Filed under: Development Development 2.0 Social innovation

Development practitioners: Maybe not who you think.

I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation recently by Harvard Business School professor Carliss Baldwin, who introduced me to the concept of “non-contractible effort” – the value-creating people (and actions) that an organization will never be able to (formally) hire.

The concept was originally developed in the context of intellectual property rights debates, but I think it also has some broader organizational implications.

As Professor Baldwin put it, “not all smart people work for you” and yet the success of an organization that wants to innovate (in a world of market-facing innovation labs) might well depend on finding ways to identify this distributed, non-contractible “research and development” talent and find meaningful ways to cooperate with it.

This is no minor challenge for institutions (like traditional development organizations and partners) that are still coming to terms with the new reality that “the best knowledge is outside” their walls. It’s all the more difficult because:

  1. You often don’t know where the “smart people” are (hence initiatives as diverse as the Council of Europe’s Edgeryders or Kickstarter’s Misfit Economy, the Making do research in Kenya or the Innovation Walks by the Malaysian Innovation Foundation that try and identify these potential sources of innovation).
  1. You don’t know how good these people are (arguably, much of the current interest in the reputation economy stems from a desire to reduce the risks of entering into some form of collaboration with non-contractible, “unknown” entities).
  1. Perhaps most importantly (and this is where Professor Baldwin hit home for me), many of these people will never want to work for you because they find your organization:

a) too boring

b) too callous

c) too unrewarding or

d) too irrelevant (or a combination of all of the above!)

Aren’t the various forms of “new citizens” movements and social innovation assemblages – from hackathons to startup weekends, from crisismappers to restart/reboot events – all examples of “non-contractible,” talented people self-organizing because they find it difficult to imagine their skills being put to use in a “traditional” nonprofit or development organization?

For these reasons, non-contractible efforts, Professor Baldwin said, are “the dark matter of the economy.” Increasingly, development organizations will need to tap into this “dark matter” and ask themselves: How can we effectively collaborate with those who will never work for us? A few options come to mind:

Development organizations need to build staff competencies to enter the public idea marketplace and “work with the people they don’t know” (while much traditional knowledge management efforts have focused on collaborating with those you know).

For instance, writing a blog post is a way to unleash what Euan Semple calls “the evolutionary force of the web”: if your ideas are good and interesting, they will attract attention and, in the long run, you can become a magnet for “non-contractible” effort (luckily, we have a few examples of this happening on this very blog).

If, on the other hand, the ideas are stale or not well researched, the reaction is going to be, at best, silence or, at worst, public embarrassment (my fingers are trembling as I am writing this!).

  • Creating new interfaces and new procurement/partnership arrangements: even if the “non-contractible” workforce is willing to engage with traditional development organizations, they may be reluctant to enter into a formal relationship or, in my experience, they might, quite simply, find it difficult to identify who to talk to within big bureaucracies.

The often maligned proliferation of innovation units in the development sector is perhaps a symptom that this problem has been recognized and these units have the time, mandate and, sometimes, operational freedom to develop new forms of partnerships with fluid volunteer forces (full disclaimer: I head one such unit!).

It is great, just to quote a few examples, to see UN-OCHA collaborating with the crisismappers community, Transparency International  partnering with Random Hacks of Kindness on an anticorruption hackathon or, closer to home, UNICEF establishing an Innovation Lab in Kosovo* with the deliberate aim (although more accessibly phrased!) to attract non-contractible efforts for the development of the country.

No doubt more collaboration models will emerge in the future which will stretch the boundaries of current organizational setup and procedures.

  • Finally, it seems to me that recruitment and, more broadly, human resources processes will need to be adjusted so as to possibly rethink what an “employee” is, but also, for instance, to probe for staff access to networks of “non-contractible” resources. If development organizations want to embrace flexibility and “agile” thinking in the face of increasing complexity, they will have to require their staff to have the skills and networks to tap into the “dark matter” of the economy.

Overall, the notion of “non-contractible effort” seems to me like a useful shorthand to summarize many of the changes we are witnessing in the development 2.0 world. Would you agree?

*Referred to in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244/1999

  • Very good post indeed! I would add an item 4, which applies to corporates like UNDP or the Council of Europe more than non profits: some people are non-hirable. You would need to override public competitions based on qualification and just trust the college dropout guy or woman that has been consistently contributing great ideas to your effort and building the team.

    Another point is that, for organizations, having the administrative agility to write very small contracts (1-5K euro) is a great way to get closer to the non-contractible people. It is a way to give back, to encourage the person to scale up her effort on her own terms, without necessarily needing a desk and a badge. Given time, you could even turn a non-contractible person into a “selectively contractible” one!

  • Michael

    Great post – Another interesting framing of this same point is Clay Shirky’s Ted video ‘Institutions Vs. Collaboration’

    Makes a lot of the same points, definitely worth checking out.

  • Petros At Freelab

    This is very interesting. What we in FreeLab try to make is that kind of non-hirable R&D activity. And it goes perhaps a bit further than the article says. Due to various reasons we explore the gift economy possibilities. For now it works, and this year we are going to see if we can achieve stabilization for our longer term projects this way.

    • giulio

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Where can I read more about the FreeLab?