strategic approach to the Bank’s role in existing and any new global knowledge initiatives.
- 2. Network and Regional units should tightly link their knowledge-sharing activities to lending and nonlending processes. To achieve this, networks should set clear objectives for anchor, thematic group, and advisory service support of operational teams; and Regional and country units should make explicit the knowledge objectives and strategies of Country Assistance Strategies (CASs) and projects.
- 3. 3. Vice-presidential units should set outcome objectives and supporting performance indicators for their respective knowledge-sharing programs and activities, and they should agree, Bankwide, on procedures to be established for monitoring and evaluating Bank knowledge-sharing programs and activities.