I have been reflecting on the inherent challenges of building the capacity of local organisations in development and I believe that adopting a systems perspective is a very useful lens for assessing capacity needs and for identifying points of intervention.
This shouldn’t be surprising given that it has been argued that organisations should be viewed as complex-adaptive systems , and thus any efforts to change or improve them need to take this into account.
Knowledge Transfer – A Narrow Approach to Capacity Building
From my experience working within a local research organisation in Ethiopia I have found that too often capacity building initiatives adopt a very narrow approach, in which capacity building becomes largely limited to the transfer of knowledge.
For example, in this organisation most capacity building initiatives funded by development partners focus on providing technical training to research staff and sponsoring researchers to attend conferences or workshops (or less frequently, funding the procurement of vehicles and research equipment). Consequently many broader organisational capacity constraints are not addressed and most of the capacity development is confined to the individual staff involved in the training.
This is not to discount the value and importance of such types of capacity building initiatives. However, the impact and benefits of such capacity building initiatives is constrained in this case because the organisation is lacking the resources and administrative capacity to make full use of such advances in technical training. In particular, it lacks the necessary support systems to effectively manage and communicate its knowledge and research outputs in order to make an impact through it research.
Capacity Building from a Systems Perspective
In order to illuminate the capacity building needs within local organisations applying a systems perspective can reveal much more about the inherent organisational capacity constraints and identify a range of potential areas in need of capacity building.
For example, I have been exploring options for improving data and knowledge management practices within the research organisation mentioned above. One of these initiatives included the development of a computerised data management system to store and manage the data associated with one of the organisations research technologies.
On the surface this may seem like a relatively simple exercise, to design and implement a suitable database system that captures and stores all the important data associated with the research technology. However, as I have discovered (not unexpectedly) that numerous challenges have made this a very complex task, and many of the issues are directly related to the broader capacity of the organisation.
Some key challenges included a lack sufficient ICT infrastructure to support an enterprise-level data management system, a lack of human resources to manage such a data management system, a lack organisational understanding of computerised data management systems in general, and moreover, existing organisation structures and support systems that are firmly rooted in paper-based administrative procedures (arguably for good reason I should add given the frequent power outages and lack of a generator).
Without understanding all of these issues (i.e. adopting a systems perspective) it would be easy for an outsider to think that the solution to the capacity gap, being the absence of a data management system, would be to develop a suitably designed database.
However, as I have highlighted, the seemingly straight-forward task of developing a data management system actually represents a major organisational improvement and change management initiative. One that requires not only the development of a suitably designed data management system, but also investment in ICT and human resources to support such a system (and potentially a complete organisational restructure).
Given the organisational context as described, any future efforts to building the technical capacity of the organisation without addressing the broader organisation capacity constraints is likely to have very little return on investment.
This couldn’t be made clearer than the fact that I discovered some training materials from a workshop that a former employee of my organisation had attended on knowledge management. To his credit he had actually prepared a draft plan for how some of the ideas could be implemented to address some of these organisational capacity issues. But apparently nothing ever eventuated from this plan, and when he left the organisation all the knowledge and ‘capacity’ that he had gained went with him.
The critical point is that capacity building initiatives being developed for local organisations should adopt a systems perspective when seeking to identify suitable areas of intervention. In particular, they need to move beyond delivering technical training and the funding of equipment and also consider investment in organisational level capacity requirements.
Admittedly this would not be a simple process, and could come up against internal political issues around the allocation and management of resources. As such, using approaches such as Problem-Driven Iterative Adaption may be a useful for guiding such a process.