Articles: knowledge management
How the World Bank
launched a knowledge management program (page 2)
Author: Michel JL Pommier
Organizing knowledge management
The location of the central knowledge management unit in the World Bank has evolved over time. At the program's inception, it was attached to the information technology group because attention was primarily focused on building a knowledge management "system," i.e. a repository of knowledge collections. When thematic groups gained importance, attention shifted to connecting people for accelerating learning and bringing the benefits of knowledge sharing to operations. To reflect this new orientation, the central KM unit was recently moved to the vice-presidency Operation Core Services. Whatever its location, the Bank knowledge management organization and functions is similar to what seems to emerge as a pattern among knowledge organizations, i.e.
- a small central unit (three people) has overall coordination and facilitation responsibilities;
- operational managers in the networks and the regions are responsible for implementing the knowledge sharing program;
- thematic groups, supplemented by help desks, are the preferred instrument for sharing know-how; and
- a governance body (knowledge management council) is responsible at the corporate level for the overall knowledge management policy formulation.
Providing a budget for knowledge sharing
As we saw earlier, the decision to provide a budget for knowledge sharing tripled the number of thematic groups between June 1997 and 1998; hence, sending an unambiguous message to staff that the World Bank was serious in incorporating knowledge management into its operations. The knowledge sharing program receives an annual budget allocation of about 3 percent of the Bank administrative budget. Of this, less than 10 percent is used on technology. Two percent covers the operating cost of the central coordinating unit. The remaining, or nearly 90 percent, entails financing the thematic groups and the sector help desks which support the Bank's operations. These figures are at the low end of what other knowledge organizations seem to spend on knowledge sharing.1 Without appropriate funding, thematic groups could neither continue sharing knowledge at their current level nor survive since the community leaders and their members are all involved in day-to-day operations.
Nurturing communities of practice
In most organizations, building a repository of knowledge collections is easier than shifting the company's culture towards knowledge sharing. To successfully capture, share and leverage knowledge, an organization needs to facilitate and nurture human interactions between professionals who share a common interest or experience, who share common problems and whose interest is to identify solutions that will improve their work effectiveness. Without the benefit of a shared practice, people will constantly reinvent the wheel, deliver sub-optimal solutions to their clients, and miss potential efficiency gains.
At the outset of the knowledge sharing program of the Bank, only a hand-full of professional communities was in existence. One of these, the roads and highway thematic group, had gathered informally over 15 years. Under the leadership of a visionary and curious-minded engineer, the group had established an email distribution list where technical questions were debated, help was requested and, most importantly, where success stories were shared. It is not surprising, then, that the knowledge story presented earlier in this paper is from that sector. Success stories validate the knowledge sharing concept and boost the enthusiasm and commitment of the practitioners. Nurturing the development of such communities became a Bank priority.
The networks encouraged their staff to organize around common themes such as environment or poverty, and sector priorities such as early childhood development or rural water supply and sanitation. Today, more than 120 thematic groups are supported by the Bank, without smothering their self-organizing drive lead by thought leaders. Beside budgetary allocations, various instruments have been developed to nurture the thematic groups.