Memory, Wisdom and Mentoring: what do practitioners need from academics, beyond research papers?

Spent an interesting, if bleary (the morning after the UK election) day at Birmingham University’s International Development Department last week. We heard from some of the top research going on there on topics such as the Political Economy of Democracy Promotion, or the Developmental Leadership Program, but what really piqued my interest was a new take on that old chestnut, how researchers and practitioners can work better together.

Birmingham is home to the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC), which, among other things, acts as a ‘Research Helpdesk’ providing rapid-response research on questions from donor agencies and partner governments in developing countries. Set up with initial funding from DFID, GSDRC has been going since 2001, and has a pile of invaluable literature reviews and topic summaries online (I used loads of them while writing How Change Happens).

But when GSDRC manager Brian Lucas reflected on what the Centre has learned in 15 years of trying to bridge the IDD mastheadacademic-practitioner divide, what caught my attention was the stuff that goes beyond simple ‘research products’. GSDRC user surveys show that in addition to well-researched and accessible papers, practioners would really like more ‘institutional memory support’ – aka can anyone tell us what we have previously done in this country/on this subject?’

It may seem odd that aid workers should need a resource centre to tell them what their own organizations have been up to, but high staff turnover + constant restructuring induces a deep level of institutional amnesia in most aid organizations. I would add to the broader issue of topic memory – I once ran into Oxfam’s gender adviser from Afghanistan at Dubai airport, who told me as she was leaving after a two year stint, that she was now the longest serving expat gender specialist in Kabul. Organizations like GSDRC can identify the sources of long term wisdom among local or international academics, or retired aid workers, who can help fill the gap, and help put them in touch with harassed aid workers desperate for advice and support.

It may be that practitioners actually need academic mentors more than yet more research (my words, not Brian’s!) Users want to tap into unpublished (informal, tacit) knowledge, wisdom and above all advice. They want to talk to someone who has tried a similar thing tp whatever it is they are planning, or at least has watched it play out before. Unlike aid workers, academics tend to stick to the same topic through their careers so could be ideal at playing this kind of role, but currently there are few incentives for them to do so. Instead, they feel under pressure to get on with writing the next journal paper, not chat to aid workers on skype.

Anyone need a mentor?
Anyone need a mentor?

But these days, academics are also being pushed by processes like the Research Excellence Framework to demonstrate that their work has impact, so now seems like a good time to try and realign those incentives. For example, the university system could agree to make mentoring practitioners a bit like supervising PhD students. Academics would be credited in some way for taking on a limited number of practitioners and supporting them over time. I’d be interested in hearing from those in the know about whether this has been tried and/or how it could be institutionalized.

In return for mentoring/accompanying practitioners, academics could be given access to new sources of data from monitoring and evaluation of aid programmes or other sources – gold dust for any academic career.

And what of the practitioners? Everyone in the aid business says they want time to read and reflect, so the standard answer is often ‘why not pack them off to a university for a week every year so they can do just that?’ But it’s not that simple. The change of rhythm between activism and reflection can be jarring. When we sent our senior advocacy team to IDS for a reading week a few years ago, IDS was horrified by their attention deficit issues – they just couldn’t stay off their blackberries. A mentoring scheme would respond to the needs and rhythms of the practitioner, rather than the need to fit around university timetables (eg by boosting their coffers through summer schools).

Any other ideas for supporting relationships, wisdom banks and memory, not just churning out the lit reviews and case studies?

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14 Responses to “Memory, Wisdom and Mentoring: what do practitioners need from academics, beyond research papers?”
  1. Mark Wentling

    Field practitioners should be given opportunities to study in academia what they were doing in the field and why. Those people who have done both the field and academia should be the source of best practices. Ivory tower academics who have no field experience have no credibility. First and foremost those working in the field need to be listened to by all.

  2. Duncan, would you like to start a non-profit agency that does just this – linking aid practitioners with academic mentors? Or, know of anyone who might? I’m game. This a huge need that I have felt myself. Let me know.


      • Daniel F. Bassill

        What you’ve described is something I’ve been trying to do for over 20 years, with limited support. I created the Tutor/Mentor Connection in Chicago in 1993, with the goal of “gather and organize all that is known about successful non-school tutoring/mentoring programs and apply that knowledge to expand the availability and enhance the effectiveness of these services to children throughout the Chicago region.” The library I’ve created since then now has more than 2000 links, and many of these open to thousands of additional links. I use concept maps like this to show the range of information in the library.

        The issue of “organizational knowledge” is very serious in business, and even more in the social sector, where high turn-over of staff means that people who build some knowledge and experience are constantly leaving, with new people replacing them who don’t have the same depth of knowledge or experience. Thus the web library would be valuable, if people found time to spend browsing the shelves, or if people had facilitators/mentors, who would help them find what they were looking for when they were looking for it.

