A while ago I used this tool in a needs assessment exercise with organisations in a couple of programmes I was working in. Then last month I was asked by another programme about a tool to decide what areas to develop capacity of among a group of organisations.
The River Diagram, described here by Chris Collison is a very useful tool that can save you expensive consultants inputs -why bring in external help if you have the skills you need right there among your own?
There are other things you will need, though. First, you will have to develop a competencies framework (a set of competency areas that you consider crucial to assess and then compare across your organisation or network). Here is a good general guide. When I was in RAPID we used this competency framework drawn from the Knowledge Management field.
Competency frameworks can be used for different aspects of the organisation. For example, you could have one for Human Resources purposes: in ODI the HR team uses a competency framework to monitor staff performance (and this is then linked to pay); the RAPID example above focuses on the KM competencies of the organisation; but we have used it to address policy influencing competencies as well; and obviously you could develop a research competency framework, too.
You use this framework to assess the current competency level as well as the desired future level. When I have used them, I tend to stress that basic levels suggest that people do things in an ad-hoc manner, always something different, never what has been proven to work best. The higher the level, then the more evidence and experience based and the more systematic the behaviours observed. To use the framework, you can, for example, highlight the statements that best describe the behaviour of your staff or other organisations more accurately. In the diagram below, yellow denotes current behaviour and blue the ideal future one. Please note that not all competencies aim to the highest level (in this case 5).
These assessments are sometimes done as self-assessments. In my experience this rarely ever works. People tend to lie. If you are doing a self-assessment then demand evidence for every statement. And if you see lots of 4s and 5s then you should take that as a sign that the information you have is not very accurate. Why would an organisation of 4s and 5s need any help?
Once you have done this for all the parties in your group you can move on to develop the river diagram as described by Chris. A flipchart will do.