Project Management Institute

If you build it, will they come? United Nations knowledge sharing platform


Introduction and Background

Great challenges lay ahead for the world as a whole, and especially for organizations with global brands. Large-scale organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have vast knowledge networks and dispersed experienced staff, consultants, and advisors who are in an exceptional position to take further advantage of current capabilities and capacity. Assisting clients and the supply chain in responding to current challenges, contributing to the achievement of the strategic goals, and further fostering human capital is critical to the success of all global organizations.

Given the degree of the complexities the UNDP faced in the past (as well as today), it was realized that the UNDP had to be better prepared to respond and adapt to changes more quickly. The organization suffered from a “cognitive surplus” of experience, talent, and knowledge that often went unleveraged or unrecognized. A strategy was developed to correct this situation involving the capture of organizational challenges, successes, and achievements and present a new way forward to share and utilize this vast global expertise. The way forward involved collecting, contextualizing, and distributing the enormous amount of knowledge available in order to position the UNDP as a “knowledge organization” in the true sense of the word. The vision was to produce a realistic, brighter “light at the end of the tunnel knowledge-sharing system” for developing country markets by putting forth the best the UNDP organization had to offer, more effectively and in a shorter time frame.

The UNDP's knowledge-sharing strategy evolved to recognize that each and every staff member are key users and contributors. The corporate sponsor of this strategy was the UNDP's Knowledge Management Group (KMG). The KMG charter was put in charge of managing the new system and enhancing the existing communities of practice and user groups.

Knowledge Management 1.0 and 2.0

Until a few years ago, in most organizations of both the private and public sectors, knowledge management was a never-ending attempt to collect and codify documents. It was expected that people across an organization understood the codification and could therefore use it to navigate and find the knowledge. The conceptual framework related to corporate codification, collection, and the attempt to redistribute knowledge is referred to as KM 1.0. In the past decade, the field of knowledge management has undergone a conceptual shift based on a rigorous re-evaluation of knowledge management practices in different organizations worldwide. Rather than trying to control the knowledge production process and the channels through which it flows, knowledge management is now seen as a conscious strategy to enable participation and collaboration, thus capturing knowledge as a side-effect of normal daily activities and personal interest. The key to the conceptual shifts is that knowledge is now contextualized in a way that is inherently understood by the people in the organization. This means that instead of being attached to a code, it is now attached to the people, projects, services, and communities that generated it. This approach is called KM 2.0. The concept, which is now at the basis of computer-based social networking, evolved from the realization that it is not possible to adequately manage knowledge itself, but that one can foster an environment within which knowledge can be created, discovered, captured, shared, distilled, self-validated, transferred, adopted, adapted to context, and applied in a way to maximize its effectiveness and value.

Because of this shift, corporations, development organizations, and governments are finding today that the impact of the new knowledge-sharing approach, which puts individuals at the center of their knowledge universe and reinforces their professional communities and personal networks, is paying dividends. From the Open Society Institute to IBM, from governments to academia, to many cutting-edge global consulting firms, the principles grouped under the term KM 2.0 have placed the benefits and the responsibilities of sharing knowledge directly with each staff member, expert, and practitioner. This is a departure from the “knowledge brokers” approach that, for years, virtually disengaged those who create knowledge from the ownership, responsibilities, and returns on investment they made in sharing it for the benefits of others and ultimately, their own.

In the UNDP context, it was anticipated that the implementation of this knowledge strategy and in particular, its platform TEAMWORKS as a knowledge system based on KM 2.0 technology, would yield a broad range of benefits in UNDP's primary functional areas of development services, advocacy, and coordination. TEAMWORKS was designed to support the strategic plan by providing a truly cross-cutting human, thematic, institutional, and geographical platform to ensure that knowledge was made available and could be leveraged to improve services while decreasing overall costs. Investing in knowledge for UNDP meant investing in the quality of the products and services delivered. The return on investment was measured not only in internal cost effectiveness and additional business opportunities but also, and more importantly, in the impact on work in improving the lives of the constituents assisted.

The “social networking” approach was at the core of TEAMWORKS helping the UNDP move beyond Knowledge Management 1.0—codification-only systems. Instead of having teams of experts determine what the correct taxonomy for the organization should be, and attempt to shape the way people think to align with that taxonomy, social networking harnesses the taxonomy that is inherent in the DNA of the global organization. The application of a corporate taxonomy was replaced with an organization-wide capability for individuals to contextualize information using the categories— called “tags” —that made sense to them. The collective tagging of the organization results in knowledge categories determined by daily work and contexts.

