Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sustainable development in times of crisis: coaching and/or advising?

The time that work in the international development sector could rely on merely ‘good intentions’ is far in the past already. What we want today is professional, result-oriented support. And, highly important: support needs to be sustainable.

Young Professionals supported by ICCO are working all over the world, trying to build up sustainable changes with ICCO counterparts within a period of 1,5 to 2 years. This task is not always easy. The organisations we work with often have problems that need to be solved urgently and there’s always a lot of work to do. Short-term tasks, being a stand-in for a colleague and crisis management are daily business. Being an advisor within such an organisation, it is sometimes difficult to escape from this daily business and to dedicate time and energy to long-term planning and capacity development. Several advisors feel the tension caused by this situation. You want to help, and therefore feel you can’t refuse assistance in reaching short-term objectives. But at the same time you know that you might be able to contribute more when working to serve more strategic goals. All are wondering what we could do to turn our work into a more sustainable support. How could we lift our support to a higher level of capacity development?

To find out more about this question, we analysed a case of one of the advisors.

This case concerns a company that exports products of small-scale farmers in a developing country in Latin America. The company works with a local ngo, a partner of ICCO. The ngo gives the farmers seed credit, trains them to comply with quality and safety regulations for international markets, etc. The company links the farmers to supermarkets in Europe and the US.

Mini-squash, one of the export products

This concept worked well from the start in 1999 until the year 2005. The company was unique (first exporting vegetables), the market position was positive and the company was collaborating well with the ngo, which was doing very well at the time. In 2005, hurricane Stan and the strong rainfall afterwards destroyed the production of many farmers. Around the same time, a US client of the company only paid half the prices that were agreed upon. Because the company reacted slowly, the working capital was ‘eaten’ quickly. As a result, the company plunged into a crisis, without working capital and with many debts.

Snow peas, another export product

To solve problems, the director of the company reduced the fixed team to a very small team. He arranged small amounts of credit with several organizations and suppliers to be able to restart business. He changed marketing strategies. Since a convincing restart was not made, a junior advisor quality management and marketing was contracted through ICCO. In practice she was expected to save the company, in all areas, all departments. Until now, she reached several objectives; for example certifying farmers and the packing plant according to an international trading standard. Many things have been learned so far and colleagues are open for changes. Still, she feels that on a daily basis, she spends a lot of time on crisis management where she might in fact spend time more strategically working on long-term goals.
Learning questions: How can we, in a crisis situation, come to a higher level of capacity development?How can we make a sustainable difference that will stay when we leave?

Case Analysis
The advisor has tried several times to organize sessions on longer term planning, but it was cancelled each time: a sign that it apparently wasn’t a priority, or that the company and management team was not (yet) receptive for this level of planning.

Yellow summer squash, a popular export article

When looking a bit closer at the case we identified main problems that inhibit sustainable development.

1. Lack of money and working capital, which makes it very difficult to restart business.
2. There are many factors in the process that seem to be difficult to control and that come up unexpectedly. That’s why everybody is always working under high pressure.
3. Quick rotation of personnel. Therefore tacit knowledge is lost every once in a while.
Two necessities were identified in this case.
A: Help the business to survive (related to problem 1 and 2) and
B: Sustainable capacity building (related to problem 2 and 3).
The advisor is revising and controlling processes and communication very much, most of her time serving necessity A. Her help is often requested in this area. But, being busy with that, she doesn’t come to work at necessity B, which she thinks would be more important.
In the D-group this was recognised. Also, ICCO advises not to get trapped in a situation in which you are executing too much yourself, instead of being an advisor. Some advisors feel pressured by this.

Theoretical analysis: 3 coaching techniques
In this section, 3 theories are presented that could help advisors to get insight about the situation of the organization and to come to a higher level of capacity building.
1) Demoralisation or distortion of resilience
The company seems to have come in a phase of demoralisation[1]. Demoralisation is a situation of not being able to oversee the real problem and to make strategies to overcome this problem or to find ways to live with it. It’s thinking in terms of obstacles rather than in terms of goals. Demoralisation often occurs when there’s a misbalance between the carrying capacity and the burden. When the burden is heavier than the carrying capacity, the resilience of the company will come in danger like an elastic band that is overstretched.

The article warns coaches not to get trapped in the flow of the organization. Amongst others: advisors often tend to take over the problem, find solutions for the problem owner and execute things themselves.

What can we do about this? Define and limit the problem together. In this way we can make the burden clearer and so, lighter. At the same time the organisation must be coached to strengthen the carrying capacity. In this way a new balance can be found and the resilience healed.

2) Transactional analysis
Another theory that could be used to analyse a problem situation is the transactional analysis[2], a theory that could help to heal what went wrong in the past. It analyses relationships between people and identifies different roles that a person or organization can take. All fall back on the parent-ego position, the adult-ego position and the child-ego position, which are commonly present in any person, all at the same time. The theory can show insight in how a person behaves and could help to change problematic behaviour.

3) How to get the right person in the driver’s seat?
We discussed another theory: the ‘driver seat’ concept. It can be wondered who is in the drivers seat in this case. Who is finally taking charge? Coaching techniques using this model could help to guide colleagues to get them to take responsibility and avoid creating a dependency relation.

What elements of these theories are relevant for this case?
In the case of the advisor, there is an opportunity to analyse the company situation with her colleagues using the demoralization theory as an example. What is the current burden and what is the carrying capacity? How are these related to each other? Is it quite an equal balance, or did it lose its resilience already?

