Improving knowledge management in the United Nations System
This article is part of an ongoing series of articles on KM in international development.
The United Nations System consists of:
- the six principal organs of the United Nations – General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, International Court of Justice, and Trusteeship Council
- subsidiary organs, such as the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), Human Rights Council, and Counter-Terrorism Committee
- funds and programmes, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
- specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
- regional commissions, such as the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and functional commissions, such as Population and Development
- related organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
- other entities and bodies, such as United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
How many of these various United Nations (UN) entities have effective knowledge management programmes? Very few, according to a February 2017 Future UN Development System briefing paper1 prepared by UN knowledge manager Steve Glovinsky:
Over more than 70 years, the UN system has accumulated a substantial amount of knowledge, particularly in the development domain. If captured and mobilized, it could greatly enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of the world organization. Yet, while most UN entities would describe themselves as “knowledge organizations,” there actually are few examples of effective knowledge management, in large part because of the transformations required.
Paying the price of a lack of effective KM
I contend that the global community has paid and continues to pay a high price for this lack of effective knowledge management, and put forward the example of climate science to illustrate this.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was was established in 1988 by two UN System entities, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The IPCC reviews and assesses global scientific, technical, and socio-economic information relevant to the understanding of climate change. Its main activity is to provide assessment reports of the state of knowledge on climate change at regular intervals.
Despite the IPCC’s work in reporting on the state of knowledge on climate change, climate change denial is a significant issue. This denial is so pronounced that it is preventing the implementation of actions that are necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Much of the analysis of climate science denial focuses on the role of the fossil fuel industry and its supporters in stoking the denial, and appropriately so. But I argue that the IPCC and the UN System entities that established it also have to shoulder a significant proportion of the blame.
The IPCC is tasked with producing climate science reports and communicating those reports. But it is not tasked with facilitating effective knowledge transfer and exchange so that both decision-makers and the general community can access climate science information and knowledge that is meaningful to them and their diverse situations and can be practically applied.
Mark Trexler, who has served as a lead author for IPCC, writes here in RealKM Magazine that there is a vital need for actionable climate knowledge:
The idea of actionable climate knowledge reflects the reality that an individual making a climate-relevant decision is doing so on the basis of her ability to answer the two questions that govern all human decision-making: “is it worth it,” and “can I do it?” Each of us uses different information to answer the two questions, and it has to be extracted from the information deluge that crashes over us every day.
Mark is working to address the need for actionable climate knowledge through the Climate Web initiative.
Reinforcing the need for the better transfer and exchange of climate knowledge, notable climate scientists Kevin E. Trenberth, Melinda Marquis, and Stephen Zebiak argue in the journal Nature Climate Change that there is a vital need for a climate information system2. Like Mark Trexler, Kevin E. Trenberth has served as a lead author for IPCC, and Melinda Marquis has served as deputy director of one of the three IPCC working groups.
Trenberth, Marquis, and Zebiak state that:
The many challenges encountered in making, interpreting and acting on climate analyses, predictions and projections point to the need for much better climate information … such a system could provide clarity regarding the uncertainties in climate predictions, and allow development of sound risk management strategies. The climate information system would also enable and support climate services, which involve the production, translation, transfer, and use of climate knowledge and information in climate-informed decision making and climate-smart policy and planning.
They further advise that:
There is abundant evidence that decision-makers need and want help in understanding the complicated climate/society interface in ways that facilitate better outcomes within their communities and businesses. In light of the increasingly expensive and devastating impacts of climate-related extreme events, it is now critical to build an integrated knowledge system that includes public and private partners.
Trenberth, Marquis, and Zebiak see knowledge management systems as part of information management systems, but as David Williams advises, knowledge management systems should actually be given a deliberate focus.
Recommendations for change
Refreshingly, the recent report3 Knowledge Management in the United Nations System prepared by the UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) has put forward a series of recommendations for transforming knowledge management in the UN System.
The principal recommendations are that:
- Knowledge management strategies and policies are developed for United Nations system organizations (Recommendation 1).
- Knowledge management guidelines are developed for the United Nations Secretariat (Recommendation 2).
- Knowledge management skills and knowledge-sharing abilities are embedded in staff recruitment, work plans, and performance management (Recommendation 3).
- Norms and procedures are established for the retention and transfer of knowledge from retiring, moving, or departing staff (Recommendation 4).
- United Nations educational and research centres and institutes jointly design and conduct training programmes on knowledge management adapted to the holistic principles underlying the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Recommendation 5).
