KM in international developmentSystems & complexity

A longitudinal case study of past debates and future directions in knowledge management for development

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles on KM in international development.

A paper1 in a special issue on Knowledge Management in the Not-for-Profit Sector in the Journal of Knowledge Management analyses the debate around knowledge management for development using the case study of the Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) community.

The study conducted an inductive analysis to identify key themes discussed in the KM4Dev online community, comprising observation of the online debate and semantic (co-word) network analysis of a ‘big data’ set consisting of messages exchanged during fourteen years of the KM4Dev online forum. The results were verified with community members.

The exchanges communicated in the KM4Dev online forum reveal “ambiguous yet interesting outcomes: that is, the very characteristics of successful knowledge sharing communities can at the same time inhibit their further development.”

Analysis of the KM4Dev community over the study period showed that some key topics attracted much continued debate, yielding in-depth community knowledge, but this also led to repetition, possibly deterring the inclusion of innovative or novel perspectives.

Implications for research and practice

The study shows how the knowledge management debate has evolved over the past fifteen years in a specific non-profit context. It has revealed “that dense interrelations allow online communities to flourish in terms of knowledge sharing, but can simultaneously present inherent limitations to the generation of new knowledge, or learning.”

More specifically, the study highlights some specifics of knowledge management in the non-profit domain, and indicates how this context differs from conventional approaches.

Participation remains an underexposed dimension of multi-stakeholder, knowledge-intensive organising, despite its significance to many non-profit organisations. If participation is considered in a non-profit context, it is rarely addressed from a knowledge perspective. Connecting participation to knowledge management literature is important because it creates scope for generating more innovative, multi-stakeholder approaches and helps to unravel barriers to stakeholder inclusion, presenting the possibility to generate more effective knowledge management in practice.

A possible way forward for the KM4Dev community is for participants to ensure the maintenance of their key asset – their rich, shared expertise. There is also scope to more effectively draw on knowledge in the KM4Dev community archives, which might help to identify and extend relevant existing sources rather than replicating debates and losing the interest of long-term participants.

A further recommendation of the study is for knowledge management professionals to expand from a focus on the actual tools and content of knowledge to a stronger brokerage role within their different institutional contexts. Advances in social technologies make it increasingly easy for knowledge workers in all kinds of organisations to create their own knowledge networks.

The study also emphasis the importance of continued efforts toward establishing knowledge management for development as a serious and significant domain of research.

Image source: The tipping point of change by DFID – UK Department for International Development is licenced by CC BY 2.0.


  1. Ferguson, J. (2016) Inclusive perspectives or in-depth learning? A longitudinal case study of past debates and future directions in knowledge management for development, Journal of Knowledge Management, 20(1), pp.4 – 22
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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