A descendant of a Ginkgo tree that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima grows outside the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva today, standing as a reminder of the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons and as a sign of rebirth and rejuvenation.
Inside the offices of the ICRC there is another Ginkgo, but this one is a different kind of tree: it’s a tree of knowledge tended by Valérie Martin, Head of Scanning and Reputation Unit. It was christened GinkGo to emphasise the permanent nature of knowledge – that it could be stored in a way that prevents it being ephemeral and soon lost to the organisation. Also Ginkgo biloba, derived from the leaves of the Ginkgo tree, is often touted as a memory aid if taken in tea or tablets.
Valérie leads a team in charge of ‘scanning’ external public information relevant for the organisation to assist people in contexts in crisis. Many of the situations where their colleagues work are unstable war zones where the situation can flex and change with alarming speed. Using public information published by media, institutes, governments, armed groups or individuals of different sensitivities and cultures in several languages is key because it forces us to constantly reassess and readjust our internal reading. Ultimately, it helps us to better anticipate issues related to security, acceptance and access. It is crucial that those who work in the field have a reliable picture of the political forces that may have a direct impact in their local environment.
“Ten years ago we were checking websites but now it’s all through social media. We have a team of analysts mainly based in HQ and the field who are adding value to information, analysing and filtering hundreds of articles or sources each day.
“The challenge we faced was how this high value content was being shared with our colleagues. The quality of the content was recognised as being very high but it was mainly being shared within particular siloes. It was being shared by email and if you were not on the list you ran the risk of missing out.”
A whole seam of information was being collected that had a wider relevance than for a particular country and it became clear that ICRC would need a different distribution tool to share such knowledge more widely. So GinkGo was born – based on the platform from Knowledge Plaza.
Valérie is keen to point out that that this is not just a depository for information like a cuttings service. GinkGo reflects the very ecosystem of where the knowledge comes from and how it is being used.
“We know that the value of information today is in what people add. It’s not enough to know that it exists and that it’s accessible but we want to know whether our colleagues – and the people they respect – value it. Most if us are using social networks in our private life and we have this experience of looking at ranking, liking, sharing and commenting content before deciding to read, watch, listen or ignore. Within an organisation, it is not very different: we use the crowd’s behaviour and opinion to make a decision.and what they do when they receive it and put it in perspective.”
Knowledge Plaza’s solution was offering this additional layer of “information on information” and this was one of the reasons we opted for it. One year on GinkGo is proving its worth with 4,000 users on the platform.
Field staff and managers can receive updates by signing up to the various groups, but that is not the only way to stay informed. They can also use hashtags to cut through the noise. If you are very busy humanitarian worker you can filter through hashtags to hear important and timely news – for instance about South Sudan.
These tags are listed and suggest themselves as you start to type. And although 90% of the articles on GinkGo are in English the tags are translated also in Spanish and French so you can search across languages using these links. So you might search using a Spanish tag but you will get the results in all three languages.
Another key part of the knowledge management strategy at ICRC is the longevity of material. There is little point in just regurgitating news that field staff can find in their own local newspapers or on the BBC. Instead it is the information that is harder to find that they want to surface
“Our users are not interested in mainstream articles; they really like the types of reports you do not find on Google. And they really like it when we introduce the key findings of such reports. We are writing a lot of the content that is shared through the database. For instance if you work in Syria you know the tonnes of information circulating. We would enter perhaps two articles per day on Syria. One of our criteria is to choose articles that will have a long life span. We are also trying to identify issues or angles that go beyond one context.
Knowledge Management as a way of life
As I talked to Valerie and Julie Boudet, who is Information Analyst for the Eurasia Region, I get the sense that knowledge management is not about storing and accessing useful information – it’s more a way of life; a way of surfacing the relationship between the recorder of the information and the receiver. As Julie explains: “It takes 6 months to become useful and at least one year in the job to be good at identifying the credible sources.
