Between a rock and a hard place. Sectoral vs. local approaches to private sector development

I am preparing for a presentation at a conference in May about development programmes shifting from a sectoral to a regional or local perspective. This got me thinking about these shifts in focus and why they appear.

In economic development, it is often necessary to choose whether to intervene at a sectoral level, or whether it would be better to take a locational or geographic approach. In my experience I have learned that when you start with the one, i.e. with a specific sector or value chain, you often end up with the other, i.e. supporting specialization or addressing specific issues in a certain location. But this is of little consolation to managers of development programmes and Local Economic Development units who are then typically measured by the wrong indicators or that have different incentives due to the design of their programme or institutional mandate.

During my MBA, the Professor in Organisational Development introduced us to a really elegant tool to assess whether a tension or conflict between different approaches could really be addressed. He introduced us to Polarity Management, a simple instrument developed by Johnson (1992). According to Johnson, many problems that we face today are not really problems to be solved, but polarities to be managed. Johnson argues that we can continually try to solve these problems by shifting our strategies to another mode where we perceive lots of benefits. The trouble is that after a while of some negative aspects emerge, and suddenly the benefits of the other strategy seems to be more attractive.

Polarity management is an instrument that can be used by change management practitioners to understand these polarities and to manage them. It implies that perhaps these different strategies even depend on each other, like breathing in versus breathing out. We need both, even if they have very different objectives, benefits and downsides. This means that the strengths and the weaknesses of alternatives must be understood, and then managed.

In development we have many polarities, for example wealth creation versus poverty reduction, or designed interventions versus enabling evolution, project versus process, top down versus bottom up, and many others. It is very expensive and even risky to shift between these, and an organisations current expertise, instruments and orientation may find it very hard to make these shifts effectively. But some try and some even manage to do this.

This post is for those organisations that are undecided about their strategy and their focus.. A key question then is how do we manage these alternatives, especially if we want the best of both worlds?

There are 3 steps to better understand a polarity:

  1. Fill in the headings of the two polarities in the matrix
  2. Capture the strengths and the weaknesses of both in the columns
  3. Determine if there is a movement of preference between the polaries, meaning that when the negative consequences of a particular strategy becomes too much, strategy is shifted to the other approach for its apparent strengths. Then over time, the negatives start to weight in on the positives, resulting in a shift to the other approach.

Below I have quickly written down some of the positives and negatives of both approaches. This is an incomplete list but I think it is sufficient to illustrate the point. The PDF of the graphic below can be found here. For those that cannot read so small, the bottom line is this: there are pluses and minuses to both paradigms. Under each strategy, the benefits of the one approach may outweigh the negatives of that approach, but be aware, these weights are changing and after a while the other strategy may become more desirable!

Polary table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third step in understanding the polarity is to look at whether there is a shift between these polarities. From my experience working in a dozen or so developing countries, development programmes are either designed to be sectoral or geographic, with very few programmes designed to do both. From a local perspective, institutions and programmes are designed and resourced to either be targeted at specific industries and sectors, or they have a locational focus. It is very hard for programmes and institutions to build a case that a strategic shift to the other paradigm may be needed, even if for only a part of the resources to be dedicated to the other approach. This typically happens when the negatives of a current path starts to outweigh the positives, and the benefits of the other approach increasingly looks appealing. The danger is that a compromise is reached, instead of a synergy being developed.

From a Local Economic Development perspective, growing the technical capability to pursue both strategies simultaneously is important. This does not imply that both are equally important at any given time, as both these approaches have different timescales, resource requirements, and objectives. For example, it would be unwise to leave a dominant sector to its own devices in order to focus on emerging enterprises. At the same time, focusing on the issues of a dominant sector might distract attention from purposefully promoting emergence, diversification and economic resilience. Yet, many programmes and organisations are forced to choose, often too early when not enough is understood about the dynamics of the place or the industries. For me the worst reason to choose an particular approach is because some or other decision maker has attended a training course or conference, or because a particular approach is deemed “best practice”. In fact, most of my time is spent trying to help leaders and decision makers get out of a mess because their programme or institutions was designed based on some ideology or “solution” without enough attention being given to the requirements, trajectories and complexity of the specific context.

For national governments and international development programmes there seems to be a continuous shift between these two. Almost like a flip-flopping from one to the other. I think that the shifts are counter productive, as the learning from the previous shifts are often lost. If I just think back over my 16 year career how often the value chain or sub sector approaches or alternatively cluster and Local Economic Development have become fashionable again and then losing its appeal after a short time.

