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Capacity development: how should we reframe it for the digital age?

What's the latest thinking on capacity development? Do social media and new digital tools play a key role? Read about Itad's CD2 conceptual framework.


What’s the latest thinking on capacity development? Do social media and new digital tools play a key role? When Itad was asked to brief the Global Environment Facility (GEF) on these questions we brought together a team of staff and associates – me (Robbie), Cheryl, Isabel, Mel and Pete – whose varied perspectives and expertise helped us develop a conceptual framework for them, which we are calling Capacity Development 2, or CD2.

This post introduces the CD2 framework and its five core components: systems perspectives, dimensions of change, behavioural competencies, enabling environment, and the interactive web. We’ll be digging deeper into these components in subsequent posts and their implications for planning capacity development activities.

What do we mean by CD2?

Our starting point was to establish the current meaning of ‘capacity’ and we found that in most current development thinking, capacity is seen as a complex, composite set of processes that emerge from capacity development interventions. A frequently used definition, for example, is that from the OECD-DAC “the ability of people, organisations and society as a whole to manage their affairs successfully”.

A core concept for us is that capacity involves the ability of a society or sector to continue to develop necessary skills, behaviours, networks and institutions that enable communities to adapt and self-renew into the future.

In practice that means keeping political and governance processes functioning, organising across sectors to achieve shared goals, and delivering services to support human health and well-being. It means that people, organisations and society drive their own ongoing capacity development, mobilising their resources to develop new abilities in the face of new challenges.

In our CD2 framework, we understand ‘capacity’ to be an emergent property of the functioning of the different processes in a system. Capacity isn’t a single ‘outcome’ that can be influenced by a single intervention or organisation and capacity development isn’t a one-off workshop or training event. It’s also not about replacing ‘traditional’ capacity development activities with digital tools or bolting on a social media element, although we do believe engagement with digital devices and the Internet is central to any conception of CD2.

CD1 vs CD2

Our CD2 framework grew out of a review of key trends in capacity development including: using a systems perspective, supporting a country’s own processes of knowledge creation (rather than transferring knowledge from North to South), and designing capacity development as a process over time.

CD2 requires us to understand the big picture and plan for the future. This means taking a holistic perspective and looking beyond the delivery of specific tasks to the broader systems they are delivered within. We need to ask “How do we make those systems better?” where “better” is locally defined, rather than decided by donors. We also need to think about CD2 at three levels: individuals, institutions (organisations and networks), the wider enabling environment.

A CD1 approach typically focuses on building the skills needed to produce an output that meets today’s requirements. A CD2 approach aims to build skills but also support new attitudes and behaviours, shift institutional relationships to sustain compliance, and support new, locally-driven policies and practices around the issues into the future.

The core components of the CD2 Conceptual Framework

We reviewed different literature and sources on capacity development and propose five components as the foundations for a CD2 conceptual framework. We’ll be discussing each of these in more depth in future blog posts, but briefly, these are:

  1. Systems perspectives – If we want capacity development to support sustainable changes at a systemic level, then complexity concepts are useful. We drew on the work of Ben Ramalingam and were inspired by writing about complexity, such as that by ODI’s Harry Jones.
  2. Four dimensions of change – Personal; Relationships (both considered at an individual level); Collective patterns of thinking and action (at the organisational and network level); and, Systems and structures (at the enabling-environment level).
  3. Behavioural competencies – Skills training can be seen as a typical activity of a CD1 approach. But it becomes a CD2 activity when it responds to the behaviours needed to connect individual, organisational and network levels of capacity development. For example, how to collaborate within and between teams and organisational boundaries.
  4. Elements of an enabling environment – Sources such as the K* (KStar) Initiative, helped us identify some essential building blocks for an environment in which CD2 can flourish including: Legitimacy (acquired or located in a position or structure); Space to operate, interact, collaborate etc.; Boundary spanners and brokers; Skills to carry out technical delivery and mandated tasks effectively.
  5. Digital competencies – We use the concept of digital competencies to help us navigate through the range of tools and activities which could be linked to a CD2 framework. Drawn initially from the work of Howard Rheingold, we identify three foundational and five core competencies.

How do you put the CD2 framework into action?

The CD2 approach presents some challenges for people who have to plan and deliver development interventions. Everyone involved will need to have a clear and shared understanding of the nature of the capacity required, for example. They’ll also need to contextualise this within the broader systems of individuals, institutions and the wider enabling environment.

We’ll be discussing the major implications of the CD2 approach in our next posts. Meanwhile, we encourage you to share your views. Our CD2 framework is a snapshot of current thinking and where we see capacity development heading. But capacity development is a dynamic field.