Item 5 of the Provisional Agenda


Rome, 12-16 March 2001


Secretariat Note



1. "Knowledge management is vital for effective decision-making. It involves the acquisition, synthesis and sharing of insight and experience, and their systematic integration with factual statistical information and analyses." The Strategic Framework for FAO: 2000-2015.

2. FAO's strategic framework underscores the organization's commitment to knowledge management as a way of assisting and supporting member countries. Within its larger organizational commitment, the FAO Forestry Department facilitates the acquisition and interchange of forestry information and knowledge by working with member countries and the civil society at large. As an intergovernmental body, FAO supports efforts to bridge differences in language, terminology and culture.

Accessing forestry information and knowledge

During the last decade, thousand of publications have addressed issues important to sustainable approaches to forest management: improved insights into ecological concepts, perspectives on the results of past forest management, the role of people and communities, biological inventory and conservation, etc. The result is a rich but simply enormous pool of ideas, information and critiques regarding natural resource management. Sound future policy and management decisions depend upon an ability of forestry professionals to select the nuggets of wisdom from a flood of sources. A lack of coding, structure and organisation may be slowing the profession's ability to articulate better the economic, social and environmental benefits of sustainable forest management.

3. Sustainable forest management is particularly appropriate for the application of knowledge management because of its the long-term nature and cross-sectoral aspects. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forest (IPF) and the recently concluded Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) have requested the professional forestry community to develop and implement new and productive ways to share forest-related information and knowledge. The profession is being challenged to better and more systematically network and share collective knowledge and wisdom gained through years of experience and learning. While electronic technologies are improving our ability to share information, most of us, in fact, are subject to an overflow of data without adequate means to filter for quality and originality. Additionally, while we are archiving more information in digital form, we are simultaneously losing tacit knowledge that provides concepts, insights and meaning to the masses of data and information. This loss of knowledge results, in part, from not having systematically recorded the experience of individuals with a vast range of forest-related knowledge.

4. Knowledge management is receiving keen attention as a vital ingredient for business success. The purpose of this document is to ascertain the opportunities and relevance of this concept in advancing sustainable forest management and to ascertain which role FAO could have in supportive actions. It attempts to answer the questions: What can be learnt and adapted of available experience with this concept and what insights can it give for further development of the forest sector in general and FAO's normative work in particular?


5. The application of the concept of knowledge management in forestry draws on experiences from other sectors, particularly the business world. A common definition of the concept is: "knowledge management can be defined as the systematic acquisition, synthesis and sharing of insights and experiences to enable business success." It is, however, interesting to note that the scientific treatment of this concept has concentrated on creating a business advantage by acquiring, organizing and sharing knowledge within the company. The application for the forestry sector in general and FAO in particular is the opposite, where the main emphasis should be to share knowledge among all stakeholders, while the fundamental issues may be similar.

6. The term data, information and knowledge are often confused and are at times difficult to distinguish. Information can be defined as data organized and arranged to serve a need. Knowledge is defined as the sense and use people make of information. Knowledge is seen as a fluid mix of experience, values, contextual information and expert insight that provide a framework for evaluating and incorporating experience and information into action. Information combined with the human experience becomes knowledge; the knowledge needed to guide us towards better understanding the principles for forest management.

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7. Knowledge management applied to forestry acknowledges that there is a process of creating insights and understanding. We seek to identify knowledge important to sustainable forest management; for example predictions of forest stand developments. Once recognized, the knowledge needs to be collected, for example through scientific studies on silvicultural responses, so it is not lost, but can be re-used. To recycle and spread knowledge, its collection must be organized and quality controlled. This organization can be around customers, products or processes. The collected and organized knowledge is then shared so it can be accessed and used by all stakeholders. Most knowledge can not be used as it is, but must be adapted to fit the circumstances of the user. Once this adaptation has occurred the knowledge will be used and this new application is likely to create needs and incentives for further learning. The diagram visually illustrates a process cycle for knowledge management.

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Source: Carla O'Dell and C. Jackson Grayson, Jr., "If only we knew what we know",
The Free Press, New York 1998 P. 7


8. Forest management involves management and sharing of knowledge of two kinds: objective knowledge based on data acquired and analysed in a systematic manner and a type of implicit knowledge or understanding derived from personal or organizational experience, trial and error.

9. Explicit knowledge is stored in books, publications, databases and the widening array of digital information available on Internet. Instruments for finding information and knowledge in these media are improving daily. Still, there is clear potential for information overflow. The sheer magnitude of information flow is challenging our ability to assess its relevance and accuracy. Applying quality control, refinement and distinction will be major future challenges to increase the value of digital information.

10. Implicit or tacit knowledge is the insight, experience and judgement stored in the human brain. This form of knowledge has always been an important complement to explicit knowledge. In times of information overflow, it may increase in importance. The human brain has long been recognized as quite adept when it comes to complex situations with many alternatives and scenarios. While artificial intelligence is making progress, there remains a vast realm of tacit knowledge largely unavailable to most users. The important role of tacit knowledge is now more widely recognized but so far little has been done to harness and share this. An important area of work before us is in harnessing information technology to mimic human capacities to assess and screen available knowledge.


