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OPINION: From capacity development to change process

Dr Klas Sandström is the Programme Manager, Senior Water and Environment Specialist at NIRAS International Consulting. He discusses the importance of managing change effectively. 


The world is full of capacity development initiatives. But what does capacity mean and what does it entail to develop capacity? President Paul Kagame of Rwanda argues that “capacity or the ability to get things done goes beyond formal qualifications and technical skills development to include the cultivation of intangible or ‘soft’ attributes such as the ability to drive change and to build processes, organisations, and institutions which can deliver public services over the long term.” We obviously need to differentiate between technical skill development and such processes that ultimately will change society at large.

To learn is to develop. We know that new competence makes people grow and stand tall when facing challenges and obviously greater competence is better than less competence. But is it enough to have merely more technical skill competence in order to address the many concerns that we face today? To put new know-how and skills into practice requires a change in our current processes, norms and structures, and such a change requires other types of competence.

Change management is a systematic approach to dealing with change, both from the perspective of an organisation and on the individual level. A linked term is organisational change, in other words, a structured approach that organisations may take to ensure that changes are smoothly and successfully implemented to achieve lasting benefits.

But “change pains,” and there is often resistance to change, as both humans and organisations are inherently conservative and often wants to continue to do things just as they have for many years. A person or group that engages in facilitating change – a change agent – needs to be prepared for such reactions. A potentially unpopular role!

Let’s envision an ambitious, young professional in a government water department. She has attended an expensive overseas training program on climate change and early warning systems, for example. It was a good programme and she learned a lot. Enlightened and ready to put her new knowledge into use, she returns home and expects an opportunity to make a difference. But her friendly manager is gone, money is drying up and some colleagues are openly envious of her spending time abroad. Soon she turns dispirited and merely bothers about daily work. Her new competence is drying up. What went wrong?

It was not her technical skill capacity. Rather, it was her ability to act as a change agent and to overcome her change-adverse home office environment. She didn’t have the tools to analyse and understand how to overcome the resistance she was confronted with. In a capacity development programme on environment and development in which I led a workshop a few weeks ago in Arusha, Tanzania, participants conduct a major project in their home office. They are expected to deliver real results, to make a difference, by linking sound technical capacity with knowledge on change management processes. But it is not always easy: “I haven’t been able to sell my idea”, ”I’m not authorised to make the decision to implement change” and ”There’s project fatigue in my organisation” are common complaints.

change-architect-sign1The projects can easily end there. Not because of poor technical standards, but because of lack of home office leadership; change-adverse middle management; misunderstandings; gender inequality; poor handing of young and ambitious staff; and vested interests. Obviously, these issues are not easy to handle. However, we spent much time on learning about change processes and change management tools (about 20% of total workshop time was allocated this), and participants gradually started to gain a different perspective on their work tasks and how to introduce new technical skills in their home offices.

They learned about communication and how to develop a communication strategy plan. This is a fundamental change management tool. In short, such a strategy provides a structured approach to define your message, identify your audience, clarify your goals and decide on forms of communication.  It can help in getting friends onboard, reducing resistance, removing misunderstandings, improving work quality, and turn a place to being a little bit less change-adverse.

There is a huge school of change management approaches and tools. They have mainly been developed within the business community and the social sciences. Within business an ability to change is a prerequisite for success. To change is to survive. This should be valid for government offices as well – and maybe it is? If society changes, government functions should also change; they have to follow the tide as well. The drivers for private, commercial companies to change are obvious: competition and survival. What they are for government departments are not equally obvious.

I believe that the future should bring us innovative, pedagogic, and integrated capacity development programmes. Programmes where learning about a specific subject matter is closely linked to how to make new knowledge accepted and used, and to the participants’ work context – not merely learning for the sake of learning, which has its own merits, but it is not enough considering the many issues we need to address today.

Last April World Bank President Jim Yong Kim led a discussion on the role of government to make a change. It was concluded that “the old approach to capacity development of importing ‘best practice’ structures or systems from around the world has been unsuccessful. What’s needed is a ‘best fit’ approach where the system is built step-by-step, for a specific context, and solving problems along the way”. We need to turn capacity building into a change process!


We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN.

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One response to “OPINION: From capacity development to change process”

  1. Ian Pratt says:

    Great! I loved the focus on change tools .. too many people in business claim “you cannot get anything done around here” but the real reason is their lack of change capabilities. Too often people hide behind an email they sent and claim that they have communicated. Being able to get things done is a capability and it is great to see someone focused on that in their seminars

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