Posts

An MBA for Social Entrepreneurship

It was 2017 and I was visiting an indigenous Aymara community of quinoa producers. After 3 years of hard work and with some funding from international organizations, these humble smallholder farmers received organic certification that would allow them to earn a fairer price on their quinoa. They put in all the necessary internal audits to prove that the quinoa was organic quality. That year should have been their second organic-certified harvest.

But all was not well.

I had already spoken with the certifier to learn that they missed the required $7,000 payment for certification, and I wanted to know why.

Image of Alexander Wankel

Quinoa prices had plummeted to their lowest levels in years and the grant project supporting the community had ended.

Worse yet, the cooperative had no connections with international clients willing to purchase organic quinoa at a premium price, so their valuable harvest sat in the warehouse for nearly a year.

The farmers couldn’t come up with the money and by the time a buyer came, it was already too late to pay for the next year’s certification. Years of efforts had been wasted, and the farmers were now stuck with poverty-level quinoa prices once again.

How could this tragic situation have been avoided? 

An MBA (or any type of higher education) is not a silver bullet for solving problems like these, but it can be a starting point. Business has the power to create wealth, but this wealth often doesn’t reach those who need it most desperately.

As an Oxford educated MBA student with the added privilege of graduating debt-free thanks to the Skoll Scholarship, how should I strive to use business as a force for good? How can I avoid the mistakes of other short-lived projects that have failed to deliver their goals? How can business school skills be of service to smallholder farmers, to ecosystems, to the Earth that we must share?

Image of Alexander Wankel

MBAs teach the core concepts upon which our economic system is built, by extension affecting everyone in society. In some ways, an MBA is geared towards profit maximization, both of MBA alumni and of the corporations they work for. After all, official Financial Times MBA rankings are based partially on the who has the highest salaries 3 years after graduation. With the field of impact investing on the rise, the win-win philosophy of “doing well by doing good” has caught on, affirming that achieving positive social or environmental impact can be profitable.

However, those of us who are committed to a social problem know that impact work often requires sacrifice. As a social entrepreneur the hours are long, the risks are many, and the most significant victories take years to achieve.

As societies face escalating existential threats due to climate change and rising inequality, the MBA programs of tomorrow may look drastically different from those of today. Some of my courses this year have helped me imagine this change and provided me with the language to express it. I’ve learned that there is a difference between avoiding harm and contributing to solutions, that if traditional financing tools don’t meet the needs of social enterprises we can invent new ones, that future business models should be restorative and regenerative by design, and that a major task of business today is to help find a just space for humanity within our planetary boundaries. I’ve also learned the traditional tools of finance, accounting, economics, and strategy which have helped leading business ideas scale and grow.

Although actors from many fields and disciplines must work towards solutions, the role of business is unique because economic activity is the root cause of the most critical environmental problems affecting our world. After all, cleaning up a mess is not as good as preventing it in the first place. This means cutting off or minimizing the flow of pollution and resource depletion from businesses, and some top firms such as IKEA and Unilever are now working to do so.

To prevent catastrophic 2-degree climate change, carbon emissions must sharply and drastically reverse from their long-term steep upward trend. There is no precedent for this and currently there are few signs that this is happening at a sufficient pace. Without cooperation from businesses, the task may be impossible. Social entrepreneurs must also work to build and prove the technologies and business models that will provide the building blocks of this change.

This year has reaffirmed my commitment to social enterprise, which to me means using the tools I have learned to create business models that benefit local communities and ecosystems.

In September I plan to return to Andean farmer communities after a year at Oxford to witness some of the same realities with a new perspective and a new set of resources. I plan to scale my company, Kai Pacha Foods, which I have now realized has a core purpose: to build healthy foods out of healthy ecosystems. By designing food and beverage products based on native crop systems in which each food plays complementary ecological and nutritional roles, we are crafting a business model capable of generating a profit while also improving the livelihoods farmers who conserve land, water, and biodiversity.

Image of Quinoa

After a year packed with so much learning, I have much work ahead to put these concepts and tools into practice. Likewise, the business world and business education have a lot of work ahead to play a more positive role in building an economy that can be sustained on a planet with finite resources.

