KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Field focused

with 4 comments

It’s a ritual for people working in aid organizations “in the field” to complain about headquarters. And often with some justification.

In theory headquarters exists largely to support the field operations of an organization by mobilizing resources, hiring staff, setting guidelines and standards and providing support and advice. But quite often headquarters work can take on a life and momentum of its own, creating its own objectives and feeding off rather than supporting the frontline operations of the organization (where the work really gets done).

Even staff who have recently come to HQ from the field start out as advocates for greater consideration of the field in HQ work, but within 6 months they get subsumed in the HQ way of looking at things (presumably because that’s how they keep their bosses happy).

So it was a nice surprise that in a recent office retreat one of the biggest calls from colleagues was that we weren’t sufficiently field focused in our work and that we needed to reflect on how we could change our working methods to be able to be better oriented to serving UN’s country operations. We were all asked to reflect on what “field focused” means in the context of our work as a coordination office to see if we have a common view within the office and also whether there were any practical actions we could take to embody this in our work.

I’m sharing here some of the thoughts we had in our small knowledge management team about what field focused means for us. I’d be interested to hear what those of you who are working in the field think, and what would you consider the appropriate field focus for headquarters.

We agreed that the work of our team needs to be primarily “field focused”, that is oriented towards supporting UN country teams to do their work more effectively. We noted that we, like most HQ teams have limited capacity to provide direct support, less than is really needed. But we also identified several principles which could be used to guide our work in order to ensure that it is as supportive to the field as possible within our limited means. Here they are:

  1. Wherever possible we should give the highest priority in our work and resources to those products and services which directly benefit the field. If the services we provide serve several audiences then the field audience should be given the highest priority in terms of design and resources.
  2. Our next priority should be given to developing systems that help other parts of  our organization (or HQ) be more effective in providing support to the field (e.g. to supporting better standardization of responses to field queries).
  3. In embarking on any activity we should to consider how it will impact the field in terms of the benefit it will bring (direct or indirect) and the potential burden it will place on them (e.g. in terms of additional reporting) and should seek to design it in such a way that will maximize the benefit and minimize the burden.
  4. In designing any product or service to assist the field, we should involve the field in the design and development it in order to ensure that it really meets their needs.
  5. We should routinely seek and incorporate feedback from the field on the adequacy of the support we provide and this feedback should be one of our main ways of judging our performance.
  6. We should, even within the limited capacities outlined above, seek to be as responsive as possible to individual queries received from the field either to provide the requested support, to provide references to other sources of assistance or to explain clearly and promptly why we are not able to help.
  7. Knowledge management teams have a particular responsibility to listen to the field to hear when there are challenges, and to advocate for the field within the organization on their behalf.

Many of the products and services typically provided by knowledge management teams are intended to benefit the field, but the question we always need to explicitly ask ourselves  explicitly is whether in developing and managing these we are following the principles outlined above.

Any comments/thoughts?

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had, rants

4 Responses

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  1. […] View post: Field focused […]

  2. The HQ versus field dynamics is such a visible phenomenon! But, even with good itentions, we sometimes find ourselves stumped. For instance, we are currently grappling with the problem of balancing the need to ensure that field workers are not overburdened with the requirements of a robust and integrated M&E and documentation framework. Discussions with field staffs led to the idea of representative sampling of programme participants for filling in MIS formats. But even then, there is a minimum limit! And here, we are trying to show the efficacy of a particular model as presented in a government scheme. The good news is that the parties involved (the organisation facilitating implementation, a specialised agency on M&E and me – consultant for process documentation and knowledge sharing) do want to work out a feasible system. What’s the point of creating something that is unwelcome and doomed from the start!

    Ronita Chattopadhyay

    July 17, 2012 at 2:11 am

  3. Hi Ian, Great blog and good points. I wonder though if we are asking the right question. I think a part of supporting the field is making sure that there is the vision and excitement coming from leadership to truly solve the problems we are working on. In so much development work we are focused on implementing a good project vs. solving the bigger problem at hand (providing safe water, ending malnutrition, etc.). I think we’ll get better at addressing support to the field when we start focusing on outcomes vs. outputs. On the other hand, I think we do need to listen more to the field and provide more opportunities for real reflection. I also think that support needs to be as practical as possible: providing technical support, protecting the field from unnecessary requests, backstopping the field and taking some work off their shoulders. I think if we took a hard work at a lot of the “support” we are providing the field we’d probably find that much of it isn’t “support” at all but actually is creating more of a burden.

    John Sauer

    July 17, 2012 at 11:22 am

  4. […] It’s a ritual for people working in aid organizations “in the field” to complain about headquarters. And often with some justification.  […]


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