WaterAid and knowledge management: admitting success

Posted 17 Oct 2016 by Aditi Chandak, Pete Cranston

Guest author Pete Cranston and Aditi Chandak, WaterAid’s Learning and Knowledge Advisor, explain how we created positive conversations when reviewing our practice around learning and knowledge management.

British organisations, like the British more generally, tend to shrug off compliments. Ask a member of staff at an international development NGO to describe what’s wrong with x or y in the organisation and make sure you have a comfortable seat, because people will usually provide a huge list, speaking at length and without notes.

In contrast, explain to those same people that actually their organisation, like most, does a lot of things very well, that they are ‘good enough’ and typical of the sector, and you can watch the eyes glaze. If, more radically, you suggest that identifying and building on good practice instead of addressing an endless list of faults generates more sustainable and less disruptive organisational change, then you get back, even from the polite British, grimaces and grunts of disbelief.

Knowledge hubInclusive WASH planning.

We thought it would be useful here, as a companion piece to Aditi Chandak’s 1 August blog, to pick up on some of the examples from WaterAid of good and excellent practice in learning and knowledge management. From reactions to our sharing of these stories at the 2016 Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) conference, we believe these examples are also useful for other organisations facing the same challenges.

Appreciative inquiry

The knowledge management review used ‘appreciative inquiry’ (illustrated by the diagram). We chose this method to create a positive conversation and practical footing. It involved:

  1. Moving away from the deficit model, characterised by long lists of faults in the organisation. 
  2. The art and practice of asking questions that strengthen an organisation’s capacity to identify, anticipate and enhance the potential of its processes.

The appreciative 5-D model

The review investigated two country programmes that are well regarded for learning and knowledge sharing, and also two cross-organisational areas of work that demonstrate good knowledge management.

The resulting four case studies described the context, common principles, and examples of good practice found across all the studies.

As we worked our way through the investigation, common themes emerged from the project and the country programme case studies. For example:

  • The crucial role of consistent leadership and management support, at all levels. 
  • A shared commitment among teams to: talking; sharing experiences, challenges and learning; noting down formally or informally the process, conclusions and recommendations, and revisiting those notes to review progress; and to embedding this culture in regular project processes.1

Equity and inclusion – the 'Rolls Royce' of projects

For example, one of the areas chosen was WaterAid’s Equity and Inclusion project (E&I). We referred to this as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of projects, as it was well designed and well resourced. It ran over several years and aimed to improve the way WaterAid integrated and adapted its work to the needs of all its stakeholders, paying particular attention to specific needs of, for example, disabled people.

We considered it as a model for how organisations can change fundamentally and how they do business at all levels. Key points of interest are:

  • The project was supported strongly at all levels of management, from senior leaders at the global and the country levels through to middle management and staff at the country level. 
  • The project was well resourced. Support staff were available and money was set aside for global face-to-face meetings. It also involved partnering with WEDC and others to develop custom materials. 
  • The project embodied good practice in ‘learning by doing’. The team constantly reviewed and reflected on their progress, adapting the project over time. 
  • The project built a powerful network of country E&I champions, but the pace and scale of its achievements owe a lot to the team at its centre, led by Louisa Gosling, who networked and communicated well and placed partnership at the centre.

The story of how WaterAid developed its work on menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is equally powerful, and very different. The MHM case study emphasised that the combination of active listening, communication, and critical reflection is an important aspect of learning and innovation. Another major highlight from the various interviews was that networking and partnership play important roles in strengthening knowledge management.

The following diagram, suggested by Tidiane Diallo, West Africa Regional Technical Advisor, summarises the knowledge management activities in the E&I project, which is a good example of teams working collaboratively across the whole organisation.

Knowledge management activities diagram

We processed and discussed these findings across WaterAid UK, and in a forthcoming blog we’ll describe some of the practical ways forward that were identified.

1. Cooperrider DL and Whitney DD (2005), 'Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change.' Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

Guest author Pete Cranston is a freelancer who has worked with various organisations on learning and knowledge management and helped conduct a review within WaterAid. Aditi Chandak is Learning and Knowledge Advisor at WaterAid. You can read more of her blogs here.


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