In-country Knowledge Hubs: Where does program learning remain once the project ends?

Lani Marquez

University Research Co., LLC (URC), Health Care Improvement Project | Knowledge Management and Communication Director

Knowledge management is enjoying a wave of popularity in USAID projects, where recent years have seen growing recognition of the value of explicit strategies to improve documentation and dissemination of program learning during project implementation. This is a positive and welcome trend. But what happens to the “knowledge” generated once the project ends? USAID has its own knowledge management repository in the Development Exchange Clearinghouse, but how do we ensure that valuable program knowledge continues to benefit the country once the USAID project ends?

AIDS Resource Center in Ethiopia

Students use materials at the AIDS Resource Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

© 2012 Sarah V. Harlan/JHU•CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare

At a recent HIPNet meeting, a group of us dug into the question of how can we better foster and nurture in-country knowledge hubs where lessons learned, tools, and good practices developed under projects could have a sustained home in-country after project support ends. The conversation first grappled with what we mean by in-country knowledge hubs. It turns out, we mean many different things, from kiosks of materials set up in an implementing partner’s office (CCP in Ghana), to small library of materials and web page (WASH resource center in Amhara Health Bureau/Ethiopia, supported by World Bank) to web pages with resources (Drupal-based site CCP did for SHARENET in South Africa) to intranet-like web page to manage files (file management page like Basecamp). Interestingly, those who participated in the conversation had the most experience with virtual hubs.

We next turned to what people’s perceptions were of the success factors for creating and sustaining such knowledge hubs. Champions, both individual and institutional, came up first as the essential factor for sustaining such knowledge hubs once established. Champions are people who believe the resource hub is important, who encourage others to use the resources, and who want to keep the resource hub going. Universities are natural institutional homes for such resources, since they are usually compatible with universities’ core mission.

A second factor people identified as essential for sustaining the knowledge hub is ease of use: For virtual hubs, the platform must be easy to use and not require much training in how to use it—it should be intuitive to use. A more sophisticated system with greater capability is ultimately less useful if it poses a technology barrier for people to easily use it. Platforms recommended by participants in the conversation included Word Press, Basecamp, and One Hub.

Next, to be sustained, the resource hub needs self-motivated users and has to meet a real and shared purpose for the users—they have to want to use the resource hub because it meets a felt need and there in an incentive to work collaboratively.

For virtual platforms, it was important that there be a sustained mechanism for providing IT support when needed. Some otherwise good virtual resource centers faltered because there was no long-term plan for IT support to solve even small problems like anti-virus software becoming out of date and exposing resource hub computers to viruses.

Finally, we talked about the importance of building a culture of sharing: It’s important to consider the prevailing norms or organizational culture with respect to sharing resources and lessons. Sometimes people fear being criticized as a barrier to sharing their work, while other organizations may have a prevailing mindset of people holding on to information rather than sharing it, or feeling proprietary about their intellectual material. In such cases, it may require extra efforts to convince potential users of the benefits of sharing, and to first build a community for sharing before focusing on the hardware or technology for doing so.

I was reminded of the importance of the people side of the knowledge hubs at a workshop we convened last week of our field staff in Africa, where we talked about ways to create local ownership for learning from improvement. My colleagues from South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Swaziland, Mozambique, Uganda, and Cote d’Ivoire recognized that such ownership begins with the design of our interventions, to answer the questions that local implementers want answered. Planning for where the learning will ultimately reside needs to begin then and requires ongoing dialogue to make local knowledge hubs a reality.