posted 1 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 2
Cultivating knowledge growth
The US Department of Agriculture is made up of highly decentralised field staff that offer technical assistance to rural communities. To help their work, Norman Reid was responsible for developing the technical-assistance information system (TAIS) that gives staff members access to information and tools critical for programmes to work effectively. He describes the development of TAIS and the overall knowledge-management strategy it supports.
The technical-assistance information system (TAIS) interactively builds online rural development support for the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) highly decentralised field staff. It also helps policy officials measure the effectiveness of services and assess their impact. TAIS employs many special features, such as automated self-assessment, that make best use of knowledge-management principles.
Technical assistance (TA) holds a time-honoured place among programmes that develop rural communities. But in recent years, much has changed to upset that position. The squeeze on government funding has drained the resources available for technical assistance. The calls for hard performance data on programme effectiveness, including TA, have elevated the need for better information. Simultaneously, the emergence of the web as a universal tool for information delivery and its integration with database technology has opened up an entirely new realm of possibilities. One of these is web-based knowledge management for delivering technical assistance and assessing its impacts. The TAIS from the USDA is one such application.
USDA leads nationwide responsibility for rural development. Within the department, this responsibility is shared among a number of agencies, including the Co-operative Extension Service, Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Rural Development. Each of these national agencies has field-staff organisations that provide services, including information and technical assistance, to clients in rural communities. These programmes face many issues:
- There is little reliable data available on staff time and resources devoted to community development technical assistance, rendering these services invisible compared with grant and loan programmes, and leaving TA harder to support politically;
- Little information is available about the TA clients, the methods used (inputs) to provide TA, the accomplishments (outputs) and the ultimate impacts (outcomes), making it difficult to set meaningful programme goals or evaluate staffing patterns, materials, techniques, or the value of accomplishments;
- Good practices are collected sporadically and are not readily available;
- Information tools that help field staff provide TA are scattered, incomplete and often not web-accessible;
- Few mechanisms exist to tap the expertise of individual specialists.
Knowledge modules in TAIS
TAIS is designed to address these issues. TAIS is a knowledge-management system presently under development that integrates information about TA methods and materials, the technical assistance provided by USDA field staff, and the resulting accomplishments and impact for rural communities. TAIS’s overall objective is to serve as a resource centre for USDA staff to organise their work, draw upon knowledge resources and build new knowledge through shared experiences.
TAIS operates in a web environment. Field staff will use its online to track their plans and accomplishments for reports to policy officials. TAIS will also offer online assistance for planning and delivering TA. In addition, by connecting with other information systems, TAIS will generate new knowledge about the effectiveness of TA strategies that users can access from their desktops or while travelling to rural communities.
Conceptually, TAIS consists of four interconnected modules that, from the user’s perspective, are merged seamlessly:
- The client-servicing module develops information about rural TA clients and the services they receive;
- The impacts module builds knowledge about the results achieved by TA;
- The curriculum module contains knowledge about effective methods for assisting rural communities;
- The tools module provides materials for implementing the curriculum elements.
The key challenges in developing TAIS are to define the information requirements and means by which knowledge will be developed and shared. Each module has unique requirements and presents special challenges.
Recipients of TA may be either individuals or organisations, such as towns, non-profit organisations or businesses. Field staff will input the following information for clients:
* Types and characteristics of clients;
* Plan for TA support;
* Record of TA provided;
* Method of TA (for example, training, consultation or written materials);
* Issue area;
* Materials employed;
* Resources used (ie, time and miles travelled).
This information represents inputs used to achieve the desired results. Together with data on impacts – outputs and outcomes – input data is part of a KM system that will evaluate the effectiveness of organisational sub-units, training and other delivery methods, materials, and value per hour of staff time.
Key design issues for the client-servicing module are to reduce the time staff spend inputting data, ensure its accuracy and completeness, and relate TA information to data on other assistance clients have received, such as grants and loans, which is stored in other information systems. A guiding principle for TAIS is to extract all possible information from existing databases. Where clients have already participated in rural-development programmes, their histories will be pre-loaded into TAIS. Any TA provided to clients will be matched with other assistance records so that complete client profiles will be available.
Similarly, data about technical assistance provided will be recorded as field-staff members make choices from the curriculum module, thus eliminating double data entry. Although field staff will always do some record keeping, TAIS is designed to make data entry a useful part of a TA programme, not merely a burden. The reward to field staff is a solid record of their work and the results they achieve, information that is critical to demonstrating the value of technical assistance in the face of criticism that this ‘soft’ programme has marginal value.
