Some years ago I was involved in an initiative called the Capacity Collective. It brought together an eclectic group of participants from practitioner, donor and academic institutions to explore some of the key challenges facing capacity development for knowledge generation, sharing and application, and to identify ways of addressing these both theoretically and practically. Amongst a number of theorists and practitioners, we found the work of Peter Morgan very helpful, who views capacity as “that emergent combination of attributes that enables a human system to create development value.” This definition seemed to describe well our own perceptions of the complex systems in which capacity development often takes place, as well as recognizing that there is no single set of attributes likely to support the kinds of transformations we would like to see take place.

[Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a series on think tanks and organizational capacity building, edited by Katy Stockton and Shannon Sutton. The book, ‘Action Research and Organisational Capacity Building: Journeys of change in southern think tanks’, that this series is based on can be accessed here. This post was written by Peter Taylor, Program Manager with the Think Tank Initiative.]

This conceptual understanding supported the emergence of four main insights from the Capacity Collective that still stand out for me. First, it’s hard to develop capacities without some basic “rallying ideas” which help get people behind an agenda for change. Second, it’s necessary to mobilize dynamic agents who can help move things forward so that change can happen. Third, it’s very difficult to bring about transformation without promoting empowering relationships amongst those engaged in the change process. And fourth, in order for all of these to happen, it’s crucial to take into account the context in which capacity development is taking place – to frame it, and to help shape it.

These insights were an important part of my “baggage” when I joined the Think Tank Initiative (TTI); a program dedicated to strengthening the capacity of independent policy research institutions in the developing world. Because TTI works directly with institutions, its prime focus is organizational capacity building, which it seeks to achieve through a combination of core financial and technical support. But how would organizational capacity building play out in the world of think tanks? What do we really know about how organizational capacity is built in these types of institutions? And how could an intentional process of change be designed that would maximize opportunities for learning about the ways in which organizational capacity building takes place?

As the previous blogs in this series have revealed, TTI made an effort to answer these questions through an action research process involving 5 of its think tank partners in Ecuador, Ghana, Pakistan, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. Each institution identified a goal that they wished to work towards, and which would require capacities to be built at the organizational level for the goal to be achieved. They followed a fairly classic action research pathway: identify the desired destination; design and plan a series of steps to arrive there; build into the pathway moments of reflection and analysis on the changes taking place; course correct as needed, based on the insights emerging from the reflection on experience; and repeat this cycle as long as necessary in order to arrive at a desired end point (which may be quite different from what was initially envisaged).

TTI complicated the process further, by creating multiple opportunities for mutual exchange and experience sharing between all 5 institutions, sometimes on shaky internet connections, and occasionally face to face. After 2 years, we felt we were in a position to stand back and look collectively at what had taken place and to see what we had learned along the way.

The authors of the preceding blogs have highlighted some of their own key learning that arose during this 2-year action research process. Andrea Ordonez highlighted how efforts to strengthen the rigor and impact of research in Grupo Faro, Ecuador, were enhanced by applying a researchable approach to the change process itself. Michael Ofori-Mensah of IEA-Ghanaexplained the innovative institutional processes and systems put in place to facilitate organizational change. Asif Memon and Mome Saleem from SDPI, Pakistan, placed strong emphasis on the way context determines the capacity of a think tank to influence policy. Antonia Mutoro revealed how mentoring of colleagues became a crucial component of the capacity building process in IPAR-Rwanda. And Roshni Alles described the highly participatory approach followed by CEPA, Sri Lanka, and how efforts were made to achieve change by promoting empowering relationships.

These authors’ blogs seem to confirm the importance of four key factors in helping to build organizational capacity: powerful ideas about the nature of change, champions to back up and promote the ideas, change processes that are nourished by empowering relationships, and capacity development undertaken within a well understood context. This provides a very useful lesson for how other organizations approach their own processes of institutional transformation. 

In addition to this important learning, a further reflection continues to resonate with me. Real transformation often takes place most effectively, and sustainably, when it is part of a shared endeavour, grounded in reflection and collective action. The 5 institutions engaged in this action research process committed from the outset to learning from each other. They embarked on a challenging journey, but drew on each other’s experience, motivation and energy along the way. When difficulties arose, they could share their own challenges, and often offered alternative options on how to proceed. When successes were achieved, they were celebrated together and formed a source of encouragement and inspiration to others.

What is the take-away for think tanks that are considering building their organizational capacity? By being intentional about the kinds of transformation we are working towards, and consciously setting out to learn from others in processes of change, the journey becomes less arduous. And because our view of the organizational change we are involved in is always going to be partial, a collective view helps us understand the whole picture more fully. Collaboration and mutual reflection may even help us find the path to success more easily.

We’ll continue to test these ideas and practices out in TTI (and we’ll share what we discover with readers in our future blogs). We hope other organizations will also be inspired along the road to organizational transformation and sustainability. Please share your experiences with us, we look forward to learning more from your journeys.