For the Sake of Learning: Building a Community Around MSD for Employment
The blog highlights the critically important learning function that in many parts of international development are quite weak. The blog provides an example of how practitioners in the area of employment and labor markets have realized the importance of learning and sharing across projects, countries, donors, etc. to accelerate the learning related to complex labor related challenges. While the blog does not focus on the importance of taking systems lenses, it is useful to note that systems thinking is a foundational element of the community of practice. It is also useful to note that there are inbuilt incentives to write about successes, which tends to bound the any written sources in ways that limits learning and thinking, especially from a systems thinking perspective. As a result, it is especially important to have platforms like CoP to have discussions that can more effectively interrogate trade-offs, considerations, and context specific factors that are critical to determining what lessons/learning are transferable.
Our collective knowledge should be seen as a public good – it helps us all to deliver work that is higher-quality, better connected, and more impactful. Treating knowledge like proprietary intellectual property risks holding back innovation and hindering collective progress. This is particularly true when applying MSD in new or less familiar fields.
For years, projects have been putting the MSD approach into practice outside of its familiar stomping ground of agricultural programming. Whilst the application of MSD for various employment-related purposes (job creation, labour market intermediation, and skills development) is relatively new, interventions from projects in this space span an increasing diversity of sectors, employment types, formality, and target groups. Those using the approach in new ways, however, sometimes struggle from having fewer examples to draw upon.
At the same time, the sector struggles with information overload and limited bandwidth for reading in depth case studies and reports. When an approach like MSD proliferates and spreads to new contexts, it can be hard for practitioners to keep on top of it all. Not to mention organizational incentives that encourage thought leadership more than thought followership. We all benefit from time with our heads up, interacting with colleagues, not just heads down in another dense PDF.
Responding to both of these problems, a group of practitioners has initiated the MSD for Employment Community of Practice (MSD4E-CoP). The MSD4E-CoP is a grassroots initiative built and run on the voluntary commitments of its members: no one has asked us to do it; we want to be here! We invite both active and reluctant writers and readers among us to join!
Since its launch in May 2023, the MSD4E-CoP has engaged nearly 100 practitioners of all stripes. More recently, the community held its second virtual meeting in September, bringing together a global group of implementers, project staff, consultants, and funders from over 25 organisations. This session was a technical ‘deep dive’, focusing on labour market matching models being applied across projects, including digital job matching platforms in Ethiopia and Kosovo, and temporary worker intermediaries in Honduras. These live sessions bring the CoP to life and set the stage for many other benefits for members. These include:
Space for participants to influence what we discuss, explore, and collaborate on. Learning should be demand-driven, so knowledge products respond to real needs.
Joint products to lower transaction costs, making it easier for practitioners to find out what is going on.
By curating and synthesizing others’ resources and sharing them through a newsletter, it’s easier to keep up with the field and prioritize what to read.
Focus on application in project design and delivery. Members who share bring their tacit knowledge to life in a dynamic way, and others can go straight to the source – gaining immediate answers while building relationships.
A bridge between different groups of experts, including skills development, labour market and MSD specialists. Inter-disciplinary learning helps overcome blind spots.
A sense of community, particularly for field projects. The CoP shows people they’re part of a larger cross-organisational, cross-funder global mission. This can validate frustrations and inspire optimism in the face of intense challenges.
The CoP is also producing joint knowledge resources with in-depth inputs from its members. The first co-produced resource is the upcoming global assessment of the MSD4E landscape, which is financed by Mercy Corps, ILO and Swisscontact and will profile over 50 current and recent MSD4E interventions to showcase the diversity of activity. Readers will be able to zoom in on specific examples and zoom out to see trends and broader lessons across common intervention types.
What have we learnt so far?
In some MSD4E quarters, there’s a lot of knowledge ‘out there’ already. For certain strategic objectives and system functions, for example ‘access to jobs’ and ‘job matching’, there is an extensive track record already. Newer projects can leverage years of experience to understand what may or may not work. Those considering new knowledge products in these well-trodden areas can start by exploring existing resources.
Meanwhile, there are obvious gaps. The work to date has helped to reveal gaps in evidence and practice, for example the limited scale of job creation interventions and the challenges of sustainability in skills development interventions. These highlight the need to deepen research, but also to gather practitioners together to dig into the reasons behind these persistent challenges.
The connections are real! The research for the landscape assessment discovered several ‘quick win’ connections between projects working on very similar interventions in quite different contexts. LIWAY in Ethiopia and EYE in Kosovo have learned more about each other’s approach to labour market intermediation. Past experience in solid waste management from Mombasa was shared with a newer project in Harare.
On behalf of the MSD4E Community of Practice
Blog authors: Justin van Rhyn, Mike Klassen, Daniel Nippard