M(a)y tweets and June bits

Last night I toyed with the idea of visualising all the tweets (Twitter updates, in case you don’t know today’s most fundamental web application – Twitter – certainly from a popularity point of view) that I posted in May – ok the month’s not over but I’m not planning to blog when back home from Addis.

So here is an attempt: Wordle: May tweets And this was done through the fabulous little application Wordle which turns any text, website, del.icio.us bookmark collection into a word cloud like this one – and with many possibilities to change colours, display the tag in various ways etc.

This May tweet word cloud doesn’t make a great deal of sense as far as I can tell, apart from perhaps offering potential Twitter followers a sense of what I like to tweet about. But perhaps there’s a more interesting side of doing this if I make a Wordle word cloud of my tweets on a monthly basis and see if any pattern emerges…

In the meantime, this is my first post since 10 days and quite a lazy one at that, but I’m planning to blog quite a bit in June, from a choice of topics: organising ongoing training on expertise areas in organisations and in projects; using dissent as a driver; the return of learning alliances as I am working on an article about them in the context of the RiPPLE programme; a stock-taking post on complexity, another one on visualisation apps and softwares… oooh, where to start? Any suggestion?


Capacity development: Taking stock

(This is potentially the first of a series of stock-taking posts about inspiring literature on topics I blog about – the series will start if you find this interesting, so plmk).

Recently I met all staff of the Water Integrity Network (WIN) which stands for more integrity and transparency and preventing more corruption in the WASH sector by organising coalitions of institutions and individuals to cooperate and share useful ideas, resources and tools and to join hands in this fight.

The starting point: a capacity development workshop by WIN (26-27 May)

The starting point: a capacity development workshop by WIN (26-27 May)

On 26 and 27 May, WIN will be organising a workshop on capacity building in order to define its priorities for the years to come and to develop a strategy in line with those priorities. As I met the person in charge of organising this workshop and we exchanged some ideas by mails and face-to-face, it gave me a nice opportunity to take stock of some good articles and papers I have read about this concept.

The following list represents an attempt at mentioning and briefly describing the contents of some of the reads I found most inspiring on the topic of capacity development. This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources on the topic so feel free to suggest your inspired reads.

Many of these articles have been written by or inspired after Peter Morgan (private consultant as far as I can see but in a brief search I wasn’t able to find the right Peter Morgan out of 40 Peter Morgan’s (on LinkedIn alone).

Capacity and capacity development – some strategies

(Peter Morgan – 1998)

The oldest reference of all papers, this article is interesting because a) it provides some pointers to define capacity development (the processes and strategies), capacity (organisational and technical abilities, relationships and values) and impact (developmental benefits and results) and b) it considers various ‘capacity development’ strategies that have been employed, namely:

  • supplying additional and physical resources;
  • helping to improve the organisational and technical capabilities of the organisation;
  • helping to settle a clear strategic direction;
  • protecting innovation and providing opportunities for experimentation and learning;
  • helping to strengthen the bigger organisational system;
  • helping to shape an enabling environment;
  • creating more performance incentives and pressures;

The article ends with a series of questions to address the strategic value of capacity development and the operational recommendations to make it work.

What is capacity?

(Peter Morgan, 2006) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

This paper is firstly valuable for pointing at the lack of a clear and agreed definition on capacity development – that ‘missing link’ in development according to the World Bank – and particularly its common confusion with (individual) training. As a result, capacity development becomes an umbrella concept devoid of any useful meaning. The second contribution of this paper is to single out five central characteristics of capacity development: 1) it’s about empowerment and identity, 2) it has to do with collective ability, 3) it is a systems phenomenon, 4) it is a potential state and 5) it’s about creating public value. A third pointer is the definition of individual competencies, organisational capabilities and institutional / systemic capacity. Then Peter Morgan focuses on the meso level (organisations and their capabilities) to extract five core capabilities:

  1. The capability to act: having a collective ability to define a vision and an agenda and implement it (related to leadership, human resources etc.);

    The 5 capabilities' framework (Credits: ECDPM)

    The 5 capabilities’ framework (Credits: ECDPM)

  2. The capability to generate development results: the thematic and technical capabilities that lead to results (outputs, outcomes), which is usually the central attention of capacity development – though the author argues it is in the combination of the five that capacity development becomes meaningful and effective.
  3. The capability to relate: connecting to other actors relevant in the field where an organisation is evolving; this relates to working on the exhausted (or rather over-used) concept of ‘enabling environment’ but also on power struggles and political intrigue in a sometimes seemingly uncompetitive sector (how wrong!).
  4. The capability to adapt and self-renew: learning, innovating, adapting to changing environments or pre-empting changes;
  5. The capability to achieve coherence: maintaining a focus while using all separate resources to the fullest of their abilities. This is a major challenge with the growing recognition of complex and intricate relations among development actors

Finally, the author opens the debate as to capacity being a means to an end or an end in itself.

