Knowledge management in the humanitarian sector: Challenges in improving decision-making

PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.
12 March 2014

When I contemplated writing on knowledge management (KM), an article by Alan Fowler from 1997 came to mind:

An almost universal weakness of NGOs is found within their often limited capacity to learn, adapt and continuously improve the quality of what they do. This is a serious concern because the future usefulness of NGOs for the world’s poor will depend on their ability to overcome their learning disabilities. Crudely put, if NGOs do not learn from their experience, they are destined for insignificance and will atrophy as agents of social change. NGOs urgently need to put in place systems which ensure that they know and learn from what they are achieving — as opposed to what they are doing — and then apply what they learn.1

Many of us may feel this is an exaggeration or a bit out of date. However, it is possible that this is the reality facing us. This article aims to explain why this may be so, and what humanitarian organizations need to do to remain relevant in the 21st century.

There has never been an agreed upon definition of the nature of “knowledge,” nor of the concept of “management.” Despite the lack of a singular definition, knowledge management can broadly be defined as “the discipline of enabling individuals, teams and entire organizations to collectively and systematically create, share and apply knowledge, to better achieve their objectives."2 As translated to the humanitarian sector, it can be defined as “the entire process of acquisition, management, and utilization of disaster information and knowledge for the support of Humanitarian Assistance.”3 Moreover, in order to make systematic use of knowledge management, a system design is needed: a knowledge management system (KMS) is the system developed to aid knowledge users in identifying, sharing, retrieving, and using knowledge they need.4 The interest in knowledge management has grown significantly in the past few decades, especially in conjunction with the technological advancement that enables us to acquire, process, and disseminate large quantities of information.5

The role of knowledge management in the corporate world has been researched and employed to a greater extent compared to in the humanitarian sector. However, KM systems are equally important for humanitarian work, in areas such as disaster warning and response planning and management.6 Despite many years of carrying out humanitarian response around the globe, and the favorable technological advancements, humanitarian decisions are still made based on little information. This is to some extent justified by the urgent nature of humanitarian action, compounded by factors such as limited access and professional biases. But while man-made or natural disasters cannot be adequately prevented, they can be better managed through proper early warning systems, preparedness planning, and delivery methodologies. Proper knowledge management is a prerequisite for this. 

While some literature underline that an empirical link has not been established between internal NGO knowledge management and NGO effectiveness, and thus that the idea that better interagency communication and knowledge sharing will improve relief efforts is speculative,7 others suggest that humanitarian work can be made more effective through well-integrated, knowledge-based information exchange systems.8 However, this presupposes that the NGOs use KM tools internally and among themselves. This is not an easy task given the additional complexities humanitarian work entails. Humanitarian emergencies present numerous challenges to humanitarian organizations trying to manage documented and tacit knowledge about the situation or event. Proper identification of critical information needed, sources, major gaps, and how best to share, present, and disseminate this information become major hurdles, especially during the peaks of emergencies, calling for proper preparation before the actual emergencies occur. The major challenges international humanitarian agencies face include, but are not limited to:

  • Unpredictability: Not knowing the type of disaster or location in advance poses a significant obstacle to predict what information will be needed, and where and how such information may be obtained.
  • Multiple interests: With people reacting, and even panicking, immediately after disasters, as a result, information spreads in various forms, including rumours and myths, complicating information gathering.
  • Organizational setup of humanitarian organizations: The typical humanitarian response is a short-term life-saving engagement, creating a mental barrier against establishing KM systems.
  • Lack of adequate funding: Donors are not necessarily willing to fund long-term KM processes in an emergency setup due to the temporary nature of responses.
  • Cost of systems: KM systems require long-term planning, appropriate structures, and systems, which many NGOs cannot afford.
  • Human resources capacity: NGOs tend to invest in training and capacity building of professionals who will be directly involved in service delivery to victims, relegating the need for future learning.
  • Staff turnover: Experienced humanitarian workers are among the most mobile employees, affecting institutional memory and learning.
  • Technological infrastructure: The challenges are not necessarily the same all over the world – some areas/ continents have better technological infrastructure than others.
  • Limited coordination and collaboration: The lack of coordination and collaboration between international NGOs is reinforced, though not openly, by inter-NGO competition to access common funding sources.
  • Exclusivity: International NGOs tend to trust certain sources of information over others, such as government data of the host country.
  • Organizational secrecy: Organizational learning is not freely shared among humanitarian actors, for fear of being seen as measures of organizational performance.
  • Confusion: Especially at the peak of a humanitarian crisis, too much information may be gathered, which at times can lead to confusing and contradictory information, which needs experienced personnel to navigate.