My conclusion is that while there is a tension between these approaches, the shifting between the strategies are not taking place at an institutional or programmatic level. Decisions about these strategies are made at higher levels of government and development cooperation with little regard for the challenges faced at sub national level in developing countries to build and grow “the right” institutions that can ensure long term economic evolution and development.

At the implementation level, regional development programmes should do both:

  • Sectoral programmes that ignores the impact of their sector on the geographic areas they are working in are most likely creating negative externalities, even with the best intentions in mind and even when they achieve their objectives of inclusiveness, job creation or export promotion. The negative externalities could be about the environment (mono economy, mono culture), or about increasing the coordination cost of every economic activity not related to the priority sectors (institutional or locational lock-in to particular paths and trajectories). Sectoral programmes that ignore opportunities for regional nuances to develop in their targeted sectors miss important opportunities to enable diversification and emergence of unique regional capabilities.
  • Location development programmes that do not collaborate with other locations to build sufficient scale in particular sectors to justify investing in particular regionally significant institutions will forever remain trapped in low value add, or perpetual dependence on the priorities and mood shifts of national governments. While trying to help every kind of economic activity in a region, you have to at some point also start promoting specific industries and sectors in order to try and reach some leverage or scale.

But most importantly, the economic activity, available institutional capabilities and the regional context prescribes where to start. And when you have started down a chosen path, be sensitive to when it may be necessary to foster additional organisational or collaborate with other institutions with different more adequate capabilities to enable the benefits of the other strategy to be leveraged. A key challenge in developing countries is that we do not have a rich layer of supporting institutions pursuing different strategies. Everyone seem to be trying more or less the same approaches, or chasing the same politically set targets.

In our capacity building sessions in Mesopartner we always elaborate on the importance of value chains and sectors to Local Economic Development practitioners, and the importance of regional competence development for value chain and sector development specialists. Actually, the process of diagnosing industries and regions are very similiar, even if you would give slightly more attention to different issues and perspectives.

In the end, from a bottom up perspective, supporting specific industries allows for scale and focused public investment, but caution must be taken to not create path dependence or institutional lock in. At the same time, a regional approach is critical as it allows for emergence of new kinds of economic activity and for diversity to emerge. I think we need to development of synergies for both, but it depends on the context what your priority should be. Simply being aware that there are pluses and negatives to either strategy is already a good start! This makes it much easier to collaborate with other organisations and programmes that have different objectives and priorities.

Now I have some questions to my readers:

  1. What is your current approach in your programme or organisation? Sectoral or locational?
  2. Have you even been through a shift from the one to the other in your programme, or do you cater for both?
  3. How did making the shift work out? Did you have the networks, resources and expertise to make this shift?
  4. What would you do differently next time?
  5. Please share your thoughts by commenting below, or send me an email if I can paste your comments unanimously if you are afraid to upset somebody higher up the chain.

References:

JOHNSON, B. 1992.  Polarity management : identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, Mass: HRD Press.

 

Significance over scale when selecting sectors

When promoting territorial economic development from an innovation systems perspective it is important to find ways of increasing the use of knowledge and innovation in the region. However, in mainstream economic development there is a tendency to target the private sector based on scale. This means that practitioners look at quantitative measures such as jobs, numbers of enterprises, numbers of beneficiaries, etc. when deciding where to do analysis and focus support. This is common practice in value chain promotion, sub sector selection, etc. Many development programmes do this as well prioritizing scale measures such as jobs, women, rural individuals, etc.

From my experience of assisting development organisations to strengthen the economic resilience of regional economies (which means more innovation, more experiments, more diversity, increased use of knowledge, more collaboration between different technological domains), I have found that the scale argument is distracting and too focused on the beneficiaries (whatever is counted) and not focused enough on those indirect public or private agents that are significant and that enable a whole variety of economic activities to take place. With significant I mean that there could even be only one stakeholder or entry point (so the direct scale measure is low) but by addressing an issue it enables a whole variety of economic activities to take place.

Of course, scale is very important when a local politicians need votes. It is also important when you have limited budget and must try to achieve wide spread benefit. For this reason scale is very important for social programmes.

However, when local institutions are trying to strengthen the local innovation system, in other words improve the diversity technological capability of a region, then scale becomes a second priority. The first priority then becomes identifying economic activity that enables diversity or that reduces the costs for enterprises to innovate, use knowledge more productively should be targeted. The reason why this does not happen naturally is that these activities are often much harder to detect. To make it worse, “significance” could also be a matter of opinion (which means you have to actually speak to enterprises and their supporting institutions) while crunching data and making graphs often feel safer and appear to be more rigorous.

