CoPs at the World Bank

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Jennifer Pahlka, Contributor

December 6, 2005

2 Min Read

I was at a conference in Orlando on Knowledge Management and Collaboration for just the day.  My goals in coming here for such a short time (and flying 6000 miles in one day) are to find great collaboration case studies and to get a handle on where KM stops and collaboration starts, or vice versa.  The definition of collaboration here seems to be largely threaded discussions.

 I just sat through a very interesting presentation from a woman from the World Bank whose title is Senior Knowledge and Learning Specialist.

In 1997, the then president of the World Bank announced a major initiative to turn the organization into a “knowledge bank,” whose major purpose other than lending was to share knowledge regarding development and reconstruction with the world at large.  They received three years of significantly increased funding and established knowledge managers in each division and “thematic groups” or communities of practice that promoted tacit learning among their members.  At the end of the three years, the funding ran out and while the group had had successes in many areas, they failed overall to embed the practice of knowledge sharing into the core processes of the organization, due in some part to the departure of the president who had championed the initiative.  Nevertheless, some communities of practice continued to flourish despite the complete dismantling of the program, and some have even been born since the program ended.

The speaker’s best anecdote served not only as an illustration of the success of CoPs, but also a metaphor for successful technologies that facilitate them.  A manager in charge of rebuilding roads in Afghanistan was faced with the choice between concrete pavers and tarmac.  Conventional wisdom said that only tarmac would meet the requirements, but the manager had seen roads of concrete pavers do well over time and wanted to try them.  The manager tapped a Community of Practice looking for advice and got enough evidence to support doing half the road in tarmac, half in concrete pavers.  Three years later, the concrete paver half is a little worse for the wear, but dramatically better off than the tarmac, which is plagued with potholes.  It turns out that the local community could build and maintain the concrete pavers with current resources and equipment, and when they needed to access systems under the road, they simply lifted the paver up, dug out, and put it back when the problem was fixed.  The tarmac required equipment and resources from multinational contractors, and therefore additional World Bank loans, to fix.  It sometimes makes more sense to build a slightly bumpier road than one we can’t fix on our own, and there is there a lesson there for collaborative technologies? No pun intended, but this quite literally Small Pieces Loosely Joined. 

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