We hear much about the “new” Africa, and many commentators are predicting great things for the world’s second-largest and second most-populous continent (see especially Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies, McKinsey and Company’s important report from last June).
After a year working in Kenya, I can attest to the fact that this great place is definitely moving to better times and is fast on its way to becoming a major player in the global economy. Last summer’s vote for a new Kenyan constitution released a strong burst of optimism, and it is common to hear friends in Kenya talk about how good it is to have the country “at peace” and speak, quite convincingly, of what they refer to as “the way forward.”
Which means – from my perhaps specialized perspective – that Africa is well positioned to take up and apply the principles of KM/knowledge services. Certainly in a strengthened economy and political environment such as that in Kenya, the time is right for giving attention to KM/knowledge services and the discipline’s role in Africa’s great move forward. The growth potential for KM/knowledge services is in place, and all that’s required now is the will and the resources to take advantage of what’s available for bringing KM/knowledge services to East Africa.
To put a face on this new attention to knowledge development and knowledge sharing (especially the latter) in Africa, I turn to a strategic knowledge professional I’ve come to know in Nairobi. Her name is Nerisa Jepkorir Kamar, and for several years she has intentionally framed her work to focus on knowledge development and knowledge sharing, on what we in the field like to refer to as “KD/KS”. In doing so, Nerisa has learned to look at KM/knowledge services from what can only be thought as a “big picture” perspective.
“Many KM specialists,” Nerisa says, “seem to think KM success must connect to the type of organization that’s trying to manage knowledge, but it’s not that complicated.”
Making her case, Nerisa identifies four types of organizations in East Africa that, as she sees it, take their success from how well they manage knowledge.
“Businesses, of course,” she says, “both large and small. Businesses and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the many academic institutions in the region are all dealing with how they manage and use knowledge. The same is true of the large number of international institutions in Nairobi, all the embassies, the UN, the World Bank, U.S. AID, these are all required to manage knowledge and – more important – to set up KM structures that enable them to share the knowledge they develop.”
Is there a common theme?
“Yes,” says Nerisa, “and that’s why it’s not a complicated scenario. If an organization is going to succeed with KD/KS, each organization – regardless of type – must have workers and managers who are conversant about information and knowledge. They must understand information and knowledge sources, and they must recognize that in order to share knowledge, they must know how to locate the knowledge they need, be able to access it, and be able to use it. Then they can share the knowledge they’ve developed.”
Nerisa speaks with the voice of experience. With two degrees in information science (from Moi University and from Kenyatta University) and currently working on a third, from Egerton University, and with a wide-range of knowledge-focused positions in her background, she is well qualified to speak about applying the principles of KM/knowledge services in the workplace. Indeed, in her studies at Egerton University, where she is pursuing an M.S. in Agricultural Information and Communications Management, the program includes a specific KM course in the subject, a trend in Kenya that is expected to be played out in additional subject areas at the graduate level, in several different institutions.
The result for Nerisa has been a level of academic focus about KM that she was able to use in her work at Egerton’s J.D. Rockefeller Research Library, strengthened by an impressive array of workshops and study tours to other countries including Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Namibia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. With particular expertise in the management and utilization of e-resources strengthened through a consultancy with the South African Institute of Development Education, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it all adds up for Nerisa to a basic framework for KM that pulls together information management, KM, and strategic learning, the three “legs” of the famous knowledge services “stool.”
Building on her experience, Nerisa has come up with two valuable suggestions for people who want to know more about organizing and implementing the KM/knowledge services function in their organizations. In the first, she strongly advises against what she calls “islands of knowledge,” that awkward situation in which one person develops and hoards for himself or herself a selected body of knowledge.
“When you have these islands of knowledge in an organization,” she says, “you have a situation where word gets out that it is OK to keep information and knowledge from other people. That’s not good. It creates an expensive and ultimately counter-productive situation in the department or unit. If people can’t be open and transparent in the knowledge they develop, if they are not willing to share – even to the extent to offering what they’ve developed when it’s not been asked for – you have a very inward-looking department.”
A second suggestion from Nerisa takes the KM/knowledge services strategy to a higher level, pushing the responsibility for KM success to the organization’s senior management.
“Knowledge sharing,” she says, “is only achievable if people are given an equal opportunity to share, given a chance to share. Managers and supervisors have a responsibility to recognize what KM/knowledge services activity is happening in their department. Then they can encourage others to converse and share ideas about these activities, giving you a situation where people learn about knowledge sharing by doing it. We see it happening in companies that have a flat management style, but any kind of company should be looking at this. It’s what makes KD/KS work for the larger company or organization.”
Good advice, Nerisa. And for most of us, it might be instructive to look around our workplace and see how far our colleagues have come in dealing with islands of knowledge, or with mentoring some sort of knowledge-sharing ambiance or environment. When people like Nerisa Jepkorir Kamar, with that solid level of experience, have advice for us, it’s wise to pay attention.