This could show insight in the situation of the company and make a good start to find strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats that play a role in getting the organization in balance again. From this SWOT the advisor could start making strategies. Resulting in an action plan where the advisor could give her colleagues back responsibilities.


Transactional analysis
TA is developed by the Canadian Psychiatrist Eric Berne, MD (1910 – 1970). The transactional analysis theory might be applied on organizations as well. The company acts like it is still too much in its impulsive child-phase while it should already be more in an adult phase. Analyzing behaviour of the organization and identifying its patterns and positions could help the advisor to show it to the organization and to reflect on its own attitude. Which position is dominant and which one do we want it to be?

The article explains several tools that can be used to help a person to change behaviour. These tools might help the advisor to analyse and help the company to change it practices.

Driver’s seat theory
The advisor does not feel she is too much in the driver’s seat, but maybe spending too much time supervising the driver being next to her. Instead of that, she feels that she could improve the vehicle itself on the long run. What could she change within herself to….
- get her colleagues more in the drivers seat / letting them drive alone
- dedicate more time to sustainable long-term development?
One of the advisors referred to the problem of quick rotation of personnel, which she experienced herself as well. It is a risk that other driving people might leave the organization. She experienced that to avoid that the knowledge gained in the process is lost when personnel changes, an advisor can do a lot in writing. Writing manuals about themes related to work could be a concrete solution.

Transport of the vegetables

One of the advisors coaches advised not to worry too much about this theme: there are many ways too learn and teach. By doing things yourself and showing it to colleagues, or doing things together with colleagues, you can set an example. You can learn together and when you’ll leave, people can do it without you. This is also capacity development. So driving together can help the organisation to make people drive for themselves when you leave.
Furthermore, the writer of this article notices that we should not forget that there's a difference between coaching and advising. Where a coach takes distance, makes the ‘client’ reflect on his situation and guides him to change behaviour without doing things and picking up responsibilities, an advisor can be a person internal to the organization who collaborates in the daily work and can set an example. We should not forget that we are probably more advisors than coaches.

Conclusion: How to get to sustainable development?
In many organisations we can see people working hard and everything seems to be important and urgent. Things might work out differently (or better) if there would be some long-term structural changes, but sometimes, although everybody seems to see the need of it, in the end there is a lack of time and everybody just keeps on working the way they do, especially on short-term basis. But making this change isn't always easy, 1) because of this lack of time and 2) because you as an advisor have fit into and become adapted to the same system in which everything is urgent and important.

Taking some distance, letting things go and starting to wonder who is actually in the drivers seat can help the advisor to get a clearer picture of the situation.

Letting the people drive themselves, while you are close to the driver or work on the improvement of the vehicle, are important basics for sustainable development that stays when you leave.

Several tools from demoralisation theory and transactional analysis are available to analyse an organization and to start working on change on a higher level. Letting the organization reflect on its behaviour, identifying parent-ego, adult-ego and child-ego positions could help advisors to create self-awareness in the organization in the first place. Making the balance of the organizations’ burden and its carrying capacity could be a start to work on strategic change using the existing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Finally, there's a difference between coaching and advising. We should be aware that we are more advisors than coaches and therefore shouldn’t regret too much that we also participate in the execution of daily work. Also through giving an example in the daily processes we can work on capacity development.

[1] Nederlandse Academie voor psychotherapie (2006) Demoralisatie en weerstand en het draaglast/kracht model

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Capacity building versus dominant donors

The practice of development cooperation is to a great extent shaped by the relationships between Western donors and their local counterparts. Many donors use concepts of partnership and ownership to establish and define these relations. What’s more, they advocate that these relationships should be based on the needs of the local organization. However, in practice many relationships between donors and the organizations that they support are characterized by dependency. And this dependency is often enforced by the attitudes and perceptions of the donor, the local organization, or both.

But what happens to capacity building efforts in an organization, if the organization is inclined to ‘bend’ towards donor’s ideas over their own? And if the donor is presenting its ideas in a top-down manner, linked to funding? When this relates to the subject of capacity building efforts undertaken in a certain organization, this may affect the sustainability of these efforts. Local organizations may almost automatically follow the donor’s approaches and ideas instead of their own, even if they have built capacity on these specific approaches and ideas.

This article is based on a discussion about this question between several ICCO capacity builders working in different places of the world. The discussion revolved around a real-life case that was presented by one of the capacity building advisors.

‘Bending’ attitudes of local organizations
The case that started off the discussion and this article involves a medium sized local organization in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In this organization capacity building efforts are taken place on mainly monitoring and evaluation systems, by an ICCO advisor.

The organization in general has a ‘bending’ or submissive attitude towards donors. This is first of all caused by a deeply felt dependency on donors for survival. Also, cultural elements play a role in this attitude towards donors. There exists a general submissive attitude towards foreigners, and foreigners often represent Western donors. In the organization described in this specific case it is furthermore not seen as respectful to disagree with donors, or to discuss critical notions with the donors.

With the ‘bending’ attitude of the organization, there arises a growing tension between the organization’s own ideas and the ideas of the donors. This means that sometimes the organization is pressed towards going a certain direction, which not necessarily reflects its own priorities or ideas.

Dominant donor styles
The advisory style of the ICCO advisor working in this organization focuses on the implementation of ideas from the organization’s staff themselves. Also, the ICCO advisor consciously makes efforts not to be perceived as an advisor working for ICCO. As ICCO is one of the donors of the organization, this might affect the relationship.

