Packard OE Final Report 2008
From Reproductive Health Leaders Network
In October 2007, the Institute of International Education (IIE) received a $50,000 Organizational Effectiveness (OE) grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. This grant was different from traditional OE grants in that the "organization" to which the funding was applied was not an organization, but a network of reproductive health leaders in the five countries where IIE has been implementing the Leadership Development for Mobilizing Reproductive Health Program (LDM) since 2000. Given the Packard Foundation's interest in learning about networks and IIE's commitment to strengthening and sustaining the broad and diverse leadership network, the project was an exciting opportunity to explore how best to strengthen networks through the lenses of culture, technology, and sustainability.
The overall purpose of the grant was to engage a consultant who would guide us in a planning and technology design process that would help us strengthen and mobilize the existing network of leadership fellows in five focus countries through both online and other systems.
IIE contracted with Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates based in San Francisco, a consultant who specializes in helping groups collaborate more effectively. Additionally, Eugene brought a great deal of technology knowledge and experience that helped us take the objectives of this project forward in creative ways.
Our original objectives were:
- To develop a strategic plan for strengthening and mobilizing an effective and sustainable network of population and reproductive health leaders dedicated to learning and action in the five focal countries (Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines) through establishing both web-based and other non-web tools.
* To identify the appropriate partners to assist with development of an improved web-portal, to identify appropriate technological specifications, and prepare actionable next steps.
Additionally, IIE was re-assuming the management of a previously designed database which contains information about all of the Packard Foundation-funded leadership fellows. We intended, through this project, to make critical decisions about how the database would be managed and accessed in the future, and what partners we would work with in order to have a well-functioning database that would track the over 1,000 (and growing) leadership fellows that the Packard Foundation has invested in.
There was a strong technology-orientation to these original goals, and while we addressed these issues throughout the course of this project, much of our learning centered around higher-level strategies for how to catalyze collaboration, learning, and action within this network. We came away from this project with a greater sense of what we (both the LDM staff and the community at large) were already doing well, and what we could be doing to improve things even further.
1. What was accomplished in connection with this project? Please address each stated objective. If any project objectives were changed, please also explain the circumstances leading to the modification of the objective(s).
Our approach for achieving these goals was to first come to a greater understanding of the makeup of this community, while also initiating the first steps of the strategy. In particular, our plan was to:
1. Map the community. We wanted to come to a greater understanding of who was in this community, whether or not they interacted with each other, and if so, then how. We conducted a number of surveys asking about people's use of technology and with whom they were in contact.
2. Model the process. We wanted to establish small group practices that modeled how we hoped the entire community would eventually behave. This included storytelling with each other and working transparently (via an open Wiki and mailing list).
3. Improve the Fellows' database. We planned on convening a task force of Fellows across the countries to engage in the design process for a web-based resource and database that would be most useful for them. Specifically, we wanted to upgrade the technology for the LDM Fellows’ database (Insaan) by moving it to a platform (Ruby on Rails) that would make it faster and easier to implement changes to the database. We wanted to identify and implement some concrete, short-term usability improvements, we wanted to improve adoption of the tool, and we wanted to release the software as an open source project so that it could be useful to others.
4. Explore other technologies. We wanted to explore other creative ways, besides the database and the web portal, to link Fellows using technology.
5. Report our findings. We wanted to document our strategy and our learnings not just for our community and for the Packard Foundation but for others engaged in this work. This report is one component of a more detailed account of our work which we expect to release in early 2009 which will document the story of the leadership network.
We accomplished a number of things over the course of this project:
1. We did an extensive survey of leaders in India, Ethiopia, and Pakistan to find out who they interact with and to understand how they use technology. We learned that access to computers and especially the Internet is sometimes limited, depending upon the country and the location of fellows. We also learned that the leaders in both countries almost universally used mobile phones, and we found this to be anecdotally true in the other countries as well. Linking with our broader Population Program grant, we mapped the entire network in order to document who makes up the network. We now have data summarizing age, location, sector, and core competencies for each of the five countries, as well as how active and engaged they are in the networks. We discuss more of our learnings from these surveys in the third question below.
