Maria May is the programme manager of BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab. She co-authored the book Making Tuberculosis History and previously worked for the Global Health Delivery Project at Harvardello
Managing Knowledge: Why organizations should understand what makes an employee’s “secret sauce” so good
The office next to mine belongs to Rana bhai*, who looks after BRAC’s visitors program. Rana bhai has been with BRAC for 20 years, first working at the grassroots level and eventually moving his way to the Head Office. His job is deceptively complex. Particularly in a developing country like Bangladesh, with limited infrastructure, horrible traffic, illness, and other considerations, ensuring that important guests, such as donors, heads of state, or high profile journalists have an informative, smooth and enjoyable trip is no minor feat. Murphy’s law (the idea that whatever can go wrong, will), multiplies in places like Dhaka. Mundane issues like printers breaking, internet going down, can pile up. Illness in the family can urgently require a trip to one’s home village to visit, or even to Thailand or India for advanced medical care. Also crippling to planning are the multi-day political hartals, during which all businesses remain closed and most forms of transportation take the day off.
Visitors have precious few days to accomplish their goals in the midst of these formidable potential trouble spots. Yet against all these odds, time after time, I see satisfied visitors coming back from a successful field visit. I have heard many stories of their conversations in the field with clients, their sense of awe at seeing some of the development work first-hand. Rana bhai has devised a system that minimizes the chaos they experience. With a smile and contagious sense of calm, he hides all the careful choreography that goes on behind the scenes to create these visits. He’s good, very, very good at his job. Those of us who are lucky enough to work with Rana bhai know that we’re in capable hands when we ask him to help with our planning. We’re involved in bits and pieces of the process, as he stops by to confirm or provide an update fairly frequently. But at the moment, only Rana bhai really knows the recipe for his secret sauce. The rest of us just rely on his experience and wisdom, or what academics would call “tacit” knowledge and capabilities.
Much of the world runs on tacit understandings. This is the norm, both for BRAC and most organizations in the world. One benefit to retaining talented staff is that they usually continue to learn and increase their effectiveness. They learn shortcuts and time-saving tricks. They have unique and often very up-to-date sources of information. They know the high performing sites and individuals. They know how much to communicate to whom, how frequently, with how much advanced notice. When and how to say thank you. And perhaps most importantly, they form and invest in relationships, within the organization and externally. These relationships allow them to pick up the phone and make things happen. And to have others go the extra mile for them. Particularly in large bureaucracies where paperwork can move much more slowly than the whims of impatient actors, this type of know-how really makes a difference. BRAC’s leader, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, has remained at the helm for its full 40-year lifespan. We have many senior staff that joined decades ago. Former colleagues work in the public sector or with important donors and continue to create opportunities for partnership. As a result, we’ve been able to avoid the necessity to articulate many things explicitly. We know we have someone who can do the job superlatively, and that’s all we’re worried about today.
It takes time to develop tacit knowledge into explicit or formal knowledge, regardless of the topic. Particularly for things that one does instinctively. For example, most people have difficulty teaching their native language, despite speaking it with complete fluency. The depth of conceptual understanding it requires to know something well enough to explain it or teach it is far more than the ability to do it. Organizations, like the human brain, often are comfortable with keeping knowledge tacit given that the ability at the individual level to execute effectively remains quite strong. Without investments in the formalization or institutionalization of knowledge, it rarely happens.
Is this ok? It depends on what one wants to accomplish. I think that two critical factors are an organization’s goals related to scale and sustainability. BRAC now has 150,000 employees scattered across 10 countries. We want to cultivate an innovative and fairly autonomous program in each country, and to do this we’ll need to instill in them the BRAC DNA and body of know-how we’ve amassed in our work here. Still a huge part of our strategy is to send people from Bangladesh with great individual knowledge to other places, but this strategy clearly must expand to include other forms of knowledge transmission. Rana bhai’s “secret sauce” could be useful to many, but we certainly can’t send him to nine other countries simultaneously. Given that we have so many talented people in the ranks, clearly identifying mechanisms to formalize some of their practices and insights could be extremely powerful. An additional benefit of doing this now is that as our first and second generations of leaders begin to retire, we are able to retain and pass down their discoveries and approaches.
And if we’re truly interested in poverty alleviation worldwide, there’s no reason to keep this knowledge creation internal to BRAC. Increasingly we’re interested in disseminating “what works” to others, from our program targeting the ultra-poor to non-formal primary schools. Yet we have other models, such as the award-winning, incentive-based adherence system for tuberculosis treatment, that have not really gained traction with policy makers or other implementers. To systematically create opportunities for this type of influence, we first have to raise the bar on our own understanding of what we’re doing and why. Most of BRAC’s programs have basic documentation, but nothing close to the details of the “secret sauce” recipe necessary for someone outside to successfully start from scratch and recreate them.
For now, I‘ll try to keep an eye on Rana bhai and see if I can’t identify some of the ingredients worth writing down.
*Bhai means “brother” in Bangla. It’s the standard, respectful title one uses for male colleagues in the office. Apa, or “sister,” is the female equivalent.