Monday 22 June 2020

The important lesson for KM from Covid-19 - knowledge is not enough

The current Covid-19 pandemic allows us to compare how different countries are responding to the emergency. However according to a recent article, any variations in response should not be blamed on a lack of knowledge, or a lack of management of that knowledge.

COVID-19 Equipment to Georgia (05890092)
Covid Equipment to GeorgiaFrom IAEA image bank via flickr
Having knowledge, and applying that knowledge, are two different things. There is often a gap between knowing and doing, and this gap is certainly apparent in the current global crisis.

This week's issue of New Scientist magazine contains a section entitled "We knew how to prevent a pandemic like covid-19, so what went wrong? which explores this Knowing-Doing gap. Many of the conclusions are also applicable to Knowledge Management in organisations.

So what knowledge do we have about pandemics?

  • We know there will be another one. Pandemics (or at least PHEICs -  Public Health Emergencies of International Concern) are frequent. Since 2007 we have had 6 of them; Swine Flu, polio eradication setbacks, Ebola in 2014 and 2018, Zika virus, and Covid-19. We don't know when the next one will be, where it will start, or how it will behave, but we know it's coming very soon. 
  • We have a body to manage knowledge about pandemics - the World Health Organisation (WHO). They maintain a body of knowledge about every pandemic - see their pages on Ebola or Covid for example.
  • We had time to respond. WHO declared Covid to be a PHEIC on 30th January, and a Pandemic on 11th March. This should have been enough time for most countries to mount a good response.
  • We know how to prepare and respond. We have a best practice document called the International Health Regulations (IHR), to which all 194 nation members of the WHO have signed. This 80-page document, available in 6 languages, deliniates the preparedness needed against pandemics, and the three-fold response strategy - surveillance, interruption of infection chains, and ramping up of prevention and treatment capacity. The IHR also contains detailed preparedness plans.

According to New Scientist, all the world had to do to be ready for a pandemic was to implement the IHR, but concludes "Unfortunately, this is easier said than done".

Why is knowledge not applied?

To explore this question more generally, it is worth reading the book referenced above - The Knowing-Doing Gap. This 2000 publication from Harvard Business School looks at the world of corporate organisations, and suggests several reasons why organisations which know what they should do, often do not do it. Some of these reasons include:
  • Internal competition,
  • Talking instead of acting,
  • Repeating old solutions instead of new ones,
  • People are afraid to take risks by acting on knowledge,
  • Organisations measure the wrong thing.
The case of Covid shows some of these reasons in action, and maybe points up one or two others. 

The case of Covid

According to New Scientist, the world's response to Covid deviated from known best practice in the following ways:
  • There was not enough testing. Early in the pandemic WHO stated several times that countries needed to accelerate testing. Those countries that did, such as South Korea, rapidly contained the virus. Those that did not, saw infection numbers soar.
  • In some cases, according to New Scientist, there was a lot of randomness in government response, quoting one expert as saying "we saw a lot of herd behaviour - governments copying other governments under conditions of huge uncertainty".
Possibly the overriding issue with Covid-19 has been that our knowledge has been partial. Every country has had access to best practice in how to counter a pandemic, but there is no best practice in how to control a pandemic with minimal impact to the economy. Every country therefore has to strike a balance, and determine what actions to take to balance saving lives against protecting the economic future. What that best practice balance will look like still remains to be determined, but it seems likely (and this is my own interpretation here) that those countries with a high level of preparedness and which took swift decisive action in the early stages both saved more lives and shortened the lockdown period compared to countries that were unprepared, or were slow to take action. 

What are the implications for Knowledge Management

The case of Covid shows how important it is to identify for an organisation to identify its critical knowledge, and ensure this knowledge is owned and managed by someone, and available to all who need it. The world has determined that knowledge of pandemic management is critical, has asked the WHO to manage it, and make it available through the WHO website, and many other mechanisms. 

However Covid also shows that making knowledge available is not enough to translate this knowledge into action. The world knows how to contain and manage pandemics, but there are many gaps between knowing and doing.
  • There are many obvious examples of international competition rather than international cooperation, with governments blaming each other for the pandemic rather than working together to defeat a common foe. We also see internal competition within countries, particularly where liberal vs conservative parties contest the relative importance of saving lives vs restoring the economy.  The governmental parties not only want to do the right thing, they want to be seen as doing better than their opposition. The same may be true within your organisations. You need to enshrine knowledge into policies and practices that all parts of the organisation should adopt, not allow the different parts to compete over how to apply the knowledge. Internal competition is poison to effective knowledge management
  • Short-termism is also an issue. Democratic governments are driven by two short term cycles - the news cycle, and the election cycle. Such governments are incentivised to make short term decisions at the expense of the long term, such as the decision to invest in a PPE stockpile or a specialist pandemic advisory team, rather than spending the money on something that will make the evening news. The New Scientist quotes one epidemilogist who calls this a "Panic and forget" strategy - "We are already seeing the Forget phase as we ... shift our resources to economic recovery and awat from protection, detection and treatment". The same is true in organisations and projects, where short term urgent issues can override long term decisions. Knowledge Management can play a part here, by reminding the organisation of the long term cost implications and risk that come with short term decisions. KM can, for example, work with risk management to ensure decisions are made with a full knowledge of the risks and potential consequences. 
  • Short-termism is also linked to the Availability Bias (one of many cognitive biases). If you cannot remember something happening, you assume the risk is low. Thats why South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with their recent history of MERS, were better prepared for Covid than some western countries, where nobody was really taking the risk seriously, and the Spanish Flu of 1919 was a distant memory. This wishful thinking is a common failing in projects, where a lack of knowledge of what might happen leads projects to be overoptimisitic, and to think "it won't happen to us". KM can help counter this trend through the use of techniques like the Knowledge Gap Analysis, and can also inform the use of checklists and audit analogous to the WHO preparedness survey. I worked with one organisation where project lessons were used to build what was called a "trainwreck indicator" - a measure of how likely any one project was to meet a major "trainwreck". This indicator ensured that all risks were assessed, no matter how remote they seemed.
  • If corporate knowledge is not easily available, or not palatable, people will copy each other, much as European governments looked to other European governments to copy (a behaviour known as social proof). However where knowledge IS available, such copying can be counter productive, and people can copy the errors of others. Knowledge Management certainly needs to allow people to learn from each other and to copy good practice through social networks or communities of practice, but this learning needs also to be linked to the establishment, and continual improvement, of a set of common practices (much as the IHR will be updated after Covid-19 is past).
The overall lesson from Covis-19 for Knowledge Management is that knowledge can seriously improve decision making in times of crisis, but just having knowledge available is not enough

You need ways to bridge the knowing-doing gap; the policies, best practices, checklists, audits, experts and processes that make sure knowledge from the past is seriously considered when making decisions for the cuture. Luckily this is easier in organisations than in countries. Organisations are smaller, and less politically divided, and leadership is less concerned with the news cycle or the re-election cycle and can prioritise longer term investments over shorter term reactions. Organisations can apply KM as a clear and strategic discipline in a way that nations and continents cannot. 

However the lesson remains - it is not enough just to have Knowledge. There can be a huge gap between knowing how to respond, and putting that knowledge into action. We need to be aware of the factors that create the gap, and the strategies to bridge the gap, if we are to deliver full value from Knowledge Management.  

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