Improving knowledge management in the United Nations System

The United Nations System consists of:

  • the six principal organs of the United Nations — General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, International Court of Justice, and Trusteeship Council
  • subsidiary organs, such as the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), Human Rights Council, and Counter-Terrorism Committee
  • funds and programs, such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
  • specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
  • regional commissions, such as the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and functional commissions, such as Population and Development
  • related organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  • other entities and bodies, such as United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

How many of these various United Nations (UN) entities have effective knowledge management programs? Very few, according to a February 2017 Future UN Development System briefing paper[1] prepared by UN knowledge manager Steve Glovinsky:

Over more than 70 years, the UN system has accumulated a substantial amount of knowledge, particularly in the development domain. If captured and mobilized, it could greatly enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of the world organization. Yet, while most UN entities would describe themselves as “knowledge organizations,” there actually are few examples of effective knowledge management, in large part because of the transformations required.

Paying the price of a lack of effective KM

I contend that the global community has paid and continues to pay a high price for this lack of effective knowledge management, and put forward the example of climate science to illustrate this.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was was established in 1988 by two UN System entities, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The IPCC reviews and assesses global scientific, technical, and socio-economic information relevant to the understanding of climate change. Its main activity is to provide assessment reports of the state of knowledge on climate change at regular intervals.

Despite the IPCC’s work in reporting on the state of knowledge on climate change, climate change denial is a significant issue. This denial is so pronounced that it is preventing the implementation of actions that are necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Much of the analysis of climate science denial focuses on the role of the fossil fuel industry and its supporters in stoking the denial, and appropriately so. But I argue that the IPCC and the UN System entities that established it also have to shoulder a significant proportion of the blame.

The IPCC is tasked with producing climate science reports and communicating those reports. But it is not tasked with facilitating effective knowledge transfer and exchange so that both decision-makers and the general community can access climate science information and knowledge that is meaningful to them and their diverse situations, and allows them to know what to do and to be able to do it.

Mark Trexler, who has served as a lead author for IPCC, writes here in RealKM Magazine that there is a vital need for actionable climate knowledge:

The idea of actionable climate knowledge reflects the reality that an individual making a climate-relevant decision is doing so on the basis of her ability to answer the two questions that govern all human decision-making: “is it worth it,” and “can I do it?” Each of us uses different information to answer the two questions, and it has to be extracted from the information deluge that crashes over us every day.

Mark is working to address the need for actionable climate knowledge through the Climate Web initiative.

Reinforcing the need for the better transfer and exchange of climate knowledge, notable climate scientists Kevin E. Trenberth, Melinda Marquis, and Stephen Zebiak argue in the journal Nature Climate Change that there is a vital need for a climate information system[2]. Like Mark Trexler, Kevin E. Trenberth has served as a lead author for IPCC, and Melinda Marquis has served as deputy director of one of the three IPCC working groups.

Trenberth, Marquis, and Zebiak state that:

The many challenges encountered in making, interpreting and acting on climate analyses, predictions and projections point to the need for much better climate information … such a system could provide clarity regarding the uncertainties in climate predictions, and allow development of sound risk management strategies. The climate information system would also enable and support climate services, which involve the production, translation, transfer, and use of climate knowledge and information in climate-informed decision making and climate-smart policy and planning.

They further advise that:

There is abundant evidence that decision-makers need and want help in understanding the complicated climate/society interface in ways that facilitate better outcomes within their communities and businesses. In light of the increasingly expensive and devastating impacts of climate-related extreme events, it is now critical to build an integrated knowledge system that includes public and private partners.

Trenberth, Marquis, and Zebiak see knowledge management systems as part of information management systems, but as David Williams advises, knowledge management systems should actually be given a deliberate focus.

Recommendations for change

Refreshingly, the recent report[3] Knowledge Management in the United Nations System prepared by the UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) has put forward a series of recommendations that have the potential to significantly transform knowledge management in the UN System. If the recommendations can be fully implemented, then hopefully the knowledge transfer and exchange shortcomings of bodies like the IPCC will become a thing of the past.

The seven official recommendations are:

Recommendation 1. The executive heads of the United Nations system organizations, if they have not already done so, should develop knowledge management strategies and policies aligned with the mandate, goals and objectives of their respective organizations, by the end of 2018. Such strategies should be based on an assessment of current and future knowledge management needs and include measures for implementation.

