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Learning to remain (technically) competent!

May 11, 2011 | Manuel Flury | SDC Experiences |

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By Manuel Flury

SDC operates in fields such as skills development, water and sanitation, rural livelihoods, micro finances, municipal development or community based health care. It is active in poorest, conflict prone and fragile states via direct bilateral aid and through programmes of multilateral organisations. The portfolio includes sector budget support, capacity development, infrastructure work and related policy work. SDC collaborates with a wide range of public, private enterprise and civil society partners.
High quality of its thematic and technical work has always been a trade mark of Swiss Cooperation. This level of competence is at great risk! SDC is about to lose its thematic excellence. Administering larger junks of development funds is becoming characteristic for SDC’s development work. Despite this overall trend, the importance of excellence and competence in what SDC is doing is repeatedly stressed. The question, however, what the fields of (thematic and technical) competence of Swiss Cooperation would be remains unanswered, still, and already for many years.

Under the motto “the right person at the right place”, SDC’s Senior Management has launched an institutional discussion. This discussion is timely. It is triggered by (1) the Swiss development business gradually becoming an integral part of the Swiss foreign policy work. Processes and services are being integrated into the overall machinery of the Ministry; and (2) the forthcoming bill to the parliament requesting the finances for 2013 – 2016 will have to specify SDC’s fields of thematic competence.
The challenge for SDC is twofold:
(1) To specify what is the particular (thematic and methodological) competence profile of Swiss Cooperation (in German we talk about the: “IZA-Kompetenz”) within an overall competence profile of foreign policy. This includes establishing a practice of building and securing the particular competencies among the staff.
(2) To develop and maintain competence in particular thematic and technical fields of Swiss Cooperation. This includes strengthening the institutional role and responsibilities of related Thematic Programme Officers, Networks and Policy Advisors (Focal Points).

SDC’s competence profile is of high political interest. Development work aims at assisting societal change towards a better life of the world’s poor and disadvantaged in a globalising world. It touches almost all aspects of human life including its interaction with nature. Addressing the particular development challenges in the countries in the South and East, SDC’s profile is supposed to valorise Swiss expertise. There is the challenge for SDC to formulate its competence profile in trading off between development needs in the partner countries, own experiences, innovation potentials and Swiss domestic expertise. Whereas in a rapidly changing world flexibility is required, there is as well need for continuity in the way, the particular competencies are secured and developed and related partnerships are established.

Management of competencies means managing competent people and to manage the flows of knowledge within the organisation and beyond. This is the essence of institutional learning and knowledge management! In his blog “Learning is a must for SDC”, Reto Wieser outlined the basic ingredients of individual and institutional learning.
SDC’s institutional competence is the result of its ability to learn from and to valorise the expertise of collaborators, the experiences made in the programme and policy work, the competence of partner organisations, external experts and centres of competence. As a learning organisation, SDC translates experiences and new insights gained by collaborators and partners in networks and teams into organisational skills, procedures and cultures.
At the root of SDC’s institutional competence are knowledgeable and skilled collaborators and the way how they interact, share and pool their experiences and develop their individual expertise. What is needed in order to ensure a high level of individual competence:
–                 Agreements with individual collaborators on the particular skills SDC is interested in and the particular collaborator is supposed to sustain
–                 Obligation and options for active participation in the internal professional peer exchange and learning and/or any other professional networks within the larger development and professional community
–                 Criteria of thematic qualification (within a pool of thematic collaborators) and options for an individual thematic career
–                 Possibilities to further develop the expertise (training and further education, conferences, publications, etc.)