The aforementioned are important, but not necessarily unique, factors. The corporate world also shares some of these challenges, although to varying degrees and with different impacts. Hence, humanitarian actors can address some of these challenges by learning from the corporate world.   I am aware that this is easier said than done. However, should scarce humanitarian resources be “wasted” reinventing the wheel? Should tax payers continue to allow NGOs to lag behind in the utilization of KM? The answer to these and similar questions is a negative.   Humanitarian actors should collaborate better among themselves and make better use of KM in areas such as background information and extent of damage (from operational NGOs in the affected country), operational details (lessons learned from previous operations), and conceptual interpretations (programming options, future impacts and constraints). If made better available on an inter-organizational level, information sources such as the following could significantly improve the situation:

  • Rapid assessment reports
  • Appeals, proposals, and project/program monitoring and evaluation documents
  • Organizational architecture used in previous responses
  • Humanitarian research documents
  • Coordination meetings and proceedings 
  • Virtual collaboration networks 
  • Publications of universities and research institutions
  • News articles and online resources

It is common to hear people say that “information is power.” Yes, this is an era of information – maybe too much of it in some fields, and maybe too little in others. Finding the relevant information in an ocean of data at times when it is most needed is only possible through proper KM. The humanitarian sector cannot ignore this fact – it is time that lessons from KM in the corporate world are adapted and followed also in the humanitarian sector. KM informs decision-making, and therefore NGO leadership is responsible to invest in it and encourage its proper use. Apart from collaboration between humanitarian actors being important to promote the programmatic use of KM systems, such systems can in themselves also strengthen overall collaboration among NGOs and other humanitarian actors, as effective KM calls for sharing of information and learning among those active in the sector.

I don’t deny the fact that a few NGOs, especially the larger ones, have already started a journey toward better using KM for their decision-making processes. However, there are others that have a long way to go. The aim of this article is to serve as an invitation to further discussions to improve knowledge management for humanitarian use.


About the author

Maereg Tafere is Associate Director of the Humanitarian & Emergency Affairs at World Vision East Africa.



1 Fowler, Alan (1997), Striking a Balance: A Guide to Enhancing the Effectiveness of Non-Governmental Organisations in International Development, Earthscan.
2 Young, Ronald, “What is Knowledge Management?.”
3 Zhang, Dongsong, Lina Zhou, and Jay F. Nunamaker Jr. (2002) “A Knowledge Management Framework for the  Support of Decision Making in Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief,” Knowledge and Information systems, Vol. 4, Issue 3.
4 Murphy, Tim and Murray E. Jennex (2006), “Knowledge Management Systems Developed For Hurricane Katrina Response,” Proceedings of the 3rd International ISCRAM Conference, Newark, NJ (USA).
5 Alavi, Maryam, et al. (1999), “Knowledge Management and Knowledge Management Systems: Conceptual Foundations and research issues,” MIS Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1.
6 Hassan, Nuha Abdullan et al (2011), “The Implementation of Knowledge Management System (KMS) for the Support of Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) in Malaysia,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 1, No. 4.
7 Miskovich, Cristal, Bill A. Olson, and Timothy D. Blackburn (2013), “Evaluating the Relationship between knowledge Management Usage and the Effectiveness of Humanitarian Natural Disaster Relief in Non-Profits,” IEEE workshop proceedings.
8 Dorasamy, Magiswary, Murali Raman, amd Maniam Kaliannan (2013), “Knowledge management systems in support of disasters management: A two decade review,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 80, No. 9.



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