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Reflections on Bringing Think Tanks Together: a Community of Practice?

[Editor's note: This is the first post by Hans Gutbrod, Director of the Think Tank Initiative. I'd like to welcome him to and look forward to his ideas and reflection on think tanks. Over the next few days and weeks we'll also be sharing some of the videos from the sessions organised at the TTI's exchange mentioned in this blog post.]

Bringing together more than 100 think tank executive and research directors from more than 25 countries, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) Exchange in Cape Town, in June 2012 probably was one of the largest gatherings of think tanks from the global South held to date. Some of the substance of the event has already been covered, in various ways, by lively Twitter commentary. Short videos from the sessions, highlighting particular topics, will be made available in the coming days and weeks.

So what continues to stand out from this event in hindsight? Here are some personal reflections, not intended as a conclusive summary, but as points of discussion.

Stability Matters

For think tanks to make a difference, they have to attract exceptional staff. Thomas Carothers, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has made this point. It is obvious, but not trivial: think tank research needs to be both substantive and hedged, smart and safe, and, on some occasions, cautious and bold. As think tanks trade on their authority, they are particularly vulnerable when making claims. Raymond Struyk highlights this risk in the first page of his classic book on managing think tanks, describing this unsettling scenario:

A report on a high-visibility and urgent problem is sent to the Ministry of Finance with significant flaws in the statistical analysis. These flaws are discovered by an analyst from another organization after the report has been widely distributed. The think tank loses significant credibility with the government and other clients.

Not many people are good at responding thoughtfully and quickly, while getting everything right. Peer review processes can prevent errors, but given the pressure, any first draft has to be solid, and review steps need to be executed with great care.

That means not only do think tank leaders need to be remarkable (and there were a lot of exceptional people at the TTI Exchange), but they also need a remarkable team behind them. The success of a think tank depends on building a deeper team, on recruiting exceptional staff, and getting exceptional people to work together. Core funding is thus critical, as it allows think tanks to attract and retain exceptional staff. Some innovative funding arrangements notwithstanding, core funding remains a key feature for the type of local research that can improve lives, because it makes high-performing think tank teams possible.

Connecting to Conversations

Even with great teams, unnoticed loneliness at the top can be a severe challenge: since the leaders of think tanks rarely engage peer-to-peer on management questions, their loneliness is often profound. With a few exceptions, leaders mostly figure things out by themselves, maybe with a board or their personal circle. This loneliness sets them apart from people in other professions such as doctors, accountants, lawyers, or even managers in the private or public sector, who regularly discuss and enhance professional practice.

Yet the loneliness can go unnoticed, since the leader of any think tank will engage extensively with fellow researchers and policymakers, clients, maybe diplomats, scholars from abroad, journalists, interns and students. After six years at CRRC, my email address book had accumulated more than 4400 contacts. Yet except for two extended conversations that Goran Buldioski from the Think Tank Fund made possible, I not once – not a single time – in those six years, sat down with someone else who was running a research organization to exchange experiences on how we do things. And to me, the remarkable thing was that I didn’t even realize, until the TTI Exchange, that I had not discussed how to run a research organization with anyone other than my colleagues. Bringing think tank leaders together helps to overcome this loneliness, and gives them an opportunity to begin conversations and connect.

Communities of Practice

Following from this, I think it’s fair to say that there is no fully established community of practice – defined by Wenger as a “group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” – for running think tanks, especially not in the South. There are some personal links, and there are well-established practices of research in relevant academic disciplines, but these are different from the practices of generating policy research with the aim of improving people’s lives – perhaps as different as physics is from engineering.

If policy research in the South is seeking to have a greater impact, it’s probably worth cultivating habits of sharing more, deepening knowledge and expertise, and interacting on an ongoing basis. These are the kind of habits that are well established in other professions. Patent lawyers, insurance actuaries, heart surgeons and project managers alike – they all set up a trade publication, ways of exchanging information, and they get together regularly, to discuss how to do things. The formalization is not all happy: there is tomfoolery in most jamborees, but if you only pick up a handful of better practices, tell a few peers what has worked for you, and identify the colleagues you will call for advice when things get sticky in the office, you serve yourself and the profession, as well as the people your profession serves.

In the case of successful policy research in the South, strengthening a nascent community of practice could probably go a long way toward making better policies stick. On our end, at TTI, we are certainly thinking about how to cultivate such a community of practice. We have quite a few ideas on how to do this, but welcome ideas and input from others.

This is also why I’m contributing these reflections here in this blog. serves as an excellent aggregator for many of the issues that are worth debating in the community. To broaden the debate, we will be making videos from the TTI exchange available in the coming weeks, and hope they find a good audience. Check our website or follow us on Twitter.

In addition to what has already been published on this blog, do you have any other thoughts on what we can do to cultivate a community of practice for policy research and think tank management?

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Leandro Echt #

    Dear Hans,

    I believe your comments are very important to start thinking about the possibility of a global community of practice interested in think tanks. In that sense, I would like to share with you some points about CIPPEC ( and GDNet’s ( work under the project “Spaces for engagement: using knowledge to improve public decisions” (, as we have been working hardly for the last 6 years to deepen and expand a community of practice composed of researchers from policy research institutes (PRIs) and CSOs as well as policy makers who are strongly committed to improving the use of evidence in policymaking, first in Latin America, and in recent years in Africa and Asia (promoting South-South collaboration by sharing knowledge and lessons learned with similar institutions in those regions).

