13 May 2008

FAO as a knowledge organization

The 400 plus pages report of the 'Independent External Evaluation of FAO' was recently made available on the FAO website (en français, en español). Looking at all aspects of the organization's work, the evaluation team discusses its information, knowledge sharing and communication activities in several places.

It shows a lot of progress in the information area; it sets out some visions of FAO as a “partner in interlocking and overlapping knowledge networks … a facilitator rather than a central knowledge manager;” it also poses some tough questions.

The authors position information and knowledge at the heart of the organization, which is very positive, they also provide argumentation why this should be so.

The role of FAO as a 'knowledge organization' pervades the report, and provides useful notions for other organizations in this area. In paragraph 601, for example, the authors say that FAO’s “principal task is to work to ensure that the world’s knowledge of food and agriculture is available to those who need it when they need it and in a form which they can access and use.”

Chapter 3 on the ‘Relevance and Effectiveness of the Technical Work of FAO for the 21st Century’ has a substantial section on knowledge management and ensuring the availability of knowledge to users.

What is meant by this? Paragraph 288 argues that FAO’s “fundamental roles with respect to knowledge management for food and agriculture” are: “i) advocacy, communication and public information; ii) knowledge development and dissemination through technical cooperation; iii) knowledge creation through assembly and analysis; and iv) knowledge assembly and dissemination through the paper and internet publication.”

The evaluation team examine the various FAO information systems and publications (paper and web), noting that the FAO website “is now the largest in the UN system and among the most widely visited.”

In terms of the website’s management, the evaluators report that FAO originally wanted to “put in place a fully centralized system. This reflected FAO’s strong overall tendency to centralization, but was at variance with good practice. Following significant resistance from all technical departments, full central management was rejected” and more decentralized approaches are now followed. The evaluation team concludes that “gains can be made from greater harmonization of standards, but significant diversity is essential to encourage innovation and ownership.”

This seems an important lesson for all of us working in agricultural information systems.

In their conclusions on these issues, the evaluators say that “FAO has consciously or unconsciously evolved an integrated architecture for knowledge generation, management and dissemination, including the World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) and AGORA. " However they see the approach as still "FAO-centric."

Further, they conclude that “FAO has made many significant strides in managing the knowledge it produces itself. It has not addressed in any adequate way the larger challenge of global knowledge policy. … Subsequent thinking of both member countries and the Secretariat has focused largely on what FAO itself should do with respect to knowledge, rather than global knowledge policy …” This seems to miss recent efforts through, for example, e-agriculture and CIARD to link up with other actors.

In recommendation 3.6, the evaluation team concludes that the “maintenance and strengthening of information systems is thus fundamental to the performance of the Organization’s role and requires adequate resourcing.” This is perhaps a lesson for all organizations working in agriculture.

Chapter 6 on FAO’s ‘Culture, Organization and Structure’ also discusses FAO as a knowledge organization. The evaluators cite the founding documents of FAO where FAO is clearly defined as a “knowledge organization from its inception. The architects of the Organization also explicitly foresaw the type of knowledge organization they intended; they did not envisage FAO as the world’s stand-alone organization on agriculture and food, but rather as an organization that would be part of a knowledge network or partnership engaged jointly in the production, dissemination, application, adaptation and assimilation of knowledge.” The evaluators thus see FAO “as a partner in interlocking and overlapping knowledge networks … a facilitator rather than a central knowledge manager.”

However, the note that the “structural characteristics of FAO involve heavy rigidities and high levels of organizational segmentation … that impose severe limitations of the current and potential role of FAO as a knowledge organization.” The report elaborates on some of these.

Under the heading of ‘Organization and Structure’, the authors examine cross-departmental knowledge-sharing and problem solving, that includes Priority Areas for Interdisciplinary Action (PAIA), Thematic Knowledge Networks (TKN) also called ‘communities of practice’, Interdepartmental Working Groups (IDWG) and ad hoc working groups.

In paragraph 969., the evaluation team briefly reports on the recent creation of the Knowledge Exchange and Capacity Building Division (KCE) from the former Library and Documentation Systems Division (GIL). The idea is that KCE will “serve as an intermediary between the producers and consumers of knowledge and information, with responsibilities for the FAO website, the actual and virtual libraries, capacity building for KM in member countries and partner organizations, and the general direction of TKNs. This welcome focus on knowledge management, however, runs a substantial risk of isolating efforts in KCE from the main knowledge management functions in the technical departments and providing an excessive IT focus.”

The report of the Independent External Evaluation of FAO in online (en français, en español); also the management responses.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home