World Bank Global Practices — knowledge sharing made easier?

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim talks to bank staff in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A year and a half since Kim's sweeping reforms at the institution, what's the verdict on the new Global Practices structure? Photo by: Dominic Chavez / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, turned the institution on its head in an effort to make it easier for experts to share solutions around the world.

A year and a half later, some say knowledge is flowing more smoothly across the financial institution's 14 Global Practices. Others are left wondering: Has global expertise trumped local awareness?

Kim moved the World Bank away from a structure centered on country and regional units and in July 2014 officially transitioned the bank into its new structure of Global Practices — knowledge-based departments centered around sectors, such as health, education and agriculture.

The move, a major component of Kim’s sweeping reforms, was intended to help staff and knowledge flow more freely between countries. It was meant to facilitate knowledge sharing, not just for clients, but also within the bank to help practitioners more quickly find and implement the best available development solutions.

Staff are still adjusting to the change — navigating new reporting structures and procedures — while critics question the direction the reforms are taking the institution.

Some senior bank staff are beginning to point to signs of success emerging from the new global practices structure.  

“It’s a very different way of operating. And to me, where I sit, it’s profoundly better,” Juergen Voegele, senior director of the Agriculture Global Practice told Devex.

Voegele explained that before the Global Practices were put in place, there were six different regional agriculture teams, each one reporting to a manager who in turn reported to a hierarchy of vice presidents. Managers came together as a “sector board” to discuss global issues related to agriculture, but other than that, Voegele said, there was “no connection in practical terms.” Staff could not move between regions without a “protracted process” of management clearances and staff replacements, in his estimation.

Now, Voegele said he feels like he’s running a global business, with oversight of budget, staff and essential resources. He said that there are 270 staff across the world working in the Agriculture Global Practice. Forty percent work in field offices and 60 percent are based in Washington, D.C. All report to him.

“We are now one team,” Voegele said, adding as a hypothetical example that if the Global Practice wants to deploy expertise from Brazil to a project in Egypt, it can quickly make that decision and allow staff to apply knowledge from past work to new environments.

“We meet every week with the management team and we can make those decisions on the spot,” Voegele said.

Critics of the transition to Global Practices warn that organizing staff and budgets around sectors instead of countries or regions could take away from the local and context specific knowledge necessary for successful development.

“You cannot parachute knowledge into a country if it’s not demand-led,” former World Bank Vice President Ian Goldin told Devex in November 2014, adding that in his view, the World Bank’s reforms may have gone too far in the direction of global knowledge at the expense of local.

Striking the right balance between a structure focused on global knowledge and one centered around local context is still something the World Bank needs to work on, according to Abha Joshi-Ghani, director for Knowledge Exchange and Learning at the World Bank.

Bank staff shouldn’t implement in one country something they accomplished elsewhere without first understanding the local context, and co-creating solutions with professionals already on the ground, Josh-Ghani told Devex. “I think that’s something we still need to address,” she said.

Voegele’s experience with the Agriculture Global Practice suggests that the new structure succeeds in maintaining that balance.

Field staff make up 40 percent of the Agriculture Global Practice, according to Voegele. “They are the continuity … they know the client, they know the political economy, they know the agricultural sector and they haven’t changed at all,” he said.

In the Finance and Markets Global Practice leaders also point to a more efficient system adept at knowledge sharing.

“Our biggest value added is global expertise, but the old structure didn’t make it easy to provide,” Gloria Grandolini, senior director of the Finance and Markets Global Practice, told Devex in Paris.

Among the rank and file of development professionals at the bank, the connection between Kim’s reforms and better knowledge sharing are somewhat more difficult to draw. Some employees perceive knowledge sharing to have improved inside the bank and others don’t, according to an official who wished to remain anonymous to speak candidly. It’s hard to say whether Kim’s reforms or simply better teamwork are the driving force behind those improvements that do seem to be happening, the official added.

The hunt for knowledge sharing indicators

Joshi-Ghani said she sees a lot more enthusiasm around knowledge exchange at the institution, and that there are more knowledge exchange events, such as brown bag lunches, for bank staff.

Some Global Practices encourage peer recognition, where staff members single out their peers for having successfully shared knowledge or brought teams together in a successful knowledge exchange, Joshi-Ghani said.

And all of the Global Practices have what are called “Global Leads,” — what Joshi-Ghani described as thought leaders in particular sectors — such as agriculture or education — who must be involved to some degree in every project related to their expertise.

But Joshi-Ghani said she doesn’t think the bank has really started measuring the knowledge sharing that’s happening within the bank. 

“I can’t think of any indicators which come to my mind, except for what I see on the web, what I see in the blogs, what I see in terms of the kind of events or brown bag lunches that the Global Practices are organizing,” — and the knowledge sharing initiatives such as peer recognition that the Global Practices encourage, Joshi-Ghani added.

Still, Joshi-Ghani said that the bank should be able to measure internal knowledge sharing “in the near future.”

Voegele and his colleagues are working to build an indicator that captures knowledge sharing within the Agriculture Global Practice.

Voegele explained that one idea is to measure the amount of time each staff member spends providing support to colleagues working in different parts of the world. This could be measured through time recording sheets completed on a monthly basis and could be displayed as number of hours, weeks, or as a percentage.

But while this indicator doesn’t exist yet, Voegele said he already sees more knowledge being shared internally.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that today more knowledge is flowing and more knowledge is shared than 12 months ago,” Voegele said.

Do you think the Global Practices are making the World Bank more of a knowledge institution? And how can knowledge sharing be better measured? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.