Staging the Rio 2016 Olympics is a highly complex operation, involving years of preparation. In hosting an Olympics, each organising committee learns a lot about how to successfully organise and deliver this major international event.
Recognising the benefits of retaining this information and using it to assist future organising committees, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) initiated a knowledge transfer program in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 2002, the IOC established Olympic Games Knowledge Services (OGKS), an independent company, to assist with knowledge transfer and the development of knowledge initiatives. In 2005, the IOC decided to bring its knowledge management activities in house, with the establishment of the Olympic Games Knowledge Management (OGKM) program.
Olympic Games Knowledge Management (OGKM) program activities include:
- Observer program: The observer program allows future Games organisers to observe Olympics operations in the heat of the action, during an actual Olympics.
- Games evaluation: The process of Games evaluation looks to capture the key learning from an Olympics and identify opportunities to enhance the next Olympics.
- IOC debriefing: A seven-day seminar in the next Olympics host city, which gives participants the opportunity to actively exchange ideas and learn about how previous Olympics staff approached the Games and what they learnt.
- Technical manuals: There are currently 33 technical manuals and eight guides totaling more than 7,000 pages of information. The technical manuals are updated after each Olympics.
- Workshops: Tailor-made interactive workshops are organised throughout the lifecycle of each organising committee. These workshops are run by external experts, who are often veterans of previous organising committees.
- Building knowledge capabilities: Building knowledge capabilities aims to produce an ongoing cycle of knowledge transfer, allowing organising committees to contribute to the OGKM program even before they have actually hosted the Olympics.
- OGKM extranet: The OGKM extranet is accessible by all organising committees and bid cities, giving them instant access to thousands of reference documents and videos that they can draw on when looking to build and improve their own Olympics.
- Cross-cultural awareness: This is a platform aimed at bridging the gap between the diverse cultures of the IOC and the organising committees.
- Secondee program: The IOC also supports a secondee program for the organising committees, which allows staff from future Olympics to take up short-term positions within the current Olympics organising committee.
The IOC is convinced of the benefits of the OGKM program, stating that “Since its inception, the OGKM program has developed into an essential tool for Games organisers.”
However, Allison Stewart, an Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School, questions the benefits. Her doctoral research, completed in 2012, focused on the role of ignorance in planning and delivering major programs, with a focus on the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. In a Harvard Business Review article1 discussing her research findings, she argues that Olympic host cities need transparency, rather than knowledge transfer.
Stewart contends that knowledge transfer can be a “false idol”, for a range of reasons:
- Tiny experience base. The fact that the Games, whether summer or winter (and the relevant knowledge is different) occur only once every four years makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about how much a given practice or decision contributed to their success.
- Language barriers. The information relating to how the last Games were organized is often presented to host city staff in a language that is unfamiliar to them.
- Disincentives to share. While we can reasonably assume that most people involved in the Olympic movement would like to see continuous improvement in the Games, it can’t be denied that every edition competes on some level with the one before it.
- Overconfidence. Meanwhile, new hosts often neglect to capitalize on the successes of the last Games because they are confident that they can do better.
- Difficulty of getting the whole story. Now let’s layer on the fact that governments investing in the Games have an incentive to put the best face on things … leaders under intense political scrutiny are inclined to downplay problems, and the true investment of money, people, or time it took to overcome them, rather than have progress further derailed by media exposure.
- Contractual commitment. The organizers of the Sydney Games helped to initiate the Olympic Games Knowledge Management program because they were passionate about the idea that all the work they had done would have residual benefit. With that idea now turned into policy, so that knowledge capture is formally required by the IOC, it is possible that other [organising committees] approach the task with less enthusiasm.
- Expense. There is, in the end, a financial cost to capturing information, and many competing claims on those funds. Even within the realm of knowledge management, [organising committees] find it easier to invest in knowledge capture that will inform their own city’s next effort to host a major event.
In consideration of these issues, Stewart argues that “Rather than pushing for greater knowledge transfer, each installment of the Games should aspire to greater transparency and accountability.”
But a newly published report from Stewart and colleagues from Saïd Business School finds some evidence in support of the OKGM program. The report, titled The Oxford Olympics Study 2016: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Games, concludes that:
…the Olympic Games Knowledge Management Program appears to be successful in reducing cost risk for the Games. The difference in cost overrun before (166 percent) and after (51 percent) the program began is statistically significant.
The report also however provides evidence in support of Stewart’s contentions in regard to transparency, with detailed cost overrun data existing for only 19 of the 30 games held between 1960 and 2016:
For the remaining 11 Games, valid and reliable data have not been reported that would make it possible to establish cost overrun for these Games. This is an interesting research result in its own right, because it means – incredible as it may sound – that for more than a third of the Games between 1960 and 2016 no one seems to know what the cost overrun was. Such ignorance – willful or not – hampers learning regarding how to develop more reliable budgets for the Games.
While the Olympic Games Knowledge Management (OGKM) program does appear to have had a quantifiable benefit, the issues identified by Allison Stewart mean that other believed benefits are questionable in the absence of solid evidence. Further research is needed in this regard. There is also clear evidence for the need for increased transparency.
- Stewart, A. (2012). Olympic Host Cities Need Transparency, Not Knowledge Transfer. Harvard Business Review, 7 August 2012. ↩
Also published on Medium.