A second brain for humanitarian and development organisations?
In today’s information-driven society, effective knowledge management (KM) has become increasingly important due to the exponential growth in data volume, complexity, and the emergence of intricate analytics and trends. Large datasets hold the potential to unlock unprecedented insights and drive innovation. However, the real challenge lies not just in the accumulation of these data but in the ability to transform them into actionable knowledge. This transformation is essential for learning and continuous improvement of processes and organisational structures.
The concept of the ‘learning hypothesis’, a theory suggesting that increased knowledge leads to enhanced organisational effectiveness, presents a challenge for humanitarian and development organisations. These organisations often struggle to transform knowledge into effective learning and organisational change (Yanguas, 2021). The Building a Second Brain (BASB) approach and the PARA method, proposed by Tiago Forte, could offer solutions to these challenges.
The learning hypothesis and organisational challenges
The learning hypothesis posits that knowledge acquisition should logically improve the performance of development activities. This hypothesis leads to the creation of extensive research, monitoring, and evaluation departments and the adoption of various knowledge management tools. However, evidence shows that the conversion of knowledge into learning and subsequently into organisational change is insufficient, with tacit learning prevailing over explicit knowledge management systems (Yanguas, 2021).
Yanguas’ 2021 paper What have we learned about learning? Unpacking the relationship between knowledge and organisational change in development agencies addresses the ‘learning hypothesis’ within development agencies, which suggests that increased knowledge should lead to increased effectiveness in development activities. As shown by the diagram above, the hypothesis proposes a causal chain: Knowledge leads to learning, learning to organisational change, and change to impact. The paper highlights several challenges in realising this hypothesis:
1. Insufficient evidence: There is a lack of evidence to support the claim that knowledge acquisition in development agencies leads to organisational learning and change.
2. Tacit vs explicit knowledge: Tacit knowledge, or knowledge gained through experience, is often more prevalent and valued than explicit knowledge captured through formal knowledge management systems.
3. Organisational learning: Organisational learning, which is critical in complex problem-solving and evidence-based policymaking, is often not effectively achieved. The paper questions the impact of the rising knowledge agenda on organisational learning and the factors that enable or inhibit it.
4. Operational and strategic learning: The relationship between operational and strategic learning and organisational change is not clear. Lessons at the operational level do not necessarily translate into broader structural or policy changes.
5. Organisational change: Changes aimed at enhancing learning within organisations are rarely based on actual lessons learnt from practice.
6. The need for more research: Further research is needed to fully understand the learning hypothesis and its implications for the future of learning in development agencies.
7. Reassessment of research and M&E: The paper suggests that there should be a critical reassessment of the role and value of research and monitoring and evaluation within development practice.
8. Politics of external advocacy: The influence of external advocacy on development agencies and the consideration of politics in innovative aid approaches, such as thinking and working politically, adaptive management, and results-based management, need to be critically examined.
The paper calls for development agencies, practitioners, and researchers to re-evaluate how learning is integrated within their operations and to reassess the methodologies and politics surrounding the implementation of knowledge agendas.
BASB and PARA: Potential measures for organisations
The BASB (Building a Second Brain) approach focuses mostly on personal knowledge management, emphasising the organisation of digital information to enhance productivity and creativity. The PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives) method, part of the BASB framework, categorises information into Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives, thereby facilitating more simple and efficient information management and retrieval. Although the main focus is on personal knowledge management, it includes lessons that can help organisations. By systematically writing down important thoughts instead of relying on memory, these methods have streamlined operations across various spheres.
Tiago Forte’s application of these methods, showcased in his video How we organise our life in Notion | Second Brain, exemplifies their practicality both at personal and organisational levels. The synergy between Notion and other digital applications ensures that every spontaneous idea or task is captured and categorised, forming a comprehensive digital ecosystem that supports both professional and personal development.
Addressing organisational learning with BASB and PARA
Implementing BASB and PARA can help address some of the challenges highlighted in Yanguas’ paper. These methods can enhance both operational and strategic learning within organisations. For example, BASB’s emphasis on digital information management aligns with the need for effective knowledge systems, and PARA’s categorisation method can streamline the processing and application of knowledge within organisations while facilitating collaboration.
