Figuring out where to begin: How to do KM for a start-up business unit (Part 1)

How do you do knowledge management (KM) when you’re a start up? When the identity of your business unit is still in the making? And when you’re not sure what KM has to offer for what you want to achieve? You bring in someone to help set up the unit, define your role in terms of KM and explain the KM options you have. That’s what the Head of the Sub-Regional Response Facility for Syria in Amman did, requesting a KM expert from headquarters who can assist them in this task on short notice (like, the following week?), and I raised my hand…  In reality, it still took about six weeks until I received the call for deployment end of November.

To give some context: Three years into the Syria crisis, the civil war has wreaked havoc in the country, killing over 125,000 people and leading to 2.3 million refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and North Africa, putting a heavy strain of those countries’ public services, employment situation and social cohesion among the host communities. In addition to the refugees, over 6.5 million of the Syrian population is internally displaced (Source:, receiving limited services from the international community. Estimates indicate that this is the largest movement of people since the Second World War. In order to respond to this situation that is threatening to reverse development gains of decades in the region, UNDP has decided to establish a Sub-Regional Response Facility to support Country Offices and partners in the sub-region in developing a resilience-based development response to the crisis that goes beyond emergency assistance.

Arriving here in Amman end of November with the prospect of a two-three months detail assignment, my TORs consisted basically of a generic list of all the potential things that KM people can do. The mandate of the Facility had been established two months earlier through a concept note, which mentioned the need for “a strong knowledge management capacity to effectively adapt, align and transform responses to the volatility of the situation… [requiring] …innovation and a strong capacity to learn from errors and successes”, but it didn’t really elaborate how such a function should look like.

So the first goal was to identify the priorities for the Facility in terms of KM. Well, how do go about it? I convened the team and conducted a KM needs analysis in which I asked them “Among the different roles that Sub-Regional Facility could play in terms of knowledge management, what role should it play?

What are those potential roles? For a newly established entity which wants to position itself among existing partners as a coordinating body, as well as driving force for a specific issue, there are multiple ways how it could interpret its KM work. It could…
  • Capture Knowledge: Collect data, evidence and lessons from past initiatives to take stock and understand what worked and what didn’t.
  • Broker Knowledge Exchange: Connect individuals, teams and institutions and facilitate exchanges for mutual learning, support and partnership building.
  • Do Research: Undertake quantitative and qualitative analysis based on existing or new data to generate evidence, consolidate existing knowledge and generate new knowledge.
  • Innovate: Identify, sponsor and prototype new potential solutions for complex challenges and questions that haven’t been solved before.
  • Disseminate Knowledge: Establish channels of communication and training to deliver existing knowledge to target audiences in order to educate, build capacity and raise awareness.

Second, I asked them who they want to do this for? Who is their audience? On a broad level the Facility could distinguish between five layers of target groups:
  • The Facility itself (KM to increase internal efficiency)
  • The Regional UNDG Working Group on Resilience
  • UN Country Teams and UNDG agencies
  • Governments, IOs, NGOs, Academia, Private Sector
  • The Public

To give the team some visual aid I put together the following illustration as an overview over the different directions that KM could take for the Facility, and how each role can be played for various layers of target audiences:

For each role and audience, the practice of KM can draw on a range of tools and methodologies. To understand the spectrum of tools and methodologies available, one could skim through the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit (maintained the KM4Dev network, FAO, UNICEF, UNDP and CGIAR) which lists 64 tools and 124 general approaches. For the sake of this exercise, I focused on those tools that UNDP has most experience in, as well as the capacity to support, each of which would require a further look at intent, content and audience:
  • Knowledge Fairs to identify & reward successful projects or insightful failures, learn from them and scale up (On what topic? With which stakeholders?)
  • Knowledge Systematization and Transfer Exercises to document lessons and tools from past experiences (On which projects? On which topics? With which partners?)
  • Communities of Practice for individuals to exchange knowledge and learn from each other (On what topic? For which stakeholders?)
  • National Solution Exchange Networks to facilitate exchange among development stakeholders in a country (Which country? On what topic? Which stakeholders?)
  • Knowledge Mapping to identify key stakeholders for knowledge partnerships, exchange and engagement (For what KM activity?)
  • Online Idea Market to collect new ideas from selected audiences (For which audience? What mechanisms for follow up?)
  • Public Dialogues or Consultations with targeted stakeholders (To get input on what questions?)
  • Innovation Challenges/Competitions to identify innovative ideas to complex challenges (On which challenges?)
  • Crowd Sourcing to identify priorities and concerns of populations (On which issues?)
  • Social Innovation Camps to identify/prototype new ideas (With which stakeholders? On which challenges?)
  • Online Collaboration Spaces to host discussions and provide knowledge resources (For which audience? For what purpose? Under which brand?)
  • Visualizations and Infographics to illustrate research data and communicate results (What story to tell? What data source?)
  • Webinars to share experiences (Which projects? Which audience?)
  • Trainings to deliver known content (What content? What audience?)
  • Public Website to disseminate knowledge resources (What content? What audience?)
  • Social Media to reach out to the public and raise awareness (What message? What audience?)
  • After Action Reviews for the Facility to learn from its activities (On which activities of the facility?)
  • Peer Assists for the Facility to get input from peers on its upcoming tasks (What problem are you trying to solve? Who can assist?)

Each of the tools and methodologies can provide particular value for specific audiences and purposes:

So how did the Facility position itself in terms of priorities for knowledge management? And which KM initiatives did I recommend as a result? You will find out soon in my next blog post update from Amman! :)


Unknown said…
Nice work Johannes! Looking forward to the next post.
Unknown said…
Nice work Johannes! Looking forward to the next post.
Unknown said…
nice overview and indeed a good approach to identify the major building blocks of KM and based upon priorities what is required . The flow and approach makes sense .. I don't think there is a major difference for a KM approach and on going business. The timeline to implement is definitely shorter and hardly time to develop new approaches. Quick delivery and using commons and standard tools seems the good approach.
Thanks Koya and Daan, the feedback is much appreciated. Daan, you're right, this is basically a management consultancy approach, just with a specific KM lens.

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