Friday, April 17, 2015

Learning & KS - "prod, shove, jolt, or nudge"?

“An organisation or programme’s development depends on the quality of interchange and group reflection going on among the staff” (EIU, 1996)

We know what works. The best Development practice has always centred on learning collectively how to work more effectively, adapting operations and exchanging lessons with colleagues to build in continuous improvement and scale. Yet, embedding successfully that kind of good practice into institutional norms and processes remains challenging, especially over distance and between layers of stakeholders engaged in combating poverty and inequity.

But it ought to be so easy. Whenever I’ve interviewed people for the kind of Knowledge Management review we’re currently working on with WaterAid, they always say that they really want to learn, to share, to document it’s just that operational pressures are so intense and relentless that it’s very hard to carve out the time. There are some well-worn responses to that conundrum, some of which we’ll rehearse in another blog, but we’ve become curious about what we can learn from all the experience and resources on Behaviour Change.

"Socially unacceptable not to learn"

Because, while I often say I want to clean the cooker properly (all right, sometimes say) somehow there’s always something else to do. Yet when we had tiny babies and children in the house we became hugely more concerned about food hygiene and we changed the way we behaved. And being honest, one element of the motivation for change was the reactions of friends with babies. We prioritised differently, and were influenced by the realisation that it had become socially unacceptable amongst our group of friends with kids to be as relaxed as we had been about kitchen hygiene.

Taking it back to Learning and Knowledge Sharing, how does a culture develop where, ‘it’s socially unacceptable not to learn’, as Aidan Cronin of UNICEF memorably asked? At its heart it’s about behaviour change, and it’s a problem shared by all those working for changes in areas like sanitation and hygiene, or vaccination, or climate change, that rely on how people act in their daily lives.

Nudge or shove

And since it’s not a new problem people have been aware of it and researching ways to influence it. Fashionable at the moment are theories grouped under the term ‘nudge’. It's odd that MS Word thesaurus cites "prod, push, shove, jolt" as synonyms, since the underlying theories opposes any kind of forcing behaviour in favour of gentler and more positive approaches. The ideas are rooted in Behavioural Economics Most sources cite Kahneman and his collaborators as the most influential and insightful research, accessibly presented in his 2011 book, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’. And recent research demonstrates that interest in Nudge and similar theories isn’t just a modish response in the wealthy world, it’s a global phenomenon.

This is a nice introduction about nudge in the context of WASH from a blog by Stephanie Tam
"As fickle as our behaviors may be in relation to our conscious intentions, they respond systematically to certain environmental conditions, i.e. they have predictable biases. Through different combinations of biases, behavioral economists test out how to make certain behaviors easier to perform by subtly changing the context. These changes influence what neuroscientists call the reflexive cognitive system: a knee-jerk reaction that outstrips the slower reflective system we commonly call consciousness or analytical thought (Lieberman 2002). Instead of shoving people into sanitation and hygiene practices, we can create an environment that enables people to perform behaviors that they themselves have chosen."
There’s another excellent introduction in a resource from the Business Balls site, complete with useful toolkit:
“Nudge theory is mainly concerned with the design of choices, which influences the decisions we make. Nudge theory proposes that the designing of choices should be based on how people actually think and decide (instinctively and rather irrationally), rather than how leaders and authorities traditionally (and typically incorrectly) believe people think and decide (logically and rationally).”

“The use of Nudge theory is based on indirect encouragement and enablement. It avoids direct instruction or enforcement.”

“Fundamentally (and properly, according to its origins) Nudge theory operates by designing choices for people which encourage positive helpful decisions; for the people choosing, and ideally for the wider interests of society and environment, etc.”

“Nudge theory seeks to minimize resistance and confrontation, which commonly arise from more forceful 'directing' and autocratic methods of 'changing' people/behaviour.”
With the team in WaterAid we’re going to be reviewing what we can learn from Behaviour Change work in general and Nudge in particular, asking ourselves questions like:
  • What nudges you to take time to reflect, to share ideas, to document in some form or another? 
  • Is it a specific trigger, or a stimulus that is more environmental, part of the landscape?
  • What is the role of leaders and managers - how can they create that environment, or is it more of a personal style or posture issue? 
  • One of the commonest ways to kill things is to systematise it, put it in a manual. But how then can an organisation take on such an approach? 
What examples do you know of in your own work or from other projects about using these kind of ideas?