        In another concept map at I show how this library is intended to support the growth of youth serving organizations in high poverty areas. While step 1 is collecting information, organizing it, etc., step 2 focuses on strategies that increase the number of people who look at the information and step 3 focuses on facilitation, or helping people find what they are looking for, or learn ways to use the information to support the growth of needed youth serving organizations in their community.

        I launched this in 1993 as part of starting a new youth serving organization in Chicago, and operated it under a non-profit structure till 2011. I never had consistent funding, and from 2000-2011 economic, political and natural disasters, and bad luck, challenged my ability to collect and share this information. In mid 2011 the Board at the non profit voted to no longer support the T/MC strategy and focus only on the small youth program, and since then, I’ve operated as a LLC, trying to find partners/patrons, etc. while also trying to keep the information in the library to date, and keep drawing users to it.

        Since every major city in the world has neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, the library I’ve developed and strategies around using the library, would apply anywhere, which means leaders in other cities could borrow from what I’ve learned, use the library, or partner and help carry this forward into the future. Universities would be ideal hosts for this strategy since they have an on-going flow of student talent and manpower to help do the work and they produce a constant flow of alumni who could use the information in the library in their own lives and communities.

  3. Varja Lipovsek

    Mentoring between academia and practitioners is a great idea — and one that has been batted around for a while. Some of it is already happening. Just three examples I’m familiar with are the Accountability Research Center at American University, run by Jonathan Fox, and the Gov/Lab at MIT, run by Lily Tsai. Also Institute of Development Studies – particularly through MAVC (Rosie McGee and Duncan Edwards). There are surely more, though I also know they are the exception rather than the rule — both the exception to how academics work (it requires, after all, considerable effort and engagement that may not lead to a peer-reviewed publication), as well as the exception of how the practitioners work (breaking out of linear assumptions, ditching logframes and grappling with causal relationships, etc.). So being clear on the terms of engagement and getting the incentives right is important. Benefits can be significant: it makes the practitioners more thoughtful, sharper, better at what they do; and it brings academics further into the real world than the obligatory “policy implications” slide at the end of a power point. A great idea all around, if you ask me.

  4. Savio

    There is value in both – action and reflection. However, action does have the cutting edge when its “on the edge” trying to make change happen. When academics then box such work in a paper – and also call themselves “experts” with little or no credit for the actual actors is not fair. I would love academicians to pair up with an activist in trying to understand the work, dynamics of change and in the process document the work. This should also include working with the activist to be co-authors where its feasible. As we you know activist hate writing, thus calling for creative arrangements between academic and the activist.

  5. Kristie


    Thanks for raising such an important issue. I agree that the incentive structure for academics/researchers is not conducive to cooperation with development practitioners. Certainly, “if academics would be credited in some way for taking on a limited number of practitioners and supporting them over time” this would help. Alternatively, donors offer incentives through their cheque books. Research proposals are time consuming and painful for academics (who often don’t have a great success rate because they do not understand development discourse or development priorities) but we find the time (again and again …) because we need research funds to get publications. Too many development funded research projects still do not have research uptake indicators. If this was used as a criteria for additional funding (e.g. a fast track process that helped avoid a new open competitive bid process – 50% of funds are reserved for past proposals demonstrating policy/research uptake) I think we would get closer to R4D. Alternatively, teaching academics (or offering funded write shops) how to write ‘practical’ papers – scientists write about experiments, not about their experience building the capacity of scientists in low income countries – then we may also get more R4D papers that development practitioners can read, value and apply more easily that the traditional academic paper.

    • Jorge

      This is crucial, it must be a two-way street

      Unfortunately, knowledge from academics doesn’t reach/translate to useful information for practitioners; AND practitioner’s experience have no impact on academia. The funny thing is that many universities in developing countries already have a model within their own university that they could easily modify/improve and build upon: agricultural extension services. I know it’s not ideal but at least it means they don’t have to start from scratch

  6. Fiona Henderson

    Such an interesting post and responses. Looking at this from outside the aid/development field, and from an information/knowledge management (km) perspective, using the ideas from people like Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell and other km people might work. For example, doing Peer Assists where you link up people who’ve done something similar to those on the project along with anyone else who has something to offer. And/or creating Communities of Practice – which can link up practitioners with academics and other interested parties (e.g. people who’ve recently worked in the field). In the private sector, use and re-use of knowledge in this way used to be incentivised by showing how this saved real time and real money and appeared in appraisal objectives etc.
    apologies if this is all old hat to you all.