At Saïd Business School, I have learned about innovation in impact and responsible business alongside the more traditional concepts of an MBA upon which our current economic system is built. From these pieces, the task now falls to us to assemble solutions that are equal to the scale of the problems afflicting our planet.

Image of field of Quinoa

Alexander Wankel, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

How might big business fight poverty?

Puja Balachander is an outgoing 2018-19 Oxford MBA, a member of the inaugural Impact Lab, awardee of the Skoll Venture Awards 2019, and social entrepreneur. On Friday, 11th July, she attended the Business Fights Poverty conference at the Saïd Business School. Here she shares her own personal experience.

Having spent my former life working in the public sector, I have to admit I’ve often been frustrated by the narrative in business circles around social impact. The message is often implicitly or explicitly that government and philanthropy have failed, and therefore business needs to step in to save the day by bringing the “rigour” to the impact sector that it desperately needs.

I walked into the Business Fights Poverty 2019 conference prepared to hear the same rhetoric again, and found it refreshing that rather than painting business as the cure all, the conference theme this year was around “Purposeful Collaboration.” It brought together players from major corporations and the third sector, and emphasized a systems approach to problem solving, where business wasn’t the solution, but it was part of the system of solutions necessary to address the complex global challenges we face.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice the irony of what I saw compared to the expectations I had encountered in government. I was always told that we needed to adopt more rigorous “private sector” methods to understand the ROI of the resources the government spent on social impact. But the conference showed me that the private sector is being far more lackadaisical about their impact efforts than government ever was.

The need to move from defining a corporate purpose, to creating structures, processes and culture that actually facilitate that purpose were repeated in nearly every session, yet the examples cited and celebrated at the conference seemed tokenistic and only superficially impactful. The keynote speaker for the day from Unilever gave a presentation that seemed to equate socially inclusive and progressive marketing with Unilever’s social impact. In a corporate intrapreneurship workshop, speakers from major companies told us about their social innovation initiatives to surface ideas and potential ventures from within their employees. And while I’m sure there might be positive social outcomes that come from these efforts, they sounded more like employee engagement than social innovation.

I’m not sure that celebrating these efforts is helping move companies towards more ambitious and rigorous social impact efforts. At the same time, I’m aware that being overly critical of companies’ incremental efforts could be counter-productive. Incremental progress is better than none at all, and who’s to say that companies won’t throw up their hands and figure that if they’ll be criticized, either way, they might as well go back to a pure profit-maximizing focus?

So rather than a critique, I left the Business Fights Poverty conference with questions. How do we encourage companies to be more ambitious and rigorous about their social impact efforts? Celebration and commendation like we did at the conference felt disingenuous, and like they wouldn’t catalyse the urgency and scale of transformation needed to address the challenges we face. Critique has the potential to scare companies off, or put them on the defensive, stopping them from engaging with the academics, public servants, and third-sector players that might be able to help them in their transformation. Is there a middle ground between these that might put companies under an optimal level of pressure, and provide the optimal support that will spur them forward in their impact journeys?

Puja Balachander, 2018-19 Oxford MBA

, ,

Lean Impact: How to scale social innovation for good

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Nikhil Dugal, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum workshop ‘Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good’.

Ann Mei Chang is the author of the upcoming book, Lean Impact, on how modern approaches to innovation can drive massively greater social impact and scale.

She is the former Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID. Prior to her pivot to the public sector, Ann Mei had over twenty years of experience at leading Silicon Valley companies including Google, Apple, Intuit, and some startups.

At the Skoll World Forum, she led a workshop titled Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good where participants were introduced to the lean methodology to help develop more scalable solutions for social innovation. Participants were asked to arrive with a social challenge or a solution where they’d like to see growth.

Session for Lean Impact - Workshop cabaret tables at the Skoll World Forum

The workshop started with her posing an intriguing question. There has been slow but steady progress in multiple focus areas in the development sector such as sanitation and health, but shouldn’t we be shooting for progress at the same rate as disruptive technologies such as mobile phones? Their adoption has skyrocketed over the past two decades unlike any other technology deployed in the social sector.

