The future of (aid) work is social
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.