- The agenda of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) include an item dedicated to knowledge management so as to provide an opportunity for sharing experiences, good practices and lessons learned, with a view to gradually developing a common, system-wide knowledge management culture (Recommendation 6).
- The United Nations General Assembly include knowledge management in its agenda, and request that a report be submitted by the Secretary-General on system-wide best practices and initiatives in the area of knowledge management that support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Recommendation 7).
The UN Secretary-General has since issued a note transmitting to the members of the General Assembly his comments and those of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination on the report. The comments overwhelmingly support the recommendations, and several general comments have also been made. These include:
- It would have been helpful if there had been more reflection in the report on what lessons could be learned from progress since the previous Joint Inspection Unit review in 2007, to increase the likelihood that the current set of recommendations will be realistic and actually implemented. In particular, the issues of leadership support and organizational incentives for knowledge generation, sharing and use are not well covered in the report, but are critical to this work.
- The report would have benefited from the inclusion of guidance on measuring or documenting how knowledge management activities contribute to broader organizational goals, such as in the context of the 2030 Agenda. Such guidance would not only help strengthen the argument for greater investment, it would also offer a way of identifying approaches that add the most value.
- There is a need to recognize the challenges inherent in strategically, systematically. and efficiently developing, organizing, sharing and integrating knowledge, while involving all relevant stakeholders. The degree of culture change required should not be underestimated, and for organizations that do not already have established knowledge management strategies and programmes, the incorporation of knowledge management skills and knowledge‐sharing abilities into daily work habits can take considerable time.
- There are clear overlaps between information management and knowledge management, particularly with regard to establishing processes that ensure that the right information or knowledge gets to the right people at the right time, so a coordination mechanism should be worked out involving all those entities that have an interest in those two areas.
Will the recommendations work?
The recommendations in the Knowledge Management in the United Nations System report are comprehensive, covering strategy, policy, education and training, staff management, coordination, and reporting. This comprehensiveness increases the likelihood that the recommendations can lead to significant systemic improvement.
The recommendations also time-limited, with specific dates for completion, which should act to prevent procrastination or delays (but it is acknowledged that the incorporation of knowledge management skills and knowledge‐sharing abilities into daily work habits can take considerable time, as advised in the note issued by the UN Secretary-General in response to the recommendations).
However, I consider that there are a number of deficiencies in the report and the recommendations. These are:
- ISO 30401 not incorporated. There is no mention of the forthcoming ISO standard on knowledge management systems, which should be being used in all relevant aspects of the United Nations System knowledge management programme.
- Lack of external linkages and partnerships. There is little recognition of the need for linkages to, and partnerships with, the knowledge management profession and communities beyond the United Nations System. This is counter to the principles of knowledge management, and carries significant risks. The potential risks include:
- Failing to access and utilise the widest range of expertise or the best available expertise in decision-making in regard to knowledge management strategy, policy, education and training, staff management, coordination, and reporting.
- Alienating the knowledge management profession and communities. If people see poor decisions made when they know they could have contributed to better ones, then they are likely to feel frustrated and disappointed, leading to animosity and alienation.
- Reinventing the wheel. For example, as part of its knowledge transfer activities, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) , which I use in my example above, should support the Climate Web initiative rather than creating its own equivalent or similar program. In a further example, the Agenda Knowledge for Development should inform the implementation of recommendations relating to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, rather than a similar agenda being developed.
- Insufficient attention given to evidence-based knowledge management. For the best chance of success, all of the knowledge management activities of the United Nations System need to be evidence-based. This could be assisted by establishing linkages to, and partnerships with, universities, research centres, and individual researchers who are engaged in knowledge management research.
If the recommendations can be fully implemented, and these deficiencies addressed, then hopefully the knowledge transfer and exchange shortcomings of bodies like the IPCC will become a thing of the past.
Header image source: Adapted from united nations flag by sanjitbakshi, which is licenced by CC BY 2.0.
- Glovinsky, S. (2017). How Knowledge Management Could Transform the UN Development System. Future United Nations Development System, Briefing 45 (February 2017). ↩
- Trenberth, K. E., Marquis, M., & Zebiak, S. (2016). The vital need for a climate information system. Nature Climate Change, 6(12), 1057-1059. ↩
- Dumitriu, P. (2016). Knowledge Management in the United Nations System. Joint Inspection Unt (JIU), Report JIU/REP/2016/10. ↩
Also published on Medium.