Monday, December 27, 2004

King and McGrath’s Knowledge for Development: Final Comment

Final comments occasioned by reading King and McGrath’s Knowledge for Development:

The evolving knowledge system and its IC technological system base

The information and communications technological system has been evolving quickly for the last half century. Certainly telephones, radios, primitive television, and punched card machines existed before 1950, but we have seen personal computers, the Internet, satellite communications, the software industry, fiber optics, and the entire consumer electronics industry develop since 1950. With the technological inventions, and the reduction in ICT prices, the infrastructure has grown enormously.

Donor agencies are organizations that share the organizational culture of developed nations. Like large organizations everywhere in the developed world, they have adopted ICT, invested in ICT infrastructure, and linked to the global information infrastructure. Indeed, their dependence on international communications may have made the donor agencies even more apt to adopt some ICT innovations than the domestically oriented neighbor organizations.

As the cost of ICT plummeted, the cost of activities using the ICT went down, and presumably the cost-effectiveness went up. One would expect that the now more cost-effective approaches and activities would be more frequently done; once cost-ineffective activities of the agencies that have now become cost-effective by automation would now be undertaken.

Such a process is probably largely self-organized, taking place in many places in an organization, implemented by many actors, with little overall coordination. It is to be expected that some observers would seek to explain such a process by means of a model ascribing purpose to organizations and treating organizations as rational entities in pursuit of such purposes. That the (internal or external) observers would come up with a phrase such as “knowledge for development” is not surprising. But one should not confuse such a rationalization of historic experience with reality.

There is also an issue of organizational inertia. On the one hand, there has been a great effort in restructuring development assistance and reengineering donor agencies. On the other hand, large organizations have considerable resistance to change. Indeed, it has been suggested that one can estimate the age of an organization by consideration of its structure and processes. Organizations are thought to freeze structure and process unless faced by real threats to their survival; those organizations that change and survive show new structures and processes, and those that don't survive take their structure and process with them. Thus donor agencies may not have faced the survival threat that would have been necessary for them to adopt 21st century organizational principles based on ICT and knowledge.

King and McGrath seem bemused that so little progress has taken place, so little of the potential in the information and communication technological system has been utilized to improve development. I am surprised that so much increase in utilization has occurred in the past 15 years. It is more that 500 years since the invention of the movable type printing press has occurred, and the potential of that innovation still has not been fully realized. The information technology revolution has barely started.

K4D as a slogan

“Knowledge for Development” is a slogan, and an effective one. To oppose K4D, slogans such as “Ignorance for Development” or “Superstition for Development” come to mind. Of course much of development is done despite large and important areas of ignorance and superstitious (often false) beliefs -- combined with ideology and habit. That is unavoidable, but not something of which to be proud! So people go forward, with their K4D slogan, asking for funds for new computers, new intranets, and new development projects and programs.

Don’t get me wrong. There are clearly lots of situations where a little knowledge (like Mighty Mouse) “saves the day”. (This is good, because so often we have only a little knowledge.) Email, intranets, and PCs are good investments for organizations seeking to use their high-priced staff efficiently! ICT makes rapid assessment possible and affordable, allowing better policy making and better implementation. Getting the right person to the right place at the right time with the right knowledge sometimes averts disaster or brings triumph. Automating computation can make previously impossible analyses easy and timely. And sometimes slogans are the right means to good ends, but slogans should not be confused with validated statements of fact.

Questions that perhaps should have been but were not asked:

King and McGrath don’t ask about the cost-effectiveness of K4D innovations. Yet we know that most large-scale ICT projects fail. USAID had a major failure years ago in trying to construct an agency-wide, integrated information system costing tens of millions of dollars, but yielding nothing. Donor agencies might have been expected to do extensive cost-effectiveness analysis before and while spending millions of dollars on information systems; but if they did so King and McGrath have not described the results of those analyses.

Indeed, even more ambitious cost-benefit analyses of the K4D approach might have been suggested. Has all the money spent on K4D paid off in more rapid social and economic development, and more rapid poverty alleviation, than would have occurred without those investments, or with other kinds of investments?

I think the questions are real. Of course, it is intuitively obvious that some investment in K4D is justified. But some, such as the USAID fiasco, has clearly been a poor investment. There may be diminishing returns to K4D investment, and some agencies may have passed the point of justified returns.

Unfortunately, our limited knowledge about effects or benefits of K4D investments means we are unable to answer such questions. This is especially true in that the efforts today can be seen as investments in systems and approaches that will yield as yet unforeseen benefits in the future. The failure of today may provide the experience needed for success tomorrow. Indeed, it has been argued that early investments in ICT can be regarded as building organizational capital. That is, win-or-lose they build intangible assets that will in the future generate benefits, such as better programs or lower costs.

Muddling through

I suggest that Knowledge Based Efforts in the case of K4D must be understood in the way we understand Knowledge Based Development. On the one hand, we should bring high quality knowledge whenever possible to the field. This has generally been done in the sense that investments in ICT have incorporated state-of-the-art technology for the major donor agencies, and those agencies have been a source of transfer of state-of-the-art ICT to developing nations. I would also suggest that donor agencies have often depended on and transferred professionally warranted scientific and technological knowledge. Unfortunately they have also frequently depended on bureaucratic or political knowledge that was of doubtful quality.

I would also suggest that, like the rest of us, folk in those agencies are muddling through, doing the best they can with the knowledge and tools they command. Bringing high quality knowledge to bear when possible is part of the muddling through process.

The earlier comments in this series can be accessed by clicking on the links below:

Comment 1
Comment 2
Comment 3
Comment 4
Comment 5
Comment 6
Comment 7
Comment 8
Comment 9
Does extensive analysis pay off in reducing poverty?
Comment 10
Comment 11

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