Knowledge Champions in Development Organisations: a Key Way to Promote Knowledge Sharing and Learning?

January 17, 2012 | LND | Learning Elsewhere |


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By Riff Fullan

2010_riff_fullan copyAt an organisational level, efforts to support greater knowledge management and learning can get ‘stuck’ within a mechanistic approach, designing structures or tools when one of the most important things to think about is people and how we can create the right conditions for them to interact in productive ways. The idea of having a variety of staff playing pivotal roles in enabling greater knowledge transfer – in other words, having Knowledge Champions – is one that is well worth exploring as a complement to other institutional knowledge management efforts.

The field of Knowledge Management (KM) developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the corporate sector. Initially, energy went into the creation of information management systems because CG5264this was considered to be a crucial area where organisations could keep their ‘edge’. In the following years, not only did KM gain prominence in the development sector, but by the year 2000 the focus was also shifting to the importance of people and their roles in building, maintaining and propagating knowledge. One outcome of this was an increased interest in Knowledge Champions.

In many larger development organisations the ‘original’ Knowledge Champions were those in positions such as Chief Knowledge Officer or Knowledge Management Coordinator. Such positions indicated the importance to the organisation of knowledge and a (usually senior) person to steer organisational efforts to manage it.

The belief was that investing resources in a KM-specific position would ensure that the organisation would be a ‘learning organisation’. In the event, it was difficult to meet expectations for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Inertia associated with pre-existing practices which often created barriers to knowledge sharing and learning
  • A variety of (national, cultural, technical) contexts within organisations
  • Relatively high fragmentation of internal systems designed to support KM

The Fate of Knowledge Champions

In some cases the response was to discontinue Chief Knowledge Officer-like positions, but in others it was recognised that a single person – or even a small team, especially if it is based solely in the head office – is simply not enough. Why? Because what is needed is to spearhead the changes in organisational culture required to move from a more bureaucratic way of doing things to one that is more dynamic, more accepting of different ways of working, and more open to outside influence.This is where the role of Knowledge Champions truly comes into its own!

Spreading the Knowledge Champion Wealth

A more effective approach to strengthening knowledge and learning within an organisation is to identify, support and promote Knowledge Champions in a variety of positions.

There are two major ways in which this can be done: by networking of staff based on a common (usually thematic) interest, and by identifying and supporting Knowledge Champions working in different positions and locations. SDC is currently doing the former: supporting a variety of networks with members in cooperation offices around the world as well as in the headquarters in Bern. Each network has a Focal Point who is responsible for not only providing thematic advice and expertise for internal and external policy dialogues, but also for helping to nurture and steer the network. The Focal Points – in addition to the Knowledge and Learning Process Division, which has overall responsibility for supporting knowledge sharing and learning – are key emerging Knowledge Champions in the SDC context.

Another approach is to identify individuals throughout the organisation with the right characteristics who can play the Knowledge Champion role. The advantage here is these Knowledge Champions are well integrated into their respective local contexts and are more immediately available to their colleagues than those based at headquarters. Disadvantages are that they are often difficult to identify, normally have pre-existing sets of responsibilities, and can be more isolated than a team working in the same place.

Some Approaches to Going the Knowledge Champion Route

How could SDC – and similar organisations – strengthen Knowledge Champions? Certainly, one way is to keep doing what it is already doing, i.e. providing resources and institutional backing for network Focal Points. Another is to actively explore the designation of some Focal Points who are based in Cooperation Offices. A third is to broaden the scope to encourage and enable ‘ordinary‘ staff to play a Knowledge Champion role. To do this, SDC would need to:

  • Define how Knowledge Champions could be identified (e.g., through an internal Social Network Analysis to see who is already playing such a role)
  • Determine how to balance informality and formality (on the formal side, at least there will need to be an explicit designation of individuals as Knowledge Champions). In addition, managers of those individuals will need to be supportive on an ongoing basis
  • Clearly define the role of a Knowledge Champion (and distinguish it from positions within the KLP Division as well as from network Focal Points)

Why add yet another complication to an already complex institutional context? One reason is to create an additional mechanism to bridge the gap between initiatives driven by headquarters and those driven from the field. A second is that the degree to which SDC strengthens itself as a learning organisation is directly linked to the number of staff who are actively involved in making it happen: spreading the coordination/supporting role around is a powerful way to leverage enthusiasm and energy within the organisation around knowledge and learning.

What do you think about the importance of Knowledge Champions? Is the necessary investment worthwhile for development organisations? 

Further Reading:

Unit 4 of the Knowledge Sharing for Development IMARK Module includes an interesting description of Knowledge Champions at the operational level.

The 3Cs of Knowledge Sharing: Culture, Co-opetition and Commitment describes important elements of a knowledge-friendly organisational context.

This Knowledge Champion blog post provides a concise description of key ways to identify and benefit from Knowledge Champions and other approaches to knowledge sharing.



Comments to“Knowledge Champions in Development Organisations: a Key Way to Promote Knowledge Sharing and Learning?”

  1. Dear Riff,
    An interesting reflection, thanks. I agree fully with you knowledge champions are important to drive and strengthen learning and to make an organization a learning one.

    I was reading a blog that if 10% of an organizations’ staff (including the leader) adopt a “winning attitude” this belief will be adopted by the majority of the organization. This might be true also for a sharing and learning attitude? (You actually can replace the word “winning” by “learning” in the text gets inspiring for knowledge sharing. I would add here the target is a 10% quote at HQ and in each field office. The challenge is the engagement of knowledge champions

    What about the chief knowledge mangers, are they an outdated model or are they changing roles? I would say the latter: they are providing guidance, tools and support to knowledge champions, to networks, to communities of practice; and jointly they are trying to “infect” an organization with the “learning-virus”. Knowledge mangers need knowledge champions and vice versa. In other words we don’t need a big sailing boat but a lot of “optimists” (for learning) and a little wind for setting the sails.

    Best, Nadia

  2. Reto Wieser says:

    Dear Riff

    Thank you for your outlinig description on how to strengthen sharing and learning within an organisation and taking SDC as one example. With a bit a longer term perspective (some 10 years from 2001 up to today), SDC is also an example of an organisation which changed its strategy: From 2001 – 08 Manuel Flury was the Knowledge Champion par excellence, whereas with the reorganisation in 2008 Knowledge & Learning Processes Division was etsblished as a umbrella for the different teams within SDC working on Knowledge Management aspects and, as you say, Focal Points were nominated as thematic Knowlege Champions.

    As each and every organisation design has its strengths and weaknesses, it would be intersted to hear from your outside perspective the positive and negative changes that you see between these two models.

    Best, Reto


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