NGO Learning: It’s time for greater coopetition

Guest post by LINGOs CEO Chris Proulx

Adapted from my presentation at an NGO sector meeting of learning and development professionals on May 11, 2015 in London, hosted by Plan International.

Chris_Proulx“Often coopetition takes place when companies that are in the same market work together in the exploration of knowledge and research of new products, at the same time that they compete for market-share of their products and in the exploitation of the knowledge created.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coopetition

A clue to one of the greatest challenges in providing learning opportunities for the NGO sector lies in the phrase NGO sector.

Although NGOs might be bound together by the common goal of development, this can take a number of forms, and in reality many of us are doing dramatically different kinds of work. In fact, NGOs dedicated variously to microfinance, health care, and conservation might have more needs in common with the private sector or government agencies doing similar work than with each other. Yet, many in learning and development roles for NGOs look to each other as peers rather than from related fields in other sectors. Why?

What ties the NGO sector together, when it comes to the learning we deliver to customers and employees?

For many in the sector, some version of the following statements apply:

  1. We’re charged with delivering learning to a global population in multiple languages
  2. who are working in challenging (often crisis) environments
  3. who are physically and virtually difficult to access and to connect
  4. and we are trying to do with constrained resources.

In the face of these challenges, and the larger macro environmental changes impacting our organizations, how can we as a community effectively deliver learning and development in our sector?

The pie chart below shows recent data from the LINGOs’ learning platform on the types of courses completed by our 80+ member organizations. Over half of the courses completed were proprietary courses, developed by our members for use within their own organizations. While a variety of courses were available for shared audiences, they were less enrolled than their proprietary counterparts. In an environment of constrained resources, this data is a red flag that we may be missing opportunities for valuable shared investments and co-creation.

I am proposing a new 70/20/10 model, not for our learners, but for us a professional community.

70% | Common Curricula and Credentials

To best aid learners, as well as maximize resources, we should be spending the majority of our time developing common competencies and curricula—built around the skills and contexts that most organizations share. One example of common curricula already thriving in the NGO sector is the PMD Pro project management credential authored by a working group of NGO sector experts, so the body of knowledge would be created by and for the sector. Designed to be a common standard for how projects are managed in the NGO sector – providing a common vocabulary and framework – PMD Pro is a truly collaborative effort that’s reached over 10,000 development professionals in just five years—over 80% of them in the developing world.

20% | Shared Innovations

The “20%” piece, for us, should be shared innovations. Some of our greatest barriers to providing learning are issues of access – physical or virtual. While learning technologies are evolving at exponential speeds (think next-gen mobile learning, social learning, on-the-fly translation, etc.), many of our organizations are not large enough and do not have adequate resources to be investing in most, or any of these innovations. Yet, often a few organizations begin piloting a new tool with early success.  With appropriate mechanisms, we can identify which new technologies might yield the most transformational outcomes for the highest number of NGOs and we can turn one organization’s innovation into success for the entire sector—at a much greater scale.

One potent example of such shared innovation is from the higher education sector. edX – a MOOC platform founded by MIT and Harvard, and sustained by many other universities is actually a shared investment in innovative technologies. Although these organizations are competitors for students, faculty and research dollars, they recognized that with edX (originally piloted at MIT) they could learn and innovate faster with improved educational outcomes by aggregating both their investment dollars and their course and student data. They recognized that benefits for all of higher education of shared “big data” sets and combined R&D teams and tools outweighed their competitive concerns.

10% | Local Application and Optimization

Lastly, 10% of our effort should go to proprietary investment – or what I’m calling “local application.” In the end, even with common curricula and shared investments, the work that each of us does in our specific organizational contexts is unique. Even so, we can keep our interests in proprietary curricula at just 10% by realizing that in many ways, local applications can focus on optimizing shared investments, or adapting core curricula to address the specific needs of our individual organizations. In our roles as learning providers – for partners, beneficiaries, and for employees – we’re more valuable as expert content curators than over-stretched content creators.

And as curators, we rely on the curricula and technologies of our community to enrich our own organizations. That’s a bright future for NGO learning.


Chris Proulx is the CEO of LINGOs, the international NGO sector’s largest membership-based consortium dedicated solely to training and capacity building. It has a membership of over 80 international humanitarian relief, development, conservation and social justice organizations. The PMD Pro certification, developed by a LINGO-led working group, provides project managers and team members working in the international development sector with training on the skills and tools need to successfully manage their projects. Join us.

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