Edison once stated, ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration’. A lot of time when we think about innovation, we focus on the one percent inspiration, but success is about making that idea practical and applying it to achieve true impact at scale in the world.

The lean startup movement has done a good job capturing the fundamental strategies for scaling up in the startup sector but the movement mostly addresses businesses in the private sector. Lean impact aims to help fill in the gaps for applying the lean methodology in the social sector.

Ann started the session with three principles to follow in order to achieve lean impact: Think big, start small and relentlessly seek impact.

  • Think Big: Think about the problems that you want to solve, instead of thinking about problems you can currently address based on your resources. For example, Astro Teller from Google X stated that we should be clear whether our aim is to make a 10% or a 10x improvement. Sometimes 10x could actually be easier because fewer people have tried it.
  • Start small: Key to innovation is about how fast you’re able to iterate your solution. That’s why you should start small. It’s easier to test something out with 10 people rather than 1000 people.
  • Relentlessly seek impact: You need to love your problem not your solution, and relentlessly seek impact in your interventions.

Further, she stated that social innovation lies at the intersection of three pillars: growth, value and impact.

Ben diagram of Social Innovation. Value/Growth/Impact

1) Value

The value in the social sector comes from two customers, your funders and your end users.

You need to understand what your end users need, and not move forward with assumptions. Are you delivering something people want or come back for? How do you make something people desire and demand?

A prime example for testing customer value is PATH water filters. They tried two versions when they were going to market, one was the simplest and cheapest version, and one was a nicer model that cost twice as much. Three times as many people bought the nicer version because they didn’t want something that looked like a trashcan sitting in their living room! You want to create real world conditions to see how people will respond in the real world because observed data is more valuable than self reported data.

Meanwhile, funders are looking to minimize risk rather than enhancing learning. Funders need to look at starting small, taking more risk and placing lots to bets. Based on traction, funding can be scaled up over time.

2) Growth

Do you have an engine for growth that doesn’t just grow linearly but accelerates over time? Many organizations focus on scaling their work in the short term instead of the long term. In the social sector, we often see growth curves like the inverse hockey stick. An organization can scale quickly but then when they reach 100,000 or 1 million people, there are just not enough donor dollars to continue scaling up and stagnation occurs.

A typical grant program can cause organizations to scale up too fast instead of iterating, starting small and testing solutions before scaling them up. We need to also validate drivers that can accelerate growth in the long run.

3) Impact

It is also possible for an organization to scale up too fast, and focus on vanity metrics such as the number of people they reach or total funding mobilized. This leads to scale with unclear impact. Instead, innovation (outcome) metrics should be drivers for how your intervention works, such as adoption rates or percentage of users working or studying longer. How can we test early on to see if the intervention solves the problem we are addressing? There are several linkages between an intervention and the resulting impact that need to be confirmed before scaling up.

Organizations like ID insight are introducing cheaper and faster tools to evaluate impact, lightweight proxies that can tell if the intervention is working before investing in expensive evaluations like RCTs.

Decision vs. knowledge focused evaluation

Ann went on to explain that there are four proto-typical business models in the social sector:

  • Market-driven: These rely on market forces for traction, and are the easiest to scale. For example, Off-grid Solar uses a pay-as-you-go business model using mobile money over time instead of customers facing a large upfront cost.
  • Cross-subsidy model: This involves cross-subsidizing an impact generating non-profit service with a for-profit or revenue generating activity. A leading example is Arvind eye care that has each wealthy patient pay for up to 3-4 people. Facilities are different but everyone gets the same quality healthcare.
  • Replication: Microfinance was pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh by Mohammed Yunis. This model has now been replicated and spread around the world to reach over 200 million people.
  • Government spending: This is a often the most appropriate/likely path to scale for basic services such as health and education, where the government is usually the biggest provider and potential partner.

Workshop Exercises

The session also included a workshop to help participants work on their ideas.

The first included defining a goal and a problem. To identify a goal we can start by asking, ‘How will the world be different in 10+ years if you succeed?’. A problem is what is preventing the goal from being reached today. These problems are due to some root causes. If we identify those, it can help frame the solutions to address them.