Related to this specific case is another expatriate advisor that joined one of the projects of the organization. This advisor has a different, more dominant advisory style from the ICCO advisor, showing strong opinions about how certain things should be in the organization, and presenting herself as a representative of the donor.

The advisory style of the new expatriate advisor has affected the ICCO capacity building advisor directly in several ways. At the outset, the new advisor strongly advocated the adoption of the monitoring and evaluation system of the donor she represents. This caused stress with the organization’s staff, who had been developing their own monitoring and evaluation system as part of the capacity building efforts of the ICCO advisor.

Also, the staff approached the ICCO advisor to express their uneasiness with some other ideas of the new advisor. Despite this uneasiness, they intended to follow and implement most of the ideas of the advisor, even if they did not necessarily agree with them, because of the more general cultural reasons as mentioned earlier in this article.

Lessons and Experiences
How can, or should, a capacity building advisor get involved, in case the organization where the intervention takes place feels pressured into a certain direction? What to do about a submissive attitude towards donors, or a dominant attitude of the donors towards the local organization?

Internal and informal learning
Coaching could be an important tool that the capacity building advisor could use to encourage new understanding and reflection in the local organization. Through coaching, the staff may come to new insights on their expectations and needs with regard to their relationship with the donor, and how to shape this relationship. Also, it is a good way for the staff to reflect on how the organization perceives the expectations and needs of the donor, as these perceptions may not always be based on reality.

It is important to realize that coaching is only a good tool to be used by the capacity building advisor, if there exists trust between the advisor and the organization’s staff. This ensures the openness needed for successful coaching. One coaching model that can be used is the GROW model, but whatever model is used, effective listening by the coach is key.

One step further to encourage learning and reflection could be to organize an internal learning session in the local organization. This session could involve all relevant staff in discussing and reflecting on relationships with donors. This way they feel encouraged to think about their own needs, and the donor’s needs, as well as expectations, and attitudes towards each other.

Internal learning is an excellent opportunity to further discuss on how to relate to donors

In a culturally sensitive environment, like the case in Cambodia, it can difficult to talk openly, and perhaps critically about donors. It could be considered to be not respectful, and ungrateful towards donors – even inside the organization. In this case, one possibility would be to expand the topic to all stakeholders of the organization, of which donors are one, or to have a more general session on partnerships. Also, creating a more informal learning environment to have this session, for example during lunch or dinner, might help of overcome sensitivities that a more formal setting would intensify.
A more informal learning environment makes it more easier to discuss cultural sensitive issues

Learning between the organization and the donor
If representation of the donor is nearby, it could be helpful to create opportunities for informal communication between the donor and the organization, to create mutual understanding. In the above described case, the ICCO advisor had an informal meeting over coffee with the other advisor representing the donor. During this meeting the ICCO advisor had the chance to talk about her approaches to capacity building, and the other advisor had a chance to reflect on these approaches. This led to better mutual understanding and has also led to a slight shift in approach by the other advisor.

A more formal way to encourage dialogue on donor communication and relationships with the local organization is to arrange a donor meeting. In this meeting donors are encouraged to discuss and reflect together on their relationships with the local organization, and to solve contradictory approaches. In this meeting the local organization has a chance to include difficult or pressing issues related to the relationships with their donors. On their turn, the donors have the opportunity to reflect on these issues with each other, and with the local organization. Experiences with donor meetings in Sudan and Bolivia show that these kinds of meetings are greatly appreciated by both the local organization and the donors involved.

However, before organizing a donor meeting it is important to have internal agreement in the local organization on expectations and approaches towards communication and relationships with donors. This helps them to be a more equal partner in this discussion with donors. Also, it is important to have a good external facilitator in this process to encourage an open, safe and equal environment for discussion.

Involvement of Capacity Builders
It can be very tempting for expat capacity building advisors who work closely with local organizations to get actively involved when they perceive unequal relationships with donors. However, it can also be important for learning when the organization is exposed to new situations, approaches and forms of relationships and communication. If advisors become too protective, this may actually hamper possible learning and growth of the organization through exposure to different cultural beliefs and values. It is thus important to find a balance to optimally facilitate growth and learning.

Also, over the longer term it is important to realize that capacity building strengthens the organization. By doing so, it increases understanding on certain topics between organizations and their donors. And this understanding is an important condition for more equal and open relationships and communication.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to create a dynamic learning environment for a capacity building intervention in an isolated situation?

Capacity building (CB) interventions increasingly involve more than one partner organization. Whereas such multi-partner interventions potentially have many advantages, such as providing training, coaching and advise to an increased number of people, the possibility of mutual organizational learning, and creating sufficient critical mass to bring about institutional changes, they also present some risks. A particular risk is that the distance, both physical and psychological, between the advisor and partner organizations may obstruct the creation of a dynamic learning environment. A lack of engagement of the management of partner organizations could further isolate the advisor.
Some ICCO advisors are challenged to work from isolation in building capacities of local partners

This article discusses a particular situation in which the relatively isolated position of an advisor risks to affect the sustainability of the CB intervention. While it only involves two partner organizations, it presents elements that may be felt equally – or perhaps more strongly – in situations where a development worker advises a network of local partner organizations. It presents the symptoms and possible ways out of isolation. This article summarizes an e-mail discussion among several development advisors around the globe, so that the potential solutions proposed may be of interest to anyone experiencing similar challenges.

