Source: Think Tank Initiative

Over 113 South Asian researchers concluded a two-year Capacity Building program under the Think Tank Initiative (TTI). The program was designed to facilitate cross-engagement and peer learning, build local ownership, and respond to specific organizational-level skill gaps identified by participating think tanks.  A secondary objective was to enable the TTI cohort to identify and harness emerging opportunities for collaboration in South Asia.  This required significant investment in staff time from 14 TTI-supported organizations and 9 outside of the TTI cohort. This blog reflects on how the program contributed to organizational change.

[Debbie Menezes was the M&E Coordinator for TTI Capacity Building effort in South Asia. This blog is part of a series on lessons learned from TTI’s concerted efforts to build capacity amongst think tanks in the program. The series was edited by Tiffany Barnes-Huggins.]

Why do it?

The operating environment for think tanks in South Asia is complex and evolving, and TTI’s 14 participating think tanks identified the following constraints to their growth strategy as follows: the paucity of quality research capacity limits responsiveness to engage on policy issues; limited exposure to new methodologies stifles quality and innovation; the lack of a second tier of research leadership means that top management time is diverted away from outreach and engagement with policy makers; and weak communication strategies limit the effectiveness of the dissemination of research findings. Resource mobilisation is increasingly becoming a constraint and think tanks have started to diversify into other activities such as project management but for which skills gaps exist.

How was this different? 

TTI’s capacity building approach was designed to be different from traditional training-based approaches as follows: 

Firstly, the programs were facilitated and delivered by two TTI-supported think tanks - the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) in India and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Pakistan - in partnership with international and local resource persons.  These lead organizations were selected by TTI following a competitive process in South Asia. 

Secondly, the program targeted mid-level researchers – as potential change agents within their own organizations.  Courses focused on addressing specific skill gaps identified by the 14 think tanks through a collaborative process. These included: Research Methodologies, Conceptualizing and Designing Research Projects, Strategic Leadership, Communications, Project Management, and Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability & Learning.   

Thirdly, the program aimed at fostering peer-learning and at enabling the cohort to identify opportunities for collaboration.  Participants highly valued the peer-networking, the informal space to deliberate on issues commonly faced across organizations, and to learn from each other. Mid-level researchers reflected that they didn’t usually get this type of exposure in their routine work. Some of the less established organizations also felt that they were able to learn from more experienced peers.

Finally, this approach provided an opportunity for the two lead organizations (SDPI and CSTEP) to innovate and test markets for this kind of future offering in South Asia.  Both organizations introduced a payment-based mechanism for some modules (applicable for non-TTI supported organizations) and saw good uptake.                                                                                                                              

Different pathways to institutionalize learning 

It’s easy to deliver training and for participants to go back to their own organizations with new skills and some euphoria, but the real test is in harnessing and institutionalizing this learning.  Almost all participants reflected that they had derived enormous value for the courses and were eager to put this learning into practice. Some organizations have put in place processes to institutionalize learning through various mechanisms, but this is largely dependent on the individual organization and remains a work in progress.   Some examples of immediate action included:

The lead organizations have put in place mechanisms for sustainability.  CSTEP’s Project Management and Quality Control cells are a repository for key learnings from the program, to be used as induction material for new employees.  SDPI’s remodeled and expanded Centre for Learning and Development (CLD) has a broader remit to implement trainings within the region and abroad. Both organizations also created knowledge platforms to sustain learning internally.  For instance, CSTEP created an external Content Management System that curates course reading materials, presentations, assignments, and webinar recordings, available to all TTI partners as and when required.  SDPI’s CLD has archived all its workshop material for future replication.

Concluding Reflections

Plans for sustaining learning and uptake should be built in from the start, or else this risks becoming a routine training program.  CSTEP and SDPI engaged early on with participating organizations to develop learning action plans which provided a useful framework to ensure the transmission of learning benefits from the individual back to the organization.  However, not all learning has been viewed positively.  In some cases, demand for M&E remains weak and institutionalization of new practices have faced internal resistance.

Donor funding has been critical to providing a neutral platform for peer-to-peer learning among South Asian researchers which is unlikely to have otherwise happened as, the political economy of South Asia, visa restrictions and funding constraints tend to limit more junior staff from exposure to their peers.

Competition vs Collaboration.  Bringing peers together into a common learning space does not automatically foster collaboration. There has been some limited success – three organizations initiated collaboration after participating in SDPI workshops, and international forums are being used as platforms to do  joint sessions.  Interestingly, whilst some participants saw value in developing collaboration, others felt that there is limited opportunity as think tanks may be competitors in a resource-constrained space. Design of any similar programs in the future should consider any limiting factors and help to incentivize collaboration, for instance through seed funding. 

Capacity building was undoubtedly useful particularly for mid-level professionals, but its real value came from being a part of the larger TTI program.  The courses provided an impetus, but organizations now need to harness the investment in learning and embed change as they continue along their journey.