Process Innovation the Next Wave to Power Social Agenda

Karon Shaiva

“The how is missing”, sighed a senior.

It was the middle of an award jury session. I explained that the ‘how’ was covered in the application and that the criterion was on innovation in their operations instead of the usual comparison with standard processes.

And that got me thinking. Generally, innovation is equated with product and service innovation; rarely process innovation.

As a Quality Assurance Auditor, process had always been pivotal to ourpractice. There had been a number of innovative products and services that had disappeared after significant recognition. So when people said that the business model had not worked, what I actually heard was, “Our’ process’ did not work.” And interestingly, when a product or service failed, it would be pronounced: “There was no USP.” And here too, I would conclude that product or service uniqueness was really uniqueness in process or product design. Which explains why I felt that  those who could innovate the process would inevitably differentiate the outcome.

The concept of process innovation has been referred to as best practices and even studied as Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) – critical drivers of business success. However, when it came to excellence, this parameter was demoted in the batting order. The reasons? Process Innovation is the result of incremental changes. These changes are derived from experience and insights. Responsiveness to these changes warrants continuous improvement. The aha! moment is generally distributed anonymously over time – a collection of whispers as opposed to the burst of an orchestra.

How does process innovation then work for social development? How do we introduce this in an undertaking (poverty elimination, education, malnutrition or more)? One; doing away with the conventional cookie cutter approach. As a CSR Head said, while awarding us a Needs Assessment contract: “I am tired of consultants telling me there is lack of village education, hygiene and skills. I know that. I need to know where the gap is and how best it can be addressed!”

“Mitigating risks should be a priority in designing interventions for long-term impact”

Relevance of an intervention comes from understanding the real issues that cause problems: The key to designing innovative projects to effectively address community needs. This may sound like common sense, but how do you understand real issues when people will not tell you their deepest fears, desperate situations or even disdain for outsiders? The answer: investigating link by link which is the weaker and which is the weakest. Generally, one will not be able to address all, but you would have certainly made a start if you even recognise their existence. Mitigating risks should be a priority in designing interventions for long-term impact.

“The second important aspect to process innovation is understanding that the process is for the long term, and therefore, has to be designed for sustainability. What does sustainability mean here? The intervention should be independent of specific people and institutions, and therefore, will continue even if they are replaced by others in the long term execution”

Take a simple example. A malnutrition programme comprised of the distribution of food packets to students. Packaged food was considered quicker and safer (easier than cooked meals). Guess what happened when the impact was assessed: no significant change in student health. The learning: children would take the packets for their family members and were not consuming enough themselves. Besides, even when cooked food was introduced, some students attended only on days they would get eggs or something they liked. Learning: the menu needed to be random, minimising attendance arbitrariness. Incremental changes.

A more challenging example was a poverty elimination project involving households being provided mobile phones. The caveat: They had to charge them in the school as there was no electricity in the villages. The logic: If they anyway had to come to the school, they would bring along their children to school. The actual problem addressed? Education – as children were not attending school because of the long distance. The project was presented as one to eliminate poverty to the village panchayat and community. Result: Immediate programme ownership with peer pressure to ensure timely implementation.

The second important aspect to process innovation is understanding that the process is for the long term, and therefore, has to be designed for sustainability. What does sustainability mean here? The intervention should be independent of specific people and institutions, and therefore, will continue even if they are replaced by others in the long term execution. This problem typically arises when an intervention does not clearly define its success indicators – Output, Outcome or Impact, or is designed only as a pilot, or to garner quick results.

A health and hygiene project that seeks to create awareness of the issue and its impact on health can select a number of ways to reach out to the community. Typically, they will distribute flyers and posters. If the budget permits, they could even stage street plays and screen videos. The effect: People become aware…. We see the output: People attending sessions, nodding their heads in agreement, responding in the positive when asked if they will start following the hygiene practices. Excellent! A few months later….. The outcome: No change in behaviour….Why? Because knowledge does not automatically imply application. So, unless the design has clearly thought through the process of interacting with the community and beyond sharing the information, ensuring that the vital messages are integrated with their lives, outcomes will not be seen. Even where there is interest, significant changes may not be seen. As they say, old habits die hard! Project impact: Zilch. There is therefore a reason that Behaviour Change Communication has become a buzzword.

In the above instance, let us assume the project team works with the community and goes from house to house checking on how they are functioning in their day to day lives and reminding them of hygiene practices to be implemented. It is very likely that with their persuasion, some degree of change starts to happen and we see the outcome: Cleaner homes, personal grooming like cutting of nails and washing of hands, waste disposal away from the home etc. Great progress. The team then leaves the community to go to the next one. Guess what happens when a monitoring team arrives at the village a couple of months later? People have drifted back to their old habits. Human nature at play: Man does not do what is expected, he does what is inspected! The process was dependent on someone following up with the villagers. When that someone left, hygiene was no longer a priority for them. Another reason could be that while the pilot was on, it was a good attention-seeking behaviour to do as required. Once the project team left, there was no incentive to continue to follow those instructions. In either case, the long term ownership of the project was not defined and