Everyone’s office is someone else’s field

I’m back in Nairobi and catching my breath this weekend. For the past three weeks, I’ve been visiting our regional offices throughout Kenya. My travels took me from the border with Uganda to the coast of the Indian Ocean, and from those regional offices I’ve traveled to a few of the surrounding areas. The standard way to refer to such visits is that I was “in the field” or doing “fieldwork”. This framing has connections to academics (such as anthropologists or development economists) but it’s used by development practitioners as well, and indeed many professionals in a variety of industries.

As a few bloggers have discussed, a reference to “the field” often carries connotations of exotic other-ness. It suggests hardship, risk of disease, bad roads — all of which prove you’ve got the stuff and must really be needed there. Using this framing highlights and exaggerates the idea that you’re travelling outside your comfort zone, into the unknown. What does that say about the people who live and work there full-time? Are they somehow less civilized? Such connotations make some people wary about using this language.

The connotations of hardship are also misleading, as Alanna Shaikh has discussed. Pictured at right: a hotel near Mombasa, where I spent an hour working on spreadsheets next to the beach. Hardship? Hardly.

It’s all a matter of perspective

Leaving aside the question of other-ness, I try to avoid thinking in terms of “the field” for a different reason: this framing is horribly imprecise, mostly because it’s always relative. When I visit our regional offices, that’s the field to me but not to our regional managers. When we then travel from the regional office out to surrounding communities, that’s the field for the regional manager but not for their staff who work in those communities. Some of those staff have no offices, so all their work is fieldwork! And of course, our office in Nairobi often has visitors from the US headquarters. My office is their field.

Not only is “the field” defined by where we sit, but how we approach the field is a reflection of our own professional perspective. If we show up in someone else’s office, then the set of assumptions we bring with us will determine how we interact with those we meet. Do we assume that they are mere implementers of the plans written above their heads? Or that they are the ones making the real impact, whose direct knowledge of the context and the program need to be supported by those at the “higher” levels?

Structures, policies and (de)centralization are important…

The last few weeks got me thinking about how the relativism of “the field” relates to the level of (de)centralization in our organizations. Each of our “fields” is basically the next layer of the organization. How we manage the relationships between those layers is critical to how our organizations function. Manage the relationships well, and you get more efficient operations that leverage knowledge from a variety of sources. Manage the relationships poorly, and you get turf wars, wasted resources, and distrust between people who should be working toward the same goal. Every organization with multiple offices — whether an NGO, a corporation, or a government — has to deal with this issue through its policies and structures.

Sometimes these policies are completely asinine, but persist due to the internal politics. Many years ago I worked for a DC-based advocacy organization that operated at the federal, state and local levels. Our primary funders were individual small donors, who originally gave money through the mail and more recently give online. Rather than maximizing revenue and then distributing resources through an internal budgeting process, the organization had created a system of fundraising “windows”: the national office could send fundraising requests for half the year, and the state offices sent them during the other half. The result? Lack of unified messaging to donors, lower overall revenue, and constant animosity between the staff at the national and state levels. Yet changes were impossible. No one would risk losing the little piece of the little pie they had.

(As an aside: Governments deal with essentially the same question when allocating revenue sources. Economic efficiency and political accountability might suggest that property taxes should be local, while income taxes should be national. However the reality in each country is that policies arise from a complex history of political bargaining between interest groups.)

I’ve seen other organizations deal with the layers in more productive ways than that. Often it involves some sort of matrix structure: perhaps reporting lines based on geography (i.e. international HQ > country > sub-national region, etc.) supported by issue-focused experts and administrative staff who work across countries. Maybe within the country office, reporting is done by program rather than geography. These can be balanced in various ways, perhaps with more or less autonomy for country offices. Many forms are possible.

… but it’s all about people …

So if we think about “the field” as the next layer in the organization, and we have policies and structures in place to manage the relationships between the layers, then how do those policies and structures actually manifest themselves?

Ultimately their success or failure hinges on the people who implement them and the relationships those people have with one another. Policies might call for capturing “lessons learned” after a program ends, but it’s useless if the people involved don’t take the exercise seriously. Structures might define reporting lines, but they can’t dictate how a manager works with her staff. If HQ views “the field” as lacking capacity, or the country office views HQ as meddlesome and bossy, then the specifics of the policies don’t matter as much. Policies that dictate what we must do have a harder time prescribing how we do it. And of course, the how of it matters.

This is why HR and recruiting are the most valuable (but often grossly undervalued) functions in any organization. Your organization is your people, nothing more and nothing less. I’ve been lucky enough to find an organization that has good people and manages the relationships between the layers well. Many other organizations (including some of my past employers, like the one discussed above) don’t pull this off.

… and their relationships

Finally, this emphasis on people and relationships should make it clear why visits to “the field” are so critical. Sure, you might need to actually go do work there or at least see what’s happening on the ground. But just as importantly, you need to build relationships with people in “the field”. Visit their offices, have a late dinner after you finish work, chat about anything and nothing. Your ability to communicate and support one another through email or phone exchanges will be a hundred times easier after you’ve met in person.

These personal relationships will always be more important than organizational policies. They’re worth investing in. Regardless of what you call it — “fieldwork” or being “on the road” or “site visits” or whatever — just get out there.