IUCN and Knowledge Management

Note: A version of this post first appeared on the University Pompeu Fabra website (Orbis Working Papers series). This post refers to a research project on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its innovative governance processes. It analyses external reviews and the adoption of new ICTs by the organisation. See other related posts for more information.

Thanks to the generalization of ICT and their adoption by most organizations, information flows faster than ever between individuals, departments, and groups: more and more, knowledge is produced through collaborative group activity rather than through traditional individual scholar-researcher model. Combined with ICT, networking and mass collaboration create new knowledge. [1]

With the generalization of new technologies,  knowledge is a new source of wealth and power. The content and value of knowledge are both significantly enhanced by knowledge-networking practices made possible through the use of ICT. [2] Information and knowledge have become prominent: “the proportion of knowledge-intensive jobs is high, the economic weight of information sectors is a determining factor, and the shares of intangible capital is greater than that of tangible capital in the overall stock of real capital.” [3]

Knowledge management encompasses the strategies and processes to identify, capture, structure, and share an organization’s intellectual assets, which in turn enhances its performance and competitiveness. It is based on the collection and dissemination of knowledge within an organization.[4] The diffusion of networking technologies and information sharing makes it possible to engage in multiparty, asynchronous, and multidirectional interactions. ICT facilitate the flow of knowledge from lower levels to higher levels of an organization.[5]

The first external review (1993) raises the question of strategy and mentions IUCN should improve the formulation of its projects and programs. In this report, the auditing team recommended IUCN to define better what it wishes to achieve.[6] The following external review in 1996 further advanced this request of better formulation and suggested that IUCN should define better its mission. The organization is not anymore the only global environmental organization: UNEP, WWF, Conservation International, and Greenpeace take more and more space on the international scene. Therefore, IUCN needs to determine its niche and added value.

“It was frequently pointed out that IUCN has to excel as a knowledge-based institution since its political impact is limited and it cannot make its influence felt through providing substantial financial resources to its members.”[7]

Being a knowledge organization means for IUCN to capitalize on all parts of its union to produce knowledge. In other words, IUCN can count on all scientists from the six commissions, from its members and the secretariat to produce scientific data, knowledge, brochure, books, educational content about nature, conservation and biodiversity. Due to its main objective to encourage societies all over the world to conserve the integrity and biodiversity of nature, IUCN needs “(…) to capitalize on lessons learned from its operational programs, to relate them to policy advice and global issues, and also to disseminate and communicate these lessons ‘widely’.” [8] This question of IUCN becoming a knowledge organization is recurrent, and present prior to the generalized use of ICT.

In 1999, this question surfaces once more in the external review: it argues that IUCN should focus on “developing knowledge in the most fruitful directions.[9] Thanks to its unique network of voluntary scientists, staff and members, who count among the most prestigious and recognized people in the conservation community, IUCN seems invariably associated to knowledge and science:

“IUCN is principally a knowledge organization. Knowledge is its most valuable capital. This knowledge is diverse and dispersed. It resides in its member organizations, in the Commissions, in the Secretariat and in the networks of individuals that can be mobilized by members of each of these bodies.”[10]

Furthermore, the organization is well known for its publications and scientific data. It supports governments and other organizations with policy guidelines, best practices, and educational content.[11] Although the auditing team recognizes the wealth of publications and scientific knowledge produced by IUCN, the need for a global knowledge management strategy is highlighted once more:

“There is, as yet, no overall knowledge management strategy in IUCN. If the Union is serious about nurturing its core asset, then it needs to establish a solid knowledge management system.”[12]

The first audit to mention a new information and communication technology.  It confirms the year 2000 is a milestone in the generalization of ICT. In response to the two previous external review’s recommendations, IUCN raised funds to improve the information and communication systems in the organization.[13]

The 2003 external review is also the first one to mention IUCN’s culture: it is not only about information and communication techniques but also about culture and training. Although the organization has dedicated substantial resources to adopt new technologies, the strategy training, policy, communication and change in culture accompanying the new techniques are essential for their success. In other words, if two people do not speak, providing them with computers and Internet will not improve their communication. Internet emailing and Skype for instance are technologies successfully applied if strategy, culture and cooperation patterns allow. Knowledge management does not improve solely thanks to ICT:

“Of course, as with all such information systems, the value of the Network is a function not only of its technical design and management but the enthusiasm with which its users feed material into it. A brief scan of the Network suggests that that enthusiasm is not universal in the Secretariat.”[14]

What the auditing team recommends is a fundamental change, a deep transformation of IUCN’s culture and communication patterns. It does not specifically mention ICT:

“Its professional staff must be more competent in understanding the situations and processes of learning and the management of knowledge, more sensitive to and skillful in capacity building and empowerment, and better in policy research, influence and communication between global, national and regional levels.” [15]

Change is probably more difficult but also highly necessary to implement in a decentralized and global organization with offices spread throughout the planet and a complex governance structure. [16]  The complexity of the organization’s structure and governance mechanisms is further mentioned by an expert from the external review team: “In dealing with IUCN, one must bear in mind that there never has been, and undoubtedly never will be, any other human organization even remotely resembling it.” [17] In 2003, the auditing team also suggests strengthening the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) procedures to capitalize on the lessons-learnt:

“There is a need to improve communications, feedback systems, opportunities for dialogue and lessons learned from M&E work. There are inadequate resources allocated to M&E learning efforts… and there is a need to strengthen M&E capacity at country and regional levels to capture and use knowledge generated from projects and evaluations.” [18]