The second exercise was to generate lots of solutions to pick one for testing. Attendees were asked to be creative and think outside the box, keeping in mind that high risk leads to high reward. Participants must start with a blank slate in order to do so. Then, one idea must be selected from this list and the attendee must identify their assumptions behind it and how the solution will play out.

The third exercise was about asking who will pay for the product/service at scale and who will implement the solution at scale.

To learn more about Lean Impact and Ann’s upcoming book, visit leanstartup.co/social-good

Combining Design and System Thinking for Social Impact

How can Design and Systems Thinking really help when looking at a large complex issue you want to tackle? Our current Early Career Research Fellow, Tanja Collavo, breaks it down in the true meaning of the process. If you’re not convinced by this methodology now, you will be after reading this!

I recently joined a webinar organized by Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) on how to employ Design and Systems Thinking to produce social impact. It consisted in a recap of both techniques and in a key message: although Design and Systems Thinking have been used to deal with social issues for some time, it is their combination that can really foster innovative and creative ideas for lasting social impact. So, I thought it might be relevant to share how the two techniques can be combined in an effective way.

Design Thinking is the process of analyzing an existing situation through the perspective of different people who are involved in it, understanding how it could be improved and quickly prototyping designed solutions in order to adopt the most effective one. One of its benefits is the in-depth analysis of the issues of key stakeholders and the inclusion of their opinions and suggestions in the creation of a solution.

Systems Thinking revolves around the creation of a map of all the individuals and organizations involved in a system of reference (e.g. social innovation in the U.K.), representing all the interconnections among the stakeholders, their relative power, resources and concentration, and the critical hubs and connections. This technique is fundamental to keep in mind all the stakeholders that are affected or contributing to a given project and to reflect on possible unintended consequences that might arise from the designed solution.

Both Design and Systems Thinking have the explicit goal of helping people to think outside of the box, to deal with large change projects, and to enable the co-creation of innovative solutions. Additionally, they tend to be complementary, given that one favors an in-depth understanding of a situation, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of individuals and groups, while the other helps to keep in mind the bigger picture and the ways different groups relate to and affect one another. When combined, Design and Systems Thinking can be deployed through a four-stage process, named by the webinar speakers as: Information, Insight, Opportunities and Solutions.

Information: In this phase, Design and Systems Thinking have the goal of understanding, respectively, the core issue(s) to be solved, and the system at hand. This is best done through interviews and ethnographic observations and, in the case of Systems Thinking only, through the drawing of a map of all the stakeholders present in the system. Ideally, in the Information Phase, the collection of primary data should be supported through the analysis of information that is already available, such as expert reports, articles, or news of relevant best practice adopted by players in this or in another system.

Insight: In this second phase the information gathered through primary and secondary sources should be analyzed in order to identify what the key problems are and where enablers and inhibitors lie within the system. Enablers are people, organizations and processes that might favor the creation of social impact or the solution of a problem; whereas inhibitors are issues, people and organizations that might hamper the creation of the desired impact or solution. This phase mostly involves an in-depth analysis of all the information at disposal, the sharing of impressions and ideas, the selection of core problems to tackle, and the identification of where these are originated within the system.

Opportunity: This phase requires a switch from analyzing the situation to creatively elaborating potential solutions and revolves around the repeated asking of the following question: “How might we do something…to solve X…?” This question helps to spur as many potential solutions as possible for the chosen problem, in a brainstorming process. During this process, in order to keep creativity and innovation at a high level, it is necessary to avoid any criticism of emerging ideas. This should be left for the very end of the phase, when solutions should be combined with the map of the system. Such a combination will allow the identification of ‘leverage points’ – components of the system that, when modified, have the potential to trigger change in the entire system.

Solution: In this phase, the ideas identified should be prototyped and tested. Ideally, it will be possible to prototype all chosen solutions as well as multiple variants thereof. Prototypes can range from very simple, DIY solutions that can be created in a couple of hours to full pilot projects coordinated with the necessary stakeholders. Each prototype that is tested should be backed by a specific theory of change and target, and should be modified according to the feedback received. The testing should involve representatives of as many groups of stakeholders as possible from amongst those that will be involved in the delivery of the final project, or that will be affected by it.

