From managing research to mentoring: an effective mechanism for a generational transition

5 March 2014
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Raquel Zelaya, Director of ASIES, in Guatemala. It is part of a series of posts emerging from a long term mentoring project that also includes Grupo FARO in Ecuador.]

ASIES was created in Guatemala in 1979 with the goal of carrying out research and analysing issues of national importance in order to promote public policies, improve debates about them and influence their discussion in political and academic circles as well as the media and civil society at large.

Following three decades of institutional work without major changes in our organisational structure and governance mechanisms, the Think Tank Initiative’s support has helped us re-visit some of these issues thanks to a series of technical assistance programmes. In this post we share a specific mechanism that we created some years ago to smooth the transition of coordinating functions from the original founding staff to new and younger leaders. We do this in the spirit of a year-long effort to strengthen our leadership and management capacities, which we have embarked upon alongside Grupo FARO (Ecuador) and the mentoring support of Enrique Mendizabal, Vanesa Weyrauch, and Tomás Garzón de la Roza. This project aims to create new knowledge that may help other individuals and organisations facing similar challenges.

Four years ago, all research managers at ASIES had been part of the institution’s foundation. After reflecting on it, we agreed that a generational transition was necessary to secure the organisation’s sustainability. We thought it convenient to profit from the experience of the current research fellows to strengthen junior researcher’s academic skills and, in the medium-term, grant the latter group full research management functions.

The Board pondered the risks that this scheme entailed, given that we had no knowledge of similar experiences. It was questioned, for example, whether senior researchers would agree to change their responsibilities to take up mentoring duties and, more importantly, whether junior researchers would really understand the process they were meant to manage. Acknowledging that these challenges had to be confronted, and attempting to keep senior researchers close to the institution, the Board trusted that all those involved would embrace these changes with maturity and it selected the future research managers to be prepared.

The process has been generally very edifying. All the founding research managers agreed to step down from their positions and become tutors. Most of them went on to new positions elsewhere and only one of them was kept in the payroll given that he was also charged with introducing substantial changes in a research programme. Despite this, all of the tutors have been equally committed to their new responsibilities.

Without a pre-arranged time schedule for the tutoring, tutors helped out in planning and research processes, they brought in new idea and suggestions, they consulted, checked drafts and researcher profiles, etc. In all cases their support had to be requested by the current research manager, and they delivered it via e-mail, phone or face-to-face.

In addition to having taken part in ASIES’ foundation, tutors are generally scholars that have had or still have high-level academic and/or public tenures.

In time we have seen in the new research managers an eagerness to make decisions on their own, to work together in inter-disciplinary projects, to complete their graduate studies with a view to further specialisation, and to lead a more direct engagement with a wide range of political groups and with the media.

The remaining challenges are to uphold the process in a way that enables mentoring functions to be rotated to other people in the medium-term and to document the experience in order to make it more systematic.

You can read about other lessons related to ASIES’ and Grupo FARO’s organisational development here: Mentoring think tanks.