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

23 August 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

[This article was originally posted on Research to Action.]

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.

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…