How to design the overall capacity development approach and an evolving mix of ‘best fit’ methods and tools

Summary and key action points

Learning and change for sustainable capacity in complex situations requires a long-term process orientation that works iteratively at multiple levels and often with multiple strands of activities towards a capacity goal. This calls for strategic and long-term thinking to be applied to the design of both the overall approach and the specific selection of methods.

Action steps

  • Assembly of the essential information to guide design decisions. Starting design before all the right information is in place can lead to expensive mistakes. Information is needed about current capacity, change readiness and future capacity needs, together with a goal, objectives and indicators for the overall capacity development process.
  • Identification and engagement of key stakeholders in the decision making process. Everyone needs to be thinking holistically about the levels (individual, organisational, sectoral and institutional) and types (hard and soft) of capacity, in order to avoid the trap of thinking everything starts and ends with training individuals
  • Decisions about entry point/s taking account of: previous or existing initiatives; relevant factors in other parts of the system; and, the need to produce some quick-wins that solve urgent problems and engage support for long-term activities. (This is a particularly critical point to address in post-crisis and transition situations.)
    • The other all-important factor to think about at the start is follow up for the activities to ensure implementation can be sustained
  • Choice of interventions. The more complex the need and context, the bigger the need for a range of responses working simultaneously and consecutively over time.  This can be called the ‘best fit’ selection. A range of responses are needed to address the hard and soft capacity needs at all levels, because it would be very unusual for any capacity need to be fully met by a single intervention. It is not wise to choose the interventions for the whole long-term process in detail at the start: it is better to adopt an iterative, step by step, approach that is flexible and responsive to emerging capacity and identified priorities for the next steps in the overall process.  There are many different tools that can be considered for the various needs in different parts of the system.
  • Sequencing the interventions and activities. Sequencing does not mean that all interventions and activities have to follow each other one at a time, it means getting them into the most logical groupings and order for success. This is necessary for operational planning of any capacity development initiative. Prioritising needs to be strategic so that interventions and activities happen logically in a sequence that addresses the necessary components of capacity incrementally and coherently.

Introduction

Design is a series of decisions, and the quality of those decisions will be directly related to the quality of the information the decision makers have about both the specific target group and the background context. Learning and change for sustainable capacity in complex situations requires a long-term process orientation that works towards a capacity goal iteratively at multiple levels, and often with multiple strands of activities. Taking this approach does not mean that the project approach has to be abandoned, but that smaller and shorter project based interventions have to be recognised as a component of something bigger. This calls for strategic and long-term thinking to be applied to the design of both the overall approach and the specific selection of methods.

What needs to be in place for good design?

Good design depends on having the preparation to put in place the essential information to guide decisions. Starting design before the information is available could lead to decisions that don’t really fit the needs and circumstances and the waste of precious resources and opportunities. The two core requirements for good design are:

  • Comprehensive assessments of:
    • Current capacity
    • How change is already happening – including previous or existing capacity development initiatives
    • Capacity needs
    • Change readiness, including relevant supporting or blocking factors in the institutional environment, and
    • Cross cutting issues – especially gender
    • Available resources
  • A long-term goal and short-term objectives for the capacity development initiative
  • Capacity indicators for the goal and objectives

At the start the assessments, goal, objectives and indicators will provide the core information needed to make decisions about priorities, entry points and methods. They will all need to be reviewed and revised regularly throughout the life of the capacity development process. 

Note: Assessments to not have to provide vast amounts of information about everything – what is needed is ‘good enough’ information to provide enough accurate understanding to get started.

Getting started and deciding entry points

Any capacity development intervention will have informal, and possibly formal, political dimensions, so a key start up activities must be to identify and engage relevant stakeholders to get their support, or at least to neutralise their resistance.

It is important for the key stakeholders to work out the priority issues to address, making sure that everyone is thinking holistically about the levels and all types of capacity, in order to avoid the trap of thinking everything starts and ends with training individuals.  This means answering questions such as: What can be achieved quickly and what needs more time? Where is there energy for change? What resources are available?  One good way to go about this is to ask - What has to be put in place as prerequisites for other needs? That will help identify the basic capacities that are the building blocks for the bigger capacity goal. For example before a Ministry of Finance can undertake a public financial reform programme it will need to have in place a range of basics including: policies, systems and procedures; mechanisms for transparency and accountability; motivated and effective leadership; physical resources and equipment; qualified staff; functional working relationships with other ministries; and political support for the reform.  Such a range of basics can only be put in place by working at multiple levels simultaneously. The soft capacities of political support and functional relationships with other ministries have to be approached at the institutional level with a long-term perspective.  Other factors like transparency and accountability mechanisms, policies and procedures, and effective leadership require both soft and hard capacities at organisational level, which can only be achieved in the medium term. Qualified staff, who could possibly come into place quickly, represent the individual level.

