Splash and Ripple

Drop a stone in the middle of the pool. Watch its ripples spread wider and wider across the surface. Inevitably – sometimes sooner than later – the ripples mingle and apparently disappear among the others. Cause and effect: A simple action creates immeasurable, unpredictable and unforeseeable results.

Among development professionals, this provokes roughly equal amounts of fascination and frustration. Fascination, because anyone with a mote of interest and natural curiousity is quickly engrossed by the flow of events as human cultures mingle and change. Frustration, because at some point it will be necessary to say to a donor, ‘Your money will have exactly this effect.’

And that will be a lie, of sorts.

Vanuatu’s development is a particularly interesting case study. Its size makes it possible to understand and even influence many of the factors that might remain out of one’s control in other countries. More importantly, our community is of such a size that we can reasonably expect to get to know most of the people who share our respective fields of work.

The VIGNET technical mailing list, for example, has 168 members. That represents a strong majority of the people working full-time in IT in the country. When there is a diversity of opinion on a given topic, one can immediately develop a clear idea of the range of views and approaches. When consensus is reached in such a forum, there’s every reason to believe that what’s agreed upon can be made to work.

Not that it should be, necessarily. I’ve written elsewhere that the role of IT professionals is usually to chart the course, not to choose the destination. Likewise, something always gets lost in the translation between geek-speak and development-talk. Both are obscure and difficult dialects that are often used the way a drunken man uses a lamp post: For support, not illumination.

The challenge at the heart of everything is good planning. The reason problems arise is that traditional planning methods are often awkward and slow, and money doesn’t get committed until these processes have completed. The level of detail required by the planning process is sometimes quite high, right down to particular bits of equipment.

But technology moves quickly. In the early days of the Dot Com boom, if people were asked for a project timeline, they might half-jokingly ask, ‘Do you want that in Internet years, or in normal years?’ (Since you asked, there are roughly 3 Internet years in every ‘normal’ year.)

New communications technologies speed up the rate at which people live their lives. They do so in two ways: First, falling prices and increasing computing power allow people to do many tasks more cheaply than before. Second, increasingly powerful and capable equipment means that we can do things with less effort then ever before. Many tasks that required expensive professional service providers in the past can now be achieved by a clever person in an afternoon at their desk.

This presents a challenge to standard practices, because it allows people to act on their impatience. Getting a computer into the office no longer requires a huge outlay, and using it doesn’t require months or years of instruction. And having that computer in some ways reduces the need to schedule frequent meetings, develop detailed formal reports – in short, do many of the things that formal planning processes currently require.

Faced with the choice of either waiting for the annual budgeting process or simply reallocating a hundred thousand vatu from an existing pool, which do you think a mid- or low-level manager would choose? Indeed, departments, schools, businesses and some professional groups have all circumvented established protocols and processes in pursuit of – and because of – improved communications technology.

Computers and communications technologies give us both the angel and the devil in the details. They allow us to gather, store and share more detailed information than was possible before, but they encourage us to act on those details more quickly and with more independence than we did before.

The Internet was designed to withstand any number of problems and blockages without breaking down. In theory at least, if one piece of equipment slows down or outright fails, it should still be possible to access a destination by following a different route. We do this all the time in human networks, too. If someone is impeding a process, we find ways to work around them. Modern technology makes this easier than ever before.

Of course, none of this removes the need for planning, for sensible organisation and allocation of resources. We need all of these things just as much today as we did in the past. The problem is we want them all in a hurry.

Building a well-developed national ICT policy, establishing solid ground rules in the newly liberalised telecoms market and laying out the requisites for solid future growth are all critically important for Vanuatu’s development. The outcome of each and all of these processes will impact the entire nation. And a shortage in Vanuatu of detailed technical knowledge means that we face the challenge of lifting ourselves up by our boot straps on top of everything else.

The dangers we currently face are manifold: If we move too quickly, we risk missing out on some critical details and spending a generation paying for our mistakes. If we move too slowly, we risk people at all levels of society simply ignoring the process and acting exclusively for themselves. If we rely too much on our own resources, we risk misunderstanding the technical issues. If we rely too much on outside expertise, we risk misunderstanding the social and political ramifications.

We have a few advantages as well: We live in a small enough place that we can see the effects of what we do more quickly and with greater clarity than elsewhere. We know the personalities in each community of practice, and more importantly, we know many of the personalities in all the communities of practice. This allows us to coordinate better, to test our ideas more efficiently, and to build understanding more effectively than many people in most other places.

But we need a process that’s going to serve us well. One that integrates informality, flexibility and constant human resource development at the very core. We can’t ever do away with formalised planning processes, but if we focus a little more on constantly improving the way we work together and a little less on rigidly defined goals, we can at least have some assurance that our ability to define and achieve our goals will improve with time.

An interesting benefit of such an approach is that it gives us more confidence in our long-term projections. For example: If you ask me how many people will have daily access to computers in 10 years’ time, I won’t be able to usefully answer the question. It’s impossible to predict what a computer will look like, cost or even consist of in 10 years’ time.

But if you ask me what 10 years of sector-wide human resource development will look like, I can reply with a fair degree of confidence. I can tell you that employment in the sector will be healthier than it would otherwise be, I can tell you that we’ll lose some of our best and brightest to New Zealand and Australia in the short term, but we’ll get most of them back in the longer term, because the quality of life will be better here than there, and they’ll be able to continue working for their overseas clients from Vanuatu, anyway.

I can’t tell you what courses should be offered, nor how we should compose our professional organisations. No expert can, and some should stop trying. We can safely rely on the wisdom of crowds for many of these answers. If we use our planning to improve the people, we can rely on the people to improve the rest.

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