2. Our consultant, Eugene Eric Kim, initiated the modeling process by starting an open Wiki (donated generously by Socialtext) and mailing list to initiate discussions and to capture the outcomes of this work. The tools, in themselves, were not as important as the process of openness and transparency that they encouraged us to model, sometimes with resistance. Throughout the process, the Wiki in particular became the centerpiece for the knowledge generated for this project, and we experimented with using it for other tasks as well. Eugene visited India and Ethiopia in March 2008 and Nigeria in June 2008. This was an opportunity for him to meet and observe many of the Fellows and the work they are doing first-hand as well to directly engage with them about the goals of this project. (For more, see OE 2008 Trip.) During these interactions, we discussed some of the specific challenges and opportunities in the respective countries and we facilitated participatory exercises designed to catalyze thinking and learning about networks. In response to question two below, we discuss our further learnings and share some of the participatory exercises we used.
3. We did not convene a formal task force for improving the database, as we had originally planned. However, we engaged Fellows through our mapping process, and we rapidly discovered that the database's original intent of connecting all of the Fellows was misguided. Instead, the LDM team collectively reframed the purpose of the database to improve the information flow between the main centers in each country. This would allow us to consolidate and more accurately update our data and to circumvent the challenge of building a tool that was usable for the majority of our vast and diverse network of Fellows. It also gave us the potential to share this data in other, more viable mediums, such as printed directories. We did however invite Fellows to participate in our overall process, through our Wiki and mailing list and in-person meetings. IIE further developed and strengthened the partnership with the Global Information Internship Program GIIP which was begun by our colleague, the International Health Programs in Santa Cruz. Adam Thompson, GIIP's Associate Director for Programs and Instruction, who created the Fellows' database, joined our staff meeting in July of 2008 in Nigeria, where he unveiled the improvements he had made to the database, Insaan, and also discussed longer-term technology opportunities. IIE has since formed a partnership where GIIP will work with us to help integrate the database into our process and will also develop an interactive web portal for the LDM project, which we determined to be an important next step in our strategy. (See LDM Web Site)
4. The biggest previously unexplored opportunity with technology is with mobile phones. We have already started leveraging SMS more intentionally as a way of communicating with our Fellows (as described below under question 3). We also started a discussion of how to build a Web presence that was more oriented towards the network as a whole rather than towards the LDM program. This would include people who did not participate in one of the Packard-funded leadership programs and would make heavy use of aggregation technologies
5. Our learning was so rich and extensive throughout this process that we decided to do a more extensive final report, which we will make widely available in early 2009. Also, we have used the Wiki to collaboratively author this report which is available to our community to read and contribute to, as well as others outside the community to view if interested.
2. What challenges did you face in connection with this project? How did you address these challenges?
The biggest challenge we faced was shifting our models about what a successful network was and how it worked. Many of us, both the staff and the Fellows, had implicitly assumed that successful networks meant that everyone talked to everybody else, that there was a high overall participation level in network-specific activities. This is not the case, but this belief proved burdensome.
A great example of this occurred at a meeting in Bodh Gaya, India in March 2008. A "core team" had recently formed in India of volunteer leaders who would devote their efforts to catalyzing the Indian network. The evening before the meeting, Sanjay Pandey, the LDM Country Manager in India, and others expressed deep disappointment that such a small percentage of the network (about 15 people, which represented about 10 percent of the fellows in India) had volunteered to participate in the core team, and they further worried that there was not a large enough percentage of fellows who were actively engaged. The reality is that successful networks have proportionally small "core" groups who focus on network-specific activities and loose connections between all the different sub-groups. We shared stories about extreme examples of this, such as Wikipedia and the open source software project Linux (where about one percent of the thousands of participants are actively engaged in "core" work), and showed that the organization and activity of the core team in India compared favorably to examples of successful network projects.
Similarly, the LDM staff was greatly (and rightly) concerned about marginalizing certain segments of the community. Pakistan's Fellows have better overall access to technology than the Fellows in most other countries, and not surprisingly, they are the only country to have an active, country-wide listserv. However, access among the Fellows is not 100 percent, and Kamyla Marvi, the LDM Country Manager in Pakistan, has constantly expressed concern about creating a further divide between the technological haves and have-nots in Pakistan. In Nigeria, the divide is not only technological, but also cultural, as there is a large sub-group of Islamic scholars who are not always in touch with other Fellows.
