Three continents, multiple languages, diverse field and office operations and differing educations levels. This translates to frequent confusion and complication, which is a common story in the aid and development sector. The teams delivering work locally are vastly different in composition and background than those advancing the strategic goals of that work in other parts of the world. ThinkPlace realised that any design solution would need to successfully adapt to this complex work environment.
Plan International is a global NGO comprised of 10,000 staff spread across 75 countries unified by the mission of "advancing children's rights and equality for girls in over 75 countries", towards a world where "Girls Get Equal."
Plan International's London-based global hub released a complex gender equality policy and advocacy framework that literally became lost in translation for many local frontline staff. The differing cultural, social and historical contexts this information came from made it difficult for staff to contextualise and apply in field situations. This was exacerbated by differing technology provision and variable internet access.
How might we help Plan International sensitively diffuse their values and learning globally, so that they can foster equality and opportunity for girls worldwide?
In 2019, ThinkPlace led a global research strategy to co-create new learning and communication tools to explain and contextualise gender equality to staff of all locations and job types.
Our research approach was as diverse as the population it serves, deploying a creative, adaptable and empathetic approach. During nearly three months, our team went to refugee settlements to talk with staff in northern Uganda, spent hours in transit with the teams to understand their challenges, shadowed frontline staff in rural Malawi and interviewed senior management in London. We went from the most urban to the most remote to understand how people learn, what they apply, their values and their constraints.
We gained powerful insights. These included: staff desiring local and relatable information, wanting to learn from each other, wishing to be included in policy and value formation, being time poor and being truly concerned about their work and its impacts. Most importantly we learned that staff wanted to learn by seeing – video helped policy come alive and be relatable.
From these insights, Lesson in a Box was born. Lesson in a Box offers short, localised video lessons that explain 3 things: policies, how these have been applied locally and personal reflections on the policies. This is followed by a facilitation session where staff discuss the material and then are encouraged to reflect. Anyone can host these sessions and anyone with a smartphone can make them – no internet connection or funding is required.
Lesson in a Box has been met with resounding enthusiasm. The videos have helped staff to contextualise gender equality and apply the principles in their everyday work. Plan international has now trialled the idea on four continents and in four languages and that is only the beginning – gender equality is truly growing due to leading by local example.
"Those policies that are made without our contributions are very upsetting… and they can breach community culture …but when those fail, it is us who get blamed."
Understanding the challenge: global & local cultures of learning
Methods of learning, means of communication and the understanding of values are all culturally and personally determined, so making a holistic strategy to diffuse this information is challenging. Plan's championing of gender equality made this project complex – how do you localise and explain these values outside of a western context?
Plan International is a global NGO comprised of 10,000 staff spread across 75 countries unified by a mission statement of "advancing children's rights and equality for girls in over 75 countries", towards a world where "Girls Get Equal." Communicating, translating and
contextualising the values of equality for girls and women and implementing them across borders, in both disaster relief and development situations, is a challenge by any measure.
ThinkPlace embarked on a six-month campaign of immersive research with Plan International on all levels: global hub, national and field offices, disaster response and development situations. We aimed to understand the dynamics of the organisation, how it communicates with staff, how it creates information for them and overall how its values are diffused.
Our approach was as diverse as the population it serves, deploying a creative, adaptable and empathetic approach. Over the course of nearly three months, our team went to refugee settlements to talk with staff in northern Uganda, spent hours in transit with the teams to understand their challenges, shadowed frontline staff in rural Malawi and interviewed senior management in London. We spoke to country managers, technical staff, case workers and more. We went from the most urban to the most remote to understand how people learn, what they apply, their values and their constraints.
Our team began by first assuming the role of a Plan staff member, by mapping policy guidance and online platforms to understand what information is available and to chart accessibility issues.
We progressed to the London Global Hub, conducting face-to-face interviews with communications and knowledge management staff, as well as content creators. Here we found an eagerness to communicate and create guidance for frontline staff, but difficulty in understanding what staff actually want, need and 'get'. Interviews revealed that most content was reliant on digital platforms, came from teams with little interaction with African colleagues, and required digital literacy as well as a constant high-speed internet connection which many staff lacked.
