Daniel ShaulSteve O'ConnorWelcome to ISPI’s Organizational Spotlight! This column focuses on our members–some you may know, some you may not. Each month, we will explore what brought them to ISPI, how they use the principles of human performance technology (HPT), and their insights into the value of membership. This month our interview is with Daniel Shaul, director of Training and Organizational Development, and Steve O’Connor, director of Communications, DAI.

DAI has built a diverse body of work comparable in scope and impact with any development firm in the world. But we are far from complacent. Despite our global scale, our record of success, and our deep-rooted client and partner relationships, DAI remains today what it was as a fledgling company in the 1970s: innovative, alert, self-critical, and forward-looking—consistently driven by a powerful sense of corporate purpose. For more information visit www.dai.com

Does DAI work locally? Nationally? Internationally? Globally? How does your organization approach human performance technology in each of these landscapes? Is it different? How so?

DAI currently works in more than 60 countries, providing a range of development assistance. Our mission is “to make a lasting difference in the world by helping developing nations become more prosperous, fairer and more just, cleaner, safer, healthier, more stable, more efficient, and better governed.” We work at individual, organizational, community, and national levels, and each has its own challenges related to how to improve performance. We address these challenges by assembling project teams that capitalize on local talent supplemented by knowledge of best practices from international specialists with years of experience tackling such issues in a variety of environments.

DAI provides assistance through five technical sectors–health, governance, stability, economic growth, and environment and energy–although cross-sectoral collaboration is essential, given that the underlying challenges in the developing world are typically numerous, complex, and intertwined. Our sectors approach performance problems from various angles and together develop solutions that take into consideration salient external factors (environment, culture, governance, and so on).

Internally, DAI uses performance improvement techniques continuously. The company has grown extensively over the past decade. We continually analyze our internal processes, procedures, and structure to provide individuals, departments, and the company as a whole with the best opportunity for success.

How does DAI adapt to performance improvement needs for today’s variety of generational workforces?

Internally to DAI, we have noticed some differences as a newer generation comes on board. On the one hand, the younger staff members are much more comfortable with technology and adapt quickly to new systems. On the other hand, they seem less likely to take a broad look at career development. Many younger people expect to move up quickly–more quickly than a corporation would traditionally expect. Some of this cohort will move up quickly, but many do not see the benefit of learning different aspects of the business to better position themselves for the future.

Another characteristic of the emerging generation of development professionals (who have grown up on texting and social media) is a desire for frequent communication among colleagues, which is almost always, of course, a good thing. Yet, it seems that this generation, which is accustomed to news bites, quick changes in technology, and instant access to material through the web, has less patience overall. The desire for more communication can also be seen as a lack of good problem-solving skills.

This trend has shown up mainly in one DAI department that brings on many people with one or two years of experience after college. We have had to be more explicit in setting expectations related to the work and opportunities for advancement. These issues are now addressed even as early as the interview phase to ensure that, as the new staff move along the hiring process and into their positions, they are receiving positive messages about the opportunities in the company but also realistic time frames for advancement.

How do you use social media in your work? As a resource? As a solution?

Social media play an increasingly important role in our work, both in terms of facilitating DAI’s own operations, marketing our services, and engaging in the conversation of development–through our Twitter feed @daiglobal, for example–and in the content of our assistance programs in the field.

Much of what we do involves connecting people to one another, to ideas, and to information. Information, in turn, empowers the people of developing nations to make better-informed decisions for themselves and their families, for their communities, and ultimately for their countries.

Through the Haiti Recovery Initiative, for example, DAI provided assistance to government ministries in the wake of the earthquake, including elections assistance. National identity and election cards had been lost, homes and polling stations disappeared, and more than 1 million people were displaced. Confusion abounded: People simply did not know what to do to be able to participate in their democracy. DAI established a voter information call center that received hundreds of thousands of calls–providing Haitians with the vital information that enabled them to participate in the democratic process.

Collaboration is critical for our projects, and social media help us collaborate in new and more effective ways. In Indonesia, for example, we used Facebook to connect interns around common challenges, enabling them to create their own content and share it with their peers. Through sites like YouTube, program achievements can be brought to life for stakeholders: Whether we are implementing a project in Haiti or Afghanistan, people can see through the power of video what is actually happening on the ground.

Where infrastructure remains a challenge, mobile phones are filling the gap and allowing previously isolated people to engage with information. In Afghanistan, for example, we implemented an SMS-based market information system through which farmers receive text messages that list price information for their crops. In Serbia, we employed SMS tools to advance the disaster management capacity of local disaster management centers. The SMS system provides disaster alerts and claims feedback and enables cost-effective coordination of management meetings and assistance efforts. In Pakistan, we used the free text messaging platform FrontlineSMS to connect with citizens and inform them of activities undertaken by the government of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This was done in collaboration with a radio program focused on raising awareness in the FATA community on education, health, and religious issues. SMS was used to promote the radio program, whose host addressed audience questions sent in via SMS.

Geographic information systems (GIS) have also had a big impact here at DAI, bringing a visual dimension to our work that improves decision making and enhances our communication with clients and with communities on the ground. Our GIS team has used geospatial planning tools in a host of applications, from facilitating community-based land-use planning in Malawi to mapping the availability of financial services in Haiti and responding to infectious disease outbreaks in Indonesia. An article in our publication Developing Alternatives described how geospatial technologies and social networking are converging in ways that offer new opportunities for development professionals (http://www.dai.com/pdf/developing_alternatives/DevelopingAlternativesFall_2008_web.pdf).