“The time needed to understand the main issues for the ICRC on a given context or thematic issue should not be underestimated nor to identify key influencers and credible sources.
“It is a dynamic process. During the Euromaidan protests early in 2014 in Kyiv, there were numerous journalists publishing analyses and tweeting on the situation. The challenge then was to identify the most credible ones and those who were influential. Now that media interest has decreased on this, the challenge is to identify the ones who still focus on this conflict and flag the new ones.
“Also you have to know the people you are curating work for. You could not do it if you were a consultant in your living room at home. You have to walk the corridors; ICRC is a large organisation with different buildings. We try to read as much as possible the internal reporting from the field and have briefings and weekly meetings with our users although they are busy people. The good thing about ICRC is that it has an informal and friendly culture and just having a chat over coffee will help you understand on which issues people are focused.”
Dealing with bias
Valerie claims that most information comes with a natural bias – every journalist brings their own baggage and prejudices. This is why her team will often place an introduction about the source in front of a piece. Here they mention whether the author has political links or has previously written on specific issues or has a way of presenting information that is not completely objective.
However there is resistance for staff to contribute their own posts and opinions on GinkGo.
“I have seen that the younger or the new collaborators are often more likely to share their own opinion and they take these risks much more easily than people who have a long career with the organisation and higher responsibility and potential influence. When you express your opinion you expose yourself but you also may have an impact on decision making and not everyone is ready to take that risk, especially in and organisation that put neutrality and impartiality at the centre of its own principles.
“We are looking for information and analysing content for colleagues whose very DNA is to understand their environment so they are already really well connected; they have a very political reading of everything that is happening on the ground. They know more than anyone else the meaning and importance of neutrality and they will mostly not take the risk of exposing themselves to the whole organisation with their own opinion in an informal way.”
This means that the number of people posting comments on GinkGo is disappointingly low for the team, but will possibly change with time as confidence grows.
Why Knowledge Plaza?
ICRC chose Knowledge Plaza as their tool because of the closeness with which the vendor team worked on the development of GinkGo. Their proposal, claims Valerie, was not standard or off-the-shelf.
“They took time to understand our needs and our unique challenges. In particular there is more opportunity in the system for people to contribute and collaborate. Knowledge Plaza offers the possibility to qualify information, post comments, likes and uploads and manage spaces easily.
“We have lots of collaborators in the field, people who can qualify information the best. Knowledge Plaza was offering this full scale of participation very easily.”
“When you introduce this in an organisation like ours you have to manage the change. It changed our working practices within our own team. It’s not like uploading an app onto your own iPhone and you just have to adjust yourself and gradually get into it. When you have a team and strong headquarters and approximately 80 field Delegations and thousands of collaborators you have to organise this change very well and I have to say that Knowledge Plaza helped us because they have one collaborator who comes from the same expertise area than us and therefore understands our challenges 100%.”
When it came to launching GinkGo they announced it on the ICRC intranet and sent messages to colleagues in charge of communication in the Delegations and at Headquarters.
“We also trained our counterparts in the field with regard to what is this database, how does it works, how they can demonstrate it in the field.”
“In Geneva we provide seminars and presentations and we are sometimes invited to present. We create weekly alerts on the 4-5 top articles not to be missed this week. Many people mention the value of it to me.”
But the success of GinkGo depends entirely on the quality of the knowledge and the information that it contains.
“You have to gain their trust,” explains Valerie. “And it does not happen overnight. It has to be information colleagues can use. People working in our team know the context and the humanitarian context. They have been involved on the ground and have access to internal reports. Our value is never just granted; you always have to demonstrate your added value. Your product can be great for two years but suddenly it is not reaching our readership. There is no point in having a wonderful product if you have lost your readership.”
So while it helps to have a flexible and reactive platform, the key to good knowledge management is to have the right attitude and a team like Valerie’s that is dedicated to serving the teams in the field. Knowledge management really is a way of life.