These methods can be operationalised using a digital application such as Notion to create and refine Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). An SOP with the practical steps for a repeated task, such as procurement, preparing a financial report, implementing training sessions, or publishing a call for proposals, can be documented in Notion or a similar digital application. These SOPs transform routine tasks into clear, actionable checklists, ensuring consistency and efficiency. This approach is particularly valuable when delegating tasks, as it provides team members with a reliable reference, allowing them to execute their duties with reduced supervision. It also allows for easy updating by authorised users, which can include AI-powered functionalities such as searches and translations.
Overcoming structural and political barriers
Adopting these methods requires overcoming structural and political barriers within organisations. The existing structures of humanitarian and development agencies often create barriers to learning and knowledge sharing, necessitating a more integrated approach such as BASB and PARA. Field dynamics and external factors, such as the politics of learning and change management, must be considered. Organisational data-protection policies need to be taken into account when deciding on digital tools to be used (see examples of tools below). Adaptive and strategic learning approaches, as part of the BASB and PARA implementation, can help negotiate these dynamics and promote a more learning-oriented organisational culture.
The integration of the BASB approach and the PARA method into development and humanitarian organisations offers a promising pathway to address the shortcomings of the learning hypothesis. While these methods alone will not address all challenges, they can provide a structured yet flexible framework for managing and utilising knowledge, which is crucial for organisations facing complex development challenges.
The next sub-section present a set of step recommendations to support organisations to enhance their learning capabilities, leading to more effective and impactful actions.
Implementing the BASB and PARA methods in humanitarian and development organisations involves structured approaches to knowledge management and learning. Drawing from our consultancy and research experience, we propose the following actionable recommendations, outlining potentially responsible roles and prioritisation:
1. BASB and PARA implementation plan
Responsible: Team management, IT, and HR
- Develop a comprehensive BASB/PARA training programme: Create and deliver training modules tailored to teach the BASB approach and PARA method, focusing on effective digital information management and categorisation. Tap on e-learning to scale up trainings efficiently.
- Integrate BASB/PARA into existing knowledge-management systems and processes: Adapt current KM platforms to align with the PARA framework (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives) and BASB principles.
2. Enhance internal communication and collaboration
Responsible: Team management and KM professionals
- Promote BASB/PARA awareness: Implement communication strategies, such as newsletters and webinars, to build capacities of staff about BASB and PARA benefits.
- Facilitate workshops and peer learning: Organise sessions where experienced staff share their insights on implementing BASB and PARA effectively.
3. Foster a culture of data-driven continued learning
Responsible: HR and IT department
- Develop a centralised knowledge hub: Establish an intranet or digital workspace where BASB and PARA methodologies are integrated, allowing easy access and categorisation of information.
- Implement analytics and KPIs (key performance indicators): Use data-driven metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of BASB/PARA implementation.
4. Collaborate for data-driven KM tools
Responsible: Team management and M&E personnel
- Engage with external experts: Partner with research institutions and think tanks to develop advanced KM tools that complement the BASB and PARA methods.
- Share best practices: Encourage staff to publish findings and lessons learnt from implementing BASB and PARA.
5. Identify and implement effective KM indicators
Responsible: M&E personnel, IT department, and KM professionals
- Develop KM indicators: Identify metrics that measure the effectiveness of BASB/PARA implementations in different organisational areas.
- Regular reviews: Continuously assess and adjust these indicators to enhance KM practices.
6. Optimise operational processes for efficiency
Responsible: Operations and field teams
- Automate and streamline processes: Implement automation tools and software that align with the BASB/PARA methodologies to enhance data management and reporting.
- Conduct training on KM tools: Provide detailed training on new tools and processes that support BASB and PARA.
7. Embed learning into daily operations
Responsible: Project management, HR, and staff-development teams
- Integrate learning into workflows: Use project-management platforms and other digital tools to incorporate BASB and PARA practices into daily tasks.
- Yearly learning circles: Encourage departments to share their experiences and insights on using BASB and PARA.