My argument is that in regions, the long term evolution and growth of the economy is based on supporting diversification and the creation of options. These options are combined and recombined by entrepreneurs to create new economic value in the region, and in so doing they create more options for others. By focusing exclusively on scale, economic actors and their networks increasingly behave in a homogeneous way. Innovation becomes harder, economic diversity is not really increased. I would go as far as saying that success becomes a trap, because once a recipe is proven it is also harder to change. As the different actors becomes more interdependent and synchronized the system becomes path dependent. Some systems thinkers refer to this phenomena as tightly coupled, meaning a failure in one area quickly spills over into other areas. This explains why whole regions goes into decline when key industries are in decline, the economic system in the region became too tightly coupled.

But I must contradict myself just briefly. When interventions are more generic in nature, meaning they address market failures that affect many different industries and economic activities, then scale is of course important.

The experienced development practitioners manage to develop portfolios where there are some activities that are about scale (for instance, targeting a large number of informal traders) and then some activities that are about significance (for instance ensuring that local conformity testing labs are accessible to local manufacturers).

The real challenge is to figure out what the emergent significant economic activities are that improves the technological capability in the region. New emergent ideas are undermined by market failures and often struggle to gain traction. Many new activities requires a certain minimum economic scale before it can be sustained, but this is a different kind of scale than when practitioners use scale of impact as a selection criteria. Many small but significant economic activities cannot grow if they do not receive public support in the form of promotion, awareness raising or perhaps some carefully designed funding support.

There are a wide range of market failures such as high coordination costs with other actors, high search cost, adverse selection, information asymmetry and public good failures that undermines emergence in local economies. It is exactly for this reason that public sector support at a territorial level (meaning sub national) must be sensitive to these market failures and how they undermine the emergence of new ideas that could be significant to others. The challenge is that often local stakeholders such as local governments have limited influence over public institutions in the region that are funded from other spheres of public administration.

Let me wrap up. My argument is that scale is often the wrong place to start when trying to improve the innovation system in a region. Yes, there are instances where scale is important. But my argument is that some things that could be significant, like the emergence of variety and new ideas often get lost when interventions are selected based on outreach. Furthermore, the focus on large scale impact draws the attention to symptoms of problems and not the the institutional or technological institutions that are supposed to address market failures and support the emergence of novelty.

I will stop writing now, Marcus always complains that my posts are too long!

Let me know if I should expand on the kinds of market failures that prevent local economies from becoming technologically more capable.

 

 

Education to enable industry development

Our industry in South Africa is constantly complaining that their workers have the wrong (or low) skills. Yet based on my own experience, many manufacturers prefer to appoint people from the street and then train them in-house on the job. This saves the business money and bargains the wage down, but at the same time makes it very difficult for the enterprise to respond to technological change. And when all your workers are at a low skills level, the technological advancement of the firm is almost completely dependent on the genius (!!) of the entrepreneur and the middle management. This is a risk for our industry as we do not embrace learn-by-doing enough as our competitors are doing because we do not trust the ability of our workforce.

The South African government itself acknowledge the importance of jobs intensive growth, especially aimed at lower skilled workers. I sometimes wonder if our government has given up on its education system, but then the large and continued investments in the overall education system seems to suggest otherwise. The education policy has a strong focus on vocational training, but learners still prefer to queue at our Universities despite the best attempts of the minister to highlight the value of Further Education Colleges and the recent investments into the vocational system in the country.

While the importance of making sure that our large numbers of low skilled workers do get some form of employment and further education, I wonder if we do not need a stronger dual focus on other forms of education and more skills intensive job creation.

Also, I wonder if we do not need to strengthen our ongoing education aimed at people currently employed. I know the Skills Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) are supposed to do this, but from the businesses that I work with it seems that this is a frustrating option – the skills levy is basically treated as a tax. The SETAs are also focused very much on basic skills and not on deep technological skills.

As long ago as 1987, Lawrence and Schultze criticized the European education system with its focus on apprenticeships that provides rather specific skills to rather standard and mature technologies. These technologies become obsolete very fast in times of rapid technological change. Furthermore, these skills do not help our enterprises to get ahead, they simply help the lower productivity part of the economy to catch up. Many other scholars have come to the some conclusions about Europe’s education system, advising them to follow the US model of equipping graduates with a more generic education that helps people to adapt to a more dynamic work and technological environment.

For in case you wondered, South Africa is undergoing huge technological change. With the energy problems this technology intensification is accelerating as enterprises try to upgrade to lower energy manufacturing technology.