All of these concerns are valid, and they will be ongoing, given the diversity of the community and the diversity of access within the community. The challenge is to respect the diversity, allowing subgroups to maintain their identity and leverage the tools and processes that make the most sense to them, while also maintaining a group identity and a set of loose connections among all of the groups. There is a group of Fellows in Pakistan who want to start a Facebook group. They should be encouraged to do so, but the Facebook group should not serve as the primary medium for disseminating information to everyone in the network. We should not expect all of the Islamic scholars in northern Nigeria to interact regularly with the non-Islamic scholars, but we should encourage some bridges between those two communities, even if it's only a few people.
In addition to addressing people's mental models of what makes a network successful, we struggled with challenging people's behavioral models. Patterns of organizational hierarchy were deeply engrained in the leaders, even though most of them acknowledged the need and desire to take a flatter, bottoms-up approach toward the network. For example, when organizing gatherings for the leaders, leaders tended towards rigid agendas, whereas more participatory designs would have been more valuable for building relationships and sharing tacit knowledge. In fact, simply meeting socially and regularly would have been more valuable in catalyzing the network than scheduling detailed report-outs and culling ambitious lists of action items. We tried to encourage a shift in behavior by modeling our expectations ourselves, both in how we designed meetings with the leaders as well as through specific participatory exercises. One of our most successful exercises was The Dance Floor and the Balcony, which demonstrated in a visceral way how a loosely connected group with a strong shared vision but no central organization could accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. We performed this exercise at practically every meeting on the OE 2008 Trip.
Related to these expectations was the paradox of action. Often, the best way for people to empower a network in a bottoms-up way from a top-down perspective is to resist the urge to act. At an informal gathering of leadership fellows in Delhi, the fellows decided on their own that they should meet informally on a regular basis. LDM staff were enthusiastic about this breakthrough and offered to pay for travel and meals. Their instinct was well-intentioned, but misguided, because they were undermining the group's decision to take ownership of their own actions. Again, storytelling and building self-awareness of the group as a whole helped people understand why the best thing to do was sometimes to hold back.
Shifting this expectation affected technology strategy. The staff as well as key leaders in the countries started focusing less on how to connect everybody and more on how to connect the hubs (which was how we reframed the Fellows' database project). We also started exploring other ways in which to connect the Fellows themselves, including ways that did not involve the Internet. For example, in Ethiopia where many Fellows outside the capital city of Addis Ababa do not have easy access to the Internet, we instituted the use of group text messages since most people do have cell phones. The Ethiopian staff are able to communicate important information to larger groups of Fellows using this more accessible technology. This was an important shift due to the obvious challenges with technology infrastructure. If the fellows are to have any real chance of collaborating across large geographical regions (including within their own countries), technology needs to play a role. However, all of these countries face serious infrastructural challenges. Shifting our expectations about how people within the network needed to interact helped us address these challenges. For example, we reframed the fellows' database, which was originally designed as a way for fellows to keep each other updated, to become a way for just the LDM offices in each country to keep better track of fellows' information and share it more broadly. We learned that this was more important than trying to connect all of the fellows to each other through a medium that did not have enough interesting information on it to motivate their regular use.
The approach we took to achieve our objective also allowed us to leverage the diversity and different level of skills within the network itself. For example, Pakistan has an extremely active listserv with a high participation rate, and they are starting to explore other technological possibilities, such as a Facebook group. These are viable ways for the fellows in Pakistan to stay connected, but they are not yet viable ways that fellows in Nigeria and Ethiopia stay connected, for cultural as much as for technological reasons. Our approach allowed each country, and even subregions in each country, to leverage the specific tools and techniques that would be most valuable to them in their local context, whether or not it was viable on a broader scale.
3. What were the most important lessons learned?
There were two critical lessons that constantly came up throughout the course of this project. The first was not to assume that the leadership fellows were not already learning, interacting, and collaborating with each other. Over and over again, we were constantly reminded and surprised that people do in fact talk to each other in useful and often unexpected ways, and that we needed to explore ways that would both support existing behavior and shift it.
It only takes a few people interacting in novel ways to make a difference. For example, we discovered from our surveys that a few leaders in both India and Ethiopia were blogging regularly. Even though this is a seemingly insignificant number, we can easily draw attention to their blogs so that others can follow and learn from their work.