    Throughout the past 6 years we have deployed a variety of complementary methodologies to develop capacity among key players in the field, especially addressing to PRIs’ needs and interests. We believe that an effective combination between generating research (handbooks on policy influence planning and networking ( M&E (, how to guides on policy influence planning (, M&E ( and research communication (, building a network ( and promoting debates, conducting offline ( and online and capacity building activities (more than 160 PRIs, CSOs and policy makers belonging to more than 30 southern countries, trained and sharing experiences in critical issues for policy influence through online courses); facilitating peer assistance’s experiences (in Latin America and between Latin America, Asia and Africa), and producing training materials would allow us to tackle main challenges in the field and add value to how evidence is used in policymaking processes.

    Seeking a more stable community of practice, this year we launched “Bridging research and policy in Latin America“ (, Vinculando la Investigación y las Políticas Públicas en América Latina – VIPPAL), a virtual platform promoting a range of activities (from online training to research production), with the aim to share resources and strength the capacity of PRIs, CSOs, universities and policy makers to influence public policies.

    Regarding links among executive directors or think tanks’ heads, in 2011 we launched Executive Directors of Latin America (DEAL) (, a community of practice that brings together CEOs of the more prominent PRIs in Latin America interested in improving the impact of policy research. With more than 30 CEOs and other experts in some specific fields for policy influence (communication (, M&E, etc.) belonging to 13 different countries, DEAL is a space that allows the search of answers, sharing knowledge, best practices and lessons learned, discuss challenges and dilemmas, and receive materials (i.e. staffing, I shared some points about it in this blog( and skills regarding the complex world of directors leading institutes that seek to influence public policies. Within DEAL, we have addressed different issues and institutional processes: transitions in the executive direction, staffing, M&E of policy influence, communication strategies, influencing electoral debates, etc.

    As you highlighted, each of these leaders is a source of knowledge and learning for other peers who develop the same functions in different countries and in many cases, directors are alone against key decisions. Is in those moments where it would be important to have a space that links these people when seeking for other opinions or, experiences that could help them to better address their challenges.

    However, there exist many challenges for their active participation in those kind of spaces. From our experience, I can say that CEOs’ incentives to share knowledge and experiences will never be the same of doctors or lawyers’, who need external rules and agreed ways of behaving, etc. One of the main challenges is CEO’s lack of time to invest in producing, sharing and processing this type of knowledge: even though they welcome information and knowledge shared by CIPPEC and other colleagues, their level of spontaneous participation is low due to their lack of time. On the other hand, many CEOs are senior researchers who still think in terms of content and not in terms of management so incentives to share information on organizational processes are not that appeal.

    But during almost one year and a half coordinating DEAL, we have identified some points that can help those seeking to engage heads of think tanks in different discussions:

    • executive directors are more interested in knowledge exchange about institutional issues than in learning about critical issues for policy influence,
    • they prefer technical and practical contents and resources rather than visions on specific issues,
    • CEOs of less developed think tanks have more incentives to participate in the discussions than the ones of more developed institutes.

    With our little but intense experience, we are trying to commit CEO’s time beforehand, by holding some specific activities in the year, for example by moderating online debates or organizing webinars addressing relevant challenges or issues proposed by them.

    To sum up, VIPPAL and DEAL (and CIPPEC and GDNet’s work in the last six years) are not ‘fully established CoP’, but are some first efforts that contribute in that direction. Looking forward to hear about other experiences of sharing knowledge (EBPDN ( is another one), to continue reflecting on how can we create opportunities for global knowledge sharing.

    September 4, 2012
  2. Dear Hans,
    Thank you for the post. We do face difficult challenges in creating a think tanks and keeping them working. We recently created a think tank with innovative profile in Brazil, named PVBLICA and until now two barriers are hard to overcome: 1) lack of resources (money and people with policy analysis skills); 2) public authorities, universities, and other fundations don´t have a clue of what is a Think Tank, what it does, and the importance of policy relevant research to public policymaking. This is hard to overcome, because the very concept of policy analysis is blurred for them. To tell you the truth, even the public policy epistemic community is still in its infancy over here. This challenge is very excinting on the other hand, because we feel that we have the mission of creating bridges between scholars and practitioners, and we are succeeding up till now. Congratulations for the Think Tank initiative, PVBLICA will be very pleased to open a dialogue with you, and creating a community of practice between north and south. Best wishes,

    September 5, 2012
    • Leandro Echt #

      Dear Leonardo,
      Please let me tell you that an interview to Nicolás Ducoté, Nicolás Ducoté, co-founder and former Executive Director and General Director of CIPPEC, where he worked for 10 years will be published next week in this blog (you can read it in Spanish here: The interview is very interesting for current think tanks’ heads, but also for those who wish to found a new one and need more information on organizational processes. Through the interview, Nicolás talks about what inspired him to establish CIPPEC, what were the main challenges at the beginning (and gives some tips on how to reach the right people in order to become recognized), which was the fund raising strategy at the beginning, etc. In turn, he offers some tips for those who want to engage in a project of creating a policy research institute. I believe his reflections will be very helpful to your purposes and challenges.
      Good luck, and let me know if we can make something to help you.

      September 5, 2012
  3. Dear Leandro,
    Thank you for your reply. We definitely have to approximate Latin American policy communities, and bring Brazil even closer to Spanish speaking countries. I feel that we don´t speak to each other in these matters, and it souds that believe Vippal is a vibrant platform. Please let me know how we can be part of it, and please send an e-mail to so we can discuss more specific forms of collaboration.
    Thank you for the indication of Ducoté ´s article, and congratulations for your work.

    September 6, 2012

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  1. Think Tank Initiative 2012 exchange: on building research capacity for ‘young’ think tanks « on think tanks

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