Social networking is also an effective method to determine the value, or quality, of knowledge within the system, using a people-centric model that is created to reflect organizational behavior. When seeking useful information, one typically assesses value through the opinion of others, working through a network of trusted colleagues to navigate to the knowledge of most significance for the given situation. Within social networking systems, the usage and ranking of knowledge is aggregated across the entire organization, allowing the quality of information to be assessed by its true value “in the field.” The system leverages these user assessments to offer an effective feedback mechanism to improve services and related knowledge products.

The TEAMWORKS platform was designed to provide inherent incentives for adoption, by:

  • Publishing individual knowledge that may be of interest to others, while advertising its value to the organization. This value was measurable by the tagging, accessing, and flagging others' contributions;
  • Externalizing individual knowledge into an accessible, searchable space, and remove the need to continuously manage knowledge distribution from practices, groups, and communities personally. This provided valuable information to others without disruption of staff daily goals; and,
  • Contextualizing knowledge as described above, so that users could leverage the system to more quickly and easily find what they need without a dependency on others to respond.

Elements of TEAMWORKS

TEAMWORKS was organized around the three core elements of: people and their communities and groups, projects, and knowledge and services.

  1. People and their communities and groups: A profile was created for each user. In the public profile, basic information about the individual was displayed drawing from the information on record or, if the user was external, from information provided by the user. This included name, e-mail address, organization, position, duty station, and certifications. The individual was able to add a bio, along with knowledge products s/he had produced (documents, multimedia, etc.) and links to communities to which s/he is or has been contributing. In short, the public profile described the user's universe and presented it to others. Individuals could also create small groups on subjects of interest to them and invite others to participate. These groups, much like the larger communities of practices, could be moderated or un-moderated, visible or private, and available externally to registered users belonging to other organizations, including consultants and experts, clients, etc.
  2. Projects: TEAMWORKS included project information when a new project was added to UNDP's project funding system, Atlas, containing a read-only view into the basic award data. TEAMWORKS also allowed the manual creation of activities pages for items not recorded in Atlas (conferences, workshops, etc). The project officer (PO) appeared on the project page as a link to his or her profile, alongside other people engaged in the implementation of the project or its activities. Additionally, the PO and team members could attach completed documentation and knowledge products produced under the activities of the project, including presentations, progress reports, evaluations, external inputs, good practices, frequently asked questions, and media among other categories. It was expected that the creation of these attachments would be managed in regional and business unit document management and workflow automation systems and migrated to TEAMWORKS upon completion. TEAMWORKS could also serve as the document repository for wide-scoping cross-agency projects. Since project pages can be tagged through topic keywords and geographical data, users could quickly search for “similar/related projects,” or browse geographically. Since projects are linked to staff members' profiles, managers could also search for people who had particular experience. A community of practice could also be created and associated with one or more projects. The collective archive of projects and attached prescribed and substantive documentation functions as a comprehensive knowledge base for further collaborative work.
  3. Knowledge and services: The knowledge and services (K&S) component acts as the entry point to the practice work, according to the UNDP's Service Delivery Model and related advice. It is also the authoritative place for UNDP's work on a particular practice theme. It holds relevant policies, general knowledge, and institutional memory of the organization and allows the user to quickly navigate and explore an area of interest. The K&S page is primarily organized by thematic or functional services, but can also provide regional views and access to corporate resources. Each practice space is managed by an expert advisor or jointly in cross-practice areas. It also provides access to relevant communities of practice and their members, projects and activities (e.g. discussions, queries, collaborative work), and news and other resources. In addition, each thematic space details corporate service areas and types of support available to users through formal advisory services. Access to “value-added” assistance from advisors and select practitioners is facilitated through a one-click entry point. Offerings by the Learning Resource Centre (LRC) are flagged in each service area and, conversely, service areas are accessible as “real-life” examples by those taking LRC courses. Throughout the system, content management of finished knowledge products, tagged search, and multimedia functionalities (video, audio, etc.), make knowledge objects available, relevant, and searchable by all users to obtain more than just documents, but a thorough overview of the who, what, and how related to each query.

Key Features of TEAMWORKS

TEAMWORKS provides several core features to respond to the business needs highlighted in this strategy, including but not limited to the following:

  1. A common, secure system to protect and distribute knowledge and intellectual property;
  2. Access to expert knowledge and advice in managed, contextualized thematic spaces;
  3. Global service request tracking;
  4. Project oriented collaboration spaces with access to project-related knowledge products;
  5. Communities of practice and users' groups, both formal and ad hoc;
  6. Secure, real-time online instant messaging;
  7. Ability to invite members of, and collaborate with, other agencies and external partners;
  8. Integrated collaboration tools such as blogs and wikis;
  9. Staff members' profiles, location, social mapping, and contact information;
  10. Content contextualized to user preferences, user-friendly navigation;
  11. Multilanguage capability;
  12. User feedback and content flagging, tagged and contextualised searches;
  13. System usage metrics and reporting;
  14. Seamless navigation of corporate content through integration with other systems and customizable home page; and,
  15. Facilitated reports on knowledge activities (e.g., new groups, user statistics, area of focused activity, etc).