Introducing the isolated setting
The case concerns the placement of a technical advisor to an agricultural research institute in an African country. The objective of this CB intervention is to enlarge the impact of the research conducted by the institute. This is to be achieved by enhancing the skills of research staff by training and coaching and, more importantly, by strengthening the link between farmers, extension and research (this link is virtually absent). For this purpose, the CB intervention is linked to an NGO with ongoing development projects. Four counterparts, two researchers from the institute and two extension workers from the NGO, have been assigned to work intensively together with the advisor. As the research institute is located a one-hour drive out of the capital, travel restrictions apply to foreigners for travel outside the capital, and for other practical reasons, the technical advisor was offered an office at the NGO’s headquarters in the capital. However, none of the counterparts works here: one is based at the institute’s head-office, the other three at two different field offices.

The isolated setting consists of two elements:
Practical problems of distance and communication; the advisor works at an office close to his home, but far from his counterparts and employer. Distances, travel costs for counterparts and required travel permits for the advisor pose important hindrances to the advisor’s work. Moreover, the distance between the different counterparts also causes a lack of opportunity for mutual exchange between them.
Little attention to process and lack of participation of the management;
the management of the partner organisations seems to be more interested in results than in the process of the advisor’s work. Unless he asks he gets very little information about what’s going on in the organisations. The culture is very formal: everything goes according to strict rules (some of which remain unknown, others may change anytime). It is like a silent: "Your task has been given, here are four people to work with and everything else is none of your business".

The isolated setting has led the advisor to question how a dynamic learning environment can be created for the four counterparts, and what he can do to increase chances that the CB intervention will lead to sustainable changes (besides hoping that enhanced skills and attitude of the counterparts will trickle down into their respective organizations)?

Analyzing the isolated setting
The development workers participating in the e-discussion first raised questions in order to better understand the isolation. In this analysis, two basic characteristics of the isolated setting were distinguished, relating to practical and organizational problems respectively. This distinction will be followed below.

About the practical problems
The choice of being based in the capital is by all standards the preferred option. Communication by mobile phone can bridge the physical distance between advisor and counterparts. The counterparts, however, lack organisational support for communication and travel. This is partly due to a generally deteriorating economic situation. The counterparts suggested group training as a solution to the lack of contact with the advisor and eachother. In the advisor’s opinion formal training can only be a relatively small part of time, as time is needed for preparation and follow-up. Next to plenary planning meetings and training, the counterparts proposed telephone calls and field visits. Additionally, they indicated the possibility of providing materials for self-study.
Training was suggested as one of the solutions
The working environment at the NGO headquarters is not very social. NGO colleagues contact each other only if they work together on the same subject. There is generally not much talking going on and there are no general tea breaks. An informal chat lasting more than 1 minute is rare. The advisor misses moments of informal contact.

About the organizational problems
The initial proposal for the CB intervention stated organizational issues as an explicit objective. However, this lies sensitive in a country proud of achieving things independent of int'l support. Thus, there is a difference of perception regarding CB between the advisor and partner organizations. The advisor’s interference in organisational and institutional matters is not appreciated. The four counterparts assigned by their respective directors to work with the advisor are young people in junior positions. While the advisor had expected to work with division heads of the institute, they are completely bypassed. Both counterparts and advisor report directly to the director.

The discrepancy between the initial CB proposal and the apparent wishes of the partner organizations triggered a lot of questions among the expert group. One issue is ownership of the proposal. It was developed jointly by a program that was dissolved before arrival of the advisor and the research institute. Many other changes in the context occurred between the moment of developing the proposal and posting of the advisor. The institute may not have been familiar with the concept of a CB intervention tackling organizational as well as technical (HRD training) goals. There might have been a donor influence in developing the CB dimension in that the format of the application proposal requires such issues to be addressed in order to be acceptable. If it would have been clear that the institute was only interested in a CB intervention limited to working with 4 staff members without results expected on organizational level or in terms of sustainability, the donor organization could have chosen not to support the intervention. If however, the donor decided to support the intervention anyway, then the advisor should have known in advance that only a limited impact can be expected, and no pressure should come from the donor (directly or indirectly through its reporting formats) to achieve a larger and more long-term impact. Additionally, as it took a long time between initial idea and implementation of the project, the donor organization should perhaps have re-assessed whether an adequate working environment was in place (including resources for e.g. payment of a local salary to the advisor, organizing meetings and communication) before giving its green light.

The lack of organizational commitment to process experienced by the advisor led to further inquiries in the d-group. The entree point to this discussion was that a CB advisor can only function if the commitment of the partner organisation is guaranteed and if there are clear ideas about what the CB should be about. Although in this particular case contextual changes were huge, the first three months of a CB intervention (the workplan phase) can be used to analyse such changes and allow insights from discussions to influence the final plan.

Summarizing, a CB intervention is arguably frequently situated in a ‘less-than-ideal’ situation (the very reason of the intervention may be a contribution towards improving that situation). However thorough the assessment of donor organizations may be, the advisor will (always?) have to solve multiple issues not directly related to CB ‘sec’, and perhaps indeed often relating to improving the environment in which he/she is supposed to work. Talent for improvisation is definitely a required skill for a CB advisor.
There is always a light in the darkness of the isolation

Suggestions for breaking the isolation....

After analyzing the isolated setting of the case study, the expert group launched suggestions for breaking the isolation.