Towards the end of Eugene's trip to Ethiopia, he realized that he had a spare day, so he offered to facilitate a technology training at the Packard Foundation's offices in Addis Ababa. Upon learning that Hiwot, one of the administrators in IIE's Ethiopia office, had an IT degree, he suggested that they co-lead the workshop. Although they organized the training with only one day's notice, almost 20 people from the network showed up and decided to continue to meet to explore and improve their knowledge of technology.
During the introductory session, Eugene noticed a young man in the corner mouthing the answers to the questions that others were asking. In the ensuing break, Eugene had a chance to chat with the man, who was the son of one of the participants. The man was proficient in web technologies, and so Eugene asked him to lead a session on building and maintaining web sites. After his session, several of the participants asked him for his business card.
There was a strong desire within the network to learn more about technology, but more importantly, there were people within the network who had the knowledge to share. Although Eugene's presence instigated the session, the reality was that much of that day's learning came from people within the network rather than directly from him.
How can we know when and how people are interacting? We learned that one of the most effective ways to empower a network is to encourage individuals within the network to Leave A Trail. That trail results in a visible pulse, a sign to those both within and outside of a network that the community is alive. The trail does not have to be well-crafted or detailed. When Eugene visited India, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, we saw how powerful simply posting pictures and videos with little commentary could be. We are working more consciously to Leave A Trail in our work. To model this desired behavior, we intentially drafted our 2008 LDM final report on this open Wiki. This challenged us at first, but we realized that the more transparent we could be about all of our work, the more we could continue to learn from each other.
This lesson had direct bearing on the second lesson, which was that technology needs to make sense for the people who will be using it. We hypothesized that the vast majority of leadership fellows frequently used mobile phones (both SMS and voice), and our surveys verified this repeatedly. Thus, a logical next step would be to create a user-facing technology strategy centered around mobile phones. Similarly, when we looked closely at those fellows and administrators who did use computers and the Internet frequently, we saw opportunities to streamline their tools in ways that would have a reverberating effect on the entire community. For example, even though we have greatly constrained our goals with the database, the new model makes sense for the LDM managers, and will allow us to quickly generate and distribute accurate and updated directories of fellows contact information in printed form. Additionally, the LDM staff has compiled a tremendous amount of stories and data about the community, yet that information has not yet been as accessible via the Web. We have already begun putting this material on the Wiki and we now have a plan for building an outward-facing Web portal to serve as a clearinghouse for all of the information we collect. This plan was a direct output of this OE grant as noted above.
4. What has changed within your network as a result of this project?
The changes within this network have revolved around self-awareness, intentionality, and expectations. First and foremost, we realized that people in the network have become more aware that they are part of a community with shared goals and values. That self-awareness in and of itself is having a catalyzing effect on the community, encouraging some groups to meet informally on their own and other groups to take even more directive action. Additionally, the fellows in each country have taken steps that are uniquely suited to their regional communities.
For example, as mentioned earlier, Pakistan has an active, country-wide listserv to stay connected and engaged with each other. While Ethiopia has less widespread access to the Internet than Pakistan, fellows there are beginning to use listservs more actively. In India, the fellows not only meet regionally and regularly, they have also formed physical Resource Centers to act as a hub for meeting and knowledge sharing, and participation extends beyond the fellows to other relevant individuals in their community. Additionally, the fellows there are starting to emerge with their own identity, an expanded network that includes people who did not graduate from a Packard program and that has its own name and even its own logo. Similarly, fellows in the Philippines have chosen to affiliate themselves with a variety of existing networks of reproductive health leaders, rather than form their own distinctive group. The fellows there still meet and interact regularly with each other, but within the context of a wider network.
Second, people have a better understanding of how networks work, and that has helped people manage their expectations. In successful networks, everybody is not equal, and everybody does not interact with everyone else. Successful networks have proportionally small "core" groups that focus on network-oriented activities along with loose connections among all of the subgroups. However, as exercises such as The Dance Floor and the Balcony made viscerally clear, a loosely connected group with a strong shared vision is capable of doing remarkable things, even without strong central control. When you accept these principles, it relieves the pressure and redirects the misguided energy around getting everyone connected with each other.
