4 key factors for improving knowledge management in NGOs

Institute for Social Innovation

This article is based on research by Ignasi Carreras and Maria Sureda

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that do not invest strategic efforts in knowledge management risk losing their social influence, according to a report by the Esade Institute for Social Innovation and the PwC Foundation.

The study Knowledge and NGOs: Influence and Social Impact highlights several key factors that can help NGOs improve their knowledge management and increase their social influence.

Of the NGO managers surveyed, 89% acknowledged the importance of knowledge management but only 34% said that it was part of their strategy.

The report shows that NGOs that embrace the following four key factors are more likely to improve their knowledge management, social relevance and ability to drive change:

1. Organisational culture

Organisational culture is like the wind: it's invisible, but you can see and feel its effects. These unwritten organisational rules shape employee beliefs and reinforce a sense of belonging and shared commitment.

Knowledge-sharing is a participatory process that works best when employees have a proactive mindset. "To successfully promote knowledge management, NGOs need a culture that creates an environment that fosters creativity and the sharing of ideas among departments and areas," says Ignasi Carreras, Director of the Esade-PwC Social Leadership Programme and co-author of the study.

NGOs need a culture that creates an environment that fosters creativity

A culture that promotes knowledge management has clear benefits for employees: it improves learning, promotes flexibility and work satisfaction, and reduces staff turnover.

Today's NGO culture is lacking the learning potential of mistakes. In order for the culture to truly promote knowledge, the environment must be one that allows failure and encourages teams to take risks.

10 steps to create an organisational culture that promotes knowledge management

  1. Communicate the benefits of knowledge management to employees.
  2. Start with small wins that yield immediate results.
  3. Promote easy-to-implement knowledge-management systems.
  4. Facilitate face-to-face relationships that build trust among employees.
  5. Create incentives that promote knowledge-sharing among coworkers.
  6. Integrate knowledge management in HR processes, such as job descriptions and employee evaluations.
  7. Get support from senior management at the strategic level and for hands-on use of knowledge systems.
  8. Be inclusive and expand knowledge transfer beyond the organisation's limits.
  9. Develop the learning and knowledge-management competencies of senior managers and employees in key positions.
  10. Make organisational structures more flexible and promote shared and open leadership styles.

2. Leadership style

Creating and transferring knowledge is a social process, and leadership is a key success factor. What type of leadership is most effective at promoting a culture that facilitates knowledge management in organisations?

"Since knowledge, by its nature, is dispersed and intangible, the role of the leadership team is to adopt a less controlling management style and to become a facilitator, bringing opportunities to people who share knowledge," explains Esade researcher Maria Sureda, co-author of the report.

Leadership should favour innovation

"Leadership should favour innovation and promote an environment that allows employees to develop their own initiatives. Leaders who are accessible, who proactively ask for feedback and know their own limitations help to create a work environment that promotes knowledge transfer and innovation."

What type of leadership style promotes knowledge management?

  • Leadership that is shared and spread throughout the organisation.
  • Leadership that creates and facilitates spaces for diversity.
  • Leadership that promotes innovation within and across teams.
  • Leadership that inspires and builds on open communication and the potential impact of knowledge management.
  • Leadership that is reality-based and strives to transform the organisation.
  • Leadership that gives employees freedom and builds trust.

3. Technology tools

Knowledge management has changed radically over the past decade, thanks to technological advances. NGOs need to take advantage of new technologies to better integrate knowledge into their organisational routines.

The technological tools that can help to improve knowledge management in NGOs include collaborative platforms, simulation tools, search engines, e-learning platforms, CRM software, data-mining and text-mining tools, and support tools for developing mind maps, generating ideas and fostering creativity.

These platforms – which include Slack, Asana, Trello and Microsoft Teams – connect teams to services and applications that provide the resources they need for their jobs. The main goal is to centralise the NGO's communications into a single platform and improve overall knowledge management.

4. Structure and organisational processes

For knowledge management to be effective, NGOs must have systems in place and specific roles to support it. In some cases, this may involve investing in resources or creating additional structures, but more often it simply involves reorganising and making more efficient use of existing structures and resources.

Typical NGO structures tend to be hierarchical

Organisational structures should guide knowledge-management processes, but without creating barriers. Typical NGO structures tend to be hierarchical, and this rigidity limits the capacity to manage knowledge properly. NGOs that adopt more horizontal, cooperative and flexible structures are more likely to facilitate knowledge creation.

The ideal structure for managing knowledge in NGOs is a matrix - a combination of elements promoted by the organisation and at the local level. A matrix structure offers NGOs more opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences.

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