Putting People at the Heart of KM

K4Health Highlights

Sarah V. Harlan

CCP | Learning Director

Of the three main elements of knowledge management (KM) –people, process, and technology – I tend to gravitate towards the “people” aspect. It is understandable to get excited by innovative methodologies and new technology; however, people drive the processes developed, and technology alone doesn’t solve a problem without a community using it appropriately.

People Process Tools

The three main elements of knowledge management: People, Process, and Tools.

This theme was mentioned throughout the Global Health Knowledge Collaborative (GHKC) KM Share Fair on April 16th. It was obvious that participants were excited about the possibilities of technology, but wary of focusing too many resources on it as a “magic bullet” to solve KM challenges. It also seemed that they were struggling with the issue of how to keep communities central to KM. Where do we start?

Knowledge for Health (K4Health) has been putting people at the center of our project since its start in 2008. Since our goal is to improve knowledge sharing among an external audience of health program managers, service providers, and policy makers in low- and middle-income countries, our starting place was a series of needs assessments. We did these at the global level (through an Environment Scan and Global Online Survey) as well as at the country level (in India, Ethiopia, Peru, Senegal, and Malawi). These studies helped us understand knowledge gaps, barriers, and opportunities. We then used processes and technology appropriately in order to design KM programs based on actual users’ needs.

During the KM Share Fair, I co-facilitated (along with Laura Raney of FHI 360, Peter Hobby of MSH, and Sarah McNabb of the Futures Group) a session entitled “Health Information Needs: Tools to assess knowledge gaps.” We discussed the basics of conducting: 1) knowledge audits within one’s organization and 2) health information needs assessments among external audiences. After a quick overview from the facilitators, participants divided into small discussion groups. The conversations were vibrant; they focused on how to make sure that these assessments ensure cultural appropriateness, which really speaks to putting people and communities at the center of KM. During the session, participants were given a list of resources for conducting knowledge audits and needs assessments, and shared their own tips and tools as well.


People are the most important element of knowledge management.

Throughout this session, I was reminded that these types of assessments are crucial for maintaining a people-centered approach to KM and bringing purpose to KM interventions. They ask questions of those that an intervention is intended to benefit: What information/knowledge do you need? What are the barriers to achieving your goals, and how could knowledge help? Who is in your network? What are your – and your audiences’ – preferred channels of communication?

While these questions do address process and technology – since the KM elements are all intertwined –the questions in these assessments are people-centered, and our KM interventions should be too. Not only should we determine needs and challenges among our target audiences, but we also need to ask: What are your recommendations for improving KM and knowledge sharing? We can – and must – involve communities in developing and implementing KM projects.

At K4Health, we have done this throughout the course of our project. For example: During our five in-country needs assessment dissemination workshops, we involved stakeholders in the development of action plans – and in some cases, in the interpretation of the results themselves. This ensures that follow-up activities address the real needs of the community, and that the results are interpreted while being sensitive to local customs and cultures.

As we all know, we don’t just do KM for the fun of it; the purpose is to improve knowledge exchange, strengthen systems, and ultimately to improve health outcomes. Before you can facilitate a community of practice or initiate new technology, however, you need to understand the needs of the individuals within that community. Conducting needs assessments at the start of a project helps build community, better understand knowledge gaps and challenges, and improve both individual and community knowledge needs. In other words, putting people first will help organizations implement more appropriate – and more effective – KM interventions.