When working at an organisational or sector level some agencies use a simple matrix to categorise capacity needs and guide interventions, as follows (from the ADB).

 

Predominantly Functional-Rational Perspective

Predominantly Political Perspective

Internal elements, supply side

Focus on getting the job done

Focus on getting power, loyalties, and incentives right

Context or external stakeholders and factors, demand side

Focus on creating an enabling regulatory and supervisory environment

Focus on increasing external pressure for performance

Whatever the entry point/s it is important to consider:

  • The linkages with previous or existing initiatives that new interventions need to relate to and build on
  • What is happening in other parts of the system and how these interventions might interact with them
  • Producing some quick-wins that solve urgent problems and engage support for long-term activities. This is a particularly critical point to address in post-crisis and transition situations.

The other all-important factor to think about at the start is follow up for the activities. If ongoing support is not in place the likelihood of activities resulting in sustainable change is significantly reduced.  Again this is an issue to work on with key stakeholders. Initiatives for organisational and institutional learning can be helpful for getting everyone to understand the nature of the learning process required to support change. 

It is essential to think carefully about the institutional environment and its potential impact on planned interventions, so precious resources are not wasted on activities that cannot possibly result in change. It is extremely unlikely that any contextual analysis will show a situation in which there were many helpful opportunities and no constraints, so thought is needed for how to maximise opportunities and minimise constraints. In this respect it could be argued that no capacity development interventions should be undertaken until there is a fully enabling environment at the institutional level.  However, in many situations that would mean nothing ever gets started. It is better to be aware of the external constraints and work with internal drivers of change at other levels in ways that help them somehow to influence, overcome or work around any institutional constraints. 

Choice of interventions

It would be very unusual for any capacity need to be fully met by a single intervention. The more complex the need and context, the bigger the need for a range of responses working simultaneously and consecutively over time.  This can be called the ‘best fit’ selection that addresses the different capacity needs and the links between them, and also maximises the strengths and mitigates the challenges of each tool or approach. Working in this way calls for very regular and structured review processes to keep adjusting the best fit as capacity emerges and or the context changes.

It is neither possible nor relevant to choose at the start the interventions for all the steps to achieve a long-term goal.  The choice of interventions and activities should be guided by the identified priorities for the next steps in the overall process.  Some agencies do this by what they call the platform approach, i.e. component capacities are grouped together according to what is needed as the platform on which the next level of capacities can be built. It is also important to remember that it may be necessary to experiment with pilot approaches and activities in order to find the most effective way forward.

Once the priorities, entry point/s and available resources are agreed between key stakeholders it is time to think about what to do.  The box at the end of the page lists some of the tools that can be considered for interventions.

Some helpful lessons learned about design from the past, not in order of priority – they are all important, are:

  • No intervention starts with a ‘blank canvas’. In every situation there will already be many things happening that should be further developed or incorporated into new initiatives. Good design recognises and builds on what exists and mobilises people to support activities by making relevant connections.
  • Too often approaches have been decontextualized and apolitical, based on the assumption that if the approach is right the outcome will be positive, regardless of contextual or political factors.
  • Technical skills, while important, are rarely enough on their own. Individual and organisational learning through effective communication and joint reflection processes is much more likely to lead to sustainable capacity in the long term. It is therefore necessary to ensure a balanced approach that works with different types of capacity simultaneously.
  • Similarly formal responses such as laws and policies are rarely enough on their own, all they can do is establish the structure for potential change.  Much more important are the behaviour and informal processes that surround the development and implementation of formal technical instruments.  Again balance is needed to ensure both types of capacity are addressed.
  • Scale-up can create problems because it can never be guaranteed that practices that proved effective for one time and set of circumstances are automatically going to be effective at other times and in other circumstances.
  • Tools for interventions should be used with caution because no single tool can provide the answer to a need. Tools must be used appropriately and skilfully as part of the facilitation of the change process.
  • Overly structured intervention plans can end up constraining, rather than enabling the emergence of capacity, it is better to work iteratively in order to be flexible and responsive
  • The demand side motivation and absorptive capacity to work with the intervention has to be monitored and taken into account

The table below gives a short and simple example of a balanced set of interventions at three levels and for both types of capacity. Note that training of individuals is only one small part of the overall array that can be applied over time.

 

Hard capacity needs

Soft capacity needs

Institutional

Formulation of enabling legislation

Establishing necessary institutions to oversee legislation enactment and implementation

Public awareness campaigns

Lobbying and advocacy with political decision makers

Organisational

Development of policies and procedures

Development of strategic and operational plans

Facilitation of conflict resolution

Leadership development programme

Introduction of reflective learning practices

Individual

Training to upgrade of technical skills

Facilitation of reflective learning practices

Sequencing

Because the capacity goal has a long-term perspective it is necessary to think about how to sequence interventions in the overall process.  Sequencing does not mean that all interventions and activities have to follow each other one at a time, it means getting them into the most logical groupings and order for success. Sequencing is a primary consideration for the operational planning of any capacity development initiative. It is about working with what is doable, realistic and acceptable to all stakeholders at any given time, rather than creating ambitious plans that are doomed to fail because the right conditions are not in place. It is also dependent on resource availability.

