Early in my role as the Knowledge Management Administrator at Peace Corps HQ, I realized that in order to tackle usability of a knowledge-sharing platform, I would have to really understand some fundamental issues around why we would need such a thing anyway.
Our platform would have to be an extension of that need - and the measure of success for the platform would be the extent to which said platform met our ultimate goals. Surely - I reasoned - there exists a collection of well-thought-out research, arguments, strategies, and evidence on the importance of knowledge-sharing at Peace Corps.
Well not nada 100%, per se. There is certainly a lot of material out there, and a lot of re-inventing the wheel, just in disparate places not well-linked. There are pages upon pages of material written on the Peace Corps that reference an abstract need for knowledge-sharing, and to account for the 5-year rule turnover realities within the agency.
But I had a difficult time finding anything that addressed this issue of knowledge management for both staff and volunteers directly. There were a couple of previous efforts within the agency that never really took off, there was this paper whose existence I learned of just a week ago, and of course, my very first paper that I wrote in graduate school], amongst other external voices.
But, meh - nothing that was a unifying strategy.
Where do we put our focus?
The most valuable resource at the Peace Corps is the people the Volunteers, the Staff, and communities.
Knowledge management recognizes that much of the work in this agency involves knowledge work—that our knowledge is more important than our manual skills. Identifying, creating, representing, distributing, and enabling adoption of insights and experiences are among the most important activities of the Peace Corps.
Our collective knowledge is constantly growing and being shaped by the evolving nature of our agency. It is critical now more than ever that we share what we know - the data, best practices, relationships, successes, and failures. How many times have we lost valuable expertise when a Volunteer completes their service, or when a staff member reaches their five year term limit? How many times have we reinvented the wheel - devoting valuable resources to problems previously attempted? How many times have we implemented a new project or initiative only to find ourselves reverting back to the “old system” a few months later?
The key to breaking the cycle of loss and reinvention lies in the way we embed knowledge in people, information, and technology. At the moment, we rely heavily on knowledge that is embedded in our people, in the experience of Volunteers, returned Volunteers, and the varied backgrounds of staff who bring “new blood” both domestically and overseas.
This is an amazing resource for the agency, and the tacit knowledge of our community allows us to be efficient and flexible in meeting new demands. It allows our community to hit the ground running in projects all over the world with little effort needed in re-training, re-orienting, and re-adapting. This flexibility comes at a cost—the constantly rotating staff and changing responsibilities puts pressure on Agency continuity.
Volunteers begin projects that the next Volunteer may be unavailable, uninterested, or too inexperienced to continue. There is a heavy reliance on staff at post to maintain broad oversight of these projects, but their resources are limited and their job demands do not allow them to be experts in every project of every Volunteer of every site.
Staff in Peace Corps Washington face similar challenges when arriving on a project with little, lost, or unclear documentation. They face the same challenges when moving up, over, and out of the Agency. With no clearly articulated strategy for knowledge management, ad-hoc initiatives fill the void and embed knowledge in disparate technologies and information (through habits, routines, and processes.)
Post-specific SharePoint 2003, Peace Corps Washington GURU, ICE, shared drives, Dropbox.com, Google Docs, and email serve as technologies that each in a small way retain and share knowledge. Conferences, Overseas Staff Training, Temporary Duties, Close of Service, and the hiring of RPCVs serve as processes to share, teach, and learn from people - where the knowledge has also been embedded.
A strategy must go beyond technology while not ignoring it either
An agency-wide Strategy can provide a platform for identifying, strategizing, and implementing a robust Knowledge Management Strategy that leverages the people, information, and technology of this organization. It is not simply about creating a technological platform to share documents, but a holistic approach that recognizes the limited resources of the agency and personnel.
A successful Strategy incorporates change management - the learning curve, barrier to entry, familiarity with existing systems, value-added of creating, consuming, and revising content, and the particular attention to support, training, iterative design, and user experience of knowledge management.
Technologies and processes come and go, but our underlying mission has not changed, nor has the standard of excellence maintained by Volunteers and staff. By describing a technology-independent Strategy for how the Agency addresses knowledge management, we ensure that when the next round of technological innovation becomes available to us, we are not required to reinvent our own wheel.
Is this a dead end?
I’m under no illusion that this will magically change Peace Corps’ approach to knowledge management generally, or even get us able to have a conversation that isn’t completely technology-platform based (think SharePoint versus Joomla versus….anything else).
That said, and knowing the turnover realities of life at the Peace Corps Washington, I’m confident that this platform-agnostic discussion is the right one – and should be helpful even years from now if we still haven’t cracked the nut.