KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The future of (aid) work is social

with 11 comments

Private sector companies are increasingly recognizing the value of social collaboration. The video above makes a good case as to why. It’s much more than games and idle chit-chat, it’s a way to make work both more efficient, but also more innovative. But, you could easily replace “business” with “aid” and “customers” with “donors and beneficiaries” and the message would still hold true.

McKinsey also recently produced a research report  “The rise of the networked enterprise: Web 2.0 finds its payday” highlighting how companies investments in “Web 2.0” in business are starting to pay off.

But that’s all well and good in the private sector, but what about in aid? Unfortunately the aid sector has been rather slower at adopting these approaches.  There are certainly unique challenges for aid organizations:

  • We don’t have the kind of IT budgets that many large private sector organizations have.
  • Some of our more remote offices and also many of our external partners don’t have good internet access so we need to find solutions that address this such as low bandwidth tech, mobile tech and even (although I hate to say it) e-mail.
  • Large public and not for profit organizations are slow to change and adapt to new approaches and are notoriously risk averse.

But at the same time the number of type of organizations involved in the development sector is continually increasing.  Given this increasingly crowded field, large “traditional” organizations need to think more and more about what it is of unique value that they can bring to development that can’t easily be brought by smaller, younger more nimble organizations, the private sector or grass roots initiatives. There is also increasing pressure on large aid organizations to be more transparent, accountable and to demonstrate results, especially in the current environment of limited resources.

A more enthusiastic adoption of social media, and “social business” tools can offers great opportunities to address these issues head on. But to be useful, social tools need to contribute concretely to the mission of the organization – either by supporting existing work processes and making them more efficient, or by making it possible to do entirely new things that were previously impossible, but which make areal contribution to the organization’s mission. Social business is not about helping people develop their social networks, but it is a recognition that people work socially and that it is people who make plans, execute programmes and write supports and that they collaborate with others to do so. Social business tools help them to do this better – by improving their ability to locate and work with other people.

A few important applications of internally focussed “social business” include:

  • Making it easier to find internal expertise – whether it’s being able to find the right expert who can work on or provide advice to your project, or being able to find which offices or individuals have faced a similar challenge to the one you are facing and helping you to learn from their experience.
  • Making it easier to share “just in time” information and knowledge to support decisions and action – social tools can be used to provide “real-time” advice to programmes and also to help monitor progress. Unlike more traditional tools that provide warehouses of data that need to be searched through – social tools can allow real time person to person support.
  • Working collaboratively to develop new approaches and tools. Social tools can support the development of new approaches across the organization by tapping into different experience, expertise and country contexts. This can be particularly useful when developing “guidance” or “good practices” that can be used across the organization.
  • Making it easier for management to communicate and listen to (and keep on top of the pulse of) their staff. It can be used as a means to help communicate organizational priorities to staff, and also hear their views and respond to them in an authentic non bureaucratic way. This also helps build a stronger sense of community and loyalty among staff – staff morale is an often overlooked aspect of organizational performance or staff retention – social tools can actually help create a sense of belonging and engagement

In addition to these internal uses, social tools really come into their own when used to support outreach to the public and collaboration with partners. A few externally focussed applications of social  business include:

  • Educating donors and the general public about what you do – both contributing to public support to development and your organization’s mission, but also to help support your advocacy and fundraising activities and to help put a human face on your work. It’s also an important way to listen to the public and to understand how their view your mission and your organization.
  • Tapping into expertise from other organizations. While there is probably a lot of untapped expertise within your own organization – there is much. much more outside whether it be in other aid organizations,  academia and think tanks or government counterparts, grass roots NGOs or entrepreneurs. The larger your network the greater its value and the more expertise you can bring to bear on an issue.
  • Building partnerships – beyond finding expertise, social collaboration can be used to take these interactions between organizations  to the next level and help build concrete partnerships to work together on specific issues or projects. Social tools can provide an ongoing means to service these partnerships.  This is a particularly powerful way to foster greater programmatic innovation by bringing together different groups that do not normally work together such as entrepreneurs, technologists, government and local NGOs.
  • Crowdsourcing- social tools are increasingly being used as a means to mobilize people to collect data or solve problems. This can be a very valuable approach to help monitor the impacts of a crisis and serve as an early warning system (e.g. to spot localized  food price spikes), or to help mobilize people to help in a project (e.g. to get local people to help map water points and sanitary facilities in their community)
  • Help get feedback about the quality and relevance of your programmes from beneficiaries. For me this is one of the most challenging and exciting possibilities. Real “transparency and accountability” comes not just from providing data online about your activities but also listening to and engaging with those whom we seek to serve. While the technical challenges are still formidable there is tremendous potential. Examples might include getting general feedback on the public’s image and perception of the organization and its work to more specific project level feedback for example on whether the schools have been built as planned, are the facilities in good order, are the teachers in school, and are pupils learning- are these things still in place 2 or 5 years later, and how has the assistance provided changed peoples lives?

Large aid organizations in particular have a lot to gain by investing in these ideas since they are large enough to have a pool of internal expertise to tap in to, and are big enough for there to be silos and other challenges to using it effectively. Larger organizations also have the visibility and connections to allow them to do effective outreach to partner with others or engage donor country or beneficiary country publics by leveraging their brands. They are also more likely to be able to find the resources needed to set up and manage  “social business” tools and processes.

So the opportunities are huge, and the right time to do it is now. So why don’t you all just get on with it!

Post script: I just came across this great presentation by Jonathan Kopp which he made last week to our National Committees annual meeting. Unfortunately I didn’t attend the meeting – but from the  slides you can see that his recommendations reinforce a lot of what I’ve written here. I hope this is a good omen for working socially in UNICEF.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 7, 2011 at 10:15 pm

11 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. This is a great post Ian! I’ll be sharing it around for sure.