To get ahead we need to invest more in creating middle and higher skills capacity, more or less what the learners are sensing. From an economic policy perspective, we need to support the enterprises that are in the more knowledge intensive industries. They still absorb lower skills workers, but at least in these enterprises their development paths are more varied and more secure. While at the job-intensive low skill industries these lower-skilled workers are vulnerable due to South Africa’s poor cost competitiveness on many basic manufactured goods. At the same time, we have to continue and even expand upgrading our workforce with vocational training, if not for any other reason than to give people a deeper sense of pride and dignity.

References

Lawrence, R., Schultze, C., 1987. Overview. In: Lawrence, R., Schultze, C.(Eds.), Barriers to European Growth: A Transatlantic View. The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Recognizing competing hypothesis as complex

In order to improve the economic performance of an industry or a territory, it is important to recognize the current Status Quo of the economy. This is basically to understand “what is?”, but to also understand “what is possible next?”. You may think that local stakeholders, firms and public officials will know the answer to “what is going on now?”, but every time I have done such an assessment I have discovered new suppliers, new innovations, new demands and many new connections between different actors.

The benefit of being a facilitator, process consultant or development expert, is that we can move between different actors, observe certain trends, recognize gaps and form an overall picture of what we think is going on. It is very difficult for enterprises to form such a picture as they can only observe other firms from a distance.

The main challenge is about figuring out what can be done to improve certain gaps or to change the patterns that we observe. These are answers to “What is possible next?” questions . As Mesopartner, we always insist that any process to diagnose an industry or a region starts with the formulation of various hypothesis. This hypothesis formulation before we commence is not only about revealing our bias, nor only about figuring out what exactly we want to find out. It also helps us to figure out what kind of process is needed, the scope of the analysis and what different actors expect from the process.

Unlike in academic or scientific research, hypothesis formulation does not only happen in the early stages of a diagnostic or improvement process, it should be constantly reflected upon and expanded as we go on during the process of meeting stakeholders and analyzing data. This is where the importance of recognizing competing hypothesis within our team and between different stakeholders are important.This process is not about convergence, but about revealing what different actors and the investigator believes is going on.

Economic development practice is full of competing hypothesis that all seem to be very plausible. In a recent training event with Dave Snowden the consequences of not recognizing or revealing these competing hypothesis struck me. According to Dave, competing hypothesis that plausibly explains the same phenomena indicates that we are most likely dealing with a complex issue. For instance, in South Africa we have competing hypothesis about the role of small firms in the economy. One hypothesis is that small firms are engines of growth and innovation, therefore they deserve support. A competing hypothesis is that large firms invest more in innovation and growth, and that they are better drivers of economic growth. Both hypotheses are plausible – the issue is complex. Recognizing this complexity is very important, as the cause and effect relations are not easy to identify and they might even be changing – the situation is non-linear. (Marcus Jenal and I wrote a working paper on complexity in development). This simply means that to get a specific outcome, the path will most likely be indirect or oblique – cause and effect is not linear.

Why is it important to recognize competing hypothesis, or to know when some patterns in the economy or complex? The answer is that it is almost impossible to analyze a complex issue with normal diagnostic instruments. Complex patterns can only be understood by engagement, that is, through experimentation. Again, according to Dave Snowden, you have to probe a complex issue by trying several different possible fixes simultaneously, then observe (sense) what seems to work best under the current circumstances. The bottom line is that you analyze a complex issue by experimenting with it, not by observing or analyzing it.

The implication of this insight in my own work has been huge. By recognizing that many issues that I am dealing with are complex (due to competing hypothesis that are very plausible) and can only be addressed through direct engagement has saved me and my customers a lot of resources that was previously spent on seemingly circular analysis. I now use the hypothesis formation with my clients to try and see if we have competing hypothesis of “what is” and “what must be done”. Where the hypothesis seems to be straight forward, we can define a research process to reveal what is going on and what can be done to improve the situation. But when we have different competing hypothesis of what is going on, we have to immediately devise several simultaneous experiments to try and find an upgrading path. I thought my customers would not like the idea of experiments, but I was wrong.

The conditions are that you must take steps to ensure that there are many different experiments that are all very small, and that by design take different approaches to try and solve the same problem. This takes learning by doing to a new level – because now failure is as important as success as it helps us to find the paths to better performance by reducing alternatives and finding the factors in the context that makes progress possible. The biggest surprise for me is that this process of purposeful small experiments to see what is possible under current conditions (context) has unlocked my own and my customers creativity.

Perhaps a topic for a separate blog is that to really uncover these competing hypothesis we have to make sure that we do not converge too soon about what we think is going on. Maintaining divergence and variety is key – this is another challenge for me as a facilitator that is used to helping minds meet!

