The “What”, “How” and “Why” of KM in nonprofits

I’m on the knowledge management (KM) track again :)

If you work in nonprofit and are looking at KM in your organization, something I read this past weekend may be useful. These are journal articles, so I will only outline a few broad points and add the sources at the end for those who are interested to read more.

Previously, I introduced KM and how knowledge is created and shared. After this, the next possible questions could be: how can I assess the state of KM in my organization to know what I might need to do. Perhaps importantly too, how can I get others to support it? I see these questions as broadly the “what”, “how” and “why” of KM in nonprofits.

To address the “what” and “how”, some frameworks may be useful. Three researchers (Emmanuele Lettieri, Francesca Borga, Alberto Savoldelli) studied Italian nonprofits and wrote an excellent article (“knowledge management in non-profit organizations”) about the role of KM in achieving excellence in nonprofits. In summary, they did the following

  • First, identify the unique characteristics of nonprofits
  • Next, identify the role and benefits of KM in nonprofits along five areas
    • Meeting community needs
    • Creating social value
    • Implementing vision and strategy
    • Using resources well
    • While ensuring economic survivability and sustainability
  • Then, look at where knowledge resides (in individuals or among groups) and whether it is in tacit or explicit form
  • Then, looking at the life cycle of knowledge, how it evolves within the organization and the community, and the extent to which it occurs

This is an excellent frameworks article that I would recommend for KM folks (even if your interests are not in nonprofits).

Article 1

Suppose at the end of this assessment, you identify some things you need to do, for example, develop an IT system to support KM. How do you get others to support and use it? This is the “why” question.

A different trio of researchers (Natalia Cruz, Victor Perez, Celina Cantero), this time looking at a Spanish nonprofit, studied the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on knowledge transfer among nonprofit employees (“the influence of employee motivation on knowledge transfer”). They found that intrinsic motivation was most important for knowledge sharing within the organization. This is in line with other studies that have shown the benefits of intrinsic motivation, for example, on teamwork and performance.

Interestingly, the study found that extrinsic motivation was not necessary. This runs somewhat counter to common perception. Coming back to the example of the IT system, common solutions to get people to use IT systems are to have incentives (e.g. track contributions and reward people) and penalties (e.g. mandate employees to input information into the system). Perhaps these work well in for-profits. But they may not work well in nonprofits, who also tend to be more constrained in their ability to reward (as they have fewer resources) or punish (as volunteers join and leave on their own free will).

Figure 4

Instead, we must figure out what intrinsically motivates or inspires people in nonprofits to see value in an IT system and embrace it. Since intrinsic means different things to different people, the IT system should not be developed as a top-down solution. Rather, it should be approached from the bottom-up, starting from the mission, social value and people’s intrinsic motivation. In many ways, I think this is characteristic of nonprofits and perhaps even a strength. For nonprofits, while the endpoints are important, so too are the starting points, the premises and the paths towards them. If we simply take business concepts from for-profits and apply it to nonprofits, we may miss something fundamental.

And I may try to give an illustration of this in a subsequent post.

For those who are interested the citations for the articles are:Lettieri, E., Borga, F., & Savoldelli, A. (2004). Knowledge management in non-profit organizations. Journal of Knowledge Management, 8(6), 16-30.Cruz, N. M., Pérez, V. M., & Cantero, C. T. (2009). The influence of employee motivation on knowledge transfer. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(6), 478-490.Photo credits:Lisa Randall via photopin cc

Rishi Bandopadhay via photopin cc


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