    The slideshow is also nice – but one thing I keep noticing (and that you brought up in your last bullet point) is that in those types of presentations, there is still never any real mention of any engagement with the “beneficiaries” or communities. Can they participate in the discussion also, or does it always have to be a conversation among staff and donors? I’d really like to see that shift also to a real and more balanced conversation…


    March 7, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    • Linda – thanks for the comment. I fully agree. I think most social media experts concentrate on communication and fundraising with potential donors because that’s what they know and its also where the money is.

      But to make aid really effective we need to find ways to engage beneficiaries. That’s the only way we can now if we are really meeting their needs and to tap into their expertise in order to help us do so. It’s more challenging for sure – but I think its a must if we are to be truly accountable and responsive.

      Sounds like a topic for a future blog post – although it will need some research because few organizations have real experience and good tools in this area. It’s a case of “must do better” for most organizations.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 8, 2011 at 7:28 am

  2. […] original post here: The future of (aid) work is social AKPC_IDS += […]

  3. Really nice piece, Ian, thanks for posting this. And totally agree with you and Linda in the comments.


    March 8, 2011 at 6:26 pm

  4. Ian,

    Well done, and thanks for including my Athens deck!

    To address Linda’s point [as to whether beneficiaries should participate in the discussion], absolutely, YES!

    One of the points I tried to make in Athens is that UNICEF needs to be less institutional in its communications and empower its people — staff & volunteers — to provide more of a personal face & voice for the organization.

    As for beneficiaries, UNICEF already does a great job shining a spotlight on those in need. Your videos, images and stories amount to some of the most beautiful, compelling content around.

    That trend of keeping beneficiaries front and center must continue, but it needs to expand to and evolve for the interactive realm. Of course, as you know, UNICEF needs to always protect people’s privacy and avoid doing anything that might even appear to remotely exploit those in need. But with the right training & safeguards, UNICEF should absolutely enable and encourage beneficiaries to tell their own stories and engage in their own conversations.

    That’s personal. That’s authentic. That’s engagement.

    That’s what mastering the social web is all about.

    Again, great point, Linda. And great piece & response, Ian.



    Jonathan Kopp

    March 8, 2011 at 7:29 pm

  5. Nice post, as always, Ian, but I find it frustrating because although it may be true, it is hard for me to imagine implementing it or anything close in my situation. Consult my beneficiaries? My beneficiaries are either not on the Web, or not able to speak out. My intermediaries (Government) are not going to engage me on Facebook (even in their own language). Will I wander onto Facebook to find someone who has – for example – a good example of Youth Houses in their country? Well, I would if there was a fair chance of finding them. But (chicken-and-egg) starting such a network would require a lot of pre-existing information to be put there, so people would turn to the network with their questions…

    Mark Hereward

    March 9, 2011 at 2:08 am

  6. Mark – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think the “listening to and engaging beneficiaries” is the hardest part of all this – but I’d argue it’s also one of the most important. It makes sense both in terms of us being accountable, but also because by listening to them, we might have a better chance of running programmes that will address their needs, and that will actually work.

    I don’t think there are any one-size-fits all solutions but there are a number of interesting examples – for a future blog post perhaps. A brief few that come to mind:

    1. Egyptian Government ministries using facebook pages to interact with citizens
    2. One minute Juniors and similar approaches to help young people tell their stories and report back on their situation
    3. Text messages used to give feedback on government services in Kenya
    4. “I paid a bribe” – which allow citizens to report instances of corruption

    There are a lot of pilot projects underway world wide using mobile technologies to do things like reporting on teacher absences, malfunctioning water points, incidents of violence, you name it. Often these involve combining internet with SMS, landlines (free call hotlines) or other mechanisms.

    I don’t think you can just “wander onto facebook” though. Approaches need to have a clear purpose , be carefully designed and piloted, especially given that this isn’t a long history of established good practice. But I think there is a lot that can be done.

    Ian Thorpe

    March 9, 2011 at 11:00 am

    • .. and thanks to you for your reply, Ian.
      I am more excited at the technologies that use mobile phones than those that require internet access (let alone making movies), because the people I care most about may possibly have a mobile phone (or, at least, access to one) but not any more sophisticated hardware. I am very interested to see what we can do via SMS, and that’s the area of innovation that has most caught my attention.

      Sorry for my “wander onto Facebook”, but my point remains that there is a critical mass of interaction / information that needs to be available (whether Facebook, Intranet, or any other platform) before people like me would consider them a viable option. And I don’t know how you would get there. I mean, I am (as you know) not anti-technology, but I am a – what shall we say – distracted user. I like new-but-proven things, I guess! I would even use Facebook (as long as I don’t have to call colleagues “friends”) if I knew I would get access to others’ knowledge (and have an outlet for my own)!

      Mark Hereward

      March 10, 2011 at 12:13 am

  7. Your excellent post was one of the sources of inspiration for my latest post ‘Do we need an MA in Social Media for International Development & Change?’
    It’s probably time that academic courses pay more attention to the role of social aid work!


    March 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm

  8. I don’t know, I think the development sector in many ways is ahead of the curve because they have to, because they had to develop tools, because we are mobile, because staff are based out of their offices, because we have bad access to internet … a lot of these difficulties have led to solutions in the field that we need to learn and take advantage from. the knowledge is out there….. the solutions have been tried… the question is not how can you access the beneficiaries from NY, but how can the person that deals with them every day be a part of the decision/design process


    March 9, 2011 at 5:27 pm

  9. […] a follow up to my previous post “the future of (aid) work is social”, I wanted to elaborate a little on some of the specific areas where social media and social […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: