“Silo-ing” or “Collaboration”? (’cause there’s no in-between…)

6 May

This morning I had to get up early for a conference call. It was an important one, with several people joining from multiple time-zones. Without being specific enough to divulge any company secrets, let me just say that it basically had to do with the division of labor in very specific cases between those who do “development” and those who do “emergency response.” I was on the call representing perspectives on the latter.

I was and am not bothered by the fact that the conversation was necessary. Despite the theory of the “relief-development continuum” (or now it’s actually a spiral) which takes away the hard lines of separation between the two (I do not dispute that there are no hard lines), a practical reality of aid organizations is that different people and different teams do different tasks. Moreover, at the extreme ends of the continuum the actual tasks and skillsets required to do those tasks can be very different (maybe hard to clarify from the spiral perspective…). Clarity around who does what, and making sure that the right people/teams are given the right tasks can only be good things. Right?

But I came away from today’s call frustrated by the fact that rather than actually clarifying who does what – and perhaps more importantly, who does not do what – the group ended up with a to-do list of action points around more ‘protocol’ and ‘process’ and ‘collaboration.’

I’ll just be vulnerable and say here that some days ‘process’ and ‘collaboration’ simply feel like code for: “yes, we can meddle in whatever you’re working on… and no, you cannot actually make any decisions…”

I could just about burn incense to Alanna’s post about ‘process.’ And I am frustrated by what feels like an industry-wide culture of too-frequently valuing and insisting on collaboration, purely for the sake of collaboration. It’s like we think because we’ve engaged multiple stakeholders across the organization in conversation X, that the outcome is better necessarily.

Although I find myself basically disagreeing with Scott MacLennan’s post about how small NGOs and projects are almost always more effective than large NGOs and large projects, I do resonate with the vibe of being able to act without undue hindrance from the machine of a large organization. I don’t think the size of the organization or program budget, or even necessarily the complexities inherent in large size, is/are the key factor(s) in determining the success or failure of development interventions. But that post does highlight that we very often make things more complex and more difficult than they really need to be.

That said, I do see the value in and even myself embrace ‘collaboration’ where it adds value. What troubles me, though, is that there is very little room to question ‘collaboration.’ To do so invokes accusations of “silo-ing” or being a “relief cowboy”, either of which are the aid-work equivalent of heresy, offenses punishable by stoning or being burned at the stake. But like the medieval heretic who recants verbally yet in his heart remains unchanged, I am steadfast: sometimes processes work better when they’re not written down as protocol, but instead are left fluid; sometimes collaboration does not improve the end product, and in fact, sometimes collaboration for collaboration’s sake can reduce quality.

There has got to be some middle ground.

Pearls of wisdom

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