Linking: Gregory Mankiw article “when the scientist is also a philosopher”

In the last two years we (Mesopartner) have been exploring how complexity science affects development practice. Well, we were quite shocked to realize how much of development is based on preference and bias, and how little is actually based on proper scientific research. Frequently practitioners takes little bits and pieces of different theoretical bases to create a construct of an approach that is suitable to them because it meets their own hypotheses of how the world works. It is important also to not confuse evidence based monitoring and evaluation with scientific evidence.

The famous economic thinker, Gregory Mankiw, has published an article in the New York Times where he goes into this topic with his usual easy to understand arguments. The title of his article is “when the scientist is also a philosopher”. He argues that a danger of economics (I would argue of all economic development) is that we are not aware of our bias, and we do not depend on proper scientific methods. He recommends that we offer our advice with a healthy dose of humility, as we are often not aware of how complex the economy is and how our advice will affect other systems, or whether our advice will work at all.

Gregory Mankiw was a great inspiration for me during my PhD research and I am grateful to have stumbled across this article. He is currently an economics professor at Harvard.

Moving from generic to specific and then onto systemic

When working with development organizations in the mesolevel we often find that their programmes are very generic. The same can be said of the findings of many diagnosis. The result is that firms do not really use the services of these organizations, because the value add and the impact of the services are not really clear.

For me there should always be a movement from the generic (e.g. the foundry sector is not competitive) towards the specific (e.g. the foundry industry is not competitive because it lacks capacity to do good front end engineering and design). After we have developed a sense of some specific issues that are affecting the performance of firms, there are two things we have to do.

Firstly, we want to try and figure out if there is something that we can do at a more systemic level to try and influence the specific issues. With systemic I mean that instead of addressing a particular issue repeatedly at various firms, see if there are other ways to achieve the same outcome. An example would be instead of only offering a design service to firms, make sure that the university curricula includes sufficient content dealing with design. Of course, we should always strive to have multiple interventions to address a particular issue.

Secondly, we should verify whether our specific findings are unique to the firms we have diagnosed or engaged with. For instance, and food initiative run by a university might find that the private sector is affected by a lack of a particular kind of testing lab. Then instead of designing a solution just for a limited number of producers, the university should check whether similar firms in other industries (related and not even related) are facing the same constraints. It may just be possible to design a solution that is useful to a much broader target group, making the solution more sustainable and more relevant to the private sector.

From my experience of working within many different value chains is that there are many issues that are treated as being unique (or specific) to a particular value chain that are in fact affecting many different kinds of enterprises. The South African Industrial Policy framework for instance is designed around many different sub-sectors, with many different interventions implemented by different organizations and programmes that are actually not unique to a particular sub-sector. This is expensive and also not really systemic, these interventions are not permanently changing the meso level in South Africa or the service offerings of meso organizations such as universities and other development programmes. The South African manufacturing sector is struggling with low volume, outdated designs and rapidly increasing costs across the board. I imagine that it should be possible to based on the insights from the different sub sectors to design much better programmes that are cross cutting over many different sub sectors, and that from the start are designed to improve the service offerings from meso organizations to firms.

Update from the field

I wondered if I should name this post “from the airport lounge” but then I realized that I still travel much less than my business partners and some friends.

Seeing that so many of you ask me where I am I thought I will give a quick update.

Since my previoSplit Team Smallus post I have traveled to Split in Croatia to conduct an LED training for a group of local government officials from Bosnia. This was a great event because I had the opportunity to conduct the training with my business partners Frank Waeltring and Christian Schoen. This event was arranged for and funded by GIZ Bosnia and took place during the first week of September.

During this event it again struck me how no matter where we work with Local Economic Development, the main principles and challenges remain the same. The people, the language and also the priorities might be different, but the issues that we are always confronted by is a breakdown in trust between business and local government, fragmentation and confusion between local and national stakeholders, and the tension between bottom up and top down priorities and intervention means.

 

 

Immediately after Croatia I traveled to India to assist GIZ India to assist with designing a Private Sector Development Programme. The mission included capacity building of local experts, consultants and policy makers on innovation systems and how this perspective can be used to strengthen cluster, value chain and regional development programmes. I traveled with the GIZ team to Bangalore and Aurangabad to assess the readiness of different clusters to benefit from an innovation systems perspective.

In Delhi, my hotel room overlooked the famous Jantra Mantar astronomy instrument. It is anJantra Mantra heritage site that dates from 1724 that was one of the great astronomy observation posts of the time. I spent a whole Saturday morning looking at the details of this site. I also spent half a day on the Hop on Hop Off Bus in India.

I am looking forward to traveling back to India shortly for an extension on this assignment.

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