Making your research accessible

Lacking in ‘capacity’? Why workshopping isn’t always the (whole) answer!

By 14 December 2011

In the Summer of 2005, I can remember watching a report during the evening news on the state run national broadcaster in Zambia on the implementation of the first round of Global Fund funding which aimed to ‘develop capacities’ in the fight against HIV&AIDS. Scene after scene of workshops, seminars and meetings with happy participants receiving certificates declaring them to have sufficient knowledge to prevent and combat HIV&AIDS.  I thought cynically to myself that the only outcome of note to emerge from the Global Funds investment was a massive growth in the hospitality industry!

So how useful are workshops in developing capacities and ultimately achieving developmental outcomes? A recent paper by ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme, which provides research, advisory and capacity development services on the role of knowledge in policy-making, touches on this area and outlines some lessons learned and recommendations for future support. Since the programme’s inception nearly a decade ago,  RAPID staff, in response to high levels of demand, have delivered in excess of a hundred workshops and seminars around the globe on topics such as policy entrepreneurship, how to develop policy engagement plans as well as research communications, lasting from a few hours to five days, depending on what clients want.

They have been the one of the main ways in which RAPID has communicated its work particularly in recent years. And we’ve tried to make them participatory, building on the experiences and lessons of participants. We’ve then shared our approaches, methodology and/or a set of tools (backed up by research and laid out in take-away hand-outs) and enabled them to explore if and how the approaches can be applied in their own context. Surgeries or clinics have also been piloted successfully during research communication workshops with time set aside at the end of a workshop to allow participants to revisit issues with the facilitator(s), expert guests and/or with each other through one-to-one or peer support.  Workshops have enabled us to get immediate feedback and test new hypotheses and ideas with an engaged and interested audience. And they’ve allowed us to tailor our messages to very specific audience needs and interests.

RAPID staff have delivered over a hundred workshops on bridging research and policy

However, workshops are good for raising awareness about an issue, introducing new topics and developing skills, but not for actually promoting change. Transformative changes, only happen when individuals have the space to test and reflect on tools, methods and approaches over a longer period of time. Moreover, workshops rarely include other personnel and colleagues from within an organisation who are critical in making change happen – such as project officers, communicators, senior managers, leaving the job of researchers (who might attend workshops) in putting theory into practice more difficult. Add to this the complex organisational settings in which individuals sit and you find that these simple interventions such as two day workshops are, on the whole, unlikely to make a difference on their own.

Establishing communities of practice enabling a group of people to engage with each other after the workshop to help develop each other’s skills and abilities, and/or taking an action learning approach enabling a provider to observe and coach clients over an extended period of time, can therefore be important follow up activities to work-shopping. But invariably these are labour intensive and can be more difficult to sell to donors and clients who are having to cut costs, even when they can provide more and better learning opportunities.

Nevertheless, this approach doesn’t work in all circumstances. For instance, action learning did not get off the ground in Vietnam, where we were unable to speak Vietnamese. Speaking through interpreters was seen as too cumbersome, given the intensity of the dialogue, as well as too expensive, given its long term nature. Furthermore, taking an action learning approach ‘remotely’ by email and phone is also challenging, unless it was highly structured, and the participants are incentivised to stick to the plan. The challenge then is to work with providers of capacity building within the local context even if they are not familiar with the topic (in this case getting research findings into action). Not only do they speak the local languages, they are able to understand the local context and cultural sensitivities, know the professional, formal and informal networks and familiar with the work environment. But that’s for another blog post…

  • Kirsty

    Great article Ajoy. I totally agree. Workshops can be a very useful way to raise awareness, to build knowledge and skills and also to create a network who can provide ongoing support and mentoring to each other BUT we should not assume that they will inevitable lead to behaviour change.

    • A Datta

      Thanks Kirsty, I came across some writing by Allan Kaplan who says:
      capacity has a number of characteristics in an organisational setting:

      ·        
      Context and
      conceptual framework: which reflects the organisation’s understanding of its
      world and its attitude towards it

      ·        
      Vision: this sets
      out what the organisation will do to respond to its context

      ·        
      Strategy: this
      outlines how the organisation intends to realise its vision and entails the
      development of as well as designing the organisation around particular
      methodologies of practice

      ·        
      Culture: these
      are the norms and values that are practised in the organisation – including the
      way of life and the how things are done

      ·        
      Structure: this
      outlines and differentiates amongst other things, the roles and functions of
      staff, lines of communication and accountability and decision making procedures
       

