Thursday, August 23, 2018

Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) through Walkabout

Text and Pictures by Barry Greville-Eyres

There is no substitute for 'Walkabout' particularly in the official development assistance context  

Ironically, the term walkabout is recognized in technical and business management parlance as MBWA or management by walking around. It was popularized in the ‘80s and involves managers meandering about in an unstructured manner, arbitrarily through the workplace, to check with employees/beneficiaries, equipment, or on the status of continuing work. An Antipodean variation on the theme is the journey of discovery or rite of passage during which adolescent males, in Australian Aboriginal culture, live in the wilderness for a period up to six months. This enables them to make the spiritual and traditional transition into adulthood. This socio-cultural practice is entrenched, in various guises, in many traditional and even contemporary societies (including African) marking an important learning and developmental milestone in someone’s life. One could argue that the ‘generalized practice’ is second nature but has been lost or severely eroded over time by external influences including urbanization and globalization. Sense-around or the three L’s of Listening, Looking and Learning are at the core of the walkabout experience.

CLA (USAID) and capacity development (primarily UNDP and other UN agencies, DFID-UKAID, AusAID-AustralianAID), often used interchangeably in the official development assistance (ODA) context, is the process (of knowledge, skill, experience and attribute acquisition) through which individuals, organizations and societies obtain, strengthen and maintain the competences to set and achieve their own, time-bound development objectives.

The walkabout management (and learning) model is a simple one, and in workplaces where employees are within proximity to each other it can be extraordinarily effective especially nowadays where there is an over-reliance on information and communication technologies. Pundits argue that its destined for a comeback as it trumps verbose, impersonal emails meticulously prepared from behind closed doors; smashes the glass cubicle-siloed work space and mentality and more importantly, is handy for building rapport and cohesion among team members.

A key disadvantage that MBWA has however is the limit posed on it by geography. In the case of decentralized offices and or a regional sphere of operations, its becomes particularly challenging and conscious decisions and active practices need to be put in place to promote this orientation.

This article intends validating, based on a career of practice, the notional concept of ‘walkabout’ yet also argues how integral it is not only to good development per se but also highly effective CLA/CD. There is no substitute for hands-on management and it’s also widely accepted that intensive and participatory engagement promotes home-grown and often, spontaneous development solutions. An attempt is made to locate CLA through Walkabout on a continuum citing some of the more and less typical development responses, largely dictated by prevailing contextual factors. 

A fair depiction of Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Pic. Courtesy of U.S. Mission Uganda 

Gated and Grounded in Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FCAS)

As a development practitioner, most of my recent work has been in FCAS (including South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Iraq) where walking around and as a natural extension CLA and CD, is exceedingly difficult and often nearly impossible. Typically, staff are sequestered is secure compounds, as a matter of necessity, and seldom have direct access to development assistance partners – whether government counterparts, CBOs/NGOs, other stakeholders and beneficiaries. Occasional and hard-earned engagement is at great risk with parties having to run a gauntlet, of high drama, on either side of the wire. Personal safety aside, national counterparts are often reluctant to venture into secure, international compounds because of the grave danger en route, general inconvenience and occasional disrespect meted out on them by local and foreign guard forces. Conversely, some practitioners welcome ‘getting out of the wire’ as a rare opportunity to see things as they really are. Most err on the side of caution and prefer not to venture out at all even with all the security arrangements in place. All are reminded by security details that individuals are, ultimately, ‘responsible’ for their personal security and therefore exercise this ‘call’ accordingly.

Under these circumstances, proximity is greatly reduced as is the ability to walkabout. Therefore, working relationships are fleeting and national staff/counterparts ‘exist’ side-by-side in two distinct, yet totally altered realities. Rapport, trust, face-time, nurturing ‘holistic development’ through on-the-job mentoring and coaching which are all vital social capital ingredients tend to be in short supply. Frequent rest and recuperation (R&R) cycles and sporadic terror incidents add to the climate of chaos and surrealness. Exceptions do exist and its not uncommon to develop incredible bonds of friendship and mutual understanding under the most trying circumstances.

Barbed wire, T-walls, barricades and birds .......