One result is that, in thinking about how we connect our network, we are emphasizing structure over technology. Much of this is acknowledging what has already been happening in our network. Of the five countries, Nigeria has the weakest technology infrastructure. However, it has a strong cultural tradition of dialog. Eugene observed that, of the three countries he visited, the Nigerians were the most comfortable sitting in a circle and sharing stories. In thinking about how we can best harness that instinct, our emphasis needs to be on the best way to connect people within a region, which may not involve any technology at all. Using methodologies that are culturally comfortable for the Fellows has been an important consideration.
5. What advice would you offer to help another organization that is thinking about undertaking a similar project?
In reflecting back on this past year, one of the reasons we believe our project has been successful is that we have been willing to challenge our assumptions and take a fresh look at the paradigm from which we are operating. This is an important leadership quality and we talk about it often with our fellows. It made a great deal of sense for us to model that quality and challenge our own assumptions related to the network and what made up our paradigm. Our ability to have a trusting and open relationship with our consultant also made this possible. Thus, we would first offer the advice that one must have the right partnership with a consultant that allows the organization to open itself up to seeing things from a completely different perspective to that maximum learning and development can take place.
Secondly, we would say that it is important to know your network. We had to see what our network was already doing and build on that, rather than come up with a top-down strategy that didn't make sense to the network as a whole.
Finally, there is so much emphasis on beautiful glossy reports, stories, and data that we sometimes do not get things out there for people to access as quickly or as easily as we can. We learned that is it not always important to wait for the perfect, well-crafted document. In fact, we wrote this report on our Wiki and many people had the opportunity to watch it come to life -- even through some rough drafts. Modeling this kind of openness and collaboration has strengthened us as a team, and modeled the kind of behavior we hope our network members will have in their own collaboration.
Read the report - and enjoyed it. I agree the main outcome for me too has been a change in the approach to networking. There is no one magic 'technology' - we set up as many that people want to engage with. Success is not determined by the how many, but rather by use - even if its used only by a few.
contributed by kamyla marvi on Dec 30 8:09am
Thanks for the feedback, Kamyla! Glad the report is jiving with your experience.
contributed by Eugene Kim on Dec 31 1:00pm
I finally got around to reading the OE final report and I found it to be very reflective, honest and thought provoking. Just have a couple of contributions to make. One is that while the fellowship of the RH leaders has not been making optimal use of the internet for communication over issues of RH, they have done so for social reasons. For example, when one RH leader lost his house to a fire, he put out an SOS by text and e-mail which generated numerous responses of sympathy and raised close to N500, 000.00.
I am not sure how relevant this point is here but I think that network identity and communication within networks remains strong around anchoring programs. Thus LDM leaders who attended the same course stay in contact and the same can be said for the other programs.
Another point which may be useful to document is that after Eugene’s visit to Nigeria and subsequent blog, many fellows saw pictures of themselves in his blog or were called up by friends and told to look out for the photos. As a result of this publicity, 3 new fellows and one regional network (Katsina) commenced the process of establishing websites.
I am fascinated by the use of the word `self-awareness’ and wonder whether group awareness would not be a better term.
Under challenges section, I think that it’s not entirely accurate to say that Islamic scholars are not always in touch with other fellows. I think that a more accurate way to put this sentence would be: In Nigeria, the divide is not only technological but also cultural as there is a large sub-group of traditional and religious leaders with a preference for face to face communication as compared to the medical and media fellows who are more adept at communicating through the internet. These two groups do not often come into contact except in activities organized by the leadership programs.
There are a lot of rich discussions and new learnings on networks. I wonder if there are any lessons on leadership within networks which can be brought out in this report.
I think that it would complete the circle if the report makes a statement about how LDM plans to share learnings with the networks of RH leaders. I think that the fellows in Nigeria will benefit tremendously from learning about the findings of this OE grant.
There is a sense that the discussion of networks seems a little bit in a vacuum without the context of the network, ie, the RH environment fraught with problems and challenges. Is there anyway of reminding the reader about what the networks are ultimately hoping to achieve, since networks are an organizational means to an end. Do the activities of the networks shape their intensity and mode of communication or the converse? I wonder?