The first suggestion is not to become frustrated by practical limitations, but to regard them as challenges to be overcome. This may be a cyclical process, in which ideally perceiving challenges should gradually replace frustration, turning the cycle into an upward spiral.

An advisor needs appreciation and certain support from the side of the partner organization to feel comfortable at work and sometimes to be able to work at all. If these are absent when the advisor arrives, he/she will need time and patience to gain them. Advice of close colleagues to change the situation is important because they know their culture and working ambience probably better. Gaining trust can help to get more involvement of management, but also more freedom in working on the more difficult issues. The advisor should look what is going on and show that he/she is a good listener. Once people see what you want to do and that you can be trusted, you may have won the first battle.

The advisor should also lower his ambitions/expectations. The advisor’s desire to create a flying start by stuffing the workplan with multiple activities in the starting phase to create a dynamic environment needs relaxation. It is not possible to force a breakthrough if there is no momentum on which to embark.

A good start to overcome the difficulties in distance and communication is to use moments arising from existing systems and procedures for discussion and reflection. Workplans, interventions, reporting system, etc. provide excellent moments and tools for reflection and careful discussion. Training can be used (both the formal and the informal moments) not only for knowledge transfer and skills development, but also for communication and reflection on other issues. Training should not be perceived too narrowly, but could include the development of a M&E system and regular sessions in which progress is discussed. In doing this, the advisor may delegate responsibilities to counterparts, in a way that increases their ownership (and hopefully: initiative – which is not so strong given the hierarchical society). It would probably be helpful to create some kind of spirit/soul around training or M&E sessions – perhaps a little joint retreat or some direct link with, or involvement of, the eventual beneficiaries.
Use moments arising from existing systems or scheduled events for discussion and reflection

Individual situations vary a lot. Insight, flexibility and improvising are important. The question is perhaps whether some collective approaches such as this discussion group may offer a tool valuable enough to include in the support package of every CB advisor?

…and for creating momentum

Breaking the isolation may be an ongoing challenge, in which the advisor probably needs to keep on initiating moments for exchange and communication; existing processes, training, field visits, etc. can be used to achieve this. Creating some regularly returning evaluation moments may reduce the isolated feel. The next move towards creating a dynamic learning environment is to make the CB intervention a shared responsibility. By investing in good relations with counterparts, there is a team spirit. A next step is embedding M&E in the group and delegating responsibility to counterparts. The group should subsequently concentrate on achieving a small, but concrete, success. This will further enhance the team spirit. A small PR campaign should be organized around the success, showing partner organizations that something really interesting is going on.

After that the advisor and his team can wait for a reaction of the management and/or work towards a second tangible result. By now, the respective organizations should recognize the potential added value of the CB intervention. Recognition could take the form of positive feedback, or of requests for wider organizational CB. This would allow the advisor to scale up his activities to the organizational level.
Central to the creation of momentum is the development of a M&E system involving the counterparts. This could lead to a feeling of having developed a collective tool and as a consequence, to more responsibility of the team members. The characteristics of such a M&E system was the topic of an in-depth discussion of the expert group. The advisor could start to brainstorm with counterparts what items they will have to monitor collectively. If too many ideas are generated, the different aspects could be ranked to facilitate the choice of which to use. The next issue is to think on how to monitor those aspects. Here, the choice of potential tools depends among others on the aspects to be monitored: 'hard' aspects like concrete numbers and results of field tests or 'soft' aspects like how people feel about the collaboration in the team, time management, etc... Further discussion focused on soft aspects, which, implicitly, were found to be of major importance.

Two specific simple M&E tools suited for a participatory approach were discussed:
The first is known as ‘evaluation wheel’ or ‘amoeba’ (because of its appearance) (see for a short explanation). Every participant can fill in his/her own outcomes on a transparent. When putting all the "transparent wheels" on top of each other, you can quite easily see the 'general' score for each aspect, which aspects have very high and low scores, etc. You can easily compare the scores of a monitoring session to a former session and follow your process that way.
The second is the Action Learning Cycle. It is based on learning from experience: action, describing what happened, reviewing what happened, what can be improved next time and then plan for future projects/activities. This tool allows people to understand the process better and especially the reason for doing it.
Further reflections led to the conclusion that while developing an M&E system in itself may not create commitment and ownership, it is essential that people understand the process and why they do it to share responsibility. This needs time, and the advisor should consciously allow counterparts to experiment and not fill in gaps and doing things for them. Once the M&E system is up and running, counterparts could be asked to help facilitating the monitoring sessions, offering a second level of increasing responsibility.

Epilogue: what if the intervention fails to materialize beyond small-scale HRD?
The steps presented up to now can be taken by the advisor. The question what the advisor can do to create a broader and higher-level organizational involvement in the CB process was not addressed in the expert discussion. It seems that there is a general consensus that scaling up the CB intervention to the organizational/institutional level depends on commitment and facilitation by the management. But what if this fails to materialize? Will the CB intervention still be worth the effort? This question provoked lively debate. In absence of organizational commitment, one advisor told how she kept on initiating, lobbying, and coordinating a lot of activities, almost abandoning her role as an advisor in its strict sense of the word. Initially often wondering why she was insisting, she is now noticing that roles are shifting. She had gained trust and commitment by investing in relations and patiently explaining her objectives and its benefits to the participating organizations time and again. She kept on systematically making new proposals, disseminating information, etc., in fact: showing people how you work and setting a good example. If setting this example and giving tools has enabled a few motivated people standing alone in their struggles to make a difference, it is definitely worth it: human resources are a limiting factor to development, and failure to explicitly address organizational/institutional issues during the CB intervention does not mean no seed of change has been sown. Even little personal change may catalyze more substantial and broader organizational or institutional change – perhaps after 5 or 10 years.

A critical note to this optimistic perspective is that available resources (from Dutch tax payers in this case) should be spent optimally. There is a high demand for CB support, and the interest and effort from the side of partner organizations should be a factor in prioritization of CB interventions. Such a prioritization assessment prior to assignment of the advisor plays an important role. Once an advisor is at the ground and with all natural changes in circumstances occurring, it becomes more complicated to negotiate these aspects, and probably in most cases advisor and donor organization would decide to complete the assignment with the best effort and result possible. However, let us not forget that circumstances can also change for the better and there is certainly a big chance that the efforts of the advisor provide an impulse and energy to the organization that makes a lot possible. It is further important to be realistic as to the time factor needed to establish a basis of trust between the advisor and organization. An evaluation after 6 months to 1 year of service to assess whether the match between advisor and organization is right and has the potential to deliver some fundamental change in the long run may be desirable.

Monday, January 28, 2008

On authentic behavior in conflict situations

This is a brief article on the conclusions from a small E-mail-group discussion that Kristel Maassen, Marieke Veeger and Peter Oomen had during the last three weeks of December 2007.


First of all we did agree that in our role as capacity building advisors in many cases we are expected or assigned to make a change in modes of conduct or ways of doing the work. If habits are changed, resistance is often felt. Especially because in many non western cultures 'change' more often is a scary, undesirable thing, while in our own culture it mostly is a positive thing. For that very reason we will often face situations that bear potential conflict.

A conflict should not be a goal in itself, but if we take our work seriously we should be prepared to deal with implicit or explicit conflict behavior and if necessary make a conflict in views, priorities or interests more explicit to help us deal with it more effectively. Sometimes this is needed to make a change that is in line with our assignment.

Before we can manage that kind of situations however, we should have a meaningful and respected position to do so. In most cultures, and especially non western cultures, one should be a respected and valued contributor to the organizations cause and group as such to be allowed to make a change. Engaging in a conflict of opinions, priorities and interests and bring about a desired solution also requires that valued membership of the group..

In order to build up a position that allows us to change habits, views, perceptions or modes of conduct, we try to be culturally sensitive, devoted, strongly committed to the beneficiary and the organization that send us over. We also make sure that an intervention that is or could be perceived as generating conflict is referable to the capacity building goals and serves 'their' process and ownership.
Once we have done all that, we still face the difficulty of the fact that we will leave after one or two years.
This makes very clear why we really need some personal credit to enter the conflict zone effectively.
Now we feel that 'authentic behavior' is an important quality of an advisor to enable him or her to do so.

Authentic behavior, meaning behavior that is:
- based on deeply felt impulses,
- connected to personal values'',
- strongly aware of situational factors,
- loyal to ones intuition, not manipulative like a means to an end.

Authentic behavior is a risky but also powerful and sometimes necessary intervention in the change processes we facilitate. It is an opportunity to enter a clarifying dialogue with the client and create stronger solidarity in achieving ownership and the projected capacity building goals.
This clarifying dialogue might even free us from the donor <-> beneficiary character that underlies so much of our work (like inequalities, blurred responsibilities etc.), or as one of us had so beautifully pointed out:

'Perhaps conflict situations could be a turn-around situation in some cases. Perhaps here, authenticity can help us. If what we say and do represents not our personal interests but our deep beliefs (at the same time leaving the decision to the people that are hosting us) andif these beliefs come to be perceived by colleagues as authentic, it will be the start of a process of change. Then conflict could lead tomutual recognition of striving for the same goal and generate energy for change'.
But then it is followed by:
"But this kind of transformative conflict probably only happens rarely and I don't think it's something that could or should purposely be created".

However, the purpose should not be to create conflict, but to expose authentic behavior. Conflict situations will then come up automatically (if implicit they can be made explicit).
Some other thoughts and positions we exchanged were:

An assignment without conflicts probably missed a few opportunities for sustainable change and sometimes an implicit conflict needs to be solved by making it explicit or even escalating it a bit, professionally though.

While usually there are several conflict situations in an assignment not all of them have a transformative or change character.

Authenticity will never be fully present, it is always mixed with professional or personalinterests, or is not immediately recognised by others as authentic behavior, but manipulative.

Exposing authentic behavior is impossible to attain 100% of time and requires lots of courage and life long cultivation

We wish the reader lots of authentic behavior and lots of good timing (paradox)

Peter Oomen, (e-mail.
Marieke Veeger (e-mail.
Kristel Maasen (e-mail.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Communities of Practice (CoP) as a strategy for knowledge management in ICCO?

Electronic means as a tool in creating a communities of practise
During 2007 ICCO provided resources to organize two E-Conferences; one on ‘capacity development & assessment’ and one on ‘value chain development’. Both events took around 7 weeks, where participants shared their views and questions through e-mail discussions groups (called d-groups in combination with skype teleconferences. These electronic exchange events provided a platform for the ICCO development & business advisors to share experiences on their field of expertise. Before the events were initiated needs assessments were conducted under the advisors. Main motive for organizing such an event, is that many ICCO-advisors work in isolated areas and very much appreciate the fact that they can dialogue with colleagues who are in the same situation.

Out of the first E-Conference a core group of advisors was formed who provide each other advise and assistance on issues on capacity development. This group is what we call a ‘community of practice’. It is a key group of people who have a common domain (in this case capacity development) on which they share knowledge and through which they are encouraged to apply their lessons for their work practice. Each two months the advisors share key questions & case studies and facilitate themselves this peer-to-peer learning process.

Lessons on capacity development & benefits – human resource development dimension
The discussions between the capacity & assessment advisors generated a diverse number of case studies, which encouraged the group to discuss issues for continued exploration. Topics were related to “how to deal with authoritative leadership?”; “how to create conditions for ownership and what exit-strategy to apply as advisor?”; “how to improve the effectiveness of juniors towards their partner organizations?”; “how to strengthen partner organizations to do more effective fundraising and taking more ownership?”; “how to balance your own ambitions with the goals of your partner organization?”. Each of the members were encouraged to apply lessons at their work which helped their partners to strengthening their capacities and improved service delivery. Some members commented that they were encouraged to read books and publications, which were recommended by their colleagues. For example the “six thinking hats of Eduard de Bono”, publications about leadership from Intrac or toolboxes for strategic planning from Civicus and Tear Fund.

Individual advisors improved their knowledge and skills

The E-Conference on ‘value chain development’ provided more in-depth information about product & market development in five different countries (Philippines, Ghana, Ethiopia, Honduras, Burkina Faso) where ICCO is working. The variety of cases provided insight on the different roles ICCO business advisors are playing in the capacity development of partner organizations in and outside the value chain. The conference helped three advisors to redefine their roles and their capacity development interventions.

Summarized the two communities that were formed during the e-exchange events generated an ‘important spin-off’ which helped a number of participants to redefine their roles and strengthen their individual capacities.

Lessons for ICCO – Organizational development dimension
The e-events generated a lot of new and useful information which supports ICCO HQ to look critically at and redefine their strategies. The Value-Chain conference showed that ICCO’s programme on value chain development as a strategy for poverty alleviation is still in its early days. The case studies showed that ICCO is accomplishing considerable results in economic development, but there is still room for progress. Thinking on chain design, role of actors, the role of the business advisor, and evidence of impact is still under development.

The cases on capacity development provided insight that the ‘problem owner’ of the capacity building intervention is not always clear. Continuous dialogue & building trust in the partner relationships show to be the best ways to capacity development of the partner organizations and ICCO. Capacity development is a two-way process which strengthens both sides.

Input from advisors provided some important lessons for ICCO as a learning organization
The variety of case studies has also provided a lot of expertise and knowledge which can be shared with new advisors who join the ICCO-cad community of practice. It supports ICCO and its advisors to have a critical look at their capacity development interventions on how to assess and strengthen partner organizations. It also gives insight in the ‘best practices’ and ‘failures’ of interventions in the past and provides a rich resource centre for the ICCO Alliance to improve their quality of support and programmes. Communities of practice are not only a tool for continuous learning, they also provide a platform for developing new and creative ideas and building institutional memory.

Infrastructure for knowledge sharing
During this conference many resources were posted at the site of ICCO at: . All the documentation on value chain development was re-ordered and stored at the Chaincapacity wiki site at: and articles were published at

All resources (publications, books, toolboxes and case studies) on capacity development were compiled at and outcomes from the ICCO-cad group discussions were published at:

ICCO’s main challenge is now to build on the social capital (the people) and technological infrastructure to keep the knowledge and experience sharing alive. Each department within ICCO has a learning facilitator who will play an important role into this process.

The 6 roles of a community of practice
The Capacity Assessment and Development group initiated a core group of people who make the group move and get together regularly. This co-ordination group fullfills both internal and external roles to sustain the community;

Internal roles
To motivate and stimulate people in discussions (facilitation & moderation);
To identify the issues
Technical support to organize the exchange (d-group discussions and skype meetings)

External roles
External links with sponsors (financial support, but also knowledge/ expertise input for discussions);
Linking with others and public relations
To identify, find and store information (at wiki’s,, blogposts) and link with other networks.

Challenges: How to create and maintain ownership for keeping up a communities of practise
Sofar the e-exchange events have generated a lot of interest and response from the ICCO advisors in the field. However, the challenge is to keep the process of continuous learning going.

Most important conditions for success in sustaining a communities of practise are:

Keep and maintain the interest from the group members in continuous learning by regularly identifying their needs and involving them in the process;
Have a co-ordination group who is responsible for the community
Provide sufficient resources and involve sponsors who support the community. Sponsors should allocate time & money to fullfill key roles of the co-ordination group & provide input of new knowledge & expertise. Sponsors should see their role as an investment which can strengthen and build their area of expertise on a specific knowledge area or domain.
Build in a component of a face-to-face meeting somewhere in the process of e-exchange so that relationships between the group members can be strengthened;
Regularly recruit and add new members to the group who bring new perspectives and ideas to the group.

Finally, for an organization who is supporting or initiating a community of practice it is important to analyse whether it is an important strategy for capacity development of its staff, itself and its partner organizations. When it has decided to support such a CoP it should nurture and feed the ‘plant’ regularly so that everybody can enjoy the smell and the colours of the beautiful flowers for a long time! The experiments that were launched by ICCO in 2007 show that ‘communities of practice’ can be an investment worthwhile.

Simon Koolwijk

Capacity Building for Networks – How can result-oriented attitudes be stimulated? How can a network be effectively strengthened?

