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Helping the UN improve access to financial services for the world’s poorest

School of Management researchers are working with the UN to improve its knowledge management and tackle poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries.

A woman with a baby on her back picking crops in a  Sierra Leone
Two billion of the world’s working adults do not have access to a bank account (image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash)

For most of us, the control we have over our finances is greater than ever. Mobile banking apps let us access our money with a few taps of a screen, while contactless payment technology means transactions take place in seconds.

If we think of developed countries as belonging to the ‘financial mainland’, there still exist many detached ‘islands’. Two billion of the planet’s working adults are excluded from financial services. That's over half of the world’s workforce.

These financially remote areas in lesser developed countries (LDCs) need bridges to the mainland.

Professor Juani Swart and Kerrie Howard are using their expertise to help the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) share knowledge about financial inclusion and how it helps tackle poverty. As well as financial inclusion, UNCDF’s role includes promoting entrepreneurship and business growth.

Working with UNCDF’s Financial Inclusion Practice Area (FIPA) and in particular Hanadi Tutunji who is FIPA’s knowledge management specialist, Juani and Kerrie’s work aims to improve FIPA’s collaboration. This will in turn help them develop practices and build bridges through the power of shared knowledge.

Juani is an expert in human capital, and Kerrie an expert in strategy planning and development. Both are members of the Future of Work research centre, and share a keen interest in knowledge management.

Broadly speaking, knowledge management is the study of how complex organisations share knowledge.

Their work has had a significant impact on FIPA’s knowledge management strategy. Using both original research and practical methods, they have worked with senior FIPA managers to improve the agency’s knowledge management policy, practice and behaviour.

Knowledge is power

Over 300 UNCDF employees work in nearly 40 countries, many in the most remote areas of the world. This creates unique challenges. With the aim of helping isolated communities in areas like Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands, their work is vital. And vital to their work is the sharing of knowledge.

Following a presentation Juani made to the World Bank in 2014, FIPA officials asked her for help. Having developed an early commitment to knowledge management, FIPA leaders wanted to take their strategy and processes a step further.

Discussing the issues with FIPA staff

Juani and Kerrie’s initial research revealed 64% of employees interviewed felt knowledge sharing was important to the organisation. But they expressed frustration with the lack of opportunities for doing so.

Juani started working with UNCDF in 2015, with her own 2007 knowledge asset model the basis for the work. After observing working practice, speaking to employees and treating the process as a ‘live case study’ with Bath MBA students, Kerrie began work as an ‘on the ground’ consultant.

Five important factors

Kerrie’s interview data revealed five key ‘knowledge assets’ within FIPA:

  • business acumen and agility
  • mastery (strategic direction and achievement)
  • UN expertise
  • product design and product management
  • relationship and context management

Employees ranked each of these for importance and the level of competence within the organisation. Analysis revealed a difference between perceived levels of importance and actual execution.

‘This will fundamentally change the way we do things’

Although their work is ongoing, Juani and Kerrie have already highlighted potential improvements in FIPA’s approaches and have initiated plans to apply them.

Kerrie has helped FIPA to draft a new knowledge management strategy, part of the organisation’s plans until 2021. Juani is helping the agency focus on its knowledge behaviours and social capital.

The pair recently presented and facilitated a session at a FIPA retreat. Afterwards, FIPA Director Henri Dommel said: 'this will fundamentally change the way we do things.'

Without sharing knowledge assets, organisations struggle to deliver the services they need to. With these bridges now being put into place, the chances of LDCs bridging the gap to the financial mainland are being strengthened.

This will fundamentally change the way we do things.
Henri Dommel FIPA Director (2017)

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