The combination of Design and Systems Thinking summarized above is a promising technique to create social impact that takes into consideration the existing situation, its strengths, and the points of view of multiple stakeholders. However, it is also still in its infancy. The effectiveness of this approach is yet to be fully evaluated and what might seem a straightforward process in words is actually very difficult to implement. Indeed, coming up with an innovative idea, that minimizes the harm done while maximizing the social impact created, requires a significant amount of time and resources in data collection and analysis, the involvement of multiple stakeholders, and the contribution of many players for its implementation.

If these downsides do not frighten you, I hope this will represent a starting point to consider a new way of solving social issues or creating social impact. The following resources may be useful if you are interested in looking deeper at the combination of Design and Systems Thinking:

Open book of the IDEO Design Kit book

Design Thinking – IDEO guide to Human Centered Design

 

 

Omidyar Systems Practice Workbook Front Cover

Systems Thinking – The Omidyar Group Systems Practice Workbook

 

 

Strategically Leveraging Networks to Support Social Impact

Oxford Saïd Researcher and Early Career Research Fellow, Tanja Collavo, gives us a whistle stop tour of her recent DPhil research.

The cultivation of networks is one of the most popular tools for supporting social entrepreneurship and social innovation. Venture philanthropists, hubs, foundations, national and local networks all try to foster social impact by connecting social innovators with their peers, with potential investors and donors, and with individuals and organizations that can become their mentors and advisors. Yet, there is little knowledge on “best practices”, on what works and what doesn’t, and on the different ways in which network-based support to social innovation can be structured.

Over the past four years, I have analysed the features of four very different social entrepreneurship support organizations (a foundation, a venture philanthropist, a network organization and a trade association). Each of them has been successful in supporting the growth and development of social entrepreneurship in England over the past 15 years through the creation and management of multi-stakeholder networks. I was surprised to find that, despite their differences, each of these organizations engages in similar activities with regard to network-management.

Shared network strategies

First of all, the four agencies invest significant effort in signalling through multiple means the initiatives and success of the individuals and organizations that are affiliated to them. For example, they talk about their operations, impact and achievements on websites and newsletters. In addition, they engage with local, national and international media platforms (newspapers, magazines, televisions, etc.) so that the positive news coming from their contacts can spread even beyond their own reach. Furthermore, they organize yearly award ceremonies that provide additional coverage and popularity to the most successful part of their networks, usually the social entrepreneurs and enterprises that they are trying to help.

Secondly, the four organizations have proactively created within their networks an environment favouring the coming together and collaboration of individuals and organizations from different sectors and backgrounds. For example, these organizations publish blogs and articles on the benefits of cross-sector collaboration and propose common projects to their network members in a way that highlights what each of them can obtain from collaborating with individuals and organizations from other sectors. Furthermore, they train their members in multiple ways in order to reduce sector and cultural barriers among them. Each of the four organizations has also developed a narrative stressing how real change and impact are only possible in the presence of cross-sector collaboration.

Thirdly, the four agencies often try to elevate the reputation of the social entrepreneurs and enterprises present in their networks. They set up free events, webinars and initiatives explaining the benefits of social entrepreneurship for society and its superiority to other means to deliver social impact. Additionally, they present social entrepreneurs and enterprises in their online and offline communication, as well as in their events, in an enthusiastic light, defining them as the changers of the world or the creators of a more just and inclusive society. The elevation and legitimation of social innovators in these (and other) ways puts them in a stronger position when negotiating for help and support with players from other sectors that might be more established and resource-endowed than they are.

Finally, the four organizations manage the unavoidable competition (for funds, recognition for the “best approach”, attention, etc.) among the social entrepreneurs and enterprises that they support in a way that makes it possible and almost natural for them to collaborate and share ideas. For example, two of the agencies encourage friendships and frequent contacts among their network members, another one directly adopts a negotiation role when collaboration is needed among “competitors” for a specific project. In general, all four have tried to attract enough opportunities and resources into their networks to be able to provide something to everyone, so that the social entrepreneurs and enterprises they support do not perceive that the success of a peer might mean their own failure.