Networking for development and capacity building programs for national and international networks have become common practice. Specific challenges occur when working with networks consisting of organizations and individuals. Especially networks that are based upon voluntary action are often less structured than professional organizations.

In this article one specific case study on capacity building for networks is being dealt with. The input is collected from discussions between advisors working in the area of capacity development in different countries in the world. This discussion group of professionals was established in order to learn from each other’s experiences and to generate best practices. Their cases are published on the web in order to share their knowledge and experiences with others.

Background and challenges of the case study
The specific network discussed in this article is an international network with coordinating offices per continent. The coordination office in Africa developed a capacity building project for the country network in Mozambique. This network consists of nine organizations and some individual members. They are all participating voluntarily, meaning that the network does not provide direct financial incentives. The goals of the capacity building project are strengthening the national network and improving the organizational capacity of the member organizations in Mozambique. An organizational development advisor was assigned to the country network.

When the project started the network was low profile and little activity took place concerning the network. During the first year of the project, activities of the advisor were focused on re-energizing the network and improving coordination between its members. Despite of efforts no real impact has been achieved. For example, even though the members of the network did agree on the need of a joint program, it has not yet been documented and formalized. During meetings responsibilities are assumed but the members hardly do what they promise. Others seem to accept this behaviour; no critical remarks are made towards each other. Now, after little more than a year, a small part of the group of members is motivated and active, some members are contributing if taken by hand, and some members are falling behind. The group has come to a point that the active ones want to move on, even when the less active are not on board.

Advocay meeting

In collaboration with one of the member NGOs, the capacity building adviser has been the one initiating and coordinating most of the activities, for example by calling and preparing meetings and drafting documents. At this point the adviser is withdrawing her coordination activities and will focus in the second and last year of her assignment on organizational capacity building of the individual member organizations. The international coordinating office is in the process of recruiting a country coordinator to support the country network, mainly in terms of fundraising. However, since this assignment will only last for one more year, questions are raised about how the network will continue. Will the coordination tasks be taken over by this country coordinator, or will the network take over itself?

The main questions to be answered in this case are: How to stimulate a result-oriented attitude within the network? How can be ensured that the capacity building program has long lasting effects?

Discussions and conclusions
A large part of the discussion between the advisers was about how to stimulate the network towards more result-oriented attitudes. Is it common to criticize each other? How about emphasising the “Who does What, How and When”? Can we change this culture of not complying with appointments and promises? The group did not answer these questions, but came to an interesting conclusion by tackling the problem from another side, based on experiences with a network in the Netherlands. This network of individuals fundraising for projects in Africa had a similar experience with volunteers that were contributing well and ones that were less active. This case showed that focusing efforts on people that were motivated and keeping the less active ones informed, instead of constantly criticizing their lack of commitment, increased the performance of the entire network, meaning that more funds were raised. By emphasising the positive and not the negative aspects the working atmosphere improved and more people became motivated.

Community leader meeting

Two other projects for network development in Africa show us very different approaches to capacity building. The philosophy for capacity building of the first network was very strict: all the initiative was left to the members. Full ownership and responsibility was in the hand of the members, but the network remained ‘low profile’ and the network was not really dynamic. In the other project the donor invested quite a lot of money to start up a secretariat and paid for a coordinator. This network was built top-down and initially there was no ownership amongst its members. Through doing activities, having a lot of dynamic meetings and enthusiasm, the network became valuable for the members and a critical mass was achieved. The challenge was to maintain the momentum and interest of the members, so that they were willing to continue the network even when the initial donor withdrew. In this case the members were willing to pay a membership fee and other donors were willing to invest in the network. The biggest hurdle for this network was to ensure that it was really based upon the needs and interests of its members.

These two approaches for capacity building raised quite some discussion. Appointing a coordinator and/or a secretariat is accompanied with the serious risk that the members become less active, expecting the coordinator to take care of everything. Another risk is that the coordination office grows into an independent organisation with its own agenda and priorities, undermining the needs of the network members and creating distance between the coordination office and the members. Therefore if it is decided to work with a coordinator and secretariat it is very important to pay attention to the ownership of the network by its members. It should also be closely monitored whether the network is operating regarding the members’ needs. Choosing a person with good facilitating skills for the role of coordinator is essential. And having the coordinator at the office of one of the members can prevent experiencing distance between the coordination office and members. Circulating the hosting of meetings amongst the members is also a way to involve everyone.

To get and keep the network going it is important to make sure the “owner(s)” of the network feels responsible for it and is willing to invest time and effort. Therefore questions should be asked like: Who started the network and why? Who are the stakeholders and what are their interests? In the case study the international coordination office is an important player, having created this network top-down. They might want the country network to function independently, but what do they do to make the network proceed?

It is difficult to generate general conclusions and recommendations from only one particular case study, but from the discussions the group of advisors came up with the following ideas:
- Build upon the energy and capacity that is already present amongst the members of the network in order to create a result-oriented and positive attitude. In other words focus on strengths, achievements, and the motivated and active ones instead of on weaknesses, failures, and the ones falling behind.
- Identify who are the actual ‘owners’ of the problem and make them responsible. Who initiated the network and who is really interested in having a network?
- Find a balance in capacity building activities. Creating momentum and quick results by a coordination office or an external advisor can be helpful, but has serious risks in terms of ownership and sustainability of the network. Continuously involving the members in defining the agenda of the network is necessary to create and maintain ownership amongst its members.

Petra Hofman