Capacity development, organisational development, institutional change – The extended happy families of engagement

Encouraged by your comments on the post ‘Communication, KM, monitoring, learning – The happy families of engagement’, here is a follow up post attempting to complete the picture of the families of engagement. And despite my immediately previous post, this is the real final blog post for 2011.

So, the three main branches of the family have been mapped out (1): communication, knowledge management and monitoring. But as in any fascinating family, the engagement family has lots of extended branches that enrich the colourful engagement family tree. Here are just a few more that are worth considering:

Capacity development (image: AmuDarya basin)

Capacity development (image: AmuDarya basin)

The Capacity development branch. This branch aims at beefing up the potential of people to do their job better. And since work is better done together, it also focuses on engagement to get more people in its network. This part of the family kept changing names through history. It was originally known as training but its members said it was too restrictive a name for what the whole family does – so the first son kept that name but the whole family itself was re-baptised capacity building, but then it was accused of suggesting that capacity had to be built from scratch. So it became capacity development.

  • Training remains the most prominent son. Under pressure, however, it changed its approach. Where it used to bring people together intensively for two to three weeks, it now invites people for a couple or more days but repeats this exercise across a more extensive period and with more sustained interactions in and between training sessions. It seems to work out better for him now: Engagement around a process rather than just an event. Despite those more recent changes, it is still challenged by other branch members.
  • A sister in the lot is coaching. She has been around for a long time, in fact a much longer time than training although in the old age she was rather known as mentoring and apprenticeship. Her objective is to follow the practice of people over much longer time, to assess that practice in situ, identify good practices and provide a safe space to make mistakes and improve; her approach thus aims at giving better advice, going more deeply in the perspective of excelling at a function and of benefitting from others’ experience. Coaching is thus all about deep, not wide engagement.
  • Quite a few even younger siblings are coming to light: exchange visits, job rotation etc. For this branch of the family, learning is also essential. And it has become increasingly virtual in the past few years. The capacity development branch has been in touch with the distance learning relatives and this is really bringing engagement across various means of communication. Some are jealous of the booming business of this branch – certainly in the development/cooperation arena.
Organisational Development - too top down to fare well today?

Organisational Development

In contrast, the organisational development branch is not enjoying much wind in its sails these days. It is very close to the organisational learning brother in the KM family and it is basically concerned with all the ways that an organisation can perform more effectively. In fact, some argue that this is not really a branch in its own but rather a clan bringing different relatives together from the KM, communication, capacity development and monitoring branches.

  • The one person that rallies all of them under this banner however is the ambitious organisational leadership. Driven by entrepreneurship, this cocky lad is quite happy to shine brightly and show its managerial capacities. But it does so with a purpose: to bring the organisation to the next level. So it’s not pure flash and tack. He knows that without having a sincere goal that transcends self interest, it will never manage to bring the people that form organisation to that next level – so engagement has to be its mantra.
  • To ease this job, he is backed by his more distant cousin group dynamics, who knows how to get teams to work together and contribute to the bigger organisation. It is easier to rely on well-functioning teams than high individual performers only. Yet it’s still not enough.
  • Organisational learning is thus part of this family enterprise to make sure that group dynamics works in accordance with the goal and perceives the value of its successful efforts and the lessons of its not so successful ventures.
  • Change management also joins the club sometimes, to give advice from a system perspective, because the branch realises that it’s not possible to develop an organisation without adopting a broader perspective of systemic change. He is however much more related to the next branch of the family, the institutional change.

Some views on this branch even relate it to action research. It’s unclear where exactly this branch fits… and it is handing over to…

Institutional development

Institutional development

The Institutional change branch: close to the ‘organisational development’ branch, this family has a slightly broader look. It really aims at having a wider effect than the organisational clan. This branch believes in large scale engagement and logically talks a lot about systems thinking, change management and complexity. Subsequently, it is sometimes accused of being delusional (‘how can you achieve change at such a large scale?’) or too intellectual (‘you and your systems!‘). But for all this, it is enjoying a great wave of popularity at the moment.