Diverging outcomes

However, despite the engagement in similar activities, the four organizations did not appear equally effective in leveraging their networks to help social entrepreneurs and enterprises. My data showed that if an organization manages a relatively small network – no more than 100-150 social innovators and partners/supporters – then it is in a good position to effectively employ its contacts to help social entrepreneurs and enterprises. Indeed, a manageable network opens up the possibility to know well enough the resources and contacts available and to propose meaningful connections and strategic advice. Additionally, in small networks it is easier to create a family-feeling and to set clearer expectations about each member’s contribution to the “common cause” — in this case the enhancement and scaling up of social impact — thus also making the maintenance of collaborations and connections easier.

On the contrary, if an organization deals with a larger network, its ability to provide helpful connections and advice is necessarily limited by the impossibility of knowing well each of the individuals and ventures attached to its network. In this case, the added value of the organization is rarely based on its offering of connections but derives instead from other resources. For example, one of the organizations analysed, which manages a large network, was praised by social entrepreneurs and enterprises for its delivery of helpful information on the legal landscape for social entrepreneurship and for signalling the resources available in the sector in terms of funds and expertise at the local level. Alternatively, organizations managing large networks might think about using their contacts to attract funds to redistribute among their affiliates for expenses they have a hard time getting funds for, such as capacity building or experimentation.

Are networks helpful?

Absolutely, but only under certain circumstances which are often determined by the network size and by the organization’s own capacities and resources. Therefore, a networking strategy should be tailored to the type of network an organization is managing. In any case, the analysis of four successful “networkers” in the social entrepreneurship sector suggests that the creation of connections and networking opportunities should be sustained through supporting activities, such as the four described above: the showcasing of a network’s members and projects; the establishment of an environment supporting the creation and maintenance of cross-sector connections; the support of social entrepreneurs and enterprises in negotiating with other players; and the management of internal competition.

None withstanding the importance of networks and the opportunities they provide to support social impact in many different ways, in a space that is almost saturated with networks it might also make sense to map out what is already there and maybe join or support an existing network rather than building a new one. Because several organizations provide similar types of support but not all of them do it effectively, in some instances it might make more sense to pool resources across “networkers” in order to jointly deliver a more powerful and comprehensive support rather than to keep trying to build new networks. If my research confirmed one thing is that there is already a lot of help available in the social entrepreneurship and social impact space but often “networkers” do not have the resource or capacity to be effective in everything they do and social innovators might end up not accessing any type of support because of the excess of supply makes it difficult to understand what network might be the right fit.

,

Amphibious academics: making research matter

By Julian Cottee, Skoll Centre Research & Insights Programme Manager

Our previous blog looked at ‘Six Reasons Why Research Matters for Social Entrepreneurship’, ranging from gaining a deep understanding of problem and solution landscapes, to innovation, and a critical birds-eye view of the sector. The Skoll Centre has since been exploring research for social entrepreneurship through a series of seminars led by impact-focused early career researchers from across Oxford University. Each has discussed their own research experiences and drawn out lessons for better aligning research with the needs of the social innovators.

Evidence and impact

Evidence and impact evaluation are top of the list for many practitioners when asked how research can help their work. Anna Custers, a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, explored this topic in depth through her experiences with a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the impact of poverty reduction measures in the Global South. The RCT methodology, originally designed for evaluating the impact of medical interventions, is now becoming more widely used outside of clinical settings. Social scientists in a range of fields are adopting RCT approaches, and while many policymakers view them as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence of impact, they are not uncontroversial. RCTs are complex, lengthy and expensive to set up, and they can only be used to evaluate a narrow gamut of interventions. Their strength in demonstrating the counterfactual – what happens in groups not receiving the intervention – also raises significant ethical questions. If demonstrating impact through RCTs were to become a routine part of the funding and policymaking landscape for social entrepreneurship, the range of projects would be curtailed, the speed of implementation would be reduced, and additional research funding would be needed. Further discussions revolve around the question of how much evidence is ‘enough’ to demonstrate impact, and to what extent this differs depending on the scale of the initiative being assessed. An expensive RCT might be appropriate for a highly scalable ‘big bet’ intervention that can be widely replicated if impact can be robustly demonstrated, but many, if not most, projects are smaller and more locally specific.