Some questions to explore when deciding on sequencing are:

  • What are the priorities?
  • What needs to be in place first so these priorities can be addressed?
  • How busy is the target entity with other demands? What can it realistically take on at this time?
  • What might result in a quick win?
  • What package of interventions makes sense as a harmonised approach?
  • How can internal or external opportunities be used to maximum benefit?
  • What will achieve the best balance between a focus on necessary and immediate results and long-term capacity development?
  • What will achieve the best balance between internal capacity development and positive changes in the enabling environment?
  • What array of interventions is necessary for the particular level of complexity?

In short it is necessary to be very strategic in prioritising needs and choosing interventions to make sure that activities happen logically in a sequence that addresses the necessary components of capacity incrementally and coherently.

A selection of approaches, tools and techniques for learning and change at all levels

Advocacy: lobbying, media campaigns, public events, etc. to influence both public opinion on the demand side and the highest level decision-makers.

Blended learning: is the combination of different training and learning technologies, activities and events. It most usually combines a mixture of e-learning and interactive human contact.

Coaching and mentoring: is generally focused on workplace challenges and issues and will be time bounded. Mentoring is generally a long-term process of supporting an individual’s career and personal development. Both are tailored and contextual.

Communication: processes that connect groups and surface their collective knowledge and wisdom, in order to enhance and support learning and change within those groups. Considered by some to be a cross-cutting element of all other processes, and by others to be a component of knowledge management. Some specific communication methods are the World Café, Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry.

Customised training: training commissioned for the needs of a specific group.

Degree-level study overseas: usually scholarships for graduates to study at masters and doctoral levels at overseas universities.

Distance learning: academic study programmes offered by overseas universities for participants to follow from home.

E-learning: technology-supported or web-based learning systems. E-learning can happen across distances and borders or within one organisation and therefore not necessarily at a distance.

Experiential learning: generic heading for numerous structured and semi-structured processes that can support individuals to learn from their workplace experiences. Tools and techniques that come under this heading include: action-reflection-learning-planning cycle, action learning sets, action research, critical incident analysis, on-the-job training, work-based learning, work/job shadowing, and whole person learning.

Exposure: Exposure visits take people to see what others are doing in work situations similar to their own. Attending conferences and other events provide exposure to new knowledge, ideas and influences within sectors.

External training courses: Courses for which the content and curriculum are predefined by the provider, who may be a private company, a training institute, or not-for-profit organisation.

Facilitation: guided support for organisational and group processes

Knowledge management: Considered by some to be a cross-cutting issue in CD, it is the process by which organisations generate value from their intellectual and knowledge-based assets by documenting what staff and stakeholders know about the organisation’s areas of interest, and then sharing that collected data back to those who need it to enhance their job performance.

Leadership development: Processes designed to enhance the leadership skills of existing and potential leaders within systems. Most effective when training modules are combined with activities such as exposure visits, and coaching or mentoring.

Organisational strengthening: There are three inter-related disciplines known as organisational development, change management and organisational learning. Working with co-ordinated learning and change techniques to help organisations gain the capacity they need to be effective and fulfil their organisational/sectoral mandates.

Partnerships and networks: Mechanisms through which diverse actors with mutual interests come together in order to achieve a common goal. This can include twinning organisations and institutions with similar mandates, and the same or different levels of capacity.

Resources used to develop this page include:

Danida, (2005) Results-oriented approach to capacity change Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Danida, Copenhagen, available at http://www.danida-publikationer.dk/publikationer/publikationsdetaljer.aspx?PId=0455038e-4aad-4848-ac00-5c4d2ecb8a03

Pearson, J. (2011), “Training and Beyond: Seeking Better Practices for Capacity Development”, OECD Development Co-operation Working Papers, No. 1, OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/5kgf1nsnj8tf-en available at http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/development/training-and-beyond-seeking-better-practices-for-capacity-development_5kgf1nsnj8tf-en;jsessionid=4ld21rkgpd5gq.delta

UNDP: Capacity Development: A UNDP Primer United Nations Development Programme Capacity Development Group, New York, 2009. Available at http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/environment-energy/climate_change/capacity_development/capacity-development-a-undp-primer.html

WBI: The Capacity Development Results Framework World Bank Institute, Washington, 2009.  Available at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTCDRC/Resources/CDRF_Paper.pdf?resourceurlname=CDRF_Paper.pdf

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