Collection and enrichment of data

11. Reliable data as the basis for applying knowledge. Knowledge is most effectively applied when based on an accurate description of the situation. Collection of accurate data on the condition and status of forests offer strong challenges due to wide geographic distribution and remoteness. Added to these challenges are the needs for information on other variables influencing the economic, social and environmental functions of forests. More value can be added by assembling and analysing data when they are current and reliable. Preconditions for the collection of high quality data are suitable institutional arrangements and perceived needs for such data in the application of knowledge. The COFO agenda items 8(b) and 8(d), describing the outcomes of the current Forest Resources Assessment 2000 and future resource assessments needs, provide a good example of the crucial role of quality data and the need to pursue systematically a continuing process of data acquisition and information sharing.

12. Data and information sharing is greatly facilitated through a common set of definitions and schema for common coding. This makes it possible to store and retrieve information in a wide variety of technical and geographical areas and to be used in different languages and by different stakeholders.

13. Critical to success in this expanding information system is the input by national correspondents at the country level. Without this approach, "the increasing value and richness" to move from data to information does not apply. Data are best maintained and updated through partnership with strong and capable forestry institutions in each member country. This network approach distributes ownership, responsibility and accountability for forest information closer to the forest. By broadening the ownership base for information and knowledge sharing, FAO is transforming its information system from one based a smaller group of FAO staff to a much broader base of the "community of practice," led by national institutions.

14. Information in the forest sector is transformed into knowledge as information is integrated with practical experience founded upon traditions and/or deliberate experimental efforts. This source of knowledge is dominant in many areas due to long adaptation to local conditions but also because of the deficiency of past knowledge transformation methods.

15. Research provides an important base of knowledge. However, the two-way connection between research and the practical application is often disrupted. This means that researchers may not be developing the knowledge needed and access to research results is limited. The knowledge chain is broken. The limited access to research results stored in research centres offers potentials for access through modern information technologies.

Sharing information and knowledge

16. Identifying stakeholders. Providing information is an important part of forest manage-ment. It is a challenge to effectively share information among the many stakeholders involved in the often-conflicting use of forests: landowners, forest dwellers, workers, and commercial enterprises in forest-related activities, public sector representatives and civil society at large. Each may act as an individual but also as a member of certain sector of society. The different needs and the forms of access of knowledge have to be ascertained in an iterative process of knowledge management.

COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE: people sharing information based upon a shared expertise or passion for a joint enterprise, e.g. tropical forestry. These are productive because people in the same community share their experience and knowledge in a free flowing, creative way that fosters new approaches to problems. These networks are similar to professional (e.g. Medical) associations operating on a self-regulated basis; they are not to be confused with working groups/task forces created by management for a specific task/output. In structured, hierarchical organizations, communities of practice cut across formal, vertical structures by facilitating the sharing of knowledge horizontally.

17. Knowledge and transparency. The availability of transparent information about the condition of forests and commercial transactions regarding their management can be fundamental in building up public awareness and political commitment to sustainable forest management. When this information is credible and well presented, it can be effective in underpinning efforts for institutional and political reforms in the forest sector.

18. Networking. Traditional rural networks serve as a basis for transmitting valuable knowledge about sources and uses of medicinal plants, wild game, edible fruits, weaving materials and a host of other forest products. Today, networking takes several forms. Electronic networks share data. Networks are also interest groups that share a common passion, for example, tropical silviculture. These "communities of practice" are becoming increasingly important in the exchange of knowledge and experience.

19. Presenting Knowledge. With the overflow of information it is becoming increasingly important to present information and knowledge in an interesting, easily available and digestible form. Experiences from other sectors could provide useful guidance.

20. Sharing available knowledge. Organizations like FAO face a new set of professional opportunities and responsibilities in the extension of knowledge through the support of networks. The demands of sustainable forest management are comprehensive and the need for partnership among all stakeholders requires a fresh approach to forest planning and management. The body of knowledge and experience from all forest stakeholders must be brought to bear. This necessitates a system of forest knowledge sharing and extension.

21. FAO may have a continuing or changing role in supporting networks founded on the concept of mobilising the "community of practice" to harness the tacit experience and knowledge alongside the available explicit knowledge. As a contributor to the growing body of forest knowledge, FAO is adapting and must continue to evolve. The Forestry Department Internet site is being linked with a number of organizational web sites. In addition a number of partnerships have developed with other key forest information providers like the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO) to advance a global forestry information service (GFIS) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP - WCMC) on global information on protected areas.

Explicit knowledge - Digital information management

22. From libraries to web sites. The vast amount of data, information and knowledge related to the forestry was until recently only available in the form of books, periodicals, and statistical tables and through direct communication between users and providers of information. With the development of modern information technology this situation has changed drastically. An array of new tools is available for mass storage of information for drastically increased speed of communication. FAO's information system WAICENT provides a consolidated source of information in the field of natural resource management. This refers both to statistics and written material. With these modern tools, information can be searched and retrieved with increasing flexibility.