To fully immerse ourselves in the context of field staff, our team spent two weeks combined in a development site in Malawi and a disaster recovery site in Uganda. Interviews and shadowing were deployed with all levels of staff – management, case workers, drivers, child protection specialists and more. ThinkPlace observed how staff accessed information, what it meant to them and how they applied it in their everyday work.
To gain empathy and understanding for the day-to-day working lives of Plan staff, we employed the 'Jobs to Be Done' framework where we profiled each staff member by their tasks, how they do them, the resources required and any difficulties they experience.
Jobs to be Done highlighted that staff were just about managing their already heavy workloads, but unable to devote other resources to learning and understanding both due to time pressures and information being too complicated. Instead of any formal learning process, staff learned from each other and by doing daily work in the field. We observed that even well-intentioned attempts to interact with digital content could be hampered by a poor or non-existent internet connection, lack of time or feeling that the content was 'foreign' to their experience.
Frontline staff showed consistent motivation for their careers and the values of Plan International, and were always looking for opportunities to improve and progress.
Reflecting our values means reflecting our lives
"Reading can be boring and I don't understand it anyway."
To watch, to listen or to read?
Based on our insights, staff expressed a strong preference for videos. Repeatedly, staff saw videos as testaments and a way for the material to come alive and make sense. In the words of one Ugandan manager, "just create videos, it's easier and it's real. Documents are long and we never fully understand them."
ThinkPlace then held an ideation workshop in Kampala with members of the Plan team representing management, fieldwork, content creation. Our team needed to confront two issues: staff preference for videos and translating gender equality principles into something that actually makes sense for staff locally.
We created the prototype of "Lesson in a Box" – a short video lesson that would explain Plan's complex and culturally sensitive gender framework that could be played anywhere by anyone, which would be followed by a local facilitated discussion. The videos would be low budget, low fidelity and easy to film, with the goal of provoking discussion and imparting true learning and implementation to make a real difference in the lives of girls and women.
ThinkPlace spent three weeks in rural and urban locations in Uganda testing Lesson in a Box with field staff and managers. The enthusiasm of staff was overwhelming – we asked one gender specialist to present gender equality and transformation to her Ugandan colleagues and she came complete with props and an engaging script. Her example was shown to staff throughout Uganda and the video's dynamism, simplicity and localisation inspired staff to create their own videos to share. Most importantly, the specialist's video brought them gender equality policy down to earth and explained the concept in a way that made sense to them in their everyday work.
In order to progress from the theory of gender equality to its application in everyday work, we added a series of new videos to the Lesson in a Box concept. We asked field staff to record quick case studies showing how they implemented gender equality principles in the communities in which they work. To further broaden understanding of the importance of this work, we filmed personal reflections on how staff apply Plan's values of gender equality in their own homes and relationships.
One fieldworker offered a poignant and emotional testimony about why gender is important to him: "I am now married and have a daughter and if I also have a boy, I want them to have the same opportunities in life. I treat every woman as if they are my sister, daughter or mother."
The facilitated discussions that followed the viewing of these videos went far beyond the 30 minutes allotted, to nearly one hour. Debate flowed naturally, easily and passionately – staff spoke at length about the confusion they faced with the gender framework, how this video helped them understand it better and how they can apply it in their daily work. One participant noted how it had caused her to reflect differently on her experience saying, "The life I have here in the office is very different from the life I have in my house. Maybe we can have a day where our families come in and learn about gender equality."
Lessons at work, lessons in life: a 360° understanding of gender equality
"It's nice to see what is happening with other colleagues. We are all facing similar challenges."
After the successful testing of the Lesson in a Box prototype in Uganda, Kenya and India we are working with Plan International to further refine and broaden the videos by bringing on staff from around the globe to share their stories, experiences and reflections. The reception so far has been enthusiastic with staff from Senegal, Bolivia, Australia, Jordan, China and Kenya all contributing content on what gender means in their contexts and how it is a part of the overall strategy
As of early 2020, we are working with Plan International to fully pilot Lesson in a Box globally and strengthen their work of building a more just and equal world for girls and women.