“Although these tools (web-based ones) are not yet everywhere available in the developing world, they are spreading rapidly and present a unique opportunity for developing countries to benefit most from the technological revolution now unfolding: low-cost telecommunications systems could help countries to leapfrog ahead through distance education, distance health services, and much better access to markets and private sector partners abroad.”
As I mentioned in a prior post, the World Bank, his former employer, is also looking at knowledge management as a way to assist developing countries and publishes a knowledge index to help countries evaluate where they stand in the use of electronic knowledge assets. Many people, including Denning, have commented that the big challenges are not technical but social and cultural.
Building on existing patterns of knowledge exchange and then simply adding an electronic facilitation can be one way to address these cultural challenges. Let me provide two examples.
The first example, in this case from a “developed” country in Europe, involved a situation where we were tasked with creating a way for plumbers to share best practices on how to fix residential heating systems. The traditional, and non-electronic, means to exchange best practices was eliminated in a cost cutting move. The plumbers used to gather in several hundred depots around the country to get their daily assignments. While having morning coffee, they would share their best practices. The depots were then closed and the plumbers were given lap tops with a radio link up (this was pre-web) to get their assignments. These lap tops had the manuals on-line but, as we know, the real best practices were not in the manuals, but in the heads of those who solved problems not covered in the manuals. So we set up an electronic bulletin board to put the lap tops to better use as a means for sharing of best practices across the country. There was already a culture of knowledge sharing to build on and the plumbers liked their new lap tops as they felt it elevated their job status. So there were not significant cultural barriers to overcome to activate this new knowledge sharing system.
The second example is from a developing country. My older daughter was recently in Mongolia in the US Peace Corps for two years. She taught school in a small town that was a difficult six hour drive from the capital city. The mail system was not reliable and all these factors made communication difficult. The town also did not have running water. The only water came from a well that only operated a few times a week. Whenever it operated, a large flag was raised to signal people that it was open. Individuals would then stop what they were doing and push large two wheel carts with water containers to the well. Since most people met at the well for this limited time, it was a natural means to exchange knowledge, a version of the “water-cooler” effect in some companies. This meet up at the well would certainly serve as a foundation for wireless electronic communication in an already familiar pattern once the infrastructure was in place.
I am sure there are many other traditional patterns of knowledge sharing in developing countries. The key to the successful realization of what Denning describes will be to build on these traditional patterns as wireless communication is rolled out and not impose structure from the countries or vendors providing this infrastructure.