KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Scaling up: how to spread good ideas

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Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with colleagues at UNDP who are organizing an event about “scaling up”.

The idea of scaling up successful pilots or innovations has long been one of the holy grails of aid work, and it seems we’re still quite not sure how to do it, or at least how to do it consistently, or how to “pick winners” i.e. ideas that can be scaled successfully.

The conversation reminded me of a presentation I attended and an internal blog I wrote some years ago about how to spread good ideas when I was back with UNICEF. It occurs to me that quite often in looking at scaling up a successful pilot or prototype we tend to focus on i) identifying those ideas which have been successfully piloted and ii) for which we can use the evidence of success to mobilize resources from donors and domestically.

However even when new ideas have been shown to work in a successful pilot or prototype (or have even been “proven” through extensive research and clinical style testing), i’s not a guarantee that they will scale. A big challenge is the issue of “adoption” i.e. how can you persuade others to apply them other than with scientific evidence and cash – because those are not enough.

Below is a slight reworking of my old blog post that looks at some of the challenges of spreading (or diffusing) good ideas:

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Have you ever wondered why people don’t readily adopt new ideas, despite their seemingly obvious benefits, or why the same idea might flourish in one setting and wither in another?Today I attended an excellent presentation by Nancy Binkin from Health Section who very neatly summarized some of the main observations coming from the paper “Diffusion of Innovations in Service Organizations: Systematic Review and Recommendations“. This is a wide-ranging literature review of research around how innovations and new ideas are spread in the public sector, especially in health which was commissioned by the UK National Health Service. The full paper is well worth a read if you have the time.
The paper looks at what characteristics of innovation are more likely lead to them being adopted, what type of people are more likely to adopt new approaches, what kinds of organizational factors affect likelihood of adoption, and what are some strategies to help promote adoption. The focus of the paper, and the presentation was to explain why certain key health interventions have not been adopted, or have been adopted only slowly – for example why has artemisinin based malaria treatment taken so long to be adopted when the benefits so clear, or why do some families and communities still refuse to vaccinate their children against polio- and there are many more from the across UNICEF’s areas of work.What was striking for me was that although the focus was external, all these same issues were strikingly true for our work on knowledge management within UNICEF. We face many of the same challenges in identifying promising innovations, sharing and scaling them up within the organization (for example getting people to assess and use innovations and lessons learned in one country and then adapt and applying them elsewhere). Similarly many of the more successful approaches from the paper would be extremely relevant to take on board when planning our innovation and knowledge management/sharing work.Many of the observations from the paper will be very familiar to those working on KM such as the need to adapt, build on and localize solutions to the local context and to build local ownership, the importance of social networks for sharing ideas, the need to prove the relevance of the idea to people’s daily reality, the need for involvement of opinion leaders and champions, and the need for a “learning culture” to name just a few.

Colleagues working on communication for Development (C4D) at the meeting also felt that the conclusions of the paper were highly relevant to their work, and it seems there could be a promising common interest in different parts of the organization to pursue these ideas further. One obvious challenge both within UNICEF, and in disseminating innovations externally is that often quite a few of the ideal conditions for successful diffusion are not present, and we may have a varying ability to foster them. We therefore also need to do some thinking about what we can do that is useful even when we know we are not able to create the kind of environment that we would ideally like in order for new approaches to be adopted.

One particularly resonant issue that was raised is that ideas spread more effectively in organizations where people have some “space to think”, and the perceived lack of this in the UN due to some of our current working practices. For example, I almost put off attending this meeting so I could finish my outstanding Performance Appraisals. I’m so glad I didn’t!

 

From the paper, one important aspect of whether a new innovation or approach is adopted is the nature of the idea itself. Below are highlighted some aspects of an innovation which can have an important impact on whether it is adopted (The text below is adapted from Nancy’s presentation with some added commentary from my side).

Relative advantage
Is the new approach more effective than the current strategy? Is it more cost-effective? If it is not perceived to have an advantage, it could be dead in the water,  though even having an advantage does not guarantee adoption. (Note: this benefit needs to be clear to the adopter and the benefit for the adopter might well be different from the perceived benefit to management or to the promoter of the approach) 

Compatibility
Is it compatible with user’s values, norms, ways of working, and perceived needs?

Complexity

Simple is good! If it is complex, can it be broken down into smaller bites? The perception of complexity can also be partly overcome with demonstrations and hands-on experience.

Trialability

Is there space given to try it out on a limited basis?

Observability
Are the effects of the innovation readily observable? (and preferably measurable)

Reinvention
Is there room to adapt it to local realities or to refine it? This seems particularly important for dissemination of “good practices” spread through horizontal networks (and is very relevant to our work on lessons learned – and would seem to imply that these should be seen more as an idea bank than templates or how-to guides)

Fuzzy boundaries (related concept)

i.e. an innovation should have a fixed core of common elements used in all cases, but with other elements that can be adapted around the edges to meet different circumstances and needs. These should preferably emerge from repeated trails in different contexts. What’s is important here is that there is a set of core principles to the innovation that make it successful, but a n accepted range of modifications that make it suitable for different applications.

Risk
If there is a high degree of uncertainty in adopting the new approach, then it can be perceived as personally risky and thus it is less likely to be adopted (especially in a risk-averse environment).

Task issues
If a new approach is relevant to user’s work and improves their performance, it is more likely to be adopted, especially if it is feasible and easy.

Augmentation support
To spread an idea you need a support system for new implementations  - help desk, training, customization, implementation advice (even if you can see the benefit, it’s hard to do something new if you don’t know how – in this context I’d also add that being able to be in contact and share experiences with others who are have tried or are also trying out the new approach can be invaluable).

An implication of this seems to be that incremental changes are easier to promote than radical ones – since they fit more easily into existing norms and values and the benefit can appear more tangible, even if the potential improvement is less. At the same time just because and idea is easier to spread, it doesn’t mean that it is better. There are some interesting trade-offs here between ideas that can be easily implemented and spread and those which might have a more profound impact.

So, what do you think of these?
Do they hold true from your own experience?
What do you think are the lessons we can learn for our own work in trying to share new approaches between offices, for adopting good ideas from the external world, or in getting our partners to take on proven approaches that for they themselves are new?

 

Post script: back when I wrote this I had planned to write something about the types of people and organizations that effectively spread new ideas. I never got to this but I’ve now put it on my list for a future blog post.

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Written by Ian Thorpe

April 11, 2014 at 9:00 am

5 Responses

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  1. USAID agriculture is also deep into these issues; see http://agrilinks.org/activity-cross-cutting/scaling-technologies for some recent reports etc from events in Addis Ababa and Bangkok

    ILRI

    April 11, 2014 at 2:16 pm

  2. […] Link: Scaling up: how to spread good ideas […]

  3. Hello Ian — thanks for this. Luc Hoebeke, an organization expert well known in some system thinking circles, has been looking into this issue for many years. He has identified four dimensions that will make innovation a success or failure in an organization: desirability, feasibility, transferability and systemicity. I’ve been looking at his work as part of my current studies, and I find it quite insightful and relevant. His book ‘Making Work Systems Work Better’ is a good read, which places things in perspective and adds substance to the innovation buzz everyone seems to want to be a part of.

    Thierry

    April 12, 2014 at 2:01 am

  4. […] Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with colleagues at UNDP who are organizing an event about "scaling up". The idea of scaling up successful pilots or innovations has long been one of the …  […]

  5. […] Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with colleagues at UNDP who are organizing an event about "scaling up". The idea of scaling up successful pilots or innovations has long been one of the …  […]


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