Saturday, 16 February 2013

Unwritten challanges in Mobile-4D projects, Why?

Mobile technology for development! Yes, we all try to taste the success of mobile: mobile applications for fund transfers in micro-insurance, introducing smart cards for health care, mobile apps for agricultural trading, and so on. We also note and quote the challenges when it comes to engaging the mass participation of the intended rural beneficiaries. We recently studied closely 10 selected projects, representing East Africa, East Asia and South Asia, to clarify the nature of these challenges. Our study shows that the three most common factors contributing to tensions, and often unwritten failures, were found to be:

  1. Tension between IT solution providers and project owners;
  2. Blind spots in the innovation process;
  3. Failure to introduce change management models for field staff.

Let’s look at the reality of these challenges in a bit more detail.

1. Tension between IT solution providers and project owners.

  •  Mobile 4D projects inherently require involvement of ICT solution providers (e.g. software developers). Communication between these partners is often fraught with difficulties: differences in jargon, differences in understanding, and therefore misinterpretations. More often than not the consequences of this damage the project not at the project inception, but in the middle stages.
  • One project in East Africa developed a mobile application for agricultural trading. The mobile solution won an international award for its uniqueness. However, two years later, external evaluaters have reported that the intended end users - rural farmers - are not using the product. Project managers reported a list of complaints  that are related to software bugs, interface problems, and inappropriate back end analytics. The software company pointed out that they delivered what was defined as the user requirements in the original contract they entered into.
  • Clearly defined 'user requirements' is a primary need for an appropriate software solution. Software developers define software architecture, choose platforms, and carry out coding according to the pre-identified user requirements. In contrast, development sector organisations are not familiar with defining these technical requirements, hence communication and understanding can fail. Software developers, amid this ambiguity, are  often working with ill-defined user requirements, resulting in IT solutions that are often inappropriate for the development context of poverty.
Lesson to learn: Consider user requirement definition as a critical phase of the project and carry out iterative exercises. Or else consider Agile Development models.

2. Blind spots in the innovation process

  • Innovation is an inspiring element of mobile4D projects. Most projects demonstrate innovation in product development, yet there are often blind-spots in process innovation - where the focus shifts to the delivery chain. In one micro-finance project in East Asia, project managers designed a mobile solution to improve the delivery efficiency. Field officers were given the required training. But they frequently found reasons not to use the new mobile solution. Innovation was targeted at substituting paper-based data collection with a mobile solution. But it failed to factor in the social and human relationships that the field worker had developed with end users over a long period – which were predominantly the set of parameters that balanced the equation for the successful delivery of project tasks.
Lesson to learn: consider social innovation as an integral part of product innovation in the ICT4D context.
Additional reading in Rediscovering Social Innovation at Stanford Review.

3. Failure to introduce change management models for field staff.

  •  Development sector field officers operate over dispersed geographies, often leaving them very stretched. The passion to integrate with poor communities often drives their adrenaline more than the willingness to do SMS, Tweeting and Facebook messaging. Most of their lifelong training is aimed at motivating poor communities through traditional models (eg. participatory methodologies), which are phased with a slow moving local context. Mobile4D products often fail to fit into this context, partly because the majority of the community (those other than youth) are not ready to run with the fast track character of the digital age. Hence the development worker equipped with new mobile4D products finds it hard to balance this new set of demands.
  • One project in South Asia made an effort to introduce Smart Cards and hand held devices to improve the efficiency of micro-insurance delivery. Field workers were given advance training on how to handle the devices. Promotion materials were designed to introduce the Smart Card solution to the end users - the rural poor communities. Field workers ended up with a continuous battle of switching between their traditional style of interaction and the new ones dictated by the new technology. As a result the project faced endless tensions between the project managers and field staff.
Lesson to learn: A  change management model should be introduced, and sustained.  Focus on the early adopter community first, and display benefits through them which can then be introduced to others.

Blog by: Harsha Liyanage, Masum Billah and Philip Edge.


  1. Great insights, Harsha and all. I agree that the challenges you outline are very real and valid ones in m4D projects around the world.

    I'd love to respond to them with respect to the work we're doing at Commons11 ( In fact, that's exactly why Melanie and I are proponents of agile/ iteration throughout the application development process (challenge #1). In general, small, short failures need to be made more 'acceptable' in international development projects, rather than pushing a project forward that is clearly not working due to pre-meditated decisions. Organizations need to incorporate this kind of agile framework into their project work, such as by committing to working in specific communities on small projects in an iterative way.

    We also focus on asking the right questions to ensure that a project answers the root cause or need, rather than treating a symptom of the problem with a technology solution when it is not always necessary (challenge #2). Good, in-depth research to understand the context is key to make sure that there are no blind spots in the innovation process.

    By working together with local community members, field workers, and all relevant 'stakeholders', people work together to design a solution that makes sense (challenge #3). This way, a technology solution is not implemented in a top-down manner, but rather designed and implemented in a way that makes the most sense for the final user (whose views and perspectives are often left out, even in "participatory" projects). Designing a solution together with the end user (often people who are early adopters), testing it, and then scaling makes a lot of sense.

    The more we create dialogue around these issues, the more we can ensure that mobile projects become used as effective tools, rather than as ends in of themselves. Let's keep talking!

  2. Thanks for sharing. Mobile consulting is more important now than ever.



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We are consultants for European organisations working in international development. Specialized in Innovation - Economic Sustainability - Social Impact Assessment in ICT4D and Mobile for Development (M4D) sectors. We have 20 + years of experiences and our clients include UN Agencies, EU, IDRC.

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