Thursday, December 16, 2004

King and McGrath’s Knowledge for Development: Comment 8

More thoughts occasioned by reading King and McGrath, Knowledge for Development.

Discarding false beliefs

I believe many concepts to be true.
One of the concepts I believe to be true
Is that some of the concepts that I believe to be true
Are not true.

One definition of knowledge might be “concepts believed to be true that are true”. Concepts believed to be true which are not true might be termed “false beliefs”. How important are false beliefs of concepts? Consider the apparently false belief by the Bush Administration that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- a belief which lead to invasion and an estimated 100,000 extra deaths so far.

An important form of learning then is the degrading of confidence and ultimately the discarding of false beliefs. Any consideration of the history of development assistance suggests that many of the beliefs on which such assistance was based have been degraded and/or discarded with time. Thus “top down” development was replaced by “grass roots” development, which in turn fell to “participatory development”, “structural readjustment”, and so on, and so on.

Patterns of Knowledge/Selection of information/Selective Learning

Donor agencies can’t know everything. There is some truth in the analogy that trying to absorb information these days is like drinking from a fire-hose. At a minimum, agencies have to have knowledge about the countries in which they work – their economies, political systems and politics, cultures, languages, etc. The agencies have to have knowledge about the development programs in those countries, and the ways those programs are supported by other donors. They have to have knowledge about development theory and practice, and about the sectors in which they work. Agencies need knowledge about the real world – the environments, resources, and infrastructure of the countries in which they work. The list goes on and on. The potentially useful knowledge base includes, importantly, knowledge of the agency's constituencies in the developed nation’s that the Agency serves, and the interests, preferences, power, and authority of those various constituencies. Information is being generated rapidly on many if not all of these topics, overwhelming the absorptive capacity of agency staffs.

The ability to acquire, organize, and utilize knowledge is clearly limited. Thus (according to OECD figures) the UK, with annual official development assistance (ODA) of US$6,282 in 2003 may be assumed to have more staff and more “knowledge for development” capacity than Sweden, with ODA in 2003 of US$2,400, but less than that of Japan with ODA that year of US$8,880. On the other hand, much of these nations’ ODA is provided through multilateral channels, and thus less closely supervised by their governments than the bilateral assistance provided by DfID, SIDA and JICA. The World Bank is, I think, the largest donor agency in terms of staff and facilities, and thus might be expected to have more “knowledge for development” capacity than the bilateral agencies. But even that capacity seems small as compared with the flood of information flowing in the world today.

I suggest that a critical issue for donor agencies is somehow to selectively acquire information and to develop a pattern of knowledge and knowledge activities that best meets their needs. Let me give an analogy. I had a college friend who spent some ten years as an undergraduate, changing majors from year to year. He acquired a great deal of knowledge, but it was rather shallow knowledge about a large variety of subjects. In ten years, it would have been equally possible to finish undergraduate and graduate training to the doctoral level. I that case, my friend might have acquired an equal (or perhaps lesser) quantity of knowledge, but in a pattern that was deeper but more specialized. He might have gained valuable expertise in a field such as medicine or science. So too, a donor agency (especially a small agency) might do well to specialize geographically and by sector, gaining expertise but giving up some areas of knowledge in the process.

The onion model for organizational knowledge

As I write this, I sit at my computer in my office. I use my personal knowledge, internalized (presumably in my brain but also in skills such as typing that are perhaps not totally cerebral). I draw on information already in my computer, especially frequently in the software that knows how to spell (since I don’t have much of that knowledge). I also draw on several hundred books and other publications surrounding me. I frequently use the Internet to access information that I don’t have immediately at hand. I sometimes ask people questions, in person, by phone, or by email. I find it useful to conceptualize this process with an “onion” model. There is an inner core for knowledge and information processing, but there are layers on layers of external sources of knowledge and information upon which I draw.