A balanced approach to monitoring and evaluating capacity and performance

(Paul Engel, Tony Land, Niels Keijzer – 2006) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

This paper is very much in line with the previous one but it lists a number of useful questions to assess capacity and performance and provides a five-step approach to develop the assessment framework. These five steps are: 1) Situational reconnaissance and stakeholder analysis 2) Calibration of the assessment framework 3) Implementation 4) Review of the draft results with key stakeholders and 5) Sharing the assessment report with the full range of stakeholders.

Capacity for a change

(Peter Taylor, Peter Clarke – 2008).

The report from a workshop that IDS organised in 2007, this excellent resource is probably the reason why I’ve been thinking a lot more about capacity development (CD) recently. The 26 participants provided outstanding matter for reflection which led the authors to analyse the current situation of capacity development interventions, re-imagine CD processes and suggest ways forward.

The paper is a useful resource for its facts (e.g. figures on public expenditures on CD), its evidence from study: about the importance of knowledge and learning, power relations, having good theories of social change, the relations between intervention agents rather than just results and perhaps above all else the importance of the local context – here we go again! and finally it is useful for the recommendations to address capacity development systemically.

In the forward-looking part, the authors recommend considering five useful pointers for CD interventions:

  • Empowering relationships – having that empowerment perspective at the core;
  • Rallying ideas – favouring a clear language that comes from joint reflection;
  • Dynamic agents – recognising the importance of local champions to take things forward;
  • Framing and shaping context – favouring a flexible design through interaction with the local context;
  • Grounding enabling knowledge / skills – working on abilities to understand and interact with one another;

The report ends with some suggestions for donors, research institutes, service providers and practitioners at large to take their own share and improve CD interventions. Last but not least, the bibliography provides actually enough references for me to write another blog post…

Capacity development: between planned interventions and emergent processes. Implications for development cooperation

(Tony Land, Volker Hauck and Heather Baser – 2009) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

The most recent resource of the list, this policy management brief by ECDPM poses that complexity theories and particularly aspects of emergence and ‘complex adaptive systems’ provide a welcome contribution to unpacking capacity development. The authors consider capacity as an emergent property that cannot be ‘engineered’ by organisations (even less so by external agencies, often Northern-based I would argue). Their assessment is that the forces around organisations and capacities are sometimes far greater than the former and it is therefore important to map them to understand better what may play a role in the success of an intervention (hence the importance of carrying out a kind of ‘forcefield analysis‘ perhaps I would add). The brief continues with a comparison between ‘conventional’ (engineering, pre-determined, risk-averse) approaches to capacity development and approaches inspired by emergence and complex adaptive systems.

Emergence and iteration: two key factors of capacity?

Emergence and iteration: two key factors of capacity?

One interesting aspect of this brief is also the identification of 12 pointers that may help in organising capacity development interventions. The authors are cautious enough to warn against the chase for a silver bullet (in this case ‘complex adaptive systems’) but advise to consider the pointers to develop incremental approaches that reconcile intervention engineering (the current practice nowadays) with emergence.

As mentioned above, this is no exhaustive list, so what did you find useful references on the topic?

If you think it’s useful to publish such ‘stock-taking’ blog posts in the future, on capacity development or other topics, let me know (and about what topic).

To find all these resources in one place check my online bookmarks on capacity development: http://delicious.com/ewenirc/capacity_development.

Related posts:

Seeking success, finding failures: work in development

In a very recent conversation, someone asked me what concrete evidence of success we (IRC) had in our work and I came to think that, in spite of the best intentions and sometimes a certain arrogance of development organisations about their achievements, concrete success is still very difficult to qualify and find in the WASH sector and in the development world at large.

When trying to point to the most effective evidence, I usually come to a series of very tiny improvements: people… sharing some ideas and information, realising the value of cooperation, developing the start of a common vision, engaging in joint research or joint implementation, investing in issues that they hadn’t considered important until then, organising awareness-raising events etc. We are far from a systemic change.

Now what does this say about our approach(es)?

Are we indeed looking at the right objectives? Do we have the right expectations? Are we using the right metrics to assess whether our approach makes sense and contributes to a better situation or not? Who should we convince about changing expectations and getting more realistic? Are we right to be obsessed with our shabby patchwork of success stories when we have a long standing history of failures to learn from, and some thinkers have already pointed to the value of learning from failures?

If I look at these questions and my own experience with them, I would say:

1)      Are we focusing on the right objectives? By and large we are not. Expecting drastic change such as improving governance in a country, sorting out e.g. health, urban water management, rural sanitation in a project’s lifetime is not realistic – and that is yet aside from the bias of over-resource endowment and over-availability of capacity in the project (which makes any success difficult to replicate or get inspiration from later anyway). Small is beautiful: no plant starts from gargantuan proportions, they grow shyly but surely.

