KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for August 2011

Innovations and Lessons Learned on Capacity Development

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Just a quick blog post to promote some of the actual work we do in our KM team (as a change from the usual punditry you normally find on this blog).

We’ve just released a compendium of 17 of the more interesting innovations and lessons learned reported to us by our country offices on their experiences in capacity development. See the compendium together with other recent publications on innovations and lessons learned on UNICEF’s website here.

Note: as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m not a fan of best practices. Rather we prefer to document and share real-life practices and experiences that can be used to help inform or inspire other programmes. This publication is an example of some of the experiences we have documented. And its worth noting that while we do research, editing, questioning, reviewing etc. from headquarters all these experiences are initially proposed and written up to us by our country offices based on their reflections and experience, so congratulations and thanks to them for taking the effort to share their work.


Post script: I’m taking my summer vacation (yay!) and so things will be a little quiet here over the next few weeks. Normal blogging service should resume in mid-September.

Written by Ian Thorpe

August 16, 2011 at 10:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Confirmation bias is a riot

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Warning: this blog is a bit more personal/opinion than my usual fare…..

Like many people I’ve been shocked and dismayed by the London riots. I was pondering whether to write a blog post, since it’s hard to find something original or insightful to say. But as an expat-Brit I can’t help but think about this anyway.

On the one hand the scenes seem eerily familiar to those that took place when I was growing up in the UK in the 1980s, but they are also different in many ways that I don’t fully grasp leaving me feeling a little alienated from my homeland.

Looking at the discussions on the riots in the media and through social media there seems to be a near universal agreement that the rioting was unconscionable and that there is a need to quickly restore order and repair the damage done. But the bigger question is why the riots happened and why they spread, but this seems much less clear. And yet  understanding this is key to figuring out how to avoid something similar happening in the future.

There are no shortage of people now sharing their theories about the causes which range from inequality to poor parenting to consumerism to moral decline to technology. A recent article by the BBC considers 10 widely differing explanations for the riots that are being discussed. Unfortunately most of the articles seeking to explain the riots also seem to be prime examples of one of the most common cognitive biases – confirmation bias – i.e. to the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

It’s quite likely that the cause of the riots cannot be so clearly identified. Riots and looting are classic examples of emergent events where chaos spontaneously emerges from a complex system which is made up of multiple reinforcing and counteracting factors. It’s quite possible that a number of the explanations that have been given have played some part – but not in an easily unpacked linear fashion, or in a way in which they and the solutions for them can be taken apart and dealt with separately.

Unfortunately this is what is most likely to happen. Understandable public outrage and the need to be seen to respond can easily lead to hasty ill-conceived action  that can win popular support but does little to address the true drivers of the situation.

A likely example of this is the public e-petition to stop benefit payments to those found guilty of rioting. (The UK government recently launched a very interesting experiment in public democracy whereby people can submit petitions to the government, and if they receive 100,000 signatures or more are eligible to be discussed in Parliament). While it’s understandable that this petition is popular, it also doesn’t take too much thinking to realize that there are likely to be unanticipated negative consequences.

Among the various “causes” of the riots that have been cited I’d like to take issue to two common and false prejudices (among the many):

1. “The problem is with today’s youth” – it’s remarkably common to cite the lack of respect among “today’s youth” as being a factor behind society’s ills. But there are a few obvious flaws with this argument. Firstly – people have been complaining about moral decline and rebellious youth for a very long time. Take this quote:

“Our youth now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for
authority; they show disrespect for elders, and love to chatter in place of exercise. Children are
now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the
room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize
their teachers.”

Said not by David Cameron – but by Socrates. It’s not clear that rebellion and lack of respect for authority among the young are anything new or that they are worse now than they have been in the past.

It’s also worth noting that most adolescents did not participate in the riots, and also it seems by looking at those arrested and convicted, many who did participate were not adolescents either.

2. New technology is to blame – either for inciting the riots, enabling the rioters to organize, or for quickly spreading false rumours and causing panic. There is already serious discussion  underway in the UK to look at whether social media can and should be shut down during times of crisis.

But social media has also been used to help mobilize public action for the cleanup in an unprecedented way, and is being used by the police and others to help identify and apprehend the perpetrators. Similarly it is being used by the authorities to quickly verify then confirm or dispel reports of violence and looting.

Again complaints about communications technology are nothing new, nor are government attempts to curtail them. The printing press, radio, telephones, television, the internet and now social media have all at various times been accused of fomenting rebellion and aiding wrongdoing. But in the end these tools are just tools that facilitate people’s desire to communicate, connect and organize – and they can be used for both good and bad purposes – and it’s often not as easy as it seems to clearly delineate one from another (Owen Barder and Jeff Jarvis both get into this issue a bit further and explain it much better than I could).

