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Development 2.0: The skills gap

No summer lull for the Development 2.0 world, it would seem, judging from recent activity: from Richard Heeks’ paper on Development 2.0: Transformative ICT-Enabled Development Models and Impacts to a comprehensive checklist comparing “old school development” with Development 2.0 aid; from Idealware’s Social Media Decision Guide for nonprofits to UNITAR/FAO’s e-learning course for social media for development professionals. The buzz generated by the 35$ laptop and the use of social media around the referendum in Kenya (see e.g. here and here) has filled the blogosphere and endless twitter streams. IDB’s recently concluded Mobile Citizens contest and the upcoming World Bank’s Apps for Development competition indicate that the “oh so 2.0” crowdsourcing-for-innovation craze has become mainstream in development, too.

In spite of all this fervor, one has the impression that Development 2.0 is still far from reaching its full potential and has not really had an impact where it matters most – in the core processes and operations, in the business model of development organizations. We are still far from a situation where, say, a community development specialist or a biologist in the field who is interested in testing out what my colleague, Prasanna Lal Das, has dubbed “Fieldwork 2.0” options, can easily find expertise to guide them through the process. Falling foul of organizational inertia, their requests are typically

directed to either communications departments (whose main focus is,

understandably, to “push out” the message) or IT specialists for whom

web 2.0 and the mobile web are often a brave new world.

As a result, efficiencies that could be gained by rethinking existing business processes (say, by using GPS to offer alternative routes for a pipeline or mobile phones to monitor water supply in rural areas) end up more often than not in the list of missed opportunities. Examples such as UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, especially dedicated to helping fieldwork through new technologies, are still too few and far in between.

Of the many reasons that slow down the transformative potential of Development 2.0, cultural resistance often tends to attract the most attention. However, the skills gap is, in my view, equally important. What can be done to address it? It seems to me there are three options. All of them are still quite a long way from coming to fruition:

  1. Training staff doing field work on Development 2.0 skills. Not everybody needs to become a techie, but a broad understanding of the opportunities opened up, say, by geolocation or QR codes, by open data or mobile communications can sparkle new ideas and foster innovation. To my knowledge, Fieldwork 2.0 training courses in development organizations are still far from common practice and are often the initiative of a handful of enthusiasts.
  2. Hiring new professional profiles with skills such as language pattern analysis, mobile technology or geomapping (more in a previous post) to accelerate in-house innovation. A cursory, utterly non-scientific analysis of development job ads I recently conducted indicated that there is no rush in this department (tip for the readers: any attempt to explain to your boss that you are checking out job sites to do research for a blog post is doomed to be met with a sardonic smile).
  3. Developing effective interfaces with external agile, grassroots movements that have the desired set of skills. The example of cooperation between the development “big guns” and volunteer initiatives around the Haiti humanitarian response has already become textbook. The impression, however, is that there is still a big gap to fill between the need for predictability and control dictated by the processes of international development and the spontaneous, decentralized surge of grassroots networks.

Is the skills gap just my personal impression, or do you think it is a reality? And if so, are there other solutions that could accelerate business model innovations in the work of development organizations?

Comments

Submitted by Wayan on
Agreed, there is a huge skills gap in which a few of us intrepid souls have jumped with full enthusiasm. Yet, rather than bemoan this state, accept it as standard with any change, be it 2.0 or the move from fax to email. Change takes time, but while others wait, early adopters will lead. That's just the way it is.

Submitted by Bahar Salimova on
Great posting, Giulio. I agree that the skills gap is an issue in adopting and implementing social media. The interesting part of this is that even early adopters develop their skills by trial and learning, which means that most of the successful cases of social media utilization come from individuals and organizations that are more willing to take the risk and be open to any potential negative impact. At the same time, internet accessibility is another big issue that needs to be overcome in many parts of the world.

Submitted by Molly Norris on
It would be especially interesting/useful/relevant to use 2.0 technology to strengthen the feedback loop from project participants or so-called 'beneficiaries.' When I visit projects, everyone I talk to from pineapple farmers to fourth graders has email addresses. That's not even 2.0. I don't necessarily believe lack of integration of emerging technology into operations is a skill gap, but rather a will-to-do gap.

I agree that the concept of Development 2.0 requires a feedback loop from participants and beneficiaries. At Opportunity International we've been diving into Development 2.0 with a passion - ranging from a 'Web2.0' platform (OptINnow.org) to cloud enabled mobile apps based on Salesforce for our 'Fieldwork2.0' efforts. It makes us more efficient, and an obvious commitment to forward looking technologies makes it easier to attract tech talent to fill the skills gap.

Submitted by giulio quaggiotto on
Thanks all for your comments! Molly, Jonathan: you touch on a subject that is very dear to my heart - namely the feedback loop (see a previous post http://psdblog.worldbank.org/psdblog/2010/06/rewriting-the-script-for-aid-and-development.html). I think it is only a matter of time before we see "live streams" from the field from affected communities. That will take accountability and transparency to a whole different level. Jonathan: always interesting to learn about development 2.0 efforts and I really like your point about being at the cutting edge to be able to attract the right talent.

Submitted by Bryan Berry on
I second Wayan's thoughts. I feel that most organizations, private and public, are struggling to fully utilize these new technologies. I whole-heartedly endorse mobile technologies because I have seen how my fiancee uses her android phone to navigate our new home in Italy. She uses it to communicate w/ Google Translate, to find her way, and to discover sites of interest. This is not unlike what a development professional would need in a new environment.

Great post Giulio. I think the skills you identify are in short supply in all organisations and in Government also. I would not say such a skills vacuum exists solely in the Development space, but rather prevails across most industries. It's clear that practitioners in this field need to be equipped with the understandings of how to make use of data through visualizations and mashups. The request to provide more data and less information (http://psdblog.worldbank.org/psdblog/2010/05/development-20-give-me-less-information-and-more-data.html), will only be useful if there is the necessary expertise to exploit this. Governments have the same problems (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/conradquiltyharper/100050692/to-cut-costs-councils-should-embrace-open-data-and-community-coders/) and one of the opportunities could be to simply make practitioners in this area more aware of how to efficiently contract these services, rather than developing new skillsets: "In the private sector, the recession has seen large agencies with over-inflated fees increasingly replaced by remote freelance experts collaborating online to deliver better results for a fraction of the cost. The public sector has so far failed to wake-up to this new reality”. Do you think those involved in Development activities should have the skillsets themselves, or would it be easier to educate them on the possibilities and let them know where to contract these services simply and cheaply?

Submitted by giulio quaggiotto on
Hi Richard, Thanks for stopping by and the pointer to the Telegraph article. The debate as to whether to develop these new skills in-house or, as I alluded to in another blog post (http://psdblog.worldbank.org/psdblog/2010/08/harnessing-developments-information-shadow.html),, to have the private sector develop services in this area is really worth having. I can see pros and cons in both scenarios, and I also think there's probably no hard and fast rule. Business objectives, size of the organisation, the desire to mainstream a certain type of skill set beyond a few specialists and probably other factors might determine whether it's best to outsource or develop in-house expertise. In general, though, I totally agree with your point: if it is cheaper, faster and quicker to contract out (and, these days, this is often the case), why not?

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