Innovation. The United Nations. One would be forgiven for displaying a furrowed brow in puzzlement at encountering these words in the same breath. A search for these phrases online delivers a number of references, almost entirely all from different parts of the UN system. Large bureaucratic entities are not normally seen as a source of innovative accomplishments, especially in the case of an international body that is subject to the individual priorities and interests of its member states.
However, when a large public organization also consists of a highly decentralized structure, innovative changes can occur in different parts of the system, usually driven by key individuals and often under the radar screen of the bureaucratic system. And when this is coupled with the increasing viral nature of the communication tools of the last decade, ideas have a real chance to propagate and be replicated, even within the boundaries of a global multilateral organization. In particular, let us look at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – on the ground in 166 countries, with a mandate to work with countries to create their own solutions to meet local and global development challenges.
Innovation is not always about the ‘newness’ or ‘coolness’ of the tool or technology. As the joke goes, the real innovator was the person who invented the 2nd, 3rd and 4th wheels, and got them to work together. 10 years ago, as it is today, UNDP was an organization with offices across the developing world, and staff working in relative silos: the silos of country, global, and regional programs, projects in remote areas, and the less glamorous areas of operational support (HR, Finance, Procurement, and Project Management). It was very difficult to obtain an integrated picture of activities from around the globe. Requests for support in areas as diverse as best practices in wetlands management to effective HIV/AIDS advocacy in universities flowed to Headquarters (in New York), often to the desks of under-resourced staff. This was also external consultant heaven. A report from one country could be easily tailored to address similar problems in other locales that had no access to solutions in other countries.
UNDP, thanks largely to the efforts of one forward-looking staff member took a simple tool – email – and proceeded to connect specialists across all its offices. A Democratic Governance specialist could now ask a question on best practices in ballot box design to a network of peers working on similar issues across the globe. Solutions that previously took several weeks or longer to be provided began to be shared within days and even hours. UNDP developed a simple product – the Consolidated Reply. A CR captured the exchanges between specialists on different topics through a concise 1-2-page summary of lessons learned and experiences shared, with references to documents provided, contacts of key experts, together with focused research on the subject to document additional sources of information. The number of email based networks began to proliferate. The most active of these were the un-moderated communities of HR, Finance and Procurement.
Six years ago, UNDP launched a global integrated financial, HR and Project Management system (an ERP). These operational networks rapidly began to resemble one big ‘water cooler’ around which everything from messages of frustration and sympathy to creative solutions to day-to-day issues were shared by staff from Uruguay to Ghana, from Nepal to Fiji. The problem-solving networks of UNDP were born, with participation rates of 50% or higher (defined as having contributed at least once). These are extraordinary figures for virtual communities with membership in the thousands.
So what next for UNDP’s ‘knowledge networks’? A small but influential group has successfully convinced senior management to take a bold leap forward by building a Facebook-style environment for UNDP. Will our networks successfully make the transition to online forums? Will the lure of reduced emails lead to an increasing number of web-based communities? Will the relative ease of community creation lead to a chaotic proliferation of groups? Or will individual ownership of a community (as is a key hypothesis), lead to well organized knowledge repositories? The goal is to create a bandwagon that will draw in everyone, and the push is coming right from the top.
UNDP Bangladesh has its own crucible of innovation in its highly regarded Access to Information Project. The goal of this project is to serve as a foundational element that catalyses other initiatives towards a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ vision. In similar fashion, UNDP must effectively identify its own successes and replicate them across the world. Will the new tools and platforms cause a quantum leap in shared innovation? A bold experiment is underway!