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Why is it Important to Know about the Origins of ICT4D Champions?

At the most recent gathering of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) scholars in the North of England I asked how important and significant it is to research the origins of champions and leaders in international development. Understanding the origins of key development actors appeared to be a pressing matter to me when researching ICT4D champions[i] in South Africa: it seemed unlikely that one could proactively identify, deploy, develop and support such individuals without understanding their genesis. However, I felt uncertain about the extent research colleagues share this sense of significance. ICT4D North (of England) provided a great opportunity to ask colleagues for their opinions about this issue.

Those attending my 10 minute talk were requested to consider how significant they think understanding the factors contributing to someone becoming an ICT4D champion are and to indicate their assessment on a scale of 1 to 10 before I shared my arguments.

I continued to reason that understanding the origins of ICT4D champion is very significant based on the following three perspectives:

A conceptual perspective on the nature of development

Champions and leaders are included within development conceptualisations around agency – the capacity of individual actors to act on behalf of themselves or others towards increased well-being and development.

Consider the recent Information Technology for Development journal special issue, ‘Conceptualizing Development in ICT4D’: all seven contributions – one way or the other – included an emphasis on agency in their framing of development. Authors of three papers in the special issue were present at ICT4D North, so this observation was illuminated from those sources:

1) Jimenez and Zheng examined the relationship between innovation and development and argued for the importance of the individual’s agency therein, hence a human-development perspective;

2) Poveda and Roberts argued for the importance of agency to challenge structural root causes of unjust social norms, hence a social justice perspective on development through critical-agency;

3) Ismail et al. framed development from an institutional perspective and, amongst other things, showed the importance of spokespersons – lead agents – for the marginalised in impact sourcing initiatives.

As such, understanding the various roles of actors – including leaders such as champions and others – and the factors that shape their agency, cannot be omitted from a development research agenda, because it is so central to our understanding of the concept ‘development’.

A perspective on international development project performance

International aid and development initiatives are most often delivered by means of projects. Unfortunately these projects have an uneven success track record. Tangible, broad-based evidence is elusive but to illustrate, the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group project performance ratings[ii] indicated a failure rate of 50% until 2000 and 39% to 2010.

ICT4D projects perform no better, with less than 20% of initiatives considered successful and as many as a third being outright failures[iii]. Interestingly, from a cross-cutting analysis of critical success factors for information systems projects[iv] it was found that the top three most prevalent drivers of success were people factors – issues such as facilitation of participation, sponsorship and competence building; these are all leadership-related aspects.

How significant are leaders and leadership in mainstream development discourses? To get a clearer sense of this I examined World Development – the largest and most impactful development studies journal[v]. On average, only one article that empirically examines leaders and leadership in development was published annually over the last 20 years. This seems disproportionate to the acknowledged importance of key individuals in development practice and is inadequate to progressively build knowledge in this area. Understanding the role and nature of leading actors – such as champions and other leaders – is critically important in order to succeed with development projects, yet inadequately addressed through development research, including a better grasp of their roots.

A champion-specific perspective

The literature on the origins of champions is somewhat of an enigma. We analysed a core set of systematically selected research papers about champions of information systems innovations[vi] to gain insight into current perspectives. This analysis revealed four prevailing concepts of champion origins from which two axes can be derived:

  • Born vs. made: some authors argue that becoming a champion is the result of an innate predisposition. While context and external interventions may impact the likelihood that this predisposition is expressed in champion behaviour, it does not alter that predisposition. The key task for organisations, therefore, is identification of those who have a champion’s profile. Others argue that (almost) anyone can become a champion through appropriate development and training: these, rather than profiling exercises, thus become the focus of organisational intervention.
  • Emergent vs. appointed: some authors see champions as naturally emerging within any project or situation of innovation. These individuals take an interest in a particular cause and then begin to champion it. Organisations may affect this via general contextual interventions, but they would not get directly involved at the level of the individual. Others argue that one needs to plan the presence of champions: individuals must be identified, sometimes explicitly assigned the role of champion, before championing can begin.

My empirical research of ICT4D champions establishes that the factors leading to someone becoming a champion extend beyond these. Origins are affected by a mix of contingency factors – environmental factors, social networks, personal characteristics, organisational factors, skills and education, and personal experiences – that influence them over a longitudinal time period, during which a trigger – an opportunity, experience, or a new technology – catalyses a person into actively championing a specific cause, innovation or ICT4D initiative. So, the inadequacy of our current understanding provides the impetus to further explore the role and nature of key agents – leaders such as champions and others – in ICT4D projects, including a better grasp of their genesis.

In sum, I argue, from these three perspectives, that our current understanding of leading actors – such as ICT4D champions – is inadequate. Considering these issues around agency in development, it is contended that current champions in ICT4D are incidental, because we have insufficient understanding of the origins of champions. Better understanding of the origins of champions is significant because it is the necessary first step to proactively identify, develop, deploy and support such individuals in our initiatives. Ultimately this could lead to more successful development in practice.

ICT4D North participants were then asked to revisit their initial assessment after I shared my arguments, thereby examining the persuasiveness of my narratives. Here are some of the responses:

Post Its

Here are lessons I’ve learned from their feedback:

  • The conceptual links between agency, leaders and champions should be further developed and clarified.
  • The notion of ‘origins of a champion’ invokes a connotation of ‘place of origin’ as opposed to a more holistic interest in all the factors that play a role in a champion’s formation[i].
  • It was encouraging to see an upwards trajectory in participants’ perceptions about the significance of the topic after considering my arguments. This should be strengthened in future work by attending to the lessons learned here.

Huge thanks to all participants who attended the ICT4D North (of England) second annual workshop hosted by the University of Sheffield!

[i] For an introduction to what we have learned so far about ICT4D champion origins see: Renken, J. C. & Heeks, R. B. (2017). A Conceptual Framework of ICT4D Champion Origins. 14th International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries (IFIP WG 9.4). Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

[i] For a definition of ICT4D champions see: Renken, J. C. & Heeks, R. B. (2013). Conceptualising ICT4D Project Champions. The 6th International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies and Development. Cape Town, South Africa.

[ii] World Bank Independent Evaluation Group. (2015). IEG World Bank project performance ratings. Washington, DC: The World Bank

[iii] Heeks, R. (2003). Most E-government-for-Development Projects Fail : How can Risks be Reduced? Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management.

[iv] Broader in scope than ICT4D projects by including developed country data, see: Irvine, R. & Hall, H. (2015). Factors, Frameworks and Theory: A Review of the Information Systems Literature on Success Factors in Project Management. Information Research, 20(3), 1-46.

[v] Based on: McKenzie, D. (2017). ‘The State of Development Journals 2017: Quality, Acceptance Rates, and Review Times’, Development Impact, 21 February 2017, Available at: https://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/state-development-journals-2017-quality-acceptance-rates-and-review-times

[vi] Renken, J. C. & Heeks, R. B. (2014). Champions of Information System Innovations: Thematic Analysis and Future Research Agenda. UK Academy for Information Systems (UKAIS) International Conference. Oxford, UK.

 

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