Capacity building is regarded as a system-level concept but has applications and implications at any level of a system be it the nation, governance, industry, organisations and individuals. As a concept it has gained traction in healthcare systems and international aid policy where early policies of supplying purely material resources or money to developing systems or states risked creating aid-dependencies rather than enabling genuine and sustainable development.
The concept eluded a shared, practical definition for decades and even today enjoys a handful of context-dependent definitions. One concise definition adopted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is “the ability of individuals, institutions, and societies to perform functions, solve problems, and set and achieve objectives in a sustainable manner” and is “in essence, about making institutions better able to deliver and promote human development” (UNDP, 2010).
Here we draw on publications from the UNDP and the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) that are traditionally focused on capacity building in developing nations and non-government organisations, however there is much that can be adapted or directly applied to any organisation.
In understanding capacity building and what it means for your organisation to be capacitated, it may be helpful to first reflect on those factors that contribute to your being incapacitated. Typically, people will think of skills, workforce and material resources as the elements that comprise capacity, and usually from the perspective of deficit – “we are incapacitated because we lack resources”. Training and material resourcing often spring to mind because they are immediately visible, easily measured and easily solved in that acquiring or replacing resources and conducting training are not challenging or complex concepts but rather short-term, defined transactions. As Allan Kaplan wrote in 2000:
A comparison to the old proverb about giving fish versus teaching to fish is apparent here, but Kaplan’s point is firstly about relevance. There are, very obviously, cases in which material resourcing is an issue that needs to be addressed and nobody would argue otherwise. But there are also cases where material provision is a strategy that at best buys time and ultimately facilitates wastage, like continually refilling a tank instead of fixing the leak.
Similarly, the UNDP (2010) notes that with respect to measuring changes in capacity:
The second (and related) aspect of Kaplan’s point is the allure of strategies we are already familiar with and know we can execute, which sees them pursued or prioritised regardless of their relevance – we don’t know about fixing a leak, but we know we can refill the tank; we’ve done it many times before.
The implication according to Kaplan is that organisations’ tendency to be trained in past solutions stifles understanding and the ability to develop unique responses to novel situations. As Kaplan puts it, “Because we take comfort in what we can provide rather than in what may be really necessary”. To this effect, Kaplan suggests using operational/development questions as motivators to explore opportunities for capacity building instead of seeking an immediate solution, as part of an acquired ability to “hold the tension generated by ambiguity and uncertainty” rather than finding the quickest way to alleviate that uncertainty.
The importance of establishing the non-material elements of organisational capacity is highlighted in research by the Community Development Resource Association and United Nations Development Program into capacity building and capacity development.
In the mid-1990s, the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) pursued the research and development of a capacity building methodology through evaluations involving community based organisations and non-government organisations. They found that organisational capacity depended on individual capacity, and that building each involved acquiring six elements, broadly in sequence (CDRA, 1995).
Examining the way in which capacity building can be measured will help enrich our understanding of the concept. The UNDP framework has an explicit focus on institutions as the drivers of national development goals in a results chain – a systematic cause-effect model at the heart of the measurement approach. The results chain is recognisable from program logic maps (see also Ingredior’s August newsletter on taking a holistic look at your business – How to U Turn A Downturn).
The implementation of many development programs is underpinned by methodologies that focus on achieving outcomes and impact as opposed to quantity of inputs or production of outputs. This is in line with the Kaplan and CDRA findings that the more material and visible aspects of capacity (like resources and skills) are too easily emphasised by institutions and programs, and although crucial to operations, generate diminishing results as a consequence of their being increased.
The UNDP adopts a results-based framework for capacity development in the specific context of human development and developing nations. As such, the primary indicator of Impact in the UNDP model is the change in people’s wellbeing. However, the learnings can be applied to any institution or business enterprise and this is most readily apparent in the Outputs and Outcomes elements of the framework.
Notice again that the orientation of components of capacity is toward higher-level aspects rather than material resources.
The UNDP’s examples of program-level responses to issues of institutional capacity also share that orientation:
In addition to moving focus away from simple provision of material resources to the more invisible elements of organisational capacity, Kaplan’s article (2000) proposes a second shift of thinking from static to developmental appraisal. Frameworks, protocols and methodologies are a necessary part of developing and advancing the field in any discipline. They provide us with the means to capitalise on the lessons, developments, research, insights and reflections of others to guide us towards the best practices for our own endeavours by stripping away unnecessary and non-generalisable details. Implicitly it is recognised that no model or framework can account for every detail shared by, or unique to, any given organisation such as the industry, type, maturity and developmental timeline.
The emergent sequence in which capacity is built from invisible elements to visible elements is a robust guide when starting the development process in a new organisation.
However, the interdependencies between elements cannot be ignored. For example, organisational structure can affect organisational attitude, and attracting and retaining skilled staff may be difficult if the tools and resources they require aren’t available when they start. A quick solution of investing in additional material resources may buy time that can then be effectively used to shore up policy and strategic supports.
Some questions to consider when investing in materials and competencies at any stage might include:
Here in this article we examined the concept of organisational capacity building and what can be learned from research and experience conducted in the international and community development sector, specifically the United Nations Development Programme and the Community Development Resource Association.
The central lesson learned from capacity building efforts is investment in visible, tangible, material elements has historically failed to produce enduring positive outcomes due to the underinvestment in organisations’ invisible elements like strategy, vision, leadership and policy.
Frameworks equip us with a functional perspective that is essential to successful capacity building but designing and implementing an intervention still requires an accurate assessment of the organisational realities. These realities include historical factors (which will inform the organisation’s conceptual framework and attitude), organisational maturity and development timeline, industry type, size, and the external environment. These are assessed through direct observation and information gathering that is beyond the influence of any framework.
Furthermore, frameworks rarely provide answers or advice on specific questions raised through the process. As has been highlighted by Kaplan (2000), organisational capacity begins with provoking the right questions from the perspective of different elements in a system (the elements mentioned in the graphic table above). Understanding the ‘supporting’, ‘enabling’ and ‘interlocking’ elements of capacity building stimulates the design and implementation of more effective initiatives for organisational development that endures. A template based on the work of Kaplan and the CDRA model is provided to serve as a reference for appraising capacity and capacity building initiatives in your organisation. Further reading of the cited sources and related literature is always recommended to assist with developmental support for your organisation.
If you have any questions on the information within this article, feel free to reach out to us.
If you are looking for assistance to build and round out the core elements of Capacity Building – Strategy, vision, and structure for effective leadership & policy give us a call or email us today.
CDRA. (1995) Annual Report 1994/95: Capacity Building: Myth or Reality?, Woodstock: CDRA. Downloaded from https://www.cdra.org.za/articles-by-cdra-practitioners.html
Kaplan, A. (2000) Capacity building: Shifting the paradigms of practice, Development in Practice, 10:3-4, 517-526, DOI: 10.1080/09614520050116677
UNDP. (2010) Measuring Capacity. Downloaded from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/capacity-building/undp-paper-on-measuring-capacity.html
UNDP. (2008) Capacity Development Practice Note. Downloaded from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/capacity-building/capacity-development-practice-note.html
UNDP. (2008) Capacity Assessment Practice Note. Downloaded from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/capacity-building/capacity-assessment-practice-note.html