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How do systems perspectives make us view capacity development differently?

By 27/03/2014

Robbie Gregorowski’s post on Capacity development: how should we reframe it from the digital age? Introduced ‘Capacity Development 2’ or CD2.  This is a conceptual framework developed by team of Itad consultants and associates  (Robbie, Cheryl, Isabel, Mel and Pete) for drawing together recent thinking on capacity development.  Robbie introduced the five core components of a CD2 approach on the Itad blog last month.  We have just published a follow up, discussing how ‘systems perspectives’ and complexity thinking can influence the way we think about capacity development.

Systems perspectives and complexity

Complex systems perspectives (as discussed by Ben Ramalingam, Harry Jones and Duncan Green) suggest that development interventions do not always lead to change in a rational, linear way that can be predicted in advance.  Instead, behaviours and interactions combine and amplify one another in diverse and sometimes surprising ways, with consequences that no-one could have predicted.

What does this mean for capacity development?  At least three things:

1. We need to focus on the many factors that influence behaviours and motives.

Complex systems perspectives emphasise the importance of focusing on the real, unpredictable people targeted by a capacity building initiative, and thinking about the many factors that influence their behaviour.  A complex systems view encourages us to look beyond skills and adopt multiple, parallel interventions to also target social influences and communication behaviours.

2. We need to expect change to be unpredictable, and be ready to adapt.

Complexity approaches also emphasise the unpredictable nature of change, stress that events interact and reinforce each other in a non-linear way, and suggest that small actions can have large consequences across a system.  What this means is that the willingness and ability to adapt an intervention might be essential to the success of capacity building interventions.  We may need to take an attitude of experimentation.  We need to be ready to try new ideas and drop others based on regular and ongoing feedback.

3. We need to understand networks and relationships.

Traditional approaches to capacity development often focus on individuals. However, the relationships between individuals are often just as important.  Network approaches, from formal Social Network Analysis, to low-key participatory techniques like NetMap, can provide a tool for exploring:

  • Who has influence within certain networks?
  • Who is well connected to other people, and who is poorly connected?
  • How does information and influence flow between different actors?

Join the discussion:

These are only three of many implications of applying systems perspectives to capacity development.   Do you have any other examples?  And have you ever applied complexity thinking to capacity development?  We will be back with more on CD2 on the Itad blog over the next few weeks.

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