Ideas around the role of research in evidence provision were further developed by Dr Jenny Tran, speaking about a recent Skoll Centre-funded research project that interviewed 31 policymakers, funders and practitioners in the field of social innovation in healthcare in low- and middle- income countries. The interviews probed attitudes and beliefs relating to evidence within these three groups. Among practitioners for instance, responses ranged from seeing research and evidence as an accountability mechanism – “Research is a tool of justice…how are we holding ourselves accountable to our patients?” – to something that just needs to be done to satisfy the expectations of funders – “We do what we have to do”. The funders interviewed also had mixed attitudes towards evidence, with some admitting candidly that gut feeling was as important as data in making funding decisions. Organisations spoke of a lack of time and expertise to collect good data on their impact. One theme that clearly emerged from the interviews was a lack of consensus on how to operationalise a model of data generation and use amongst all three groups that is of an appropriate scale in terms of the time and resources demanded, as well as being robust and rigorous. RCTs were rarely seen to be the answer. Tran’s paper recommends a number of future pathways for improving research in this space, including further elaboration of the concept of ‘lean research’ striking the balance between appropriate scale and rigour; better technical education; and changing the way evidence generation is funded. All of these are ripe for future exploration. In addition, there is little or no attention currently paid to how organisations measure negative impacts, or their incentives for doing so. This too is an area that deserves further study and the development of practical tools for the generation of objective impact measurement.

Research for Action Partnerships

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project. Image credit: www.oxwater.uk

Two other seminars in the series focused on the role of research not in the generation of evidence, but in others kinds of knowledge creation, through embedded partnerships between academics and practitioners. Kate Roll, Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, spoke on the Oxford-Mars Mutuality in Business project, a large multi-year research project exploring the idea of mutuality as an organising principle for business. The project is unusual in that it is carried out by an academic team in collaboration with the Mars in-house think-tank, Catalyst. The allure of the set-up is clear from the point of view of carrying out research guided by real-world priorities – there is potential for unique access to knowledge, skill and legitimacy on both sides – yet challenges are also many. In particular, spanning the research-practice boundary brings to the fore different perspectives on questions such as:

  • When is work finished? (medium-rare or well done)
  • With whom can we meet? (negotiating internal access)
  • What is a good output? (collaboration, consultancy, opportunism)
  • Who needs to be involved? (setting boundaries in joint research)

Drawing on the theory of organisational hybridity, Kate explains such collaborations as a case of striving to effectively bring together differing ‘institutional logics’: “as the degree of incompatibility between logics increases, hybrid organisations face heightened challenges” (Pache and Santos 2013). In order to realise the unique opportunities for insight and impact, researchers are obliged to adopt the character of the ‘amphibious academic’. Even if they might be happier in water, like the frog, they too can cope ably on land.

Successful examples of such collaborations are not numerous. They require connections, funding and abundant engagement and amphibious capability from all partners. Alex Fischer and Heloise Greeff, members of the Skoll Centre’s Research for Action Network, spoke about Oxford’s Smart Handpumps project, a long-running collaboration with NGOs and government. While the project began by exploring the causes and impacts of broken water pumps in rural Kenya, it has since transitioned to address how broken pumps can be fixed quickly and cost-effectively. The project is now driving technological and systems innovation to the point that it has led to the creation of a social enterprise that will service the handpumps sustainably into the future using the technical and institutional knowledge generated in earlier phases. Alex and Heloise described a ‘research-action spiral’ in which innovation and research have circled around each other in a productive dance. These impactful outcomes of the project could not have been anticipated at the beginning of the research process – a powerful argument for research led by problems and not just solutions. Often, following intuitions and blind alleys was just as important for the development of the impact of the project as any planned research pathway. This highlights the value of flexible funding and creative leadership in action-research projects. Universities are an important ingredient in this kind of innovation and research, as they provide safe spaces for the exploration of novel ideas that may not otherwise be pursued. The role of PhD students too is of significant value – unlike research assistants or employed post-doc researchers, PhD students follow their own research agendas within the wider project, generating new ideas and possibilities.

For more Research for Action from the Skoll Centre, sign up to our RfA Network Bulletin.