• SJ

Knowledge Management for Business Development

A conversation with Allie Schlafer, Manager, Knowledge Management & Learning for Overseas Operations at CRS




I sat down for a Zoom coffee with Allie Schlafer, CRS’s Manager for Knowledge Management and Learning for Overseas Operations to talk about practical solutions for the knowledge management challenges that business development teams face. Her tips are great, especially for teams not big enough to have their own dedicated knowledge management professionals!


I think we’d all agree that the main thing most of us are trying to attain with our banks of information (like libraries of evidence from past projects) is: how do I make it both complete/detailed AND easy to use/update?

Detail is great but we can all agree that nobody has time to sift through it all. We tend to design knowledge management systems to capture a broad amount of information because we’re uncertain about what we’ll need later and we don’t want to throw things away, but then we create this problem for ourselves where we have too much information saved and we can’t actually find what we want when we want it.


I’m really a fan of “templatizing” so you can have standards for what needs to be saved, and the team that uses the information the most can agree on what they will need to be able to find. For business development teams, that’s often being able to search for projects by subject area and then get the core details, like I want to be able to search for all malaria projects in the last five years and get the outcomes, objectives, key bullet points on progress towards targets, etc.


Globally tracking data at the outcome level is a good standard, since people can access project reports if they find they want additional information. Then you can organize records around key sectors or project areas that your organization works in and identify key indicators to consistently highlight across projects. It helps here to have a holistic theory of change for the areas you work in and systems to measure impact, because for some communications you’ll find it’s a huge asset to have these indicators that you consistently measure across projects so you can roll them up regionally or globally.


This advice even applies to meetings. Try to boil your notes down to one to three key takeaways that you share with all participants, so that everyone’s more inclined to actually read them and follow up.


How have you seen folks successfully build in the task of updating these knowledge management systems so that it becomes a regular habit?

First, buy-in from the top is crucial. Some of the push needs to come from the top down: build knowledge management into job descriptions so that staff can factor the appropriate amount of time into their day-to-day priorities.


Second, trying to make it more fun will go a really long way toward people finding time for what could otherwise be a tedious task. Even if it’s just making the inputs looks less like an excel spreadsheet or trying to remove some of the tedium by automating more of the data entry. Gamefying is also a huge trend in knowledge management right now if we can take a lesson from all the apps that really want to grab our attention. And incentives can be part of the fun—they don’t have to be huge, just something to get people excited and make it feel less like a thankless chore.


Finally, keep it simple. A good rule is that the task should be, at maximum, two clicks away. If data entry is difficult, people are less likely to do it and the quality of entries will go down. And then keep everything in one place and make sure you have a good system set up to ensure version control – the easiest way to kill momentum is having to sift through multiple sources or ask your team to try and merge duplicate or conflicting records.


Do you find technology to be overall helpful in knowledge management, or more of a distraction?

It’s just another tool, really, so it doesn’t have any inherent good or bad qualities. It just depends how you use it. Where things break down is how we use it--most nonprofits have dozens of different systems across teams. The real evil is just the chaos of dozens of different tools.


To avoid turning technology from a helpful tool into a source of chaos, ask good questions before you select which technologies you’ll use, like:

  1. Are you over-customizing (i.e., complicating a tool that’s already designed to work well to do a specific task?)

  2. Did you select the one that will be easiest for your team to pick up? If your existing technologies aren't meeting your needs, how can you select products that either interface easily with your current technology so staff feel familiar, or intuitive enough that they require little training to roll out.

  3. Did you focus on the functionalities that actually serve your goals instead of just all the 12-in-one cool benefits that you can add on? (In order to answer that one well, you also have to have gone through a clear process to articulate your goals. It can be easy to allow the technology to become an end in itself when we haven’t clearly identified what we need from it.)

Since this is specifically for business development folks, a lot of the information we deal with is past performance data and evidence for proposal development. Any thoughts particular to knowledge management for proposals?

One of our specific challenges is saving enough detail so that you can pull what you need to customize for different proposal needs, which can be a difficult task, especially on the tight timelines of a proposal. Knowledge Management strategy should be informed by a business development-specific governance committee that comes to a consensus about a curation plan for your documents, data, and evidence to design a mechanism that works for your needs.


Your pipeline (including positioning and donor engagement records), past performance, and the entire grant lifecycle should be together in one place. Usually a CRM (customer relationship management) system works best for this—if you had to pick one critical knowledge management system to have, that would be the one. However, I know that not every nonprofit can afford a CRM solution out of the box. The bigger goal is really to have one system and one process that everyone agrees to and sticks to well -- even if it just ends up being an Excel-based tracker and SharePoint files. The biggest part of any of these solutions is coming to consensus on the business process and ensuring that it is easily understood and implemented.


Then summary-level data should be what’s in searchable fields, and then you should have the ability to attach more detailed reports and anecdotal data to a record.

Once you have a CRM system in place, the real key to successful implementation will be to adequately staff it so that information gets put where it needs to be. Project staff tend to start heading out in the last few weeks or months of a project, so if you haven’t captured their institutional and project knowledge before they leave, then it’s lost.


As the knowledge management expert, what is one step or task you wish more non-experts would take the time to do that would really benefit work in the long run?

Think about it early: don’t just be thinking about project data at the end of project. At most organizations, you’re usually stepping into knowledge management systems that are already built, but you can move your little corner of it in the way you want to go. Find out how to make the systems work for you, even if just in your own corner.


Allie Schlafer is an experienced knowledge management and learning (KML) professional with over eight years in the international development sector. Driven by a passion for information access and equity, she takes pride in developing knowledge management solutions designed with the end user in mind. As a KML manager, her goals include developing career tracking for other KML professionals and increasing opportunities for cross-learning for KML professionals in development. She currently works for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, MD and enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband and pup.