  • The patriarch of this branch is institutional development. He is a reformed organisational development relative who has decided to branch out and look outside the organisational box. He quickly perceived the importance of the context surrounding the organisation if change is the overall objective. Engagement was in his DNA and he first looked at the edges of the organisation: the networks and personal relations that evolve as conscious or unconscious satellites of the organisation. He moved into networks and foundations, collective units of organisation, including legal aspects (statutes) etc. He has now brothers and sisters that adequately complement his ambitions technically and ethically.
  • Multi-stakeholder processes are the twin brothers and sisters that want to bring all kinds of people together to connect, learn and act together. They are very demanding, they eat a lot of resources (time and money) and they really need someone to help facilitating their interactions. But they offer a relatively practical solution for this branch’s objectives of wide scale engagement. Next to institutional development’s approach of changing organisations, they propose to combine forces between organisations; and that just fits the family ethos.
  • Social change is the turbulent little sister. She cries for social justice, she craves freedom, empowerment and engagement in favour of the (more) socially-deprived. Engagement is her main strategy and she wants to mobilise all her family members to help in this. She’s not considered very serious by some family members, but she knows that some extraordinary figures from the past are on her side, the likes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. And she also knows that focusing on changing people one by one is a long but right track to flip institutions over too.

A family in transition?

It’s worth noting a few trends affecting the main families of engagement:

In the main communication branch, two trends are moving things around. Every family evolves over time to espouse the zeitgeist and practical arrangements that come with it:

  • On the one hand, the communication branch is going ‘strategic’. This is the new motto to bring all family members in the same car for a journey to visit their contacts (their audiences) and have them come together as one, to align their methods and skills. In practice, having all members onboard does not mean that they play a melodious tune together. And the journey can be quite chaotic. But you have to praise the comms family for its intention to have one whole family experience. There’s chances that if they keep doing such journeys, one day they will play a beautiful tune together.
  • On the other hand when the family goes on a journey to developing countries, and perhaps as a result of going ‘strategic’, the communication family is really moving away from their original ‘messages’ approach. It was too uni–directional. They have all realised to some extent the value of genuine bilateral engagement.
  • Some elements of the family are coming back in the picture. It’s the case with coaching but also with the wild cousin storytelling mentioned in the previous ‘happy families’ post. is actually an age-old family member who’s been passing through the history of his engagement relatives time and time again to tell his tales and disappear again. He is celebrated again these days – is it yet another hype or is storytelling going to stick around this time?

Finally, much could be said about all the other clans evolving next to the engagement family. Some commenters mentioned artistic expression, psychology, I would add humour and jokes and all kinds of other related groups that gravitate around the engagement family and other families too.

At the end of the day, regardless of the specific portrait of each family, and regardless of their current and possible future transitions, what matters is that all these families contribute to more engagement across the board and in a networked way. In this sense, the elephant in the room that Harold Jarche mentioned in a post about managing engagement is perhaps indeed the networked approach that all engagement family branches are trying to follow, consciously or not. But perhaps the real elephant in the room is the collective sense-making and mobilisation of energies directed at a wider goal – in this sense social change is perhaps leading the pack.

But we’re not quite there yet, neither in the networked ways nor in the networked social change. Now we’re still at the stage of nurturing engagement, and such a family seems on the right path. For what good and what worth offers a family if not a place to develop deep relationships, trust in each other and trust in life, starting with the most basic steps of engagement?


  1. Again, this family tree does not pretend to be exhaustive nor the way to look at engagement.

Related blog posts:


Merry Christmas – see you next year!

Another year of blogging and time for me to stop and find my family again after two months of separation coinciding with taking my new responsibilities at ILRI.

I wish you a great end of year and Christmas celebrations if that’s appropriate for you.

Before I leave you, I want to thank all of you who have shared reflections, information, inspirations this past year. You are what makes this blog my favourite online hobby and I hope we will engage ever more next year. I also hope the quality of my blogging will improve to make this place a more inspiring and pertinent space for you!

