Initiated from a KM4Dev Discussion
Across the globe, thousands of development agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), other organisations and consultants are reinventing wheels and repeating the same mistakes again and again. So why is there not more crossorganisational knowledge sharing and learning?
In fact, there is a lot of cross-organisational knowledge sharing going on, and sometimes too much. Numerous cross-organisational communities of practices or networks exist, countless workshops and conferences are taking place, and hundreds of training institutions offer courses for almost every topic relevant for development cooperation. Is this not enough or is current cross-organisational knowledge sharing simply not effective?
This FAQ discusses first what added value cross-organisational knowledge sharing creates and what is different about knowledge from within organisations. Afterwards the pre-conditions for cross-organisational knowledge sharing are outlined and possible organisational forms presented. In the last part, you will find some tips on effective approaches and tools for cross-organisational knowledge sharing and how to get started.
Added value of cross-organisational knowledge sharing
Why is cross-organisational knowledge sharing important? Knowledge sharing between organisations can be beneficial for the participating individuals and organisations, as well as, as the examples below show, for development cooperation in general.
Examples of benefits for individuals and organisations include:
Cross-organisational knowledge sharing also creates general benefits for development cooperation:
What is different about cross-organisational knowledge sharing?
The challenges of cross-organisational knowledge sharing are very similar to those in large international organisations, but there are also some differences. Crossorganisational knowledge sharing depends on the motivation and engagement of the involved organisations or professionals. Unlike in organisations, for example, there is no Director or Management Board demanding a knowledge sharing system.
Knowledge sharing between organisations faces a couple of challenges. Working in similar areas, they are in competition with each other for mandates and funding. They generally focus on their own needs and interests and, in order to avoid being taken advantage of, hesitate to share their knowledge with others. The staff in many organisations has no incentives to share their experiences with other organisations. Their engagement in external knowledge sharing, for example, is not appreciated and does not contribute to their internal career. Copyrights, patents, and other ownership issues are another challenge for cross-organisational knowledge sharing. In some cases also bureaucracy and red tape block knowledge sharing.
Cross-organisational knowledge sharing is also challenged by the variety of organisations and people involved: multiple cultural perceptions; language problems; different interpretations, frameworks and wording in the numerous disciplines and varying interests in the North, South and East. Such diversity makes it difficult to find a common denominator.
Last but not least, there is strong pressure in development cooperation to produce concrete outputs and outcomes. Cross-organisational knowledge sharing, however, is a long-term task where the output and outcome is not evident in the short term and often very difficult to measure. This is one of the reasons why it is more difficult to raise funds for cross-organisational knowledge sharing.
Pre-conditions for cross-organisational knowledge sharing
Successful cross-organisational knowledge sharing depends on a number of preconditions:
Organisation forms for cross-organisational knowledge sharing
Cross-organisational knowledge sharing can take place through various organisational conduits:
Enabling ways and tools
Most of the tools appropriate for knowledge sharing and learning within organisations are also useful for knowledge sharing across organisations. Examples of particularly useful approaches and tools for cross-organisational knowledge sharing include:
How should you proceed if you would like to enter into cross-organisational knowledge sharing? Every long journey starts with a first step. If you are interested in sharing information and knowledge with other organisations, provide leadership and do it. Pick up the phone, write an e-mail or contact people at workshops and conferences. Think about what kind of added value of cross-organisational knowledge sharing you expect and what benefits your partners could be interested in.
Keep in mind that you will have to be patient. Cross-organisational knowledge sharing needs time. You have to establish good personal relationships and build trust. A good place to start is with small concrete activities like knowledge sharing meetings, mutual exposure visits, or by a regular exchange of publications. Organise these activities from the beginning jointly with your partners, but enlarge the circle of involved people and organisations not all too quickly. Keep the group small at the beginning. This makes coordination easier and you will develop a kind of group spirit.
Once a cross-organisational collaboration is established, you may try to build up a small community of practice around a specific topic or to launch small joint projects. The scale of possibilities for collaboration is now open and may range from informal exchanges to formal networks or formally agreed upon strategic partnerships.
Cross-organisational knowledge sharing can be very enriching and create benefits for all involved parties, if well organised. But you also have to be aware that sufficient resources like time and funding will be required. So make sure that the organisation you are working for allocates its resources accordingly.
Take the shortcut! The KM4Dev community () is an excellent example of cross-organisational knowledge sharing.
Dgroups () is an Internet platform providing electronic workspaces for project teams and communities of practice. Crucial for the collaboration of all involved organisations was, that they saw the larger benefits of collaboration and shared ownership.
ItrainOnline () is an Internet platform providing links to Internet training resources for trainers and learners. ItrainOnline was jointly developed by a number of partner organisations. Crucial for the collaboration was that they agreed to collaborate before any of the individual project ideas left the drawing board. In this way, something could be built for all involved organisations.
Knowledge fairs are an excellent way to promote cross-organisational knowledge sharing. For an example, go to the website of a knowledge fair organised by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
Learning visits or learning exchanges between organisations have been organised prior to the KM4Dev Workshop in Geneva in 2005. For a description go to:
IRC, the International Water and Sanitation Centre organised in June 2005 a conference on learning alliances. For more information go to: 
Thematic cross-organisational communities of practice and also more formal networks exist for almost every topic in development cooperation. See for example: KM4Dev , Aidworkers Network , BOND , International Forum for Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD), the Rural Water Supply Network , the International Mountain Forum , Cap-Net 
Since the establishment of the KM4Dev mailing list only two enquiries have addressed knowledge sharing between organisations or cross-agency knowledge sharing. One of these enquiries led to a number of rich contributions, whereas the other received no responses. In the enquiry stimulating an e-mail discussion, Benjamin Docker raised two questions:
1. Does an internal knowledge sharing culture solicit an inter-agency knowledge sharing culture? What techniques have been used within the development community to produce cultural shifts, through attitude and behavioural changes across organisational boundaries?
2. What examples of the institutionalisation of cross-organisational KS activities exist? What has worked? What lessons have been learned?
The content of the contributions has been summarised in detail above. On the whole the answers given did not differ much.
The respondents were convinced that cross-organisational knowledge sharing is the only way information and knowledge resources can be applied on development problems. However, it was also highlighted that building effective knowledge sharing activities across organisations is very difficult as there are a number of barriers such as a lack of trust, competition, the pressure for concrete outputs, lack of understanding for each other’s needs or bureaucracy. Some of the pre-conditions for knowledge sharing between organisations mentioned were, for example, trust established through personal contacts and a knowledge sharing culture based on give and take.
This culture of cross-organisational knowledge sharing will not appear out of the blue, but must be built up based on needs and with sufficient resources, at best from the bottom in small steps, e.g. by creating smaller communities of practice or projects. The respondents also noted that there are several types of cross-organisational knowledge sharing ranging from a unilateral provision of information, to rather general exchanges and knowledge sharing, and on to jointly established partnerships. Organisations can promote cross-organisational knowledge sharing by removing internal hindrances for knowledge sharing, creating incentives and internal policies or acting as brokers and facilitators.
The following members of the KM4Dev community contributed to the discussion thread on cross-organisational knowledge sharing: Benjamin Docker (launched the discussion), Peter Ballantyne, Lucie Lamoureux, Tony Pryor, Chucri Sayegh, Barbara Weaver Smith.
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Knowledge sharing, cross-organisational, cross-agency, inter-agency, inter-organisational, cross-boundary, communities of practice, networks, culture