2)      Do we have the right expectations? No we don’t! Starting from the point that development work is all about empowerment (power and capacity to affect one’s own present and future path), we are talking about shifting power relations, helping to develop one’s own development vision and one’s own development capacity. This is all about behaviour change and behaviour change takes a very slow route, perhaps a generation’s time to affect society;

3)      Are we using the right metrics to assess if our approach makes sense? Judging from recent reads about monitoring of knowledge management approaches (upcoming IKM Emergent paper), I don’t think so, even though some efforts are currently undertaken to try and start from the premise that the world is complex and simple metrics cannot grasp the full picture of behavioural changes – and for that matter, that metrics themselves may not always be the most adequate way to assess change, as the current narrative monitoring trend shows.

4)      Who do we have to convince about changing those expectations? This concerns us all: practitioners focusing on doing doing doing without do-cumenting and analysing (see an earlier post on this); donors pulling the financial strings of development work and imposing sometimes conflicting logical frameworks and reporting requirements to assess if we can achieve a pre-set vision that may not work, that may not even be appropriate or demanded and whose results are likely to return to dust a couple of years after the end of the project; researchers, who are so good at identifying bottlenecks and issues for improvement but are not always really grounded in the reality where they set their research projects. Development is slow, because it is about behaviour change and because the behaviour of ‘recipients’ is very different to the behaviour of the (particularly Northern) development cooperation community, so it takes a while to come to understanding each other, let alone achieving change together. But anyway it is the local pace that matters, the local vision that should drive development, the local capacity that should start the works, the local understanding that should conceptualise approaches. And there we are failing rather miserably… but there is some light in there…

Learning from failures: when another break in the wall becomes another brick in the wall

Learning from failures: when another break in the wall becomes another brick in the wall

5)      When it comes to obsessing with success, yes and no. Success is the right vision, but success stories are perhaps not the right path to follow. Dave Snowden already wrote quite a bit about the importance of learning from failures – including his recent update of his principles of rendering knowledge and a specific focus here on this principle: ‘Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success’. He is not the only one: see http://mistakebank.ning.com and a host of blog posts about this topic, as different as http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2007/12/16/sharing-the-bad-stuff-learning-from-failures, http://www.1000ventures.com/business_guide/crosscuttings/failure_managing.html or http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/how-to-learn-from-mistakes/ – all coming from a recent Googling). And all these authors have many points there but I’d like to insist on a few:

it is much easier to identify what didn’t go well and what particular factor triggered a negative spiral than to identify what did go well (because that is the result of a combination of factors); success tends to quench the thirst for learning (hence the expressions ‘resting on one’s laurels’ or in Dutch the ‘wet van de remmende voorsprong’ or handicap of the headstart); failure is an opportunity to do things differently and it thereby invites innovation; and finally, success tends to divide and failure tends to unite energies, and if development work needs anything, it’s uniting energies…

So all in all let’s keep focusing on the road to success based on a positive vision of the future, but let’s also focus on the reasons behind our failures, in all honesty, because what can unite us is not blaming whoever failed but finding out how to get it right next and relentlessly learning to get to increasingly right questions. In this respect, another break in the wall becomes another brick in the wall – and I just notice how peculiar it is to blog about walls from Berlin…

Related posts:

Twitter noise… sorting it out

Since I made this blog more visible, there is one little glitch that has been slightly annoying,  particularly to the brave ones among you who subscribed to this blog: My Twitter feeds are automatically part of the update that you receive as part of the subscription service. But perhaps you couldn’t care less about those short messages, and that is fair enough.

So please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused by my twittering over the last few days.

I am working on this right now so please bear with me and I hope to sort this out at soonest (i.e. hopefully today, May 2). In the meantime, for those of you who may not know what Twitter is, check this video which explains it very well. Currently Twitter is being presented by its proponents as the next biggest thing on the internet since the advent of the web. On the other hand, many people also point out to the futility of Twitter, the void of its conversations, the problems of effectiveness it creates, the fact that it’s simply crap etc.

Loving Twitter or loathing clatter?

Loving Twitter or loathing clatter?

My take on it?

As any other technology, Twitter can be used in many different ways but also for some specific contexts. It is our job, as users, to define how to use the technology, not to assume that either it works for only one purpose or that it can do everything to everyone. Whatever the use you define for yourself (including not using Twitter), Twitter is the talk of town at the moment, in line with the striking passion for social networking, and for that reason it is an interesting phenomenon to consider. Perhaps more on how I use Twitter later, it’s not the purpose of this post 😉

Make your own judgment!

Some interesting recent articles and posts I read about this include: