Posted 1 October, 2012 by Alix Dunn

We Dramatically Grew the Size of Our Distributed Team and Survived: What Were Our 5 Main Takeaways?

In the course of the last year, the engine room has started four major projects and our core team of three has contracted 8 field researchers, 4 translators, two academic methods experts, one project manager, two designers, one webmaster, and one developer. As we grow the size of our projects, these numbers will also grow, and so will the processes of hiring, contracting, training, managing, motivating, monitoring, and engaging.

We have been really fortunate to assemble a solid team over the last few months, and while a lot of that has been luck, some of it has involved trial, error, irritation, and iteration. In this post, we’ll outline the process of engaging with a team of localized field researchers for the TechScape project.

Why local field researchers?

Several times over the past few months, (while digging through piles of applications, translating CVs, and scheduling interviews over bad internet connections) we have asked ourselves this question. But in these moments of logistical and administrative frustration, we have again and again reaffirmed our decision to hire local.

Local field researchers paid at international rates CAN produce incredible data. No international research consultant travelling between countries and plying locals with questions via a translator (something I have done before, and found to be akin to interviewing someone under water) can collect better data than an effective local researcher who shares the context and the language of respondents. This added value of hiring local kept us motivated when we hit stumbling blocks trying to coordinate hiring processes across 7 countries.

What kind of obstacles did we face? This post outlines some of them lays out five major takeaways that will inform how we implement the next iteration of TechScape.

1. Language
Several of the field researchers we hired were excellent candidates, but their English skills were basic. One thing that helped considerably was hiring a field research leader with exceptional language skills. Our field research leader, Marc Michael, is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. His language skills have been a huge help in ad hoc translations, interviews, trainings, and communication with field researchers that would have either taken us significantly more time to carry out, or, more likely, would have resulted in us selecting other, less qualified, candidates.

2. Resumes and Cover Letters
For all other positions we have hired for, requesting a CV and a cover letter has been an effective way to suss out skills and determine who we wanted to talk more with about a given position. However, for the field researcher application process, which took place across 7 countries, with 5 different primary languages, the variation in formatting of CVs and applications made cursory comparisons and filtering impossible. We will need to find a solution to this loud application process. One idea to test is to set up an online application form that asks explicit questions about research experience and formats drop down menus for information with a discreet option set (like education background, language skills, etc.) This idea – if it doesn’t hog bandwidth and unnecessarily weed out solid candidates because of latency and/or bandwidth issues – could cut down on the time required for application processing.

3. Connectivity
An obvious challenge that has surfaced is the inconsistency of internet connectivity in a lot of the countries we are working in. There were times when we spent hours trying to connect with someone for an interview, only to discover that they were not viable candidates for the position. Allowing for long mobile phone calls over Skype when necessary has saved us considerable headache. Next time we will make sure to budget for it – these minutes can add up quickly.

4. Local Travel
Where domestic travel is easy and convenient, it is likely expensive, so field researchers travelling domestically to interview organizations is always expensive in terms of either time or money. When travel is too expensive we originally planned to hire another field researcher that was closer to that area. This idea quickly gave way to carrying out phone interviews between field researchers and organizations, but a phone interview can’t generate data as rich as a face-to-face interview. Balancing the desire for the richest data available and feasible tasks for field researchers is something we are still struggling with. If you have any feedback on how to mitigate the cost of local travel or have tips on how to get the most out of phone interviews, please be in touch.

5. Data Management
At the onset of this project, we took time to meet with the staff at Global Integrity – we wanted to emulate their model of distributed field research and the Indaba platform seemed like the perfect tool for managing our distributed team. We weren’t able to make it work in the end. Finalizing the assessment instrument turned out to be vastly more demanding than we anticipated, and we had data coming in before we were even able to upload all the questions.

This meant some creative excel hacks for collecting, managing and processing multiple data streams, which is working well enough.  But we missed the boat for using the Indaba system to manage hiring, training and interview processes for field researchers (the platform’s key strength). With a new version of Indaba coming out this fall, we decided to wait and take what we learn from this first round of manual management, to a full-fledged Indaba install with a refined instrument in our next pilot. If we had to do it all over again, we would have known up front how much time it takes to develop, validate, test, refine and translate an interview based-assessment methodology. But more on that soon.

We have worked to turn all of the logistical frustration and delays from this first pilot of TechScape into informative lessons. This process will help us to (more) smoothly grow our distributed team of field researchers as the TechScape pilot scales.

For more about the TechScape pilot –  conducted in partnership with the Oxfam Novib network – and the broader project visit the project page here.

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