Personal Tip: My mission was, within reason, to spend as much contact time as possible with national colleagues and government counterparts. I facilitated access to our secured compounds and ‘personalized’ the entire experience by receiving and seeing them off at the gate. Transport was always arranged, and pickups/drop-offs were timely and where necessary, I would shield them from awkward moments with guard forces. Refreshments at the local restaurant or coffee shop was a MUST DO and an ordinarily dull meeting was turned into, what I hoped, an outing and pleasant occasion. Conversely, what cemented working relations and won healthy respect in short time, was the willingness to venture out of the protected expat-bubble and visit government counterparts at their workplaces. 
A typical development response in FCAS is to install a system of intermediate national staff, almost always seasoned practitioners and advisors, to serve as an extension of their international colleagues. Local advisors become the eyes, ears – sensory, atmospheric and contextual receptors for the project, implementer and donor. This model, used as a primary vehicle for CLA and CD, has worked well but the international practitioner cadre bears an important responsibility in making it work seamlessly and effectively. 

Local Trainers were Trained through (ToTs) and then sent out into ministries and departments as dedicated points of contact and to deliver on project mandates. Language was invariably always a problem and most projects had an excellent team of in-house translators to support the process of developing and transferring knowledge, skills and attitudes. Whereas most local advisors were trained professionals (engineers, doctors and lawyers) many lacked the ‘soft developmental skills and experience’ to take on the role as practitioner consultant. This is where the role of the international practitioner became so critical and ‘mismatches’ were not uncommon, where former city managers, lawyers and other professionals were thrust into development work with little or no context-specific experience.  Nevertheless, this yielded ‘mixed’ and interesting results.

Comment: The ‘process’ of understanding a dynamic local context, through and with intermediate advisors, and then jointly developing appropriate responses is central to a sustainable CLA/CD journey. Enough time must be allowed to continuously review both ‘process’ and ‘content’ issues as therein lies learning, adaptive management and fundamental change. Each country and unique context have its ‘natural rhythm’ and heart beat that should and cannot be hurried along easily.

A decade or more later there is a critical mass of experienced, local capacity in place, weaned off from their international parentages that can continue this important work with the ‘lightest touch’ of support and supervision. This remains an enduring legacy of the helter-skelter development work done in the new (3rd) millennium and which addresses, in part, sustainability issues raised by many cynics. Some recent Afghan insights - specially from southern Afghanistan (Helmand Province) are shared here at

Comment: Challenges posed by language and the absence of professional translation are sometimes taken for granted – this can be disastrous for a project and its implementation if not remedied swiftly.

Comment: Another, often, taken for granted dimension in FCASs is the impact of unresolved conflict/trauma on a society and more specifically on CLA/CD. Experiences from Timor-Leste are shared here. This realization and the deeply associated complexities are a true product of walkabout – venturing out of Dili and spending time in the countryside with Timorese – both East and West. 

A 'twist' on Walkabout

How to Entrench Support and How Not To

Embed, notwithstanding its strong militaristic connotations, is probably the more commonly used term to take the walkabout concept to its absolute, ‘ideal’ extreme. In general terms, CLA/CD often works best if you physically co-locate oneself directly with your local project colleagues and or government counterparts. This is permissible outside of FCAS situations and where one would want to optimize contact/face-time. Typically, when commencing on a new project, as a senior expat practitioner, one is reverently and ceremoniously ushered to a plush office secluded from project machinations and hullabaloo.

Personal Tip: Immediately ditch the lofty and prized project ‘unreal estate’ in favor of co-locating yourself in a ‘general office’ arrangement where you share with middle-level colleagues/counterparts particularly general and personal assistants/secretaries. In quick order, one will have your finger on the ‘true’ project pulse and open yourself to the trust, respect and cultural uniqueness of national staff. You will also have so much more fun in a communal office arrangement with never-ending learning.

If your role is to provide strategic and institutional strengthening support to the leadership of a government agency, then the ideal approach is to ‘embed’ yourself in proximity to the leadership – specifically in the office of responsive and interested counterpart(s). Common leadership and project tendencies are to often establish a ‘separate’ project office which makes reasonable sense but does little to directly promote integration and CLA/CD. Project offices are always better resourced and reinforces a ‘we-them’ orientation posing physical as well as psycho-social barriers. Being fully ‘embedded’ does not negate the need to actively engage in ‘walk and talk about practice.’

Comment: Advocate high visibility/walkabout – spend time on the move practicing the 3 Ls - across the organization’s rank and file. Drivers, guards – security personnel, secretaries, cleaning – and auxiliary support staff ALL have incredible insights to share and as part of a project team also have a vested interest in the project – specifically its plans, progress and success.