SDC mobilises its Thematic Expertise to a growing extent through collaborations with partners and centres of excellence in the partner countries, in Switzerland and internationally. Accordingly, networking with partners becomes highly relevant. SDC secures own, internal expertise in fields of particular interest, such as gender equality, good governance or human rights. It might do so in further fields of long-lasting experience such as water and sanitation or micro-finances. In most fields, however, Thematic Programme Officers do not need to be the top specialists but they have to know how to access to and to collaborate with external thematic expertise. They have to assist Programme Officers and Senior Management in guaranteeing thematic quality of development activities.
This contrasts to the management of programmes and policies – the core of the business – and to the management of the development business overall. These are competencies to be secured in principle internally, with highly skilled and knowledgeable collaborators and managers.

In order to accomplish good quality and effective development work, SDC needs to develop and secure its Good Technical Practice (“Gute Fachpraxis”), in all fields of competence, as a core endeavour or with its partners. In many fields such a good technical praxis is in place. Financial administrators know how best to accomplish their tasks. Their network called sdc-finance is a good example of peer support through an extensive Question & Answer practice. Finance sector reform people have developed good practice guidelines, together with their peers of other development agencies.
But: What needs to be considered, that Good Technical Practice becomes relevant in management decisions? Does the institution provide the appropriate space for thematic collaborators (and partners) to develop such a praxis and to innovate? SDC’s history tells us how difficult it is to link Thematic Expertise with the Programme Management Cycle.

Translating good practices into practical steps in a particular context seems to be the crux. The US sociologist Richard Sennett raises another most relevant issue. In a recent article in the “Zeit” weekly Sennet argues, that the linear way of doing the business – he talks about “linear dramaturgy” – does not provide the space for lateral thinking (*) which is considered important for any innovation and for working in complex contexts. Organisations would not provide the place to the first hand or frontline knowledge it would deserve. Status prohibits: senior management is supposed to know better! Furthermore it is often ignored that technical competence – Sennett talks about “crafts” – is both an experimental and an operational process. The technical competence links detecting problems with solving problems, primarily through lateral thinking.
Looking at SDC’s way of doing the business: We want to influence societal change and contribute to alleviate poverty. We are aware that linear planning of development activities is rarely the appropriate answer to interventions into highly complex social organisations. We know that programme steering in such contexts needs to be based on assumptions of the particular social changes and hypotheses on how interventions would influence them. We know as well: Contributions of development interventions require open minded and permanent review of assumptions and hypotheses. For Programme Managers – our craftspeople – it is manoeuvring in a dynamic environment with multiple actors, vectors and activities. There is no 1-to-1 pathway from inputs (money, and “brains”) to development effects. And still: Our frontline workers and craftspeople are obliged to translate contributions and interventions into rigid planning and reporting frameworks of inputs, outputs and precise outcomes to be expected! Adrian Gnägi discussed Alternatives to LogFrames recently.
The analogy of  “craftsmanship” (**) teaches us to look into programme management as a workshop of masons, carpenters, wielders etc. that are permanently improving and finding most appropriate ways to new challenges, based on their (technical and contextual) experiences, reviewing their standards or good practices. It is through valorising the ability of individuals in a social organisation that the institution can deal with the given complexity. And, talking to the craftspersons, Sennet emphasises that good practices and standards need to be understood by people that are no experts! Only those standards contribute to the quality that every member of the organisation can understand.

The official development business is rapidly changing. It is becoming part and parcel of policy work at national, regional and global levels. It follows domestic priorities of donors and is still supposed to align to country and poor societies’ needs and expertise. New instruments are established, a permanent search for innovative approaches to new challenges is mandatory. High professionalism of highly qualified and competent individuals and institutions are indispensable in order to guarantee quality both in terms of the HOW (Programme and Business Management) and the WHAT (Thematic Expertise).
SDC needs
–                 to rebuild its professionalism and (thematic and technical) competence in the foreign policy institutional set-up and
–                 to allow its staff to develop its professionalism in methodological, thematic and technical terms.

Remarks
* Lateral thinking is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic. The term lateral thinking was coined by Edward de Bono in the book New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking published in 1967.
** Richard Sennet. The Craftsman. 2008. Yale University Press. The Guardian Review

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