Here is my contribution on working remotely in the last issue of ODEye, the internal newsletter of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
Far away, but still so close (with a little help from IT and PRINCE2)
The Wim Wenders movie Der Himmel über Berlin is– the story of two angels who comfort mortals, but cannot be seen by them. Images from that movie came to mind when I was asked to contribute to ODEye and share thoughts on my work in RAPID and on the fact that I live overseas with my family, in Ha Noi for the last two years and soon in the Philippines. In one sequence, angels wander among the readers in a library, ‘hearing’ the minds of the people reading, but unable to speak to them or be seen. They are very close, but also very far away. I find it similar to my work with RAPID: I am a long way from my colleagues (seven hours ahead of GMT and 9.600 km from London), but feel quite close to them, thanks to the communication possibilities provided by our IT system, and the management processes that we are developing.
I joined RAPID in June 2008 after working with UNDP in Ha Noi , researching the 20 years of the Doi Moi reform. Before that, I had finalised my PhD and worked on civil society and local governance issues in GTZ projects in rural Cambodia. During my first six months at ODI, there have been two possible destinations for my relocation: Europe and Asia. The first never materialised because of the difficulties in finding relevant employment opportunities for my wife, Katja, who has now found a position in the Philippines. So I will manage my work for RAPID from there. One point from RAPID’s five year strategy grabbed my attention in summer 2008: the medium term goal of having RAPID staff relocated or seconded in the South and have staff from Southern institutes working in London I interpret ODI’s acceptance of my life overseas as a step towards that goal.
I am managing two main projects. First, a three year project funded by UNDP, providing support to evidence based policy development at the Vietnam Academy of Social Science (VASS). I am also facilitating the attempt to establish a South East Asia evidence-based policy in development network (ebpdn), as well as providing support to the existing South Asia network.
In my opinion, two elements are required to close the distance between Asia and London and allow good communication between myself and the team as well as the smooth running of projects where team members are based in different parts of the world.
First, a good IT infrastructure. Despite the effort required to learn to use and tailor SharePoint, I think it is a very useful tools. It always amazes me being, as I am now, at the Highland Coffee bar in Ha Noi typing these words, and being able to access my emails, upload and share files in the server in London. It is because of our IT infrastructure that, for example, I have been able to work with RAPID colleagues to coordinate a three day training session at ODI in London for economists from the Middle East and North Africa. In doing so, I have been able to exchange documents to describe roles, tasks and deadlines, discuss them through Messenger and organise Skype calls that often take place late in the evening for me, but reduces the number of short messages and emails back and forth.
Second, a structured management system that defines roles and responsibilities for project governance. I have been working with PRINCE2 for the last two years with UNDP, based on two main principles: product-based planning and regular reviews of project performance and product delivery. All UNDP staff must complete an official test and become certified in PRINCE2.
I remember looking at the boxes, arrows and lists in the manual and thinking: ‘Oh no, more bureaucracy!’, but my experience with PRINCE2 is now proving useful in my work with RAPID. For example, every week I prepare a highlight report for John Young, my Director and line manager, with a bullet list of the week’s activities and any comments or concerns. Every fortnight, I speak to John on Skype, using this report as an agenda. Another example concerns the governance of projects that involve a number of team members, as in my work with VASS. I have prepared a plan based on deliverables and products for the three years with inputs by team members so that they can plan ahead for missions to Ha Noi or home-based work. I have divided the project into six main activities and am preparing work packages for each to describe background, objective, products to be delivered (e.g. working paper or a training), and roles of team members. The aim is a standard approach to help all team members stay up to date with the project progress, and allow them to take up management responsibilities without too much effort.
None of this would be possible without ODI’s understanding of my family situation. I am close to my family and able to foster closer cooperation with partners in the region, reducing the time and cost of travel. However, I cannot access all the learning opportunities provided by ODI and I have fewer opportunities to get to know colleagues from other research groups. Nonetheless, I hope that the benefits of this experiment will outweigh the costs and that my colleagues will feel, with a bit of help from IT and PRINCE2, that I am even closer than an angel in a library.