Thursday, March 31, 2011

What is Our Mental Model for Building Professional Competencies?

I spent last week in Taiwan where I had been invited, as a result of some other circumstances, to present a series of lectures at several universities concerning protected area stewardship. It is quite an honor to receive these invitations and I have learned much about what people in this country think about protected area planning and management of visitors.

These lectures, and the interaction with students, professionals and academics reinforce my feelings about developing critical thinking as an important professional competency. It also reinforces my perception that enhancing performance is more than simply giving workshops and then seeing participants returning to a normal work setting. Building the professional competencies needed to address the complex issues, challenges and opportunities of 21st century park management requires something more. This is not to say that conceptual skills are not a necessary condition to higher performance; they are necessary, but not sufficient.

Our current model of building performance can be loosely described as follows:

But we know now, that increased performance under this model is probably more a matter of chance than anything else. Upon returning from a workshop, seminar, shortcourse, job twinning or some similar capacity building exercise, a variety of barriers present themselves to the newly trained protected area manager. These include changed job description with different duties, jealous supervisors, a highly hierarchal organization that does not place a premium on learning, lack of incentives, little confidence by the trainee and so on.

We need to take another look at the model above. Not only does it not display what really happens, but it also downplays the role of job performance itself in increasing capacity. We need to take a systems thinking look at how capacity (in the form of enhanced professional competencies) actually works. So below is a simplified systems thinking approach to look at the relationship between capacity and performance, and what may influence performance.

A system is composed of a number of interacting components with the interactions often characterized by delays of different lengths. Here we see that building capacity does lead, potentially to enhanced performance; in systems thinking terms this is a reinforcing loop. Importantly though, enhanced performance also can lead to increased capacity or professional competency, particularly as managers gain confidence and experience in successfully addressing various issues, opportunities and challenges. This of course then potentially leads to even higher levels of performance

But in the middle of the graphic we see a couple of balancing loops, which serve to depress levels of performance. In the graphic, I have used the example of an organization’s incentive structure. Now many protected area managers are not motivated by financial incentives but rather opportunities for leadership, recognition and advancement (although research on this is needed). So if successfully struggling with complex problems is not recognized, there develops a negative feedback that dampens performance. Dampening performance, as we see in the reinforcing loop on the left leads to even further declines in performance.

In this case, a so-called ‘external” factor, an organization’s vision (for example, there are of course many other possibilities) may affect it system for awarding incentives for excellent performance. If one provides excellent performance but is not rewarded, then performance may decrease. So making changes in performance may require changing the organization’s attitude toward learning, and its incentive structure.

Of course, there are delays in this system. It may take a while before enhanced capability leads to increased performance. Incentive structures may not have a positive or negative impact for a while. The lack of an organizational vision that encourages dialogue and learning may have little impact at first on the newly trained or educated manager. But eventually, such factors will begin to take their toll, leading the organization capacity building efforts into a downward, and difficult to change, spiral.

So, the lesson of all this is for me, we need to think more systemically in terms of capacity building efforts. We simply can no longer afford to develop training workshops (“talkshops” to many) without consideration of the organizational environment into which the trainees will be placed.

More about this next time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Building Capacity for Protected Area Planning -- A Brief Note

Even though I am “retired”, it is often difficult to sit down and put together my blog. It seems that I am much busier than when I had a full time appointment with UM, but perhaps I was just more efficient in those days.

There is always a lot of talk around protected area circles concerning capacity: simply put, many believe that the greatest advances in protection and conservation can be made by building skills and capabilities of those charged with protected area stewardship. And, I think they are right in a general sense. But the notion of building capacity goes far beyond these words: what capacities for what and for whom? We all know that protected area organizations are differentiated horizontally and vertically: jobs may be highly specialized in some agerncies, and there is frequently variation in the span of control. So different organizational levels, it could be argued require different capacities.

Typically, I hear organizations—both government and nongovernment—arguing for training as the response to the need for capacity building. Well, training may indeed, and probably is needed, but not for everyone. Others in the organization may require continuing education; the kind of skills these individuals will need are more critical thinking skills than the practical skills implied in the notion of training. Well, why? Well, if protected areas are indeed embedded in the complex, contentious, changing and uncertain environment that I have argued that they are, then we can never predict what may happen in the future, even tomorrow. So we need managers that can respond to rapidly developing situations with the conceptual and thinking skills needed to analyze what is going on, synthesize underlying trends and structures and frame these new challenges in ways that address the underlying causes not just their symptoms. They need these capacities in order to be prepared for the inevitable surprises that come along.

In an interesting paper on “Empowering People for Sustainable Development” Jonathan Cook made an important differentiation between capacity and performance. Capacity, he said, represented the potential, while performance was the actual results of working in an environment, the outcome, if you will, of decisions. So while we might emphasize building capacity, what we want to do in the long run, is to enhance performance.

Now, in our area, capacity means holding an array of professional competencies such as:

• Critical thinking

• Concessions or licensee management

• Business management

• Interpretation

• Understanding the structure of the tourism industry

• Communication and public engagement

• Planning and modeling

Obviously, no one person can hold all these professional competencies, but should not a proficient manager hold the capacity to ask penetrating questions, to motivate staff, or to help a community establish goals or become more resilient in order to face uncertainty?

Capacity, Cook argued, is a prerequisite to performance, that is, without the necessary skills, one is likely not to do too well. Imagine hiring a carpenter to help put up a house that had little or no skill in using a hammer or saw? Would there be a result other than disaster? Of course, the carpenter could be mentored under the tutelage of a master craftsman to build capacity as the house is being constructed.

So it is quite natural, that agencies would want to focus on building capacities. But Cook also argued that Capacity is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for performance, which is the ultimate goal. Other factors, such as personal confidence, organizational structure and incentives, experience and personal challenge are also significant in influencing the level of performance. So perhaps the question we should be asking is: What can be done to enhance the performance of managers to protect the values for which an area was designated? Rather than, what capacities are needed to manage a specific place? What this means is that building professional competencies and seeing them implemented requires an integrated approach, with attention to both the individual and the organization within which the individual works.

Cook’s final point was that performance breeds capacity. What he is saying here is that as individuals enhance their performance, their capacity increases as well. This makes sense. As one does better in a job, a number of results occur: confidence builds, new opportunities are seen, constructed or exploited; networks of peers develop, exposing the individual to new ideas to be tested and evaluated; learning happens.

So, to build performance, particularly in the wicked and messy world of the 21st century, we need to build capacities. At the middle management level, these capacities focus more on critical thinking skills than on practical skills. But building capacity only raises potential. Enhanced performance requires other factors in the job environment to be addressed.

[1] Cook, J. 1997. Empowering people for sustainable development. In P. Fitzgerald, A. McLennan and B. Munslow (eds.), Managing Sustainable Development in South Africa, 275-292. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.