8. Align departmental activities with strategic objectives
Responsible: All departments
- Ensure alignment with BASB/PARA: Conduct regular cross-departmental meetings to ensure that departmental activities integrate the BASB and PARA methodologies.
- Feedback mechanisms: Develop surveys and dashboards to gather staff feedback on BASB/PARA integration.
These recommendations aim to systematically integrate the BASB and PARA methods into the organisational structure, enhancing KM practices, fostering a culture of continuous learning, and aligning individual and departmental efforts with strategic objectives. Adaptation to specific organisational contexts and continuous evaluation of these actions are crucial for successful implementation.
Incorporating specific tools that align with the BASB and PARA methods can greatly enhance knowledge management and operational efficiency in humanitarian and development organisations. These are some tools that can be integrated:
- Description: Notion is an all-in-one workspace for note-taking, project management, and task tracking. It is highly customisable and supports databases, kanban boards, wikis, calendars, and reminders.
- Use with BASB/PARA: Notion can be set up to reflect the PARA structure, organising information into Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. It is particularly useful for collaborative projects and centralising resources.
- Link: Notion
- Description: Obsidian is a powerful knowledge base that works on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files. It is excellent for creating a connected web of notes, which is ideal for personal knowledge management and idea development.
- Use with BASB/PARA: Utilise Obsidian to manage personal knowledge databases, linking ideas and resources effectively. It can serve as a personal knowledge hub where information from various projects can be interconnected. Use by teams is not as straightforward as Notion.
- Link: Obsidian
3. Microsoft OneNote
- Description: OneNote is a digital notebook that provides a flexible canvas to organise notes and ideas. It supports multimedia, easy navigation, and integration with other Microsoft Office apps.
- Use with BASB/PARA: OneNote can be used for both individual and collaborative knowledge management. Its notebook structure can be adapted to the PARA framework, making it an effective tool for organising and sharing notes and resources.
- Link: Microsoft OneNote
- Description: Evernote is a note-taking app that helps organise personal and professional projects. It offers easy note capture, powerful search, and the ability to sync across devices.
- Use with BASB/PARA: Evernote’s tagging and notebook system align well with the PARA method. It can be used to categorise and retrieve information efficiently.
- Link: Evernote
5. Teamwork Projects
- Description: Teamwork Projects is a project-management software designed for teams that want to organise their work, improve collaboration, and ensure projects are delivered on time. It offers features like task lists, time tracking, file uploads, and milestones. Teamwork Projects is particularly suitable for larger organisations or those dealing with multiple, complex projects. Its user-friendly interface and comprehensive project management features make it an ideal tool for teams looking to implement the BASB and PARA methods in their workflow, enhancing collaboration, and driving productivity.
- Use with BASB/PARA: Teamwork Projects can be tailored to reflect the PARA method by organising tasks and projects under respective categories. It is particularly beneficial for managing larger-scale projects (Projects in PARA) and tracking ongoing responsibilities (Areas in PARA). The platform’s flexibility allows for an easy transition between different projects and areas, ensuring that resources are properly allocated and archives are maintained effectively.
- Link: Teamwork Projects
- Description: Trello is a visual collaboration tool that creates a shared perspective on projects using boards, lists, and cards. It is useful for tracking project stages and tasks.
- Use with BASB/PARA: Trello’s boards can represent different categories of the PARA method, enabling visual management of projects and tasks.
- Link: Trello
- Description: Asana is a project-management tool designed to improve team collaboration and work management. It allows teams to coordinate and manage their work from daily tasks to strategic initiatives.
- Use with BASB/PARA: Asana can help manage larger projects (Projects in PARA) and ongoing responsibilities (Areas in PARA), with its robust task- and project-tracking features.
- Link: Asana
- Description: Airtable combines the simplicity of a spreadsheet with the complexity of a database. It is versatile for organising projects, customers, ideas, and more.
- Use with BASB/PARA: Airtable can be used to manage and organise Resources and Archives, allowing for a flexible and powerful way to track various data types.
- Link: Airtable
These tools, when used in conjunction with the BASB and PARA methodologies, can greatly enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of knowledge management within organisations. They support the categorisation, storage, retrieval, and collaboration aspects of knowledge management, ensuring that information is accessible and usable for all team members.