And on a final note, here is the top 10 blog posts that have scored the highest amount of views in 2011 – whether justifiably or not:

  1. Learning cycle basics and more: Taking stock
  2. Settling the eternal semantic debate: what is knowledge, what is information…
  3. Cycles, circles and ripples of learning
  4. Communication, KM, monitoring, learning – The happy families of engagement
  5. Storytelling: Taking stock
  6. Radical ideals and fluffy bunnies
  7. The ever learning organisation
  8. Harvesting insights (2): Beautiful KM
  9. KISS my comms
  10. Network monitoring & evaluation: Taking stock
Merry Christmas and until next year!

What to expect from a workshop – blinding, bridging and binding experiences?

To kick-start my last blogging week this year, I wanted to follow up on an exchange I had on Twitter with @cosmocat a.k.a. Chahira Nouira. A couple of weeks back she was sharing her expectations from a workshop she was attending (Online Educa Berlin, #OEB11 on Twitter) and it boiled down to ‘connecting, inspiration, learning’.

Connecting inspiration learning - @Cosmocat's expectation

Connecting inspiration learning - @Cosmocat's expectation

That is a very valuable goal for a workshop, but why exactly this combination? And how does it tie in together, if it does at all? The question really is worthwhile, considering the amount of workshops, conferences and other events that most of us attend in a typical year; and considering that most of us probably would share any or all of these expectations at different times. So how and when exactly do we connect, find inspiration and learn at events?

Inspiration happens without any physical contact – instead of us, our hearts, minds and souls mingle and meet with their environment. Inspiration could rush out of hearing a quote, relating something that happens with a totally separate event or memory, seeing a new combination possible. In an event, it could just be about finding a presentation excellent, hearing a very good speaker or a very astute question, seeing the possibility of bringing two people to know each other… Inspiration is thus essentially a personal unilateral experience, it does not require someone else. Though of course, a someone else would very likely stimulate inspiration much further, especially if contact and dialogue with that someone else is sustained. Hence connecting…

Connecting has two meanings: a) getting in contact and b) establishing a (somewhat deeper) connection. Let’s not focus on the former here because it does not say anything about thoughts or emotions.  The second meaning of ‘connecting’ implies that it happens with the awareness that a deeper connection is being established. We connect with someone and we realise it. Like the blink moment that Malcolm Gladwell was talking about. Thus connecting happens either when two people meet, hear each other’s ideas/emotions/inspirations (and their minds/hearts/souls mingle) and acknowledge that they share a common experience or appreciation. Connecting requires interaction and that interaction can take various shapes during an event:

  • We come to workshops to hear and meet specific persons based on previous connections or based on these people’s work/fame and we interact with their presentations or speeches;
  • We meet other people as part of workshop group work and we find those connections when working together;
  • We meet people through common acquaintances, when we are introduced to someone else and may have that ‘blink’ moment (or not);
  • We just end up meeting a lot of people in random situations when chatting at coffee and lunch breaks, during outings, for some when having a smoke etc. Again a case of blink or not. But it goes beyond the spur of inspiration.

Now learninghappens on the brink of inspiration and on the basis of connection. Inspiration is (sometimes) what makes learning possible, because it excites curiosity and opens our shell for new experiences. Inspiration makes way for connection: the enlightening or blinding moment leads the way to the bridging moment. Once the bridge is established between two newly connected people, learning between them can happen. The pearls of social learning reveal themselves when inspiration meets connection.

Learning also brings the experience one step further. Inspiration could be just a glimpse, a shooting star. Connecting could be just a very enjoyable moment of chat. Learning, however, is a transformative experience that can only happen when other elements are conjured up. From blinding to bridging to binding.

”]Weaving the pearls of learning with inspiration & connection [Photo: Ash-S_FlickR]What about Chahira’s expectations? From this small experience, we can deduce that Chahira is almost certain to have found some inspiration (unless she went to the conference only to score free coffee and cookies 😉 – which I very much doubt), she most likely connected with a few people in different ways and hopefully she also learneda couple of things.

Chahira, what was your verdict of #OEB11 then?

