AWARE of Poor KM

There’s high drama going on in Singapore at the moment. A 25-year-old NGO, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), was recently taken over by a group of people with connections to a christian fundamentalist church. How did this happen? Orchestrated by a self-styled “feminist mentor”, this particular church had sent out emails asking its members to join the association a few months before AWARE’s AGM, so that they could vote like-minded people into the executive committee. As it turns out, 9 of the 12 seats went to newcomers to the Association. 6 out of the 9 newcomers attend the same church. None of the 6 had prior experience volunteering with AWARE. The president was one of the old guards, but she eventually quit after she was barred from attending an exco meeting. The new exco fired the heads of sub-committees and the centre manager soon after. They changed the lock so none of the old guards can access the premises. AWARE essentially is starting anew. 

This episode (full story here) has sparked off a huge amount of debate locally: the role of religion in a secular state; the morality of a hostile takeover of a civic organization; the attitude towards sexual minorities in a conservation society; the rise of religious fundamentalism; and so on. Put all these issues aside, if we look at this episode purely from a knowledge management perspective we get a classic case of exactly what not to do when a new team takes over.

The new exco has taken over lot, stock and barrel the documents housed within the premises of AWARE, but they did not tap into the skills, experience and expertise of those former exco and sub-com members. Without a doubt, those are more valuable knowledge classes than documents, as they are alive and take time to build. To rebuild them will take a long while and at great costs.

There are also relationships that the old guards had forged with international partners and local volunteers and beneficiaries that cannot simply be handed over to the new team as with a box of dossiers. Relationships are personality dependent, built on trust and over time. Presumably, the new team will have to build up those relationships from scratch. They will arguably face a tougher challenge building those relationships given the onerous circumstances under which they took over the association.

Good knowledge management is one the building blocks of innovation. For instance, you need to know what’s been done or tested previously before you can be sure that what you do is indeed innovative. Without any of the old guards around to inform them or check their understanding, the new team will have to spend a long time piecing together what’s been done or tested before, before they can deliver any innovative service to their beneficiaries. Like George Santayana says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Nobody in the new team remembers AWARE’s past because they weren’t a part of it. They will thus repeat mistakes made in the past and pay the same price, as they learn the ropes of running AWARE.

Knowledge and experience are undoubtedly lost when there is such an abrupt transition in leadership, but this is not to say that they can’t be rebuilt. However, rebuilding them has a cost – it will take a lot of time, energy and resources. In an era when resources are scarce and when there are so many other battles that humanity can fight – poverty, pandemics, global warming, genocide, terrorism, just to name a few – is there really justification for spending more on rebuilding what’s already established? If doing basic knowledge management can prevent resource wastage and can contribute towards innovation, doesn’t it make sense to do it?

1 Comment so far

Patrick Lambe

Edgar your point was well illustrated when the members at the EGM took the new exco to task for spending $90,000 in their first month on legal services, venues etc when their normal maximum per month is $20,000 above which they have to get the agreement of the members.

As several of the members pointed out at the meeting, the former excos have become skilled at getting such services provided for free or at very low cost. There is a serious cost implication arising from lack of knowledge continuity, especially among non profits and NGOs.

Posted on May 05, 2009 at 05:38 PM | Comment permalink

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