Capacity Building - Part II

Capacity Building - Part II

Activation energy & where to put it

What I learned about:
  • The differences between capacity building and training
  • Where more emphasis could be put in order to get more out of capacity building activities.
Note: written from a non-profit training context & based off experience training organisations to effectively use technology in their work.

So, you have just got funding approved for a capacity-building project. Yey! Let’s get training then… right?

The impact staircase

I quite often find people asking me very practical and useful questions about training, based on my experience with School of Data

  • “What is the maximum number of participants you would advise for this training format?”
  • “Which format should I pick for my workshop?”
  • “How long should I plan to cover topic X?”

Very few people ask me:

“Should this even be a training session, or something else entirely?”

Training is the most obvious of activities related to capacity building but seldom the only thing required for a successful capacity-building initiative.

With the help of my glamorous assistant - I will show you how I think about this: steps

Batman image credits: Marie Eglatine

The steps outline three phases:

  1. Inspiration phase - getting people excited and wanting to learn about a new topic
  2. Training phase - giving people the skills to be able to do the things that they were excited about
  3. Routine phase - ensuring that the person you have just trained has maximum chance to use those newly-learned skills to improve their work

On the Routine phase

The routine phase is where you really get stuff to stick. Where stuff becomes habit or process.

When getting feedback for this post, I realised there were essentially two sides to this:

  • Organisational / Structural Change - Does the organisation recognise how to use the newfound skills this staff member has? How do you make sure you keep that talent in the org? Can you find a way that type of skillset self-propogates within the organisation so that you as a trainer can make yourself redundant?
  • Behavioural change - Particularly important for skills which alter an existing practice rather than teach a brand new skill - how do you ensure that people do not fall back into old, bad habits? This is particularly a risk when thinking of training which has a risk / security component to it.

What types of activities fit into each step?

The list is endless - but here’s a quick list of things which I’ve tried for each step.

Stage Activities
Inspiration Talks / Taster workshops, Case studies and examples from other organisations, Career talks (example: many people do not know that Data Journalist / Data wrangler is a career)
Training Mentoring, Workshops, Book recommendations, Self instructed courses
Routine phase Org change: Hiring support for roles to complement existing staff, Reviews of organisational processes to support existing skills, Awareness raising across organisation of how to access these skills. Behavioural change: Peer support and connection with those going through similar challenges. Ongoing checkins. Community building and experience shares.

Steps in isolation

What happens if we try to do one of these steps without the others?

Inspiration Training Routine Phase Outcome
Yes No No Hype. Frustration.
No Yes No Unsure of how to use skills to affect work
No No Yes Unsettled staff, unsure where they fit into a new process / with new staff roles


Each step requires an additional injection of energy and all are usually necessary.

In my experience, the training is the easy part! However, it’s the step on the staircase into which most of the effort is often invested. This may be because interventions are more obvious and concrete here (also: fun).

The third step is by far the most difficult, time-consuming and neglected.

In short: take time to understand where those with whom you are working are on the maturity arc, what they need and in which context they are operating.

This post was first explored at an experience-exchange workshop for open government trainers with Open Knowledge.

Further reading


Special thanks to Mariel García M, Zara Rahman, Maya Indira Ganesh and Dirk Slater for their amazing input as ever!

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