How People Find and Share Knowledge
Q&A With Busara Center for Behavioral Economics
By Sophie Weiner
How do people find and share knowledge in family planning and reproductive health? Knowledge SUCCESS is conducting research, led by the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, to understand knowledge management practices within the family planning and reproductive health community.
We sat down with our Busara colleagues, Sarah Hopwood and Salim Kombo, to understand why behavior is at the heart of how people practice knowledge management. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Describe the research that Busara conducted in the first year of Knowledge SUCCESS. What is this research hoping to uncover?
SH: I’ll talk about the methodology and Salim can talk about the results—I’ll give him the harder one [laughs]. First, we developed a web survey to understand people’s current knowledge management behaviors. Our 20-question survey covered a variety of topics. We wanted to know what they were doing [to find and share knowledge], how they were doing it, why they were doing it, what challenges they had, and what activities they found were easy when it came to searching for and sharing information. Over 700 professionals completed the survey. We selected some of those who responded to participate in what’s called in-depth interviews, where we talked to them about their daily activities involving knowledge management.
SK: First and foremost, I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to fill out our survey… Talking about the results is very difficult at this point because there is still a lot brewing in the kitchen, so we don’t want to give too much away. Based on the survey findings in particular, we’ll be able to understand behavior in terms of how people seek and search for information around family planning and reproductive health.
Photos: Busara conducts a lab study in Kirinyaga County in Central Kenya. Credit: Alauna Peterson
Why is this focus on behavior so important?
SK: Learning is one of the most important tools we have to improve what we do and create an impact in our field. There is no lack of knowledge out there. But enabling people to optimally document, use, and share it amongst each other continues to be a challenge in all sectors—including family planning and reproductive health. Behavioral science allows us to really understand these challenges around how people find and share knowledge. It guides us to design solutions that are appropriate and relevant for our end-user [in this case, FP/RH professionals]. It involves working with the end-user to highlight and collaboratively design solutions that speak to their particular needs.
People are much better at searching for information because they have an intrinsic motivation to do it.
Have you encountered any surprising results from the research?
SK: One result we found interesting was that women were quite under represented in the list of people who responded to the survey. I think it’s up to us as researchers to try — in future initiatives — to make that more balanced in terms of opinions we receive.
SH: We also did a lot of thinking around how your learning style interacts with your knowledge seeking and sharing behaviors. Everyone has different preferences when it comes to taking in new information. For example, some people learn best by reading articles or reports, while others prefer watching videos, interpreting graphics and images, or listening to audio content. This is your learning style. When your behavior (how you search, what format of information you interact with, what platforms you use, etc.) matches your learning style, you are more likely to effectively process the information. You are more likely to share it as well.
Our research found that while some FP/RH professionals are interacting with information in a way that is very aligned with their learning style, others are not. For example, they might self-identify as a visual learner, but they are currently having to interact with information that is mostly text-based. And so moving forward, we want to think about what’s driving this disconnect. Why are some people currently receiving information in a way that is ideal for them and others aren’t? Is it because of their organization’s policies or because platforms don’t provide content in a variety of formats?
So that is an area we are going to leverage when it comes to design. How can we make sure more people match between their learning style and their behavior?
What are some of the biggest or most common hassle factors that people experience during the knowledge management cycle? [Hassle factors are seemingly minor inconveniences to taking a desired action.]
SH: Inertia. They can’t be bothered — especially when it comes to sharing. People are much better at searching for information because they have an intrinsic motivation to do it. They need something or they want something and so they’re going to search for it. Sharing is much harder unless you have an extrinsic motivation — for example, a donor is requesting information. It is quite altruistic to spend time sharing information for the greater good of the world without necessarily any reciprocity, without knowing you’ll get something back as a reward. So we definitely want to think about how we can better align motivation and incentives.
SK: There are also systemic hassle factors, which serve as barriers. For example, poor Internet access or browser incompatibility are hassle factors—especially for people who are using low-end devices. Those are challenges we heard frequently from people, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
SH: Interface is another one. First off, there are so many platforms and knowing which one to use is overwhelming. This creates choice overload. [Choice overload is a cognitive process in which people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options]. And then even within a platform, often the search function isn’t optimized. So it’s quite hard to quickly find that piece of information you want. You have to go through lots of documents and text.
Photo: Busara conducts a lab study in Kirinyaga County in Central Kenya. Credit: Alauna Peterson
You have to strike a balance between making information easy to share, while keeping its core integrity.
What are some ways that people working in FP/RH can use behavioral science to make information more accessible, usable, and shareable?
SK: You should always design with people’s behaviors rather than against them. This is a very important principle when thinking about how people find and share knowledge in family planning and reproductive health. Another tip that is super important: as much as we want to make information easily accessible and easy to share, we should also always be aware of the fact that when we do so, information can become more and more watered down in terms of its authenticity. This can lead to false rumors and myths about family planning and reproductive health products. So you have to strike a balance between making information easy to share, while keeping its core integrity.
How can understanding how people find and share knowledge help the family planning and reproductive health community address gender-based behaviors and social norms that limit equitable access to knowledge?
SH: One really important way is to involve women at the start of the design process. Even we found that passively we ended up with a lot more male voices in our sample because they were the ones who responded to the survey. You have to make sure there is equal representation of men and women in focus groups for any kind of design work because people will have different barriers and opportunities depending on their gender.
SK: An interesting methodological point there was that more men responded to the quantitative survey, but when we were calling for a qualitative interview, more women responded. There’s definitely something there that reflects how we’re reaching out to women. We need to be more aware that the genders don’t respond the same way to different requests for information.
Our colleague recently gave the example where someone told him, “I didn’t have time to write you a short email, so I sent you a long one instead.”
SH: For me it’s a really good opportunity to be able to apply behavioral economics techniques in this space. Despite the fact that so many resources have been developed on knowledge management, so many people still struggle with it. There’s an opportunity to dig deep into questions around how can we get people to start sharing and using information in a systematic way. And I think engaging and prototyping with audiences is a good strategy to tackle current challenges.
SK: It’s really exciting being on this project especially because there’s very little that has been done on trying to understand the intersection between behavioral science and knowledge management, let alone between behavioral science, knowledge management, and family planning. So in many ways we are discovering and learning new things, and it’s very exciting to be on this journey with Knowledge SUCCESS.
Human behavior, when it comes to knowledge management, can be very interesting. There are things you discover that are so counterintuitive to what you would expect. Our colleague recently gave the example where someone told him, “I didn’t have time to write you a short email, so I sent you a long one instead.” It speaks to how knowledge management may take more thought and energy to set up, but can actually save you time in the long run if it’s done well.