Recommendation 2. The Secretary-General, in consultation with the Senior Management Group, should develop at least a minimum set of knowledge management guidelines for the United Nations Secretariat, based on best practices and experiences in departments as well as in United Nations funds, programmes and specialized agencies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), by the end of 2018.

Recommendation 3. The executive heads of the United Nations system organizations, if they have not already done so, should take incremental measures aimed at embedding knowledge management skills and knowledge-sharing abilities in their respective staff performance appraisal systems, annual work plans, job descriptions and organizational core competences, by the end of 2020.

Recommendation 4. The executive heads of the United Nations system organizations, if they have not already done so, should establish norms and procedures for the retention and transfer of knowledge from retiring, moving or departing staff, as part of the organizations’ succession planning processes.

Recommendation 5. The Secretary-General should take measures to optimize the potential of the United Nations System Staff College Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development by, inter alia, requesting the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the United Nations University (UNU) and the United Nations System Staff College Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development to jointly design and conduct training programmes on knowledge management adapted to the holistic principles underlying the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Such training programmes should promote, in an integrated way, the management of knowledge produced and intended for use by all stakeholders interested in or associated with the activities of the United Nations system.

Recommendation 6. The executive heads of the United Nations system organizations with long-standing and comprehensive experience in knowledge management should take the lead in introducing in the agenda of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) an item dedicated to knowledge management so as to provide an opportunity for sharing, at a strategic level, experiences, good practices and lessons learned, with a view to gradually developing a common, system-wide knowledge management culture.

Recommendation 7. The General Assembly should include in its agenda an item or sub-item dedicated to knowledge management in the United Nations system and request that a report be submitted by the Secretary-General, with contributions from members of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), on system-wide best practices and initiatives in the area of knowledge management that support the holistic, integrated and collaborative approach of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The UN Secretary-General has since issued a note transmitting to the members of the General Assembly his comments and those of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination on the report.

The comments overwhelmingly support the recommendations, and several general comments have also been made. These include:

  • While appreciative of the report overall, organizations highlighted areas that can benefit from further analysis. They note that one purpose of the report was to review progress since the previous Joint Inspection Unit review in 2007 and observe that a number of the recommendations from the previous review were still not fully implemented or that past progress had been reversed. It would have been helpful if there had been more reflection in the report on what lessons could be learned from this to increase the likelihood that the current set of recommendations will be realistic and actually implemented. In particular, the issues of leadership support and organizational incentives for knowledge generation, sharing and use are not well covered in the report but are critical to this work.
  • Organizations observe that the report rightly draws attention to the need to develop stronger approaches to measuring the impact of knowledge management. However, while the report provided examples, these were primarily process indicators and the report would have benefited from the inclusion of guidance on measuring or documenting how knowledge management activities contribute to broader organizational goals, such as in the context of the 2030 Agenda. Such guidance would not only help strengthen the argument for greater investment, it would also offer a way of identifying approaches that add the most value.
  • … organizations offered additional thoughts on the subject of knowledge management more generally. In this respect, some organizations emphasized the need to recognize the challenges inherent in strategically, systematically and efficiently developing, organizing, sharing and integrating knowledge, while involving all relevant stakeholders. They stress that, in efforts to implement knowledge management/sharing the degree of culture change required should not be underestimated and that for organizations that do not already have established knowledge management strategies and programmes, the incorporation of knowledge management skills and knowledge‐sharing abilities into daily work habits can take considerable time.
  • … organizations note that, since there are clear overlaps between information management and knowledge management, particularly with regard to establishing processes that ensure that the right information or knowledge gets to the right people at the right time, a coordination mechanism should be worked out involving all those entities that have an interest in those two areas.

Header image source: Adapted from united nations flag by sanjitbakshi, which is licenced by CC BY 2.0.


  1. Glovinsky, S. (2017). How Knowledge Management Could Transform the UN Development System. Future United Nations Development System, Briefing 45 (February 2017).
  2. Trenberth, K. E., Marquis, M., & Zebiak, S. (2016). The vital need for a climate information system. Nature Climate Change, 6(12), 1057–1059.
  3. . Dumitriu, P. (2016). Knowledge Management in the United Nations System. Joint Inspection Unt (JIU), Report JIU/REP/2016/10.

Originally published at RealKM.

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