      ·        
      Skills: this
      refers to the skills, abilities and competencies of staff·         Material resources:and organisation needs material resources
      such as finances, equipment and office space.      These tend to form a hierarchy in terms of things to address in improving organisational capacity with the conceptual framework at the top and material resources at the bottom       Kaplan highlights the often invisible nature
      of these elements. While, material and financial resources, skills,
      organisational structures and systems tend to be visible elements of the
      hierarchy, vision, strategy and values are often invisible. Despite many
      organisations having written statements of these values, they tend not to
      indicate whether an organisation has a working understanding of its world, or
      the extent to which it might be striving to become for instance a learning
      organisation.        As such “many, if not most, capacity development interventions
      tend to focus on the lower end of the hierarchy and because of that seem not to change the fundamental patterns in the
      organisation. Also much support is in the form of advice giving; ‘trying to get
      organisations to make changes that consultants think will be good for them;
      rather than strengthening them through a form of facilitation which enables
      them to come to grips with their own business ad thus developing the top
      elements.      Food for thought…

    • A Datta

      Thanks Kirsty, I came across some writing by Allan Kaplan who says:
      capacity has a number of characteristics in an organisational setting:

      ·        
      Context and
      conceptual framework: which reflects the organisation’s understanding of its
      world and its attitude towards it

      ·        
      Vision: this sets
      out what the organisation will do to respond to its context

      ·        
      Strategy: this
      outlines how the organisation intends to realise its vision and entails the
      development of as well as designing the organisation around particular
      methodologies of practice

      ·        
      Culture: these
      are the norms and values that are practised in the organisation – including the
      way of life and the how things are done

      ·        
      Structure: this
      outlines and differentiates amongst other things, the roles and functions of
      staff, lines of communication and accountability and decision making procedures
       

      ·        
      Skills: this
      refers to the skills, abilities and competencies of staff·         Material resources:and organisation needs material resources
      such as finances, equipment and office space.      These tend to form a hierarchy in terms of things to address in improving organisational capacity with the conceptual framework at the top and material resources at the bottom       Kaplan highlights the often invisible nature
      of these elements. While, material and financial resources, skills,
      organisational structures and systems tend to be visible elements of the
      hierarchy, vision, strategy and values are often invisible. Despite many
      organisations having written statements of these values, they tend not to
      indicate whether an organisation has a working understanding of its world, or
      the extent to which it might be striving to become for instance a learning
      organisation.        As such “many, if not most, capacity development interventions
      tend to focus on the lower end of the hierarchy and because of that seem not to change the fundamental patterns in the
      organisation. Also much support is in the form of advice giving; ‘trying to get
      organisations to make changes that consultants think will be good for them;
      rather than strengthening them through a form of facilitation which enables
      them to come to grips with their own business ad thus developing the top
      elements.      Food for thought…

    • A Datta

      Thanks Kirsty, I came across some writing by Allan Kaplan who says:
      capacity has a number of characteristics in an organisational setting:

      ·        
      Context and
      conceptual framework: which reflects the organisation’s understanding of its
      world and its attitude towards it

      ·        
      Vision: this sets
      out what the organisation will do to respond to its context

      ·        
      Strategy: this
      outlines how the organisation intends to realise its vision and entails the
      development of as well as designing the organisation around particular
      methodologies of practice

      ·        
      Culture: these
      are the norms and values that are practised in the organisation – including the
      way of life and the how things are done

      ·        
      Structure: this
      outlines and differentiates amongst other things, the roles and functions of
      staff, lines of communication and accountability and decision making procedures
       

      ·        
      Skills: this
      refers to the skills, abilities and competencies of staff·         Material resources:and organisation needs material resources
      such as finances, equipment and office space.      These tend to form a hierarchy in terms of things to address in improving organisational capacity with the conceptual framework at the top and material resources at the bottom       Kaplan highlights the often invisible nature
      of these elements. While, material and financial resources, skills,
      organisational structures and systems tend to be visible elements of the
      hierarchy, vision, strategy and values are often invisible. Despite many
      organisations having written statements of these values, they tend not to
      indicate whether an organisation has a working understanding of its world, or
      the extent to which it might be striving to become for instance a learning
      organisation.        As such “many, if not most, capacity development interventions
      tend to focus on the lower end of the hierarchy and because of that seem not to change the fundamental patterns in the
      organisation. Also much support is in the form of advice giving; ‘trying to get
      organisations to make changes that consultants think will be good for them;
      rather than strengthening them through a form of facilitation which enables
      them to come to grips with their own business ad thus developing the top
      elements.      Food for thought…

  • Thank you for this article.  I am very much interested in what you said: “The challenge then is to work with providers of capacity building within
    the local context even if they are not familiar with the topic (in this
    case getting research findings into action)” particularly the ‘getting research findings into action” as I want to study the challenges of mainstreaming research findings of a local study into local development plans.  Would you be able to point me towards more articles which deal with ‘getting research findings into action’?

    I would be grateful if you can as I am currently writing a dissertation proposal and I need to thresh out many things and your article has given me some ideas, so I hope to read more.  Thanks!

    -Aaron

    • A Datta

      HI Aaron, the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) Programme at the ODI is all about trying to understand and provide advice on how to get research into action. check out the website at http://www.odi.org.uk/rapid. and get in touch if you want through the team/contacts page