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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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An ICT4D Research Network in the North of England

12 July 2017 1 comment

Are there any benefits to be derived from a regional network that would not readily emanate from a smaller institution-based or a wider global research network?

ICT4D Network Launch Group Photo (Credit to Felipe Gonzalez)

ICT4D Network Launch Group Photo (Credit to Felipe Gonzalez)

Colleagues from the Manchester Centre for Development Informatics (CDI) and the Sheffield Digital Technologies, Data and Innovation group (DDI) co-organised an inaugural workshop on the 23rd of June to launch such a regional network for ICT4D researchers in the north of England. Twenty-four participants, from six regional institutions[i], gathered in Manchester to share their research interests and build connections. Following this one day networking event, I have concluded that not all research networks are equal; unique benefits can be derived from a meso-level, regional research network. Here are my reasons :

CLOSENESS

Researchers in close geographical proximity can interact more frequently and benefit from the richer, in-person nature of meeting together. ICT4D researchers typically connect with colleagues globally through some of the mainstream conferences, such as ICTD and IFIP WG 9.4. Conferences, as network events, are useful to disseminate research to members and these events occasionally lead to research collaborations. However, close regional proximity allows for more frequent interactions with a wider range of activities, such as reading groups, workshops, training events, etc. Regional network interactions can take place with relatively little additional organisational burden compared to conferences.

COMPETENCE

ICT4D is a rather small field compared to other mainstream disciplines that focus on development (politics, sociology, economics, etc.). Home institution networks rarely reach double figures – only two of the participating institutions at our inaugural workshop have more than ten active ICT4D researchers. Such small groups lack critical mass and only bring together a small set of competencies that a researcher can draw on to augment their own work. This is a significant limitation at a time when calls for multi- and interdisciplinary research into ICT4D issues are more urgent than ever before; not the least of these wrung out from Geoff Walsham in his recent ICT4D research agenda-setting paper[ii]. A regional network, such as ours in Northern England, exponentially expands the potential for collaboration amongst scholars in close regional proximity.

It was tremendously interesting to hear (for the first time!) of the novel work done by researchers who live and work so near. Inspiring highlights that stood out for me were research projects on drones for development, ICT and mental health, and media for development. Synergies and complementarities were readily identified and sparked new conversations; just during this initial gathering, we saw a diversity of strong competence in healthcare, development, media, education and leadership, to name a few, that are not readily accessible at any one of the participating institutions.

CHEMISTRY

Collaborative research can be very rewarding, but many of us can testify that not all research partnerships are equally enjoyable; it can be really difficult to build productive collaborations without a critical mass of people to choose from. A regional network can fill this gap, perhaps better than global networks. The reason is simple: a regional network provides frequent opportunities to interact with a range of scholars (closeness and competencies) to “test” the working chemistry with potential collaborators. This enables researchers to find collaborators that they would actually enjoy working with, instead of taking a shot in the dark with someone less familiar from a loosely-connected global network, or being limited to ICT4D colleagues from their own institution. We have already seen an appetite for such collaborations amongst workshop participants and look forward to see the research that emerges.

ADDITIONAL BENEFITS

However, a regional network offers benefits beyond the 3Cs – Closeness, Competence, Chemistry – such as:

  • Providing isolated researchers with a connection to an ICT4D community, enabling them to become more involved and research active;
  • Enhanced responsiveness to research opportunities and funding calls that require stakeholder involvement beyond a single institution;
  • PhD supervision collaboration and potential teaching interactions;
  • Creating a point of connection to a network of active researchers for those that would want to bridge into ICT4D.

Turning a bit philosophical, from a social capital theory perspective we could conceptualise relationships with work colleagues at your own institution as “strong ties”, and those with colleagues in your global network as “weak ties”. Learning from Granovetter[iii] and Burt[iv], I would argue that we as ICT4D researchers would benefit from a balance of strong ties and weak ties. Disseminating research findings and gaining access to information about research opportunities often occur over a network of weak ties. However, collaborations leading to innovative and impactful ICT4D research are more likely to originate from strong ties. ICT4D research could benefit from regional networks, such as ours, to facilitate the development of more and stronger ties amongst active researchers. This proposition will be put to the test over the coming years.

THE FUTURE

How will our network function in order to realise these potential benefits? It is still early days, but so far it was decided that the network will be led, in the first instance, by a steering group comprising of representatives from all participating institutions. Our first objective will be to decide on a name and the second to create an online presence where members can engage and interested people can connect. Regular news bulletins will help maintain and enhance awareness of network activities. Local seminars, workshops, reading groups and other relevant events will be opened up to the network community and researchers will be supported in their endeavours to participate in cross-institutional activities. Finally, the network aims to host two network events per year: one general event that will bring everyone together and another aimed at the specific needs of ICT4D early career and doctoral researchers. So, stay tuned for all that’s to come!

Please contact Jaco Renken if you are in Northern England and would like to get connected.

[i] University of Manchester, University of Sheffield, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Salford, University of Bolton, and University of Central Lancashire. Representatives from Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Lancaster, and the University of Liverpool could not make it to the event, but are part of the network.

[ii] Walsham, G. (2017). ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda. Information Technology for Development, 23(1), 18-41.

[iii] Granovetter, M. (1983). The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. Sociological Theory, 1(1), 201-233.

[iv] Burt, R. S. (2000). The Network Structure of Social Capital. Research in Organizational Behavior, 22, 345–423.

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