What is your favorite CPT-HPT story?

We would be remiss to name one favorite story. DAI has grown from three people to more than 2,000 in its 41 years. Internally, there have been many, many performance improvement initiatives. DAI has worked in more than 150 countries on projects that range from improving access to clean water, assisting government ministries to improve their systems, partnering with governments to write child-labor laws, conducting behavior change initiatives for HIV and the “bird flu,” helping communities regain their footing after a conflict–the list goes on and on. All of these projects include some aspect of performance improvement.

What excites you about ISPI’s work?

DAI and its employee-owners belong to numerous associations and professional organizations. Because we work in very diverse technical fields–from agriculture to rule of law to banking–it is important that we stay on top of current research in all our areas. We encourage our employees to stay abreast of best practices and many have presented our current work at conferences. While we are new to ISPI as corporate members, we are excited to provide ISPI as a resource to our employees as they focus on improving performance in our overseas work and internally within DAI.

What types of learning or performance improvement opportunities does DAI offer its employees? Its clients?

At DAI, development is our business. We focus on international development and, thus, put a priority on the development of our employees. At the individual level, all employees have access to performance development funds and tuition reimbursement. DAI also offers a host of online and instructor-led courses on topics ranging from business development to financial management to leadership and management.

Once a month, a “technical” brown bag is offered where one of our sectors’ employees delivers a talk on work he or she is doing overseas or on a new tool or methodology he or she may have developed. Many other brown bags are offered as employees from our overseas projects pass through the Bethesda office.

At the corporate level, we have instituted a talent management program. DAI must continually develop internal leaders, positioning them to grow and lead the company in years to come. Part of this program involves identifying candidates and giving them assignments to develop specific competencies and broaden their experience.

We also focus on performance at the team, unit, and department levels. We run leadership assimilations aimed at facilitating the entry of new leaders. Retreats provide time for strategic planning, team building, or addressing specific performance issues–such as clarifying roles and responsibilities or decision making. We also help plan and facilitate organizational changes, no matter the size of the change.

DAI at times has brought in outside firms to deliver training or run a certification program such as the ISPI CPT Workshop.

How has DAI’s approach(es) to performance improvement changed over time?

DAI attempts to take the lessons learned from projects overseas and make them available to others within the company and within the development community. Additionally, we hire highly talented staff who have added their experience and knowledge on improving our performance internally and as we help clients. Given this push to learn from experience and to bring in fresh talent, we continue to improve how we go about our work in building capacity through our international projects.

What has your organization learned from the recent economic slowdown?

Although DAI has been fortunate in many ways in the recent years, the company stays abreast of how the slowdown is affecting our clients. Because the U.S. government is one of our largest clients, we have staff dedicated to following the U.S. budget process as well engaging various agencies to understand their shifting priorities. Given the breadth of the impact and almost daily news reports on various countries’ economic stability and changing markets, DAI tries to maintain a focus that balances current realities with long-term strategy.

What interesting things does DAI do to manage and develop its human capital?

DAI has always offered many opportunities for employees. We have employees who have worked here from 15 to 25 years and have worked in five or more totally different functional areas. We pride ourselves on being an employee-owned company and one that wants to develop and retain top talent. Beyond the learning opportunities mentioned in the response above, DAI is capitalizing on our new five-year strategy. This strategy will require many new skills and provide many opportunities to take on challenges. As we implement our strategy, we will use the talent management program to identify high-potential people who could benefit from being assigned to an activity specifically focused on the strategy.

One of our most popular activities in terms of developing human capital is our biennial All-Staff Conference. This conference has grown in scope and popularity over the past decade. Our most recent conference here in Bethesda lasted five days, with employees attending from all over the globe. The conference included numerous educational sessions related to our technical areas, presentations on current projects, panel discussions, and training that often are difficult to provide to employees who are in remote locations. To supplement the biennial conference, we bring employees from our overseas projects back to our Bethesda office to present on topics internally, meet with clients, or for training and their personal development. Conversely, for our Bethesda-based employees we will send them overseas to get a better understanding of our work in the field, which translates into them providing better support given perspectives gained during their trip. Assignments might also be stretch goal opportunities that are part of an employee’s long-term professional growth.

How does human performance technology add value to DAI? How do you measure its worth and value?

Internally, DAI continuously applies human performance technology to improve how we operate our business. Our internal efforts are assessed throughout design, development, and implementation. That consistent evaluation allows us to change course when we do not see the impact we desired.

Externally, improving performance is central to our implementation of projects across the globe. Whether working with large organizations, communities, teams, or individuals, we maintain the focus on the human interaction to ensure that we are having lasting impact. One of our goals is to always build local capacity–we want to assist people in addressing current issues and but also enable them to identify and address issues as they arise in the future.

All of our projects have performance monitoring plans and track a variety of data points to assess impact and value. Our client will also assess our work and, at times, hire a third party to conduct an evaluation. Projects often have immediate impact. However, long-term impact can be difficult to determine because the projects often take place within extremely complex socioeconomic, governmental, and regional environments that contain multiple forces. Therefore, the definition of value must be viewed from multiple angles and levels. It also might be measured in increments or might be ephemeral. DAI considers all of those factors and, in our 40-year history, has always considered the human element in our approach and how value is seen by the ultimate beneficiaries of our work.