Capacity building in complex environments: seeking meaningful methodology for social change

Ortiz, Alfredo (2013) Capacity building in complex environments: seeking meaningful methodology for social change. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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This dissertation explores ways in which “capacity-building” might contribute to processes of social change in complex environments. This exploration emerged as part of a personal journey as a capacity-building practitioner to help make sense out of my prior work experience. In my experience, I learned first-hand how many of the “capacity” challenges that my colleagues and I were trying to address in different organizations were complex, “messy” and uncertain. At the same time, many of the capacity-building tools and methodological processes I commonly used assumed a world that was predictable, neat and controllable. These assumptions led to many occasions in which capacity-building processes and methods did not make sense in specific situations, or did not generate expected significant changes. I saw my PhD as a way of addressing many unanswered questions and developing capacity-building methodology that would be relevant to the complex realities in which I worked.

At the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), I became much more aware not only of the complexity of my prior capacity-building work in development, but also of its apolitical nature. I was well aware of the contested nature of social change, both from my prior studies and my previous life and work experiences. However, after nine years working as a capacity-building process designer and facilitator for a large American Non-governmental Organization (NGO), I had come to use methodology without considering whether it might even be compatible with concepts of social change. I mostly assumed methodology to be neutral and apolitical, but did not see this as a problem. In my PhD process, I was fortunate to see first-hand how methodology that practitioners assume to be apolitical actually lacks a theory capable of explaining change, and thereby may reproduce the status quo. This is a strong political position indeed.

My research starts from the assumption that the way people and organizations change in relation to economic, social and environmental concerns is complex and contested. Complex, in that multiple actors and factors—many of them unknowable—combine to affect how social change actually emerges in real life. Contested, in that power relations enable and constrain the fields of possibility for positive change for all people, and thereby generate winners and losers in the process. Indeed, the contested nature of social change is one of its primary sources of complexity. Methodologically, I conducted two action-research processes over 18 months; one with a progressive organization that supports social movements in Perú, and the other with a private environmental conservation organization in Ecuador. I used an emergent, learning-based action-research (AR) approach strongly influenced by systemic theories, with a particular focus on Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Thinking (SST). Different methodological principles emerged in each organizational AR process, providing important insights into how capacity-building can support social (and socio-environmental) change processes in complex environments.

Whereas SST and AR prominently informed my methodology, Ralph Stacey, Patricia Shaw, and Douglas Griffin’s “Complex Responsive Processes” (CRP) was the main theory I used to connect methodological capacity-building intervention to complexity theory. CRP is a theory that explains how complex adaptive systems (CAS) emergently self-organize from local, communicative interaction. Drawing on these different sources and based on my empirical data, my dissertation explores the following themes:

– How organizational learning and change occur through the shifting interacting dynamics of conversations and other forms of communicative interaction, and how organizational capacity emerges in these shifting dynamics.
– How capacity-building methodology can help surface—via communicative interaction—the complexity of social change that organizations face. Particularly:
o How methodology that engages multiple ways of knowing is helpful in accessing doorways to diverse thought, feelings, and identity, and how this diversity plays a key role in influencing the patterns of communicative interaction that emerge.
o How the intentional contrasting of multiple, diverse perspectives, and worldviews (i.e.—SST focus) charges conversations with meaning and is capable of shifting patterns and generating learning in communicative interaction.
o How two ostensibly oppositional forms of methodology—methodological redundancy and unstructured reflection—enable and constrain how patterns of communicative interaction emerge and support learning, when diversity is also present.
– How all communicative interaction enacts power relationships that generate dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, and how these dynamics affect the patterns of communicative interaction—i.e. learning and change—that emerge.

These methodological findings lead to some interesting implications for how CB is conceived and practiced. If capacity as learning emerges in complex environments via shifts communicative interaction, then a core purpose of CB becomes strengthening the ability of organizational participants—“within” an organization and in relation to key “system” stakeholders—to actively relate and interact with each other in organic (i.e. uncontrived) ways. This active relating is situational and as such implies looking for opportunities to “add” systemic methodological support to real-life situations and experiences.

My research has contributed new knowledge by helping explain how systemic capacity-building methodology can support processes of social change in complex environments. Systems thinking is often used anecdotally in capacity-building, without making explicit connections between theory and practice. Complexity theory, when referenced at all in capacity-building literature, is limited to claims about the need to act differently in a complex world. My research has made the following important contributions:

1) Provides empirical cases that connect systemic capacity-building methodology to Complex Responsive Processes theory in a plausible manner, and thus, make these connections more explicit.
2) Develops plausible connections between concepts of extended epistemologies (as a source of diversity) and complexity theory
3) Demonstrates the relative importance of critical reflection alongside the use of more-structured methods to generate organizational capacity
4) Offers—as a conversation starter—an alternative interactive communication understanding of capacity development, which asks critical questions of much dominant CD theory and practice.

I believe that the findings and learning from this research can help generate critical, non-linear approaches to capacity-building methodology that serve the needs of complex, contested social change in a more meaningful manner.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: Institute of Development Studies
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labour > HD0028 Management. Industrial Management > HD0058.7 Organisational behaviour, change and effectiveness. Corporate culture
H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labour > HD0028 Management. Industrial Management > HD0069 Other, including business consultants, capacity, size of industries, etc.
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology > HM0831 Social change
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 02 Jun 2013 11:43
Last Modified: 08 Sep 2015 15:02

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