How Was the Strategy Implemented?

Implementing this strategy and bringing the knowledge under a common roof was vital to the UNDP organization. In more than one way, the organization's knowledge is its future and it could not be lost, wasted, or go under-capitalized. The strategy involved bringing together the tremendous capacity that knowledge can generate and put it at the fingertips of the organization's human infrastructure: those who need to know and who, in turn, provide their knowledge to their colleagues and clients.

This would be accomplished through a coordinated set of initiatives encompassing cultural and organization changes and new technologies. Through a five-prong approach, the knowledge-sharing strategy created a human and technical infrastructure to enable staff and practitioners to learn, share, connect, and contextualize knowledge by enhancing collaboration and creating a cultural change with regard to the organization's approach to knowledge sharing. The technical platform proposed was TEAMWORKS, a secure internal and external collaboration web-based platform aligned with the new initiative to create a more robust content and collaboration architecture.

The Human Side of Change

Since this was a major cultural change for the UNDP, the technical and human infrastructure had to be balanced to work in synergy and create value. The strategy emphasized the importance of both components. Especially in the sensitive area of knowledge, the shift to new technology approaches had to be as soft and as respectful as possible, ensuring that appropriate capacity was developed as the technology was rolled out. Furthermore, research indicates there are two dimensions of change to attend to when developing an implementation plan, the logical—goals, software installation, training, support, role definition, demonstrating value—and the emotional. Most organizations concentrate only on the logical. The emotional component of change is the one in which a staff member is encouraged to express an idea or solution. According to Cotter and Cohen in The Heart of Change (2002), to harness or inspire this side of change, researchers suggest creating an urgent vision for the change, creating a strong cadre of change supporters, engaging staff in key parts of the organization, working with early adopters, and showing convincing demonstrable results. The implementation plan accounted for both the logical and the emotional. Since implementation is a dynamic process, the implementation plan evolved as implementation proceeded.

There were two dimensions to the implementation: supporting individuals and their communities, the human infrastructure, and developing the technical infrastructure. This was done through the five-prong strategy, specifically:


  1. Establishing a corporate knowledge management group to guide the process.
    Human infrastructure:
  2. Strengthening the communities of practice and enabling the capacity of users to create collaborative support groups.
    Change and communication plan:
  3. Recognizing and encouraging user participation, through training and visibility.
    Technical infrastructure:
  4. Implementing TEAMWORKS' through a phased approach.
    Services and quality:
  5. Implementing the methodology of the UNDP's Service Delivery Model.

The KMG reviewed the current communities and identified how they could be better integrated with the goal-setting process of the organization. This included establishing goals, reviewing progress, and helping individuals to focus on the most important parts of their work. More specifically, this entailed:

  • Training users to take full advantage of TEAMWORKS and integrate it in their daily workflow;
  • Identifying practices, service areas, and business units to engage as early adopters of TEAMWORKS;
  • Reviewing the current health and impact of selected communities of practice, their current goals, and recent accomplishments; and,
  • Supporting selected communities and groups in identifying particularly engaging issues to begin the use of TEAMWORKS discussions.

What TEAMWORKS Offered and Why People Are Using the New System

TEAMWORKS was designed as a system to facilitate knowledge sharing and active collaboration in a cost-effective manner. It was envisioned as comprised of three core elements: people, projects, and knowledge and services.

  1. People: Each user can create a profile presenting user information, contributions, and become a member of one or more communities of practice. Individuals can also create ad hoc groups on subjects of interest and to invite others to contribute.
  2. Projects: The system will display read-only project information and will allow users to attach contextual knowledge, including lessons learned, project documentation, and reviews.

3.  Knowledge and services: This is the entry point to policy services, communities, and knowledge assets.

TEAMWORKS is an enterprise-wide knowledge-sharing platform used by a distributed workforce and partners. It was designed as an easy-to-use system. The TEAMWORKS platform placed special emphasis on the recognition of individuals for their contributions to knowledge while improving their organizational visibility. It fostered a rich collaborative environment to deliver the most relevant knowledge where it is most urgently needed while keeping knowledge connected to the individuals who shared it. But, that new knowledge had to be vetted. For structured, institutional knowledge, UNDP developed a framework and standard for vetted knowledge from the experience of field staff and consultants/advisors known as the Service Delivery Model. The strategy also envisaged user-created ad hoc groups and contextualized spaces to capture free-flowing knowledge and foster innovation, communication, and collaboration.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Lawrence Suda
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix Arizona, USA



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