Using What We Know: Knowledge Management at the Trusts (Winter 2005-2006 Trust Magazine article)

  • February 01, 2006
  • By Scott B. Scrivner

Use what you know. It's a seemingly obvious point. But in an institution with scores of employees, multiple areas of focus and more than 50 years of grantmaking, how can we keep track of all that we know so that the accumulated knowledge is fully at our disposal?

It is not easy, and we do not always succeed, nor are we alone in our efforts. In recent years, organizations have given a lot of attention to understanding the ways in which they can better access and use information, knowledge and expertise. For a time, knowledge management, as this subject is commonly known, was one of the most popular management fads, with academics and management consultants alike offering a dazzling array of approaches.

In practice, however, they all too often attempted to use technology as a cure-all, or they recommended approaches that worked well for a single organization but were far less effective when put into practice outside the original context.

At the Trusts, we believe that the most effective approach directly reflects specific needs. Our knowledge management practices have come about not as prefabricated solutions, but rather as natural attempts to give staff what they need to do their jobs well (and thus the term is, in fact, rarely used at the Trusts).

As an organization, we strive to learn from our work and the efforts of our grantees to ensure that the Trusts' philanthropic investments—in knowledge, created and applied—pay the best interest. Although we are still learning, we can share several lessons that we have learned in the course of working to ensure that staff have access to and use what we, as an institution, know.

Design for Demand, Plan for Ongoing Change

After several false starts (where we responded to the “flavor of the month” in knowledge management), we have learned that we must understand and respond to staff needs rather than react to the latest management trend. Successful practices and tools for sharing information are demanddriven— in our experience, knowledge management efforts designed for their own sake are destined for failure.

Needs also change over time. We have found that even the most carefully designed system or procedure cannot be put in place and left unattended— it pays to regularly take stock of whether staff are using the available tools and getting what they need. If not, we change our approach and allow it to evolve as needed.

Technology: Sometimes Necessary, Never Sufficient

Search engines, vast online libraries, custom-built databases capable of storing millions of memos and reports— all are impressive stores of information. But are they useful? Not always. The marvels of today's technology can make it all too easy to lose focus on the role it should play: making it easy for staff to find and use the information that they need most.

As Bruce C. Compton, the Trusts' research manager and archivist, explains: “Technology is a great tool, but to paraphrase the film Field of Dreams, just because you build it doesn't mean they will come. A good knowledge-sharing tool is based on two principles: The information must be useful to the end-user, and the tool should be easy to use.”

At times, low-tech approaches—like meetings—are most effective. In our experience, creating regular opportunities for colleagues to gather and learn from each other is a key part of making sure that we share key knowledge and lessons—and use them to improve our philanthropy.

Planning and Evaluation (P&E) brings staff together in a variety of ways. For instance, we host crossdepartmental peer review sessions for developing strategies and also oversee the organization's orientation program for new staff.

The lessons that staff learn from their work also provide material for Pew University, our internal training program of seminars and brown-bag discussions, where participants share experiences and exchange ideas.

Where appropriate, we do use technology but also ensure that it is user-friendly and built to give staff what they want most. For example, an intranet gives staff access to a variety of programs created to make their jobs easier, including a searchable archive of internal documents, among them current grants and grant products. This intranet has an online library tailored for our research needs and a database of consultants with whom staff have worked.

The point is to use technology to make it easy to learn from past and current work so that it is a complement to, not substitute for, processes that encourage honest discussion among colleagues.

Learn from Your Mistakes . . . and Successes

Are our grantmaking programs making a difference? If so, how? Have our strategies met the challenges that they were designed to face? Do we need to adjust our approach?

These are questions that all at the Trusts are accountable for answering, and we have learned a lot about what contributes to successes, and failures, in the course of addressing them.

Still, it takes a deliberate effort to ensure that we keep these lessons in mind and put them to work. That is a function of our annual planning process and regular evaluations. They do not simply help us to understand how single programs have fared. They also allow us to identify common practices that have broadly contributed to the success of many programs. A major P&E task involves making certain that we have them in mind as we design new projects.

As part of the Trusts' annual planning process, for example, all of our departments set targets for their work over the next year and report on progress toward meeting milestones laid out in the prior year's plan. This commitment to ongoing tracking of progress toward clear, measurable and ambitious goals creates a “need to know” mentality among the staff, who work with P&E throughout the year to develop clear targets, collect evidence of progress, make mid-course corrections and understand and respond to challenges. P&E also leads evaluations that provide information on the extent to which programs hit their targets—and help us to recognize when we have missed our mark and understand why.

How do we use these processes to keep staff informed? P&E acts as the steward of this body of information. By collaborating with program staff as they are designing new lines of work or planning their approach for the coming year, we strive to ensure that, as an organization, we put what we have learned into practice.

Knowledge Management Is Integral to Effective Philanthropic Practice

“Doing” knowledge management is simply a good business practice. In the words of Janet L. Kroll, the P&E officer who heads our orientation program and manages Pew University: “Our staff's need for information and knowledge is tied to our ability to work effectively as a philanthropic organization and bring about positive social change. By building a context in which knowledge management is an essential part of doing our jobs well, we both create incentives for staff to become active participants in the process and make it far more likely that the tools and processes we design will be well suited to our institutional and programmatic needs.”

Scott Scrivner is an associate in Planning and Evaluation at the Trusts.