23. Constraints. But there are also pitfalls of this technology. How can we provide for and assess the quality and currency of information? What means are available to screen often-contradictory information? How can it be assured that available information is reaching the right users?

24. Advancing IT applications can solve only some of the constraints. Many important considerations regarding the proposed storage, processing and access to information are being effectively addressed, particularly within the framework of FAO's Forestry Information System. Technologies make it possible to link different sources of data and powerful computer tools make it possible for us to search for not only for titles and keywords of publications but also for intellectual content. But in the end, machines cannot completely replace human judgement and experience. Until we have a more appropriate system to capture, access, control and share tacit knowledge, information technology will not be utilised to its full potential. Clearly, decision-making at the political level cannot be based on explicit information only. Tacit input from stakeholders is a fundamental ingredient of democracy.

25. The digital divide. An additional problem in utilising modern information technology is that not all of the stakeholders in forestry have access to such technology. This limits the access to web-based information, but this so called digital divide also has implications on how the knowledge chain can be closed to ensure that those developing knowledge are aware of the needs and that the extension of knowledge gets further than the end of the telephone line.

Implicit/tacit knowledge - Taking advantage of human know-how

26. Exchange of experiences. Before the advent of modern information technology, the skills, knowledge and experience of locally recognized experts were the main knowledge source. This knowledge was passed on to the next generation through education and training but also through gilds, professional associations and family traditions. With the modern information technology, such formal and informal transfer of knowledge and technology may be under-utilised.

27. Deliberate human resource development. While the present generation of forest practitioners is actively sharing tacit knowledge through seminars and professional meetings, it is not clear what strategy we are embracing to record, codify and share these exchanges as a complement to our investments in web sites and relational databases.

28. An important precondition to better communication of tacit knowledge is a more comprehensive recording of the skills and experiences of those who are likely to possess tacit knowledge of common or specific use. This requires a system of tabulating social, technical, geographical and institutional experience within an easily accessible database. This can be done on informal bases at the local network level. But if the understanding gained in local experiences should also be available more broadly, it requires a more sophisticated system for sharing.

The following argument has been used to convince senior management of the World Bank of the advantages of knowledge management:

In the late 1990s, the Pakistani road system was crumbling for lack of proper maintenance. The public works minister contacted the Bank saying he had heard of a low-cost maintenance technique and he wanted assistance to apply it to Pakistan, now. When the Bank representative proposed to recruit a consultant who would come and make a proposal, the minister insisted he wanted a reply next week, not next year. The Bank official sent an urgent message to HQ and to other Bank offices around the world appealing for help. In a week, a colleague in the Jordan office said he had worked on a similar project and gave the reference, another colleague in Argentina sent an article he had written, the heads of the Highway Departments in South Africa and New Zealand said they had applied this technique in their department. Eventually the Pakistani minister sent one of his engineers to South Africa and started applying the new maintenance technique soon thereafter. This taught Bank management some lessons:

  • they were the first to be surprised to discover somebody in the Bank knew about the subject.
  • they were equally surprised to discover that transport specialists had created an informal 'community of practice', that also included highway departments in client countries and colleagues in other donor agencies, to exchange 'lessons learned' among themselves.
  • the solution did not come from a northern consultant; it came from South Africa.

29. An often-neglected form of knowledge management is the deliberate formation and retention of institutional knowledge. This is important in all forms of institutions in the forest sector. This involves a number of human resource development measures. They include briefing and debriefing of staff, introductory courses, in-service training, use of short term consultants and contract staff to bring in state-of-the art and cutting-edge technology, but they also should include regular staff meetings, study tours and professional retreats. Informal contacts in the form of professional associations, coffee break conversations and social engagements after office hours are probably much more important means of tacit knowledge transfer than has been recognized.


International activation

30. During the last ten years, a vigorous professional debate on sustainable forest management has culminated in an important intergovernmental dialogue that has put forestry on the political agenda. To move forward from debate to implementation, information on forests and their utilisation must be matched with knowledge on the potential to use them wisely and manage them sustainably.

Practical examples of forest knowledge management issues

Out of the thousands of technical assistance projects in forestry over the past 20 years, how can we capture and retain the tremendous number of good suggestions and ideas that emerged, and share the best of them?

The IPF/IFF process achieved international consensus on over 250 proposals for action - yet very few people working in forestry or related fields know what the proposals are, who developed them and why or have thought about how to implement them... how do we bridge that gap?

Some 100 countries have prepared national forest programmes of one kind or another - surely the knowledge learned in one place is valuable to another. How do we narrow down the knowledge that is worth sharing, and how do we share it?

31. A systematic effort is needed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and experience. This is likely to include at least some key features:


32. COFO members are invited to comment on the following proposed actions by FAO and the forestry sector at large: