Ten vital competencies for post-normal evaluation, Part 3

**6 min read**

One thing is certain: the proficiencies and abilities that will help us deal with the world in an era defined by the Anthropocene, the SDGs and the Fourth Industrial Revolution are quite different from those of past decades. There are many similarities between the competency frameworks that the experts in the different fields consider vital for the 21st Century. See for example the lists developed by the World Economic Forum, the Institute for the Future and a private company in South Africa.

Vital competenciesClick on the image to view a larger version.

Recently the World Economic Forum also emphasised three vital skills in this ‘age of disruption’ – in our VUCA world (characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity):

  • learning agility
  • resilience and
  • ‘grounded optimism’ (the propensity to anticipate the best possible outcome, with a healthy dose of realism and pessimism blended in with it; grounded optimists are “wired to take the positive emotion and convert that into tangible action leading to realistic solutions”).

Disruptive drivers of change

These frameworks are based on analyses of drivers that determine how our competencies should change, in particular disruptive drivers such as, for example (and I quote)

  • increasing lifespans and hence a much stronger focus on health;
  • an increase in ‘smart machines’ and automated systems that is leading to human-machine collaboration and co-dependence;
  • massive increases in sensors, communications and processing power that make available massive amounts of data, shaping the world into a ‘programmable system’ that allows for sophisticated modelling, understanding of data patterns and data-driven decision-making;
  • transformations in the way we communicate – and in the trust with which we do so – through multimedia and surveillance technologies, which allow events to be seen and recorded from multiple angles and perspectives;
  • new technologies and social media platforms that reorient how we think about and create value – including through collaboration at “extreme scales, from the micro to the massive”, requiring new social tools and technologies influenced by fields such as game design, neuroscience and happiness psychology;
  • increased global connectivity that puts diversity and adaptability at the centre of organisational operations – integrating people and business processes from the local to the global.

This list of disruptive drivers of change was made in 2011. It focused on disruptions caused by technology. They have largely increased in intensity. Now such disruptions have to be considered in the light of the transformations necessary to address the local to global challenges we will face in the next decade.

Implications for evaluation competencies for this era

Our existing frameworks and lists of evaluation competencies are generally good, and already encompass many very important skills. See for example the competency frameworks of the International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS), the American Evaluation Association (AEA), the Canadian Evaluation Society (CES) and Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZEA). These frameworks overlap to a great extent and, using a variety of terms, refer to technical, management, contextual, interpersonal and professional development domains – mostly with only slight variations in detail.

It is good that we have context-sensitive competency frameworks, although I would love to see some consolidation and consistency, given the large overlaps between them. But there is also need to do urgent updates for this era. Descriptions are often quite ‘mellow’, perhaps too conservative, as if out of touch with the dynamic world around us. For example, while there are some weak references to working with data, there is no reference at all to, say, working in a context defined by the technological disruptions highlighted earlier in this post. There are some very notable omissions, and several relate to sophisticated insights about what the (evaluation) world needs now.

For example, only the Canadian Evaluation Society (CES) competencies mention that we should consider the “well-being of human and natural systems” in evaluation practice, and acknowledge the “tensions among individual, societal, and environmental interests that may be present in a program”. Or recognise the potential positive and negative impacts of the evaluation on the natural environment, organisations and individuals. Or note that we need to report “all substantial neutral, positive and negative findings from the evaluation”.

So in summary, in line with the points made by Stowe Boyd discussed in the previous posts in this series, and also in some instances in line with the state-of-the-art Blue Marble Evaluation (BME) principles, I suggest that we consider fostering the following competencies. For the details of each of the points below, refer to my previous two posts. 

Being boundlessly curious. The CES notes that the evaluator “understands and is responsive to the social, political, and environmental context in which the evaluation will occur”. But even that is not enough, especially where the global influences the local, as BME so clearly demonstrates.

Learning fast and with an open mind. Freestyling, as noted in Part 1 in this series – across disciplines, sectors and fields of work – from the technological and other advancements that are changing the world around us, and from much greater awareness of the propaganda that constantly surrounds us.

Being prepared to lead when necessary. Now, much more than before, evaluation professionals can lead in specific instances when opportunities arise. Calls for ‘measuring (systems) change’ are all around us, but we are poorly positioned for real influence. Is it not time to change this – given the intrinsic value of evaluation?

Making assessments within constructive uncertainty. Only some groupings in the evaluation community accept that we cannot have perfect information, or absolute certainty, or no bias.

Recognising the complex ethics that define the world today. We swallow the Cool-Aid of simplistic ethical systems embedded in dominant narratives around human rights, democracy, good governance, sustainability, capitalism, how the economy works, no-one left behind, and so on. We do not deal effectively with trade-offs and some very important differences in cultural values across societies. We have much to reflect on in this regard.

Being a ‘deep generalist’. We need to understand connections and interdependence across scales and layers. We are still in our infancy in learning how to work with complex adaptive systems, and with connections beyond those that are familiar to us in narrow areas of intervention or evaluation.

Engaging with ‘implications’. We do not dwell sufficiently on the implications of interventions or, for that matter, of our evaluations and their recommendations – and especially not through the lens of the Anthropocene epoch, or with a systematic focus on negative consequences (externalities).

Focused on innovating. We should all be open to new ideas and practices that might surprise because they might come from contexts quite different to ours. And especially in the Global South we are not obliged or even encouraged to innovate for the benefit of evaluation theory or practice; we usually do not have the financial resources to do this. This situation has to change.

Systematically making sense through analysis, integration and synthesis. These three skills should all receive attention as key competencies. They don’t – certainly not in equal measure.

Integrating sustainable development in all our work. This is the most crucial, and the most neglected. Apart from CES, none of the evaluation associations/VOPEs have as yet considered the demands of the Anthropocene epoch. No-one else has emphasised the competencies essential for engaging with sustainable development.

Updating our competency frameworks with some of these aspects is likely a simple matter. More challenging – but also most exciting – will be how to implement in practice such competencies in a way that enhances our value for the world.

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Zenda
    Thank you for this and the other relevant blogs. This is most insightful and refreshing, which comes at a time when there is inertia among some evaluators, many of whom have not worked in contexts that are so unpredictable. The default of falling back on convention and process, whilst important, is also challenged. Intellectual agility, being able to justify approaches and communicate effectively is now critical. This period “brings back the people”, and hopefully with that a broader recognition that evaluation has a very important transformation and political role to play. The new ways of working by evaluators will benefit from a review to see whether they have just been technical adjustments or also shifted thinking, and emphasize that evaluators are also change agents.

    • Thanks, Indran, for these astute observations. I like your point that it will be interesting to see how evaluators change, and the nature of any change. I also wonder how many evaluation professionals see themselves as change agents. It is an important and inspiring responsibility.

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