Getting a group of people together to work towards a common goal is never an easy task.  When the goal entails effecting change, that task becomes all the more difficult.  Add into the equation a group of people who are researchers, working within the parameters of a think tank – even one with a clear mandate and vision – and this task can become daunting.

[Editor’s Note: This is the third 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 Roshni Alles. Roshni has been working in the areas of communications and publishing at the Centre for Poverty Analysis since 2011 and currently heads the Communications Team.]

Do we need change?

When the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) joined the Action Research for Organisational Capacity Building (OCB project) led by the Think Tank Initiative, building capacity to improve our standards of research quality was a clear necessity.  CEPA had just come through a period of financial instability during which time the organization had taken on an increasing number of short term assignments for survival. The assignments which had lean budgets and often unrealistic deadlines placed severe pressure on resources, leaving researchers with little time to focus on maintaining standards of quality. 

CEPA, a small think tank based in Sri Lanka, is unusual in its organizational culture.  It is an “organic organization” with a culture that encourages a very participatory approach to decision making, problem solving and brainstorming.

This participatory culture meant that the first hurdle to the OCB project at CEPA was getting the entire staff to ‘buy in’ to the idea of research quality.  This was because there seemed to be little agreement within CEPA on what research quality really was and what we wanted research quality to achieve.  So CEPA approached the question of research quality by looking at what CEPA didn’t want!  And here there was agreement – CEPA didn’t believe that quality was simply achieved by publishing articles in peer reviewed journals. Rather, there was a keenness to ensure that CEPA establish quality markers at all stages of the research cycle.

Effecting the change

Beyond this, however, there was not much collective understanding on what research quality for CEPA really should be, so getting all staff interested in the issue wasn’t easy.  The team leading the action research was keen to work with everyone at CEPA, so the objectives of the action research were shared with all staff members from early on in the project. Some of the ways in which the team encouraged the staff to come on board included:

  • Consultation and sharing: there were several rounds of meetings to introduce the OCB action research and discuss its importance to the organization.  It was important that not only the research staff but the administration and support staff buy in to the idea as well. After the initial consultations, all staff were encouraged to join smaller groups to tackle specific areas.
  • Incentives: one way of getting people to pull together to achieve a common goal for the entire organization is by offering incentives. Some organizations use the traditional incentive of monetary rewards. But CEPA has never believed in giving monetary incentives, and it was felt that this would have an adverse impact on commitment and orientation. So the OCB team had the task of persuading people to lend their support to the idea in more imaginative ways. These included continued encouragement to use the existing guidelines and proactively focus on enhancing research quality in their work.
  • Starting a fortnightly meeting: the ‘Tuesday meeting’ focused on methodology and quality issues.  This created a space for researchers to present work to their peers and get feedback.  The space was a non-threatening environment, where along with constructive feedback researchers were also given plenty of encouragement. The high level of attendance showed the keenness of the researchers and the benefits of the meeting.   
  • Mentoring: senior researchers were encouraged to mentor junior researchers, working with them to improve the quality of work in all stages of the research cycle. This also extended to continued help for researchers requiring help with their writing skills.  A peer review system was established within the organization and researchers’ received continued feedback from their peers at several stages of their writing. All these ‘incentives’ took place in an environment that encouraged discussion and consultation, and all CEPA staff were encouraged to provide input on their areas of expertise. 

How much change?

The most notable change at the end of the OCB Action Research project was that a focus on research quality was mainstreamed into all aspects of our work.  So much so, that conversations on research quality now take place not only among the researchers, but also among the administrative and non-research staff at CEPA.  There is immense enthusiasm among everyone to continuously improve research quality.

Interestingly, the whole process took place from the ‘bottom up’ and there was very little ‘rule based enforcement’.  The changes did not come about from the management at CEPA, but from the research teams. Instead it was a longer, but we feel more effective, mentoring process which resulted in harnessing individual interest and enthusiasm throughout the organization.

This organic change took place at varied speeds. Some changes were adopted with much enthusiasm, while others have come about over a longer period of time.  For example, CEPA’s former Executive Director continuously urged researchers to include gender analysis in all CEPA research; but it is only now - four years on – that this change is taking place. Currently CEPA’s consensus on the broader parameters of ‘valid evidence’ is again being challenged – with widely differing perceptions of the ‘quality’ of the stages of the research cycle (quality of conceptualization, research uptake/policy influence etc.) – a positive reflection of CEPA’s participatory nature that could lead to further change.

CEPA’s strength and, in a converse way, its weakness, is its very participatory approach. This approach may not have been possible if CEPA was more individualistic in its outlook.  As CEPA grows, it may not be able to continue in the same trajectory.  But even that change will probably take place at CEPA from within.