From evil-inflexible to fantastic-elastic, the not-so-simple shades of willingness to change

In an era of change, it seems very easy and almost officially appropriate to criticise the resistance to change (1) of some people, or simply their need for structure, their uninspired inflexibility. On the other hand, it seems indicated to praise the elasticity of others’ minds – the liquid minds – as they are naturals in embracing change and seem able to adapt to any circumstance.

Yet, this picture is not black and white. Change, and openness to it are dancing along the shades of grey. Inflexibility comes with a reason, and provoking people by pointing to their inflexibility usually reinforces it, if anything. Alternatively, inviting people to reflect on their own stance in a friendly way can do wonders to reduce their inflexibility. If we agree that the challenge, in change processes, is to get people to review their static/solid behaviour and need for structure and turn to a more dynamic/liquid state of mind, then let’s examine some of the major factors at play behind the behaviours stigmatised as inflexible:

There are at least 50 reasons to change and not all are bad (Credits: from MP Bumsted, Biocultural Science & Management)

There are at least 50 reasons to change and not all are bad (Credits: MP Bumsted, Biocultural Science & Management)


Or rather, lack of information. The first barrier to change. Why would you change if you don’t know what you could do differently? However, stigmatising ignorance slows down change as it tends to rigidify behaviours – thus raise barriers to change – whereas providing information or knowledge instead might bring people one step closer to change.

What can be done about it?

Listen to the reasons why they do what they do, ask what’s good about it, ask where it might be limited, ask them if they’ve heard about other ways to do their work, share your own experiences and point them to others with a similar profile to hear their peers’ experiences.


Second barrier. People may be aware about possibilities for change, but they’re busy with something else. Very busy. In the famous – and thoroughly prejudiced – ‘silo’, focus is sometimes what leads people to keep going their usual way. They may not want to dilute their focus. It is not a bad thing, is it? On the contrary, focus allows a team to find a common language and dynamics. It only turns inflexibly bad when the focus is pursued to such an extreme that no change is ever considered. But the primary rationale behind silos is actually valid. In addition, while silo thinking might look static and inflexible from the outside, it can be extremely vibrant from the inside. Think twice about focus…

What can be done about it?

Listen to them, understand their focus, ask what is good about it and where it might have limits, gently hint at the missed opportunities by not communicating enough with other focused minds outside.


Third barrier to change. Perhaps they have all the information needed and they’re ready to move beyond their original focus. But in their change process, they tend to have a rather inflexible and mechanistic approach. Well here’s the thing: the less one knows about a field, the more s/he feels insecure about it. In those circumstances, we human beings tend to fight our insecurity by looking for structure, order and rules to make sense of the field around us and to get to grips with it. We follow the rules by the book and cook the recipe step by step. It might appear slightly neurotic, but actually it’s only following good scientific practice: starting with the maximum clarity and working our way up the analysis chain adding increasingly subtle and confusing factors in the mix. Only once we have enough knowledge of a field – particularly experiential knowledge – do we feel emboldened to look at the edges and play with the rules or reject them altogether to replace them with other guiding principles.

What can be done about it?

Accept that insecurity and don’t stigmatise it. Instead, offer to experiment together with them – and crucially to reflect along the way – to bring them the experiential knowledge that may free them from the rules. If nothing changes still, we should also recognise that we all have different coping mechanisms; they may not seem logical to others, but they work for us, and that’s fair enough. Let it be.

Understanding the dynamic nature of a process of change

For all these reasons, before one changes their behaviour and accepts to move off the wall, out of the beaten track and away from the box, they usually need to stick to the wall, follow the beaten track and own the box. It takes time. It takes experience, trying and trying and failing and thinking and trying again. Little by little, rigidity makes way to softer, more playful approaches and eventually our attitude is liquid enough to go with the flow.

The lessons here?

Don’t be too quick to judge someone’s apparent inflexibility and need for structure (2); instead adopt a dynamic approach and gauge where – in their own process of change – they  are. Then reach out to them, to help them find their own way to the flow of change.


(1)    See all the results of a google search for “resistance to change” to understand that this is a focus area for many.

(2)    See one example in this recent post about ‘how to be creative while following rules

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