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INASP’s reflections on lessons from recent research communication capacity building experiences

[Editor's note: Dr Alexander Ademokun is the Acting Head of Programme for Evidence-informed Policy Making (EIPM) at INASP. This post is in response to Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?Capacity development: it is time to think about new ways of generating and sharing knowledge, and Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences]

This is the third in a series of posts in response to a paper that Enrique and Martine produced after evaluating a capacity building for research communication project implemented by INASP and ODI.  There have been some very thoughtful discussions about this paper on the evidence-based policy in development (ebpdn) discussion forum and a couple of interesting blog posts from Caroline Cassidy from the RAPID team at ODI and Vanesa Weyruch from CIPPEC.

The report makes some key arguments and some recommendations from the assessment of this initiative.  During the discussions on ebpdn one of the points that came out was that these lessons, while focusing on a capacity building for research communication project, are relevant to capacity building initiatives more broadly.  Some issues from the discussion that I think are worth exploring further in the context of a wider capacity development conversation are:

  • The need to understand the internal systems of the organisation you are working with:  In the case of this project it is about internal communication systems but in other contexts it may be about the organisational culture or finding out how your project fits into a wider organisation strategy.  This takes time and is labour intensive but it is worth doing from the start.  It also ensures that even if you are building capacity at the individual level it fits into a wider institutional plan and the added capacity is more likely to be made use of.  Understanding where your project fits within a wider plan also reduces the tendency of responding to every call irrespective of ability or capacity to deliver.

For some service providers and intermediary organisations this may mean doing less but better and also being able to say no to offers of new projects.  There is an on-going conversation within the EIPM team at INASP about how we can balance the need to more deeply understand the organisations and context we work in whilst still finding the time to do all the activities we would like to.

  • Work locally and build on what already exists:  This message came through very strongly from Enrique’s and Martine’s report.  This raises some issues that we need to engage with. For instance working locally presumes the capacity and infrastructure exists to deliver the goals of the project.  If they do, that’s great.  If they don’t, have you got the time and expertise to truly build the necessary capacity at the target institution?  You may even find after engaging with the organisation that you are not best placed to deliver what’s needed – will you say so?

The tendency to plug a capacity gap with a highly visible workshop is strong but we know that to build long term solutions you will have to engage more.  This involves asking whose goals you are working towards and how flexible these goals are – is the capacity that is being developed a goal in itself or a means to an end?  The report talks about developing communication strategies with no money for implementation.  This led to lack of interest and lack of ownership.  The model of building on what already exists is illustrated by the example that Enrique gave on the ebpdn where he has decided to take a step back and work with organisations to build organisational communications strategies before building a strategy for a particular external project.  We can all learn from this approach but it requires commitment from the grantees, intermediaries and donors to recognise that we are not just thinking about our specific project but, again, about the sustainability of the capacity you are trying to develop.

Interests, incentives and commitment:  We need to take the time to understand why participants in an initiative are there.  The report mentions some participants who took part because they felt it was important to donors.  For some of us trainers or service providers an opportunity to try something new or work with a particular organisation may be our incentive.  We need to be clear about what we are each trying to achieve by being in the room before we even get started.

This is also linked to commitment.  It is easier to commit if we know what we are committing to: what does the end of the project look like and what happens at the end?  Does the end mean funds stop coming in, mentoring support stops or does the end simply mean a date three years’ down the line?  Working with all involved – funders, grantees and intermediaries to clearly define the end of a project (and what it means beyond financial support) is important at the start of the project.

Use the right people and understand the context:  The report highlighted the value of using local or regional facilitators who may have a better understanding of the context.  Over the last few years, INASP has used the training of trainers’ approach to build a cohort with both the capacity and the remit to deliver capacity building initiatives locally.  A report from a recent workshop in Asia for trainers of policy makers can be found here.  The years doing this work has taught us that just because you are a subject expert does not mean you are a good trainer.  Spending the time to find or build the capacity of trainers to train is just as important as developing or delivering content.  Likewise getting the trainers to understand the content and context before jumping in to deliver an ‘interactive’ workshop is important.  There is only so much small group work/drawing/flipcharts can do if your participants think you don’t understand their realities.  This need to understand how to train is an often undervalued aspect of capacity building.

Linked to this is the understanding that workshops are not the magic bullet they are often thought to be.  At INASP we use workshops as part of a package of activities to engage.  Sometimes this may mean taking the same group of participants through a series of workshops instead of trying to deliver everything in five days.  Other options include adding on a mentoring process before and after a workshop or mixing workshops with other learning models be they online, country visits or peer-exchanges.

We know most of this but don’t always do it yet we respond when the same issues are raised.  This tells me we want to do better.  Using the opportunities and networks we have to share our learning and constructively challenge our approaches is a good thing and I hope we carry on doing more of it.

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