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.

1 comment:

  1. Dear D groupers,

    Thank you for sharing this very relevant discussion with HQ in Utrecht. Maybe, in the end, we are the ones in an isolated position...

    Luuk, it was very interesting to hear about your experiences. Difficult to say if ICCO could have prevented your isolated position. You are working in a very particular context, and CB advisory as a tool in the case of the country you are working is, has been subject of a lot of discussions within ICCO already. However, I think it is very powerful that other CB advisors advice you, I'm sure this will have helped you to 'break the isolation'- and to try new ways to face your difficulat assignment.

    I am looking forward to see you soon,

    kind regards,

    Hester Foppen, ICCO (Access to Basic Services, Water and Sanitation)