I hope that in the end there will be some serious, and evidence based reflection on what incited the riots and caused them to spread, and that this will include the important question of “why now” to understand the balance between the underlying issues and trends which led to the riots and the sparks that caused them to ignite, also accepting that there is not necessarily any one single cause.

But as with any evidence-based policy discussion, it also seems likely that whatever action is taken will need to take into account not only what analysis and evidence are able to tell us, but also whatever is politically feasible – but  let’s hope that the balance is not skewed too far into the latter at the expense of the former.

Written by Ian Thorpe

August 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Listening to the people we work for

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My last blog post talked about the need for organizations to listen to their staff. But it’s even more for organizations to listen to the people they work for. And to be clear – in aid organizations this should be people in developing countries – the beneficiaries, counterparts or “rights holders” who we are trying to assist rather than the donors who have a very powerful voice already – which comes from their money.

But a big challenge to this listening is in how to do it. The people who benefit from aid are not those who pay for it, they can be hard to identify and locate, and many common feedback techniques used in private companies or used by governments in the developed world may not be appropriate.

Luckily CDA Collaborative Learning Projects recently came out with a new publication “Feedback Mechanisms in International Assistance Organizations” which takes a detailed look at some of the different approaches being used by development organizations to incorporate feedback mechanisms into their programmes identifying some of the common techniques used, and also laying out some good practices and challenges based on the experience of a number of organizations they looked at.

Linda Raftree has a nice summary of some of the key points on her blog. The report itself is not too long and fairly easy to digest and like Linda I’d recommend downloading and reading the whole thing.

One conclusion of the report echoes a point I also raised about listening to staff – that success requires senior management buy-in. The report notes that some organizations have developed feedback mechanisms in respond to donor demand – but if this is not accompanied by and  organizational commitment to getting and using  feedback this often isn’t very effective. This is because in order to be effective feedback systems need to be prioritized in terms of resources, but also in terms of the internal organizational incentives for managers to participate in them.

Unless feedback systems are clearly prioritized, especially by senior management, the processes may fall to the bottom of the pile when staff are overwhelmed by other commitments.

But the report also goes on to make a practical suggestion on how to minimize the time burden of feedback mechanisms:

For this reason, some organizations have begun to include recipient feedback mechanisms into other systems, such as for monitoring and evaluation, rather than establishing an entirely separate tool or reporting requirement. For example, monitoring and evaluation teams are often able to solicit feedback from primary stakeholders by asking some additional questions during their routine visits, including assessing how easily people feel they are able to provide feedback to the agency.

Overall the report appropriately lays a good deal of stress on the importance of  the people and systems side of feedback mechanisms and the challenges with them rather than focussing only on the techniques and tools. Many of these aspects will be very familiar to people who have worked on change management, or knowledge management for that matter – since collecting and using feedback effectively really is a change management issue for most organizations (and a knowledge management one since we have to collect all that information and then decide how to interpret it and use it).

The biggest issue here is that there’s little point of collecting feedback if there is little intention of using it. And not only that – but in turn giving feedback to those who provided the inputs on  how they have been used – closing the feedback loop. This is essential to build trust which can make aid more effective, but also makes local counterparts more trusting and satisfied with the assistance they are receiving.

Another important observation from the report that also seems familiar from other areas of work is that lessons learned and good practices in this area are poorly documented – a deficit that this report does important work to help address. There is a good set of references at the end of the paper on this topic – but since this is (relatively speaking) an emerging field it’s perhaps not surprising that there isn’t more information out there on what works.

The report does highlight three “emerging approaches”:

1. Use of SMS and mobile phones (not surprising as there is a lot going on in this area right now)

2. Story collecting – interesting because on the one hand there is an emphasis here on collecting qualitative data to better understand the experience of the people we work for – but at the same time to combine the stories and other materials using “Sensemaker” an analytical tool developed by Dave Snowden’s Cognitive Edge team for helping understand complex systems.

3. Telephone helplines/hotlines.

An area that is only mentioned in passing in the report is the use of social media (outside use of SMS based systems). I’m not sure whether that’s because few of the organizations they looked at are using them. Use of social media tools to get feedback on products and services is now widely practiced by companies and more and more by developed country governments – but aid examples are still very thin on the ground – in part no doubt due to the fact that most of the we hope to hear from don’t have access to social media – but perhaps also because aid organizations have yet to embrace and seriously experiment with this approach. It would be great to see more organizations experiment with this, particularly in middle-income countries where usage is growing, and to document and share this experience. (see my previous post  8 uses for social media in aid work)

Another interesting area to think about is the potential benefits of putting donors (individual and institutional) more directly in touch with those people they intend to help – not only to help hold the intermediaries  (the aid organizations) to account – but also to help educate donors more about what type of help is really needed, what kinds of unseen barriers they face and what kind of results can realistically be expected. This might also help reduce some of the skewed incentives that donors can unwittingly place on aid organizations, as well as giving donors some tangible but also realistic sense of what they contributions achieve in people’s lives which might help to motivate them to give more and to give smartly.