Walking the Talk

Platitudes and lip service, especially on the part of program/project leadership, are not enough. A quick scan of development assistance websites and associated job posts confirms that CLA/CD remain a topical and central andragogical theme throughout the industry. It’s the understanding thereof and actual ‘doing’ that can prove to be challenging and somewhat confronting. As an adopted approach it should be ‘practiced’ across project rank and file – in a wholly integrated and systemic manner. ALL become ‘learners’ and ‘educators’ and no one is exempt from ‘internalizing and living out’ this dynamic dualism.  Institutional arrangements are critical to underpin this ‘learning orientation’ that should seek to:  

·        Acknowledge and reward innovation and excellence;
·        Support the taking of informed decisions and calculated risks;
·        Design/implement plans and M&E frameworks that are flexible and agile;
·        Consider ever-changing contexts and incorporate them appropriately;
·        Create time, space and opportunities for ongoing dialogue and discussion on progress and learning (both analytical and critical) through after action reviews, focus group feedback, reflection – stock taking and other periodic sessions;
·        Locate the leadership and management cadre in such a position to ACTIVELY lead the process but equally, to empower project staff through functional delegations;
·        Promote sound, open and participatory management practices avoiding excessive centralization and micromanagement;
·        Install an informal system of gurus or champions to support the orientation;
·        Pivot learning (guide, support and direct) around a strategic and dedicated learning position with an important caveat - a shared-communal learning responsibility rather than of one individual in that position; 

Discoveries and rare pleasures when going 'walkabout' - meeting and making new friends because you put yourself out there.

Regional Programs – Harder and with Greater Complexity

CLA, through Walkabout, in a regional project context is challenging, illusive and often a moving target. Multiple countries mean an exponential amplification of learning with a plethora of learners and educators; convergent but often, divergent contexts/positions; governments; regional entities; interested and affected parties. It also implies some understanding of and consensus around:

With whom do we want to learn? (greater focus for impact)
What do we want to learn about? (urgent and important issues)
How best to learn within a given regional context? (an appreciation of learning styles, methodologies and tools)

Further insights are provided below.

Lingua francas, colonial legacies, multi-culturalism and tribalism 
Action research indicates that people’s perceptions of and responses to social change (practicing collaboration, learning and adaptation in project-based contexts) are likely to be situation specific and grounded in location-based histories, social networks, cultural norms and institutional arrangements (Paschen and Ison, 2014). They also involve a variety of stakeholders at all societal levels. This implies, firstly, bridging this important ‘socio-cultural divide’ that is often taken for granted. This can only be done by ‘old-fashioned’ communication and engagement (talking the talk). Failure to do this can and does pose barriers to learning and collaboration.  To encourage a better and greater socio-cultural appreciation of the varied perspectives that exist across a transdisciplinary knowledge network, stakeholders should also cross-learn about the perspectives of fellow stakeholders in their specific context or in this case, geographic region. A departure point is to learn about each other’s cultures and histories; existing knowledge, skills and attitudes; and prevailing realities. An off-the-shelf solution from elsewhere or a totally different development paradigm that is re-engineered or retrofitted is problematic and bound to fail. Cross-learning and contextual appreciation presupposes the time, openness, willingness and opportunities to do so to the mutual benefit of all significant parties. Even if these fundamental foundations are in place, practitioners need to remain sensitive and hyper-vigilant as there is ‘so much more’ lost in translation than language and literal meaning.

Geo-political context, regional power and economic blocs
Most regional ‘governing’ blocs or communities are put in place to fast-track economic growth, social progress, sustainable development and cultural advancement. A common scenario may be multiple but decentralized governing blocs operating out of different locations in a vast geographic region, with diverse but equally overlapping mandates where the minnow(s) is ultimately subordinate to one supra-bloc. A complex operating environment fraught with power dynamics, pecking orders and countless protocols. A typical project or development response is to embed bodies within the blocs with less of an emphasis on roles, responsibilities and professional competencies. Regional walkabout or travel can be demanding, circuitous and time consuming but nevertheless critical. Under these circumstances teamwork becomes more important than ever.

Knowledge capture and dissemination
As discussed under the heading Walking the Talk, the design and implementation approach should be precise and unequivocal. Teams and all members therein ‘learn by doing’ and it should be a requirement that all play an active role in this regard.   

Concluding thoughts

CLA, whether planned/formalized and or purely opportunistic/spontaneous, is more often intuitive and about sensing and feeling one’s way through situations. Some people are blessed with this orientation and inner learning voice – others are not. Organizations and projects are certainly not – more reason for leaders and management to critically consider whether ‘business as usual’ is really an option – or perhaps not. Its only through walkabout and experience that one can begin to build a ‘learning repertoire’ and then affect some measure of change.

In my experience, the smallest is enough:

‘I'm happy to inform you that as of this week, I'm now the XXXX Officer. This wouldn't have been possible without all the effort you put into making sure that the project recognized my efforts. I can't appreciate your persistence, support, and guidance over the past year enough. Thank you so much………’

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