In like manner, one can conceptualize an organization as having an inner core of knowledge and information, and layers upon layers of external sources. A donor agency’s inner corps might be its staff, and the knowledge embedded in its organization, processes, data bases, libraries, etc. Agencies can augment that inner corps of knowledge and information, drawing on former employees, consultants, contractors, other donors (through collaborative processes and links), academics, clients, NGOs, etc. Indeed, I suspect that the most important knowledge capacities lie in the abilities to locate, tap and utilize well knowledge available to but outside of the core of the agency staff.


I mentioned above, it is important for an organization to stop using false beliefs, and one might consider this a form of forgetting. But more generally, if knowledge is internalized information, then one should not be concerned only with learning (or the internalization process) but also with forgetting, or the loss of knowledge or the availability of knowledge. Consider three different forms of forgetting:

· Inability to immediately recall information. As I get older I have more experience of temporary inability to access knowledge that I still have. I know a name, but it may take a few minutes or longer to bring it to mind. So too, organizations may have knowledge internalized somewhere, but be unable to bring that knowledge to bear for a decision for which it would be useful. A staffing change might, for example, remove a person to country B who has the knowledge needed for a decision in country A, replacing him with a person without that knowledge and without the ability to obtain advice from the person in country A. Similarly, the agency might have an ongoing relationship with a consultant with the relevant knowledge, but be unable to link the consultant with the decision where the knowledge is needed.

· More generally, the “onion” model of organizational knowledge described above suggests that organizations often must find that the transaction-cost of bringing knowledge available to them to bear on specific decisions exceeds the benefits that the added knowledge would bring to the decision process. Perhaps even more likely, agency staff may not realize that they have access to relevant knowledge in the outer shells of the agency’s knowledge system, or even that there is relevant knowledge that would improve decision making. In these cases, it might be considered that the organization has forgotten that knowledge, or has “forgotten” how to access the knowledge.

· Permanent forgetting: Of course, sometimes knowledge is lost permanently to an organization, either not available at all or needing to be relearned. Unfortunately, not all that is forgotten is false belief, much is useful knowledge. Indeed, I have heard development agencies described as having two or three years experience, repeated ten or twenty times.

Knowledge as capital/depreciation of knowledge

It is sometimes useful to regard knowledge as a form of capital. It certainly requires resources to create new information and to embody that information in forms that make it accessible to an organization. Appropriate utilization of the knowledge over time result in a stream of benefits that (ideally) repays the initial investment.

But knowledge has a limited useful lifetime. Let me give an example. Each year, there is an agreement as to the proper flu vaccine to produce. The effectiveness of the vaccine is only learned after hundreds of millions of doses have been administered, and the incidence and seriousness of the year’s flu epidemic have been measured. But the immunization campaign and the flu epidemic result in evolutionary change in the population of flu viruses and change the susceptibility of the population to the various flu strains, The next year, a new vaccine will almost surely be needed. Occasionally, as in 1968, health officials will guess wrong, and millions will die of flu. The knowledge of the effectiveness of a vaccine is outdated before it is fully reaized!

Some knowledge lasts a long time, Newton’s theory comes to mind as having a useful lifetime measured in centuries. But in many other cases, knowledge has a useful lifetime measured in years. Social, economic, political, environmental and other situations change, outdating formerly useful knowledge. It is important that organizations forget this outdated knowledge, shifting to new knowledge that is useful and avoiding use of formerly useful concepts that have become false beliefs.

I think the analogy between an organization investing in machines and investing in knowledge is instructive. There is an up-front investment needed to buy a machine, or to acquire knowledge. Some machines are useful for a long time, some wear out quickly; some knowledge remains useful for a long time, some loses value quickly. Resources are needed to maintain machines, and to maintain knowledge. Machines are sometimes replaced not because they are not useful, but because a more cost-effective machine has become available, and so to some knowledge should be replaced, not because it is false, but because better knowledge has become available. And forgetting is in some sense analogous to the deterioration of equipment, resulting in a depreciation of an organizational asset.

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