Written by Ian Thorpe

August 8, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Do you know what your staff are thinking?

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I had an interesting conversation recently with a colleague who was asking where to go to get reliable feedback on how staff felt about a new organizational initiative.

Based on talking to people he sensed that although there was a broad support for the idea, there were some misgivings and concerns about how it was being implemented, and perhaps others who ought to be more involved or engaged who were either unaware or uninterested in it for some reason. The colleague had of course expressed his concerns to his bosses, but they were not convinced – after all where is the evidence?

But this got me thinking – do most organizations have good ways to know what their staff are thinking? Not only whether staff are happy with things like their working conditions or salaries – but perhaps more importantly – are they happy about the direction of the organization, are they happy with their bosses – do they feel like their contributions are taken seriously – do they have the opportunity to contribute at all.

Knowing what your staff are thinking should be important to senior management – if only to flag any areas where discontent is or lack of commitment is undermining organizational performance. But beyond that it’s also important to be able to tap into the enthusiasm of your staff, get them to offer their insights on how to do the work better, and also to help identify things that get in the way of them contributing their best. But it’s surprising how often this feedback is overlooked.

So how do you go about getting this feedback? I’d suggest there are two aspects:

1. Have the listening tools in place.

2. Actually care about what staff are saying and show it.

There are a number of useful tools and techniques that organizations can use to listen to their staff.

i) Staff  surveys:  these can be done as general across the board satisfaction surveys, or done on specific topics. These are good in that they can seek inputs from a broad range of staff, and can be used to get quantitative data. It can also allow for anonymous responses so people can feel free to express how they really think. It might even be possible to do some interesting cross tabulations to help understand issues – for example when UNICEF did a staff survey a few years ago I was able to analyze the data to see that there was a strong relationship between job satisfaction, and people feeling they had opportunities to share their expertise and knowledge.

That said surveys are time consuming to carry out and only give you a snapshot of views at one particular time. They also only allow you to look at issues on the surface – and further follow up is needed to know what’s behind some of the responses.

ii) Internal electronic  discussion fora – especially open-ended ones: Examples of tools include internal microblogging such as Yammer. You might also use specific staff feedback forums such as a having a change management discussion forum. It’s important though that to be productive these fora are seeded with questions and useful discussions which can stimulate staff to contribute. Another option is to create an online suggestion box where people can contribute ideas to improve the office, whether on technical substantive issues, or on things like how to reduce  costs or improve work/life balance.

iii) staff contributed newsletters:  having an internal staff news where staff members can contribute articles and views can be a useful channel to hear from staff – IF the publication is willing to take on the issues that matter most to staff – while remaining constructive – which needs careful management.

iv) town hall meetings: organizing open meetings where staff can ask questions is a great way for senior staff to listen and for “regular staff” who don’t often have access to senior  leadership to see and interact with them. But in a global organization these also need to be either done in multiple locations, or they need to be designed to allow remote participation both in terms of listening , but also contributing (see my previous post on e-participation)

v) management by walking around: the act of actually going around and talking to people unannounced shouldn’t be overlooked. Of course this also has to be done when travelling, and you can’t only visit your favourite or closest floor of the office.

vi) media monitoring – in the worst case scenario – it’s a sure sign something is going wrong is when there are negative media stories quoting unnamed sources from inside your organization – and this is more likely to happen when there is no internal channel for people to aid their concerns.

But tools only take you so far. The real enabler is a management culture that listens and shows that it values the inputs of its staff. Whatever tools you use – if your staff believe you are not interested in what they have to say, or worse that there are repercussions for expressing dissent or dissatisfaction then people will just “tell the boss what he wants to hear”.

This means having the channels open, asking questions in a way that encourages people to be honest in offering their inputs, showing that you have heard what is coming through, and that it is valued and being responded to in some way. So this means widely publishing the results of staff surveys and responding to some of the main issues that arise from them. It means participating in online channels and responding to issues published there. It means having some mechanism to review and review ideas coming into the suggestion box – and to act on at least some of them.

But it’s also important to recognize that once you move forward with this – it’s also hard to go back afterwards. If you have a survey – but then discontinue it, or have an open discussion forum then take it away, it potentially sends a worse message than not having done it in the first place (I was listening – but didn’t like what I heard so decided to stop).

Listening does not mean unconditionally accepting whatever suggestions are made, or issues are raised – but it does mean acknowledging them and showing that they are welcomed and being thought about – not least to ensure that in future when input is really needed – people are willing to offer it.

Written by Ian Thorpe

August 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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