The following external review in 2007 precisely stipulates the necessity to “strengthen IUCN as a knowledge organization.”[19] This recurrent suggestion is highlighted in several parts of the report: “Other reviews, including external audits, have pointed out that IUCN is lagging behind other organizations in knowledge management.”[20] The report also mentions the urgent need to develop “a complete, functional and interactive database that can be used by the secretariat to (…) support networks or communities of practice across the Union that link members and Commissions within the framework of the IUCN Program.”[21]

By 2007, ICT are well used in all parts of the organization. But they do not seem to have facilitated the change at IUCN. Indeed, what is at stake (and what was at stake before Internet) is a profound transformation of IUCN’s culture. If IUCN does not focus its development strategy on becoming a learning and knowledge organization it will lose its competitiveness:

“If IUCN is to remain competitive, it needs to rethink its knowledge management policies and open up access to tools like the Knowledge Network. In other words, while putting in place immediate reforms, IUCN should also ‘think big’ for more fundamental changes to how IUCN conducts its business as a knowledge organization over the medium to longer term.” [22]

For instance, the auditing team recommends to better accompanying the implementation of new technologies with training and policies, and in particular “develop new guidelines for sharing knowledge with members, Commission members, and partners.” [23]

Using ICT to communicate is similar to other communication channels. A strategy is needed: “The overall communications to members individually and collectively must be strategic and not chaotic.”[24] It is not enough to send emails to have an effective communication. It is not enough to use an intranet to become more efficient. IUCN is using an intranet, Skype, emails. But it is essential to understand why these tools are used, train staff, and promote what they are developed for: implementing a global strategy focused on knowledge management.

The IUCN council identified three objectives and states once more what the external reviews suggested: (1) put in place basic organizational Internet systems to support and foster knowledge management; (2) strengthen knowledge creation, sharing and learning across organizational boundaries and shift the focus towards more efficient and concerted analysis and synthesis; and (3) strengthen capacities to assist, empower and influence target audiences.[25] However, as the 2007 external review notices, the organization still needs to implement this strategy, even though “improved knowledge management is no longer an option in IUCN”. [26]

In 2011, the last external review suggests once more to “invest in the under-resourced core functions of fundraising, M&E, and knowledge management – continue to develop critical mechanisms for information sharing, coordination and alignment.”[27] In addition, its overarching recommendation is to “Critically assess and (re-) define IUCN’s purpose –take progressive and decisive steps to re-discover its purpose, re-define its niche as the global conservation union, and re-configure the organization to meet global challenges.”[28]

The same external review also recommends to better determine IUCN’s purpose: “Instigate a critical external questioning of purpose and niche (…) to make transparent and independent proposals about where the Union best fits and has most to contribute within the field” [29] and added value:

“Interrogate the Value Proposition and develop a Union-wide Theory of Change – manage a Union-wide consultation process to revisit the Value Proposition in order to define a statement which is unique and of practical value to managers and stakeholders.”[30]

The 2011 external review states with similar words what has been recommended in the past external review: IUCN needs to have a strategy based on knowledge management, define its niche and determine its added value compared to other organizations.

As shown in this section, external reviews highlight that IUCN should dedicate more resources to the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. If the emergence and development of ICT transformed parts of our societies, it seems it did not change substantially the knowledge management activities of IUCN. To improve knowledge production and dissemination, two elements are needed beyond the adoption of technological tools: a clear strategy, and efficient solutions to overcome resistance to change. All external reviews highlight the necessity to redefine the organization as a knowledge producer and improve the flows of information within its parts and constituents.

As stated in an external review, “communication is probably one of the most important functions of IUCN, as a complex, global organization dedicated to the generation, management and dissemination of knowledge.” [31] Therefore, the following section analyzes the impact of ICT on IUCN’s internal communications activities.

[1] Choucri, Nazli (2012). Cyberpolitics in International Relations. Cambridge: MIT Press, p.74.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Choucri, Nazli (2012). Op Cit, p.73

[4] Knowledge management [Def. 1] (n.d.) Business Dictionary Online, Fairfax, VA: WebFinance. Retrieved 7 September 2013 from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/knowledge-management.html

[5] Choucri, Nazli (2012) Op Cit, p.72.

[6] IUCN (1994) Report of the External Review of the IUCN Programme 1991 – 1993. Gland, Switzerland, p12. Retrieved 10 May 2013 from http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/report_of_the_external_review_of_iucn_programme__1991_1993_.pdf

[7] Christoffersen, Leif E. (1996) Report of the External Review of the IUCN programme. Gland, Switzerland, p.5. Retrieved 10 May 2013 from https://www.iucn.org/knowledge/monitoring_evaluation/database/all_iucn_evaluations/

[8] Christoffersen, Leif E. (1996) Op Cit, p.29.

[9] Bruszt, Gabor (1999) The External Review of IUCN Programme. Gland, Switzerland, p.35. Retrieved 10 May 2013 from http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/external_review_final.pdf

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bruszt, Gador (1999) Op Cit, p.35.

[14] Ibid, p.18.

[15] Bruszt Gabor (2003) Op Cit, p.51.

[16] Ibid, p.35.

[17] Ibid, p.39.

[18] Ibid, p.18.

[19] Woodhill, Jim, Whyte, Anne (2008) The External Review of IUCN Programme, Vol.2. Gland, Switzerland, p.80. Retrieved 10 May 2013 from http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/final_er_vol_1_synthesis_report_15_apr.pdf

[20] Woodhill, Jim,Whyte, Anne (2008) Op Cit, p.vi.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, p.v.

[23] Ibid, p.81.

[24] Ibid, p.27.

[25] Ibid, p.25.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Poate, D., Gregorowski, R., Blackshaw, U. and Newman, S. (2011) External Review of IUCN 2001, Final Report, commissioned by IUCN and prepared by ITAD Ltd., United Kingdom, p.viii.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Bruszt,Gabor (2003) Op Cit, p.18.