Venturing into the complex and dynamic field of local peacebuilding is no easy task. While dealing with time limits, lack of resources, changing contexts, and donor demands, it is easy to fall into the trap of losing the opportunity to reflect, capture experiences, identify best practices, and share knowledge.
Peacebuilding practitioners are making efforts to respond to that need and improve the way knowledge from the field is managed. Even so, when introducing Knowledge Management (KM) principles in the peacebuilding sector, one can quickly run the risk of provoking a new conflict: organisational dispute. This might come as a surprise, as KM has a lot to offer local peacebuilding: sharing grassroots and organisational knowledge is vital when addressing conflicts around the world. However, the demanding nature of peacebuilding prevents KM from being easily woven into the fabric of local peacebuilding NGOs.
Being responsible for KM initiatives at Generations For Peace (GFP), a Jordan-based global NGO working on grassroots conflict transformation, I have faced my own challenges in applying KM to enrich practice. One question has continued to trouble me: why does a sector that would benefit from the improved management of knowledge struggle to change existing practice?
I stumbled across an answer while facilitating a staff meeting to agree upon a departmental process. Grouping staff together in a facilitated safe space to develop a shared understanding of how to work together felt remarkably similar to an exercise in Dialogue for Peace. Upon further reflection, KM and grassroots conflict transformation are very similar: both are shaped by social relations, knowledge, and human behaviour.
What if we can use lessons from conflict transformation to change the discipline of KM itself? In pursuing this goal, I will share four lessons that have stood out to me as relevant learning for KM:
1) Knowledge is dynamic and always changing
Knowledge is a social process, created through interactions between people and always related to the context in which it is born. In peacebuilding, programmes need to adapt to the changing perceptions of people involved, and therefore the constantly shifting nature of conflict.
Viewing knowledge as social (also a growing standpoint in KM) has two results. First, one cannot apply the same KM formulas in different organisations, but rather specific tools need to be made to suit the context. We can enact this in local peacebuilding, wherein conflict analysis tools should always be adapted to suit the unique structure of a given community.
Second, KM techniques need to be adapted to avoid becoming irrelevant as organisational structures evolve. This is displayed in the fact that the types of conflict local peacebuilders are addressing might change over time, requiring conflict analysis tools to be adapted accordingly.
2) The value is in the process, itself, not just the end result
In both KM and peace building, there is a tendency to focus on successful outcomes rather than the benefit of the process itself. When it comes to peacebuilding, and conflict transformation in particular, getting people together in a safe space to create new views is as important as the outcome of stopping violent conflict.
Similarly, KM is a result of social interactions that, themselves, have value. Gathering staff together to break down, discuss, and improve organisational knowledge may benefit us more than just capturing existing information. For instance, in running local programme evaluations that are participatory and involve community members, evaluations not only capture existing outcomes, but they become part of the process of change.
3) Behavioural change is key
In conflict transformation, peacebuilders cannot just go into a conflict situation, start running activities, and expect things to immediately change. They first have to earn the community’s trust, gain their acceptance, and transform their behaviour so they will support activities.
In KM, we also need to gain the support of staff and to transform their habits before KM can be integrated into their work. Applying a set of KM tools without creating behavioural change might result in staff seeing these tools as a waste of time that burdens their work.
For example, to encourage local volunteers to have debriefs after every programme activity, it is necessary for them first to adopt a culture of giving feedback, using feedback, and constantly reflecting on their practice. Then debriefs can be integrated into everyday practice without creating extra work.
4) Question existing knowledge paradigms, don’t reproduce them
We should not only manage existing knowledge, but also critique it and build new knowledge. In conflict transformation, we learn to question our existing thoughts, perceptions, and behaviours. Similarly, KM will only work in this sector if we question what we know, look at the whole picture, and change our approach.
When evaluating a project, if we simply look at what went wrong and what went right, we can propose relevant changes to the existing project. However, we may not detect the flaws inherent in the logic of the project itself.
For example, if a Sport For Peace Programme is not having the expected results we could propose changes to programme sessions, or by questioning our knowledge, we might change the Vehicle For Peace altogether, using arts or dialogue instead of sport-based activities. Key to being able to adopt the second approach is including grassroots knowledge and external viewpoints.
What does this mean for KM?
The four lessons from conflict transformation have revealed that knowledge is dynamic, is a process, is related to behaviours, and always needs to be questioned. Overall this reveals an important contradiction in KM: knowledge is not something that can be easily managed. So, how do we move forward from there if managing knowledge is what KM is all about?
Reassuringly, this is a lesson that the conflict transformation field has already learnt by rejecting the practice of “conflict management.” In conflict transformation, it is argued that people should not be seen as objects that can be controlled without address the root of the problem.
We should, therefore, change the language of KM to reflect the principles and practice from our sector, re-thinking KM as a process of “Knowledge Transformation.” By following the four principles of what we now know to be knowledge transformation, we will start to see knowledge transformation as inherent to everything we do in local peacebuilding, not just a process to apply to our sector.
If peacebuilding NGOs can start to become a microcosm of the principles that local peacebuilders implement in the field, perhaps we can finally overcome the challenges provoking this kind of organisational conflict.