Knowledge management and nonprofits, what’s the link?

This quarter, I’m taking a class on knowledge management.  As part of the class work, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on this blog (rather than start a new one).  In line with my interests I’ll be discussing this in the context of nonprofits; and in line with the spirit of this blog I will try to keep the ideas simple (or at least, simpler!).


In our organizations (and lives), we encounter a great deal of knowledge.  It comes in many forms, and there are different ways to look at it.  Take the following story, which was first told by my friend Whit (and adapted with his permission):



“You go to Starbucks and order a drink: grande non-fat caramel mocha with whipped cream.  The barista is new and to help him make the drink, we can create an instruction card stating how many pumps of syrup, ounces of milk, the temperature to which the milk should be steamed, and how much whipped cream and caramel to put on top.  The knowledge of preparing such a drink can be broken down into clear steps, and transferred to any new barista through an instruction card or reference guide.  This frees the senior baristas to attend to other customers rather than coach the novice barista on how to create a different drink each time.

Suppose the barista got your drink wrong, and you express your frustration at him.  How should he respond?  Is there a reference guide that offers clear instructions on how to address your specific unhappiness?  But there are so many variations to such situations.  So, imagine the barista pulls out a 2,000-page book, looks up “frustrated customer comments”, searches for the exact one (page 486, paragraph 2, protocol 953) and respond?  Many of us may laugh at such a suggestion.  More likely, the barista quickly recalls any similar past encounters and adapts his response, or if he is really clueless, he observes how his supervisor resolves the issue.”

This story illustrates two types of knowledge:

  • There is a type of knowledge that can be captured in systems, whether in physical or electronic form.  For example, things like instruction cards (as in the fictitious Starbucks story), manuals, guidelines and databases.
  • There is another type of knowledge that cannot be (fully) captured in a system because it is embedded within people and practices.  For example, things like intuition, discretion and consensus.

Having a clear understanding of how knowledge exists and is used in our organizations is important, because it allows us to figure out appropriate ways to create and share it.  This can vary widely from one organization to another.

For nonprofits, given their social missions the work often involves a great deal of social interaction where context and relationships are important.  For example, if the nonprofit works to strengthen vulnerable families, the social worker needs to build trust and rapport with the family.  He (or she) needs to understand the family’s history, background, circumstances and challenges, strengths and weaknesses, goals and aspirations, before tailoring a plan to help the family.  It can be a complex and dynamic process.

Some of the knowledge may be codified and captured in systems, for example, data on the help resources for such families.  However, a larger part of the knowledge is accumulated through multiple experiences, or even newly created in response to new situations.  The nature of most nonprofits tends to lend itself to the latter type of knowledge.  (Although, some nonprofits can function quite effectively through highly established systems that may not vary much, for example, food ration distribution.)

Interestingly, there is a growing trend of nonprofits trying to codify more and more of their knowledge.  For example, a nonprofit I know that works with vulnerable families has tried to define parameters (such as family income levels, type of housing, number of children etc.) and prescribe step-by-step guidelines for how its staff should help (or not help) those families.  Another nonprofit has developed computer software that its social workers can plug in the variables for a family and the software will generate the “model solution”.

There are different reasons why some nonprofits do this.  Some of them think that the knowledge they work with can be codified.  Some may feel that this is a good way to ensure objectivity, consistency and fairness in how they carry out their work, so as to minimize ambiguity and contention.  Some see IT as a silver bullet for all their issues, for example, in training and propping new staff when there is high staff turnover.  Some don’t really understand why they do so (or even realize they are dealing with knowledge), but only because their board or consultant has directed them to follow the technology bandwagon.

It is hard to tell how well a highly systemized or codified approach actually serves people’s needs and the nonprofits’ missions.  In all fairness, we may not be in a position to judge either.  What will be useful though, is greater consciousness among nonprofits as to: the nature of the knowledge they need to drive their missions and work; how that knowledge is best created and shared, and therefore; what knowledge management approach is best suited for them – be it a more systems approach, a more people approach, or a careful (and deliberate) combination of both.

This may all sound simple and straightforward, but often we may not think about knowledge in this way.  Sometimes, we may not even notice that there is knowledge involved.  But it pays to be deliberate about it.  If we pick an inappropriate approach, we may one day experience the equivalent of the barista reaching for the 2,000-page manual!



Photo credits:

worldoflard via photo pin cc

DBTabasco via photo pin cc

6 thoughts on “Knowledge management and nonprofits, what’s the link?

  1. Honestly I know a lot of professionals across for-profit, not-for-profit, government etc. who should all read this post. I really like the clarity of the point you make here (after sharing your insightful illustrations on the types of knowledge):

    “What will be useful though, is greater consciousness among nonprofits as to: the nature of the knowledge they need to drive their missions and work; how that knowledge is best created and shared, and therefore; what knowledge management approach is best suited for them.”

    It strikes me, also, that there is something very healthy about experimentation around these questions – i.e., trying some new ways to put things into systems, or different ways to tap into experience and individual expertise through conversation and dialogue. We learn so much from experimenting.

    Maybe the point is: Never lose sight of those questions and our overall purpose – understanding the nature of the knowledge needed to drive mission and, based on that, figuring out what approach is best suited to for knowledge management. The trap I see many people fall into is that they turn toward technology or other systems just because other organizations are doing it, or someone says its a “best practice,” or it just seems like the thing to do to be contemporary and innovative. My experience is that a better approach is to keep an eye on new tools and approaches – but then find a good, safe way to experiment. Does it fit our purpose?

  2. @Jeff – Wow! You crystallized in such economy of time and words, what I spent a long time trying to express. Thanks!

    I agree with you that experimentation is important. Sometimes, we are afraid to try, because we don’t know what will happen. But if we don’t try, we will never know!

    Of the two, I get the sense that organizations tend to be more comfortable experimenting with systems solutions than people solutions. There seems to be something about the objectivity of systems, vis-â-vis (potentially complex) human interactions, that gives us more comfort in the former. That may explain why some organizations spend huge budget and effort to develop a web portal or IT system, but fail to focus (or as much) on helping people to explore and embrace it. For such “white elephants”, perhaps its not so much the systems part of the KM that is inappropriate, but rather, it still boils down to the human aspects?

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  5. @Jeff @Stanfong Great post and reply to illustrate the organizational challenge many folks face when identifying how to identity, organize and share knowledge. It is challenge. It requires insight and forethought – both are things that many organizations don’t allow or support.

    Often, the culture of organization (implicitly or explicitly) limits our ability to take the time to think about the most effective way to respond to a challenge. Organizations prefer or insist that we speed through analysis to implementation, or barring that to codify it into a system, aka “put the info on Sharepoint, manual, document. We have them set up and running for a reason!” The organization culture is the driver, is inflexible, but often is the only obvious and accepted path.

    Perhaps one the key is in developing an understanding for the “shadow side” of an organization’s culture – how things get done, how we do things, this is our process, etc. Despite our reservations we have to work within the shadow side to get things done and attempt to make an impact. We may not be allowed the time or flexibility to solve problems in the moment, so we must find other opportunities, or other paths to support a challenge or solve a problem. This may take time and effort, but perhaps offers the best path toward small successes.

  6. @ Danny – Great insights and ideas! If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that we need to work within the culture, rather than against it, to build mind share and momentum. If an organization is not familiar or conversant in KM, it’s quite likely the overt culture will resist it (unless it is driven from the top, and even then, may be a tall order). I wonder if you have seen successful examples of working with the “shadow” side of culture in an organization? How might that look like?

    (Oddly, for some reason I was not notified of your comment until I logged on to my WordPress dashboard today…)

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