[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at the Think Tank Initiative’s blog, as the first in a series on lessons learned from TTI’s concerted efforts to build capacity amongst think tanks in the program.]
In 2016, ILAIPP was selected by TTI to coordinate Phase 2 of Capacity Building support targeted to Latin American think tanks in order to better ensure that this support was based on the needs of ILAIPP member organizations. For TTI and ILAIPP, this also presented an opportunity to strengthen the network´s sustainability by testing out the market for developing and delivering capacity building in Latin America. Using this experience, I will share some lessons learned about trying to seize capacity development opportunities and processes in which individuals participated to enhance organizational change and learning. It is clear from this process that there is a distinct need for flexible change strategies that allow organizations to adapt to new opportunities on an iterative basis.
Support for organizational change/planning: who leads?
Embedding outcomes of a concrete capacity building activity at the organizational level is a long process. In this case, it required constant commitment from the organizing team (TTI and ILAIPP).
Although participating think tanks were originally asked to identify potential organizational outcomes through written expressions of interest to apply, several of them did not understand early on what the reach and scope of the seven modules was.
Therefore, there was a need to readjust expected outcomes by conveying again the objectives and methods of capacity building of each module, with an intensive follow-up to make sure that participants better defined their commitments from the organizational point of view. However, many participants could not count on a clear organizational strategy and commitment from top management of the think tanks.
One-on-one conversations with the Executive Directors or a management level employee in the think tanks should have been facilitated to promote a better understanding on how to integrate each capacity building activity into overall organizational development plans, as reflected in the tailored objectives associated with the core grants received from TTI. Key organizational changes are decided vertically: most of the centers are hierarchical and roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. Those who understand the larger picture and own the organizational agenda and priorities are in a better place to capitalize on individual learning and concrete capacity building activities. For example, Grupo FARO had a clear conviction of the opportunity to add impact evaluation as a service to be offered by the think tank within Ecuador. Its Executive Director provided strategic direction to how the national workshop was designed, whom to invite from external stakeholders, among other things. This all led to the successful creation of a new organizational unit committed to impact evaluation.
Tracking organizational change: can it be done and how?
Even though there were concrete monitoring, evaluation and learning plans for the modules, at the beginning there was quite a lot of room for improvement in reporting in some cases. Efforts to support those cases gradually led to better reports in most of them.
In fact, there was a visible evolution in terms of identifying and achieving organizational outcomes, which had been the main challenge from the launch of the Initiative to ensure it contributed to the think tanks and TTI´s overall objectives. Several efforts were deployed to help participating think tanks determine what could be expected at the organizational level: this resulted in most of the think tanks approving a one pager with their expected organizational results per module. However, the capacity of each implementing organization to understand how to plan, monitor and learn, apply sound evaluations tools and produce solid reports, was varied.
Support for planning should be accompanied by a more rigorous process of strengthening the organization’s capacity to plan and implement monitoring, evaluation and learning and have clear expectations and a roadmap from the beginning, with the Executive Directors´ buy-in and support and dedicated resources to deliver.
This also entails allowing space to reflect and learn: is change not happening as we expected it to? What can we do better in the coming months? Should we redefine expectations? Having a plan that has been designed according to each organisation´s capacity and needs can become a useful device to observe change and decide what´s next and who can contribute to it.
Using face to face interaction to learn with others throughout change
The mix of varied methodologies to conduct capacity building activities (webinars, mentoring, workshops, online courses) worked well, allowing participants to get exposed to and share knowledge in different formats and at different points in the process. This enabled them to also detect peers from whom they could learn, examples to share within their centers, etc.
In some cases, virtual training took place before face-to-face workshops to ensure participants arrived prepared. In other cases, virtual webinars followed a more general workshop or course that allowed the detection of specific topics that should be explored in the second stage. Individuals could contribute with what they believed was more relevant to their organisations.
What emerged as relevant is the value of having at least one face to face interaction. It is difficult to bring everyone to the same page and generate horizontal learning without it. Face-to-face meetings enable trainers to get to know participants more deeply and respond to their different concerns and particular requests more easily, it connects persons and organizations (for instance to apply in partnership to mentoring schemes), generates clear processes to work onwards and contributes to building team spirit. Moreover, it allows participants to foresee what was relevant to their own contexts and how to use it to the benefit of their organisations including holding socialization workshops for other colleagues that could not participate.
Embedding individual capacity building processes in organisational learning is possible Results were not as expected but bottlenecks and challenges can be used as good and valuable signs of what needs to be done and learned by the organisations instead of negative issues that should disappear. What´s apparently in the way (i.e. lack of commitment from upper management, diversity of needs and capacities among peer organisations, weak capacity to monitor and evaluate change) can become a way towards more sustainable change since it reveals where the neuralgic points of short term change are. Larger transformation often requires changing attitudes, beliefs, behaviors. If there is willingness to uncover and learn from what has not worked, real organizational change may be larger and more sustainable.