The objective of the impacts module is to enable assessment of TA’s effect. Measuring the impact of any programme is not straightforward, since multiple factors may have critical importance. However, it is evident that TA has greater impact when provided more effectively and in a greater amount. As a result, impact measures can gauge the success of overall TA and – by correlating inputs with these impacts – measure the relative effectiveness of alternative methods.
Impacts can be harder to measure than inputs so they pose a greater challenge to system design. Impact information should be divided into two categories: outputs and outcomes. Outputs represent action taken by the client during or following the TA. Outcomes are longer-term consequences and usually represent a measure of wellbeing for the client or area it serves.
Output and outcome measures will differ among types of client. Taking a town as an example, TA outputs could be:
- Completion of a strategic plan;
Number of funding applications filed;
Percentage of performance targets achieved;
Number of projects completed.
Outcomes reflect longer-term results or consequences. Outcomes for a town could be:
- Number of citizens receiving some service or benefit;
Change in average household income;
Improvement in test scores for pupils;
Enhancements in housing quality or affordability.
The major design issue for the impacts module is how to measure outputs and outcomes accurately, consistently and meaningfully. To enhance accuracy, field staff must be able to classify results without force-fitting them. This implies the need for great flexibility in entering impacts data. On the other hand, for meaningful programme analysis to occur, reporting categories must be limited and treated identically by all users. Finding a balance between these contrasting goals is essential. To complicate matters, the science of measuring community-level impacts is not fully developed, though much useful work has been accomplished. Therefore, meeting the goals of accuracy, consistency and meaning will be achieved by approximations that will improve over time.
The approach taken for TAIS is to create separate lists of impact indicators for each TA strategy, such as building an effective community body. Each element in the curriculum module will have associated impact indicators. To address the need for flexibility and accuracy, TA providers will be able to nominate indicators for situations where existing categories do not suffice.
The clear benefit of obtaining good information about outputs and outcomes is to create knowledge about:
- The consequences of TA;
- The benefits to clients resulting from TA;
- The value of TA per unit of resources expended;
- The relative effectiveness of alternative strategies, methods and materials;
- Variations in TA provision and effectiveness among regions or agencies;
- Identifying where successes in one area can be transferred to another.
Knowledge about impacts enables the conversion of TA from the realm of individual artistry to more systematic effectiveness.
Given the massive, nationwide job of enhancing the capacity of rural communities to prosper, USDA has a limited number of full-time TA field staff. A recent survey of community development field staff in USDA’s Rural Development agency showed that the majority are part-time and that the agency had a 30 per cent staff turnover in the most recent year. Few have been trained extensively in community development, and almost none are professionally certified. Consequently, USDA’s delivery system for community-development TA is highly variable in its capacity to provide effective services.
To help raise service quality, the curriculum module will offer an online ‘cookbook’ to help field staff assess the specific gaps in a client’s capacity, and deliver individualised packages of TA. A curriculum for community development might include 15-20 elements from which TA providers could choose. Each element will contain a set of lesson plans with ideas and options for addressing the various topics. The elements will include:
- Assessing a community’s pressing issues and capacity gaps (ie, needs assessment);
- Identifying and mobilising community assets;
- Defining a community vision and creating a strategic plan;
- Developing performance measures to assess goal achievement;
- Applying for funding;
- Successful project management;
- Building an effective leadership corps;
- Developing inclusive community decision-making processes;
- Conflict resolution and consensus building;
- Encouraging citizen participation and voluntarism.
Needs assessment, can be used to plan a full TA curriculum for the community. It will include methods field staff can use to assess capacity gaps and the strategic approaches that a community, given its circumstances, can take to most profitably tackle community-development issues. Based on that assessment, a TA provider, with community leaders, can plan actions that may then unfold over a period of months or years.
Each issue area may require a different schema, which presents a key design issue for the curriculum module. For example, the development of agricultural co-operatives has established a curriculum consisting of ten well defined, sequential steps. But in other areas the number of steps may be greater, or open ended, and no established pattern may exist. Therefore, considerable input from field staff and other experts is needed to conceptualise and organise curriculum elements and build their knowledge content.
The curriculum module will be an online KM centre that trained or untrained field staff can tap into for the challenges and opportunities presented by their clients. Users can add to the system’s content online to maximise the scope and timeliness of knowledge. Also, by correlating users’ choices of elements and strategies with outputs and outcomes, nationwide experience will be automatically cumulated to offer valuable guidance on the effectiveness of each TA strategy in high poverty communities, isolated areas or those under other conditions.
For users, one of the most attractive features of TAIS is a set of online tools that assist in the delivery of curriculum elements. Each element will be linked to a variety of materials and resources that can be used to implement it. These tools will consist of such items as:
- Pamphlets and other publications;
- Workbooks and checklists;
- Training courses and presentations;
- Group exercises;
- Planning guides and alternative scenarios;
- Good practices;
- Potential funding sources;
- Useful websites.
Such materials exist in great variety, but they are widely scattered in use and are often difficult to access. Materials developed within USDA are not readily shared among agencies or between states, resulting in lost opportunities and duplication of effort. A key KM feature of TAIS is an online exchange medium where specialists can nominate items for inclusion in the tools module. In addition, they can rate the tools they use online, adding to the pooled opinions of their colleagues across the nation about each tool’s value.
There are three kinds of knowledge that TAIS is designed to tap into:
- Knowledge that is in the heads of the organisation’s specialists and experts;
- Recorded knowledge generated within the organisation;
- Recorded knowledge generated externally.
Expert knowledge from inside
TAIS is being developed with extensive collaboration from a wide range of USDA staff, most of which are TA providers in field offices. They provide input on the overall system design and development, and will be asked for input on the curriculum modules related to their fields of expertise and practice.
Three primary methods will be employed to capture this expertise. First, when TAIS users register, they will provide information about themselves, their areas of special knowledge and the most challenging and innovative projects on which they have worked. This information will go into a searchable database, so users may contact each other for help, regardless of where they are located in the US or within USDA’s structure.
Second, users will be invited to submit their best methods and materials to the online repertoire of tools. Third, they will be asked to grade tools for effectiveness and usefulness by a rating system. Tools will be listed according to their rating, which forms a self-assessing system.
Because of their extensive knowledge of the issues and concerns presented by clients, field staff can also make valuable input regarding gaps in the system – areas of curriculum or tools not yet adequately developed. Field staff will be the first to know about shifts in the issues facing rural clients and the need for new or updated tools.
Internally recorded knowledge
The most obvious grouping of internally recorded information consists of materials such as publications, curricula and training presentations created within the sponsoring agencies. TAIS will link to original online sources within all USDA agencies. TAIS will also generate knowledge about strategies and tools in use, offering a guide on what is prevalent in current practice to those new to community development. As users select curriculum topics and tools for each client, their choices are captured by TAIS and included in overall profiles for each curriculum element or resource. Users can view real-time profiles to see which curriculum items, strategy options and tools are most frequently used for a particular type of client, issue or region, and the resulting impacts.
Externally generated information
Many national and regional organisations besides USDA offer technical assistance in rural development. USDA has no monopoly on relevant knowledge, and it is critical that ideas, strategies and materials from these sources be available to TAIS users. Most materials will be accessed from their websites via hyperlinks. External organisations will also be consulted during the process of building the system’s content, and their input will be reflected in the content of the curriculum items and tools available in the system. Ultimately, pooling resources with external organisations to share curricula and tools online is a desired objective.
Obstacles in developing TAIS
TAIS also faces difficulties that are typical of government projects. The greatest of these has been insufficient resources. Although TAIS was undertaken with a solid base of funding, its success is predicated on the availability of sufficient staff to conduct time-intensive organising work, designing the information systems and developing the knowledge base. Competing demands on limited time have resulted in delays.
The majority of staff members have shown positive anticipation towards the launch of TAIS, especially towards recording their technical-assistance actions and compiling automatic reports. However, we anticipate significant change-management issues to arise once the programme becomes fully operational.
Traditionally, it is difficult to maintain effective co-operation among the disparate agencies that share rural-development responsibility. It has been fortunate and somewhat unusual that no turf battles have occurred. On the other hand, engaging sufficient time and attention from staff in agencies outside our department has not come easily. As a result, the system is evolving in stages.
Finally, TAIS is attempting to cumulate knowledge of disparate types from an array of sources. TAIS will employ as many self-regulating approaches as possible to automate information filtering to TA providers, but the sheer volume and variety of materials, as well as their constantly changing nature, will nonetheless require significant time to complete.
Despite these challenges, however, the outlook for TAIS and the knowledge-management strategies it employs is bright. In turn, they stand to make a major contribution to improving rural-development technical assistance nationwide.
J. Norman Reid was formerly associate administrator of the Office of Community Development, USDA Rural Development. Reid recently retired after 27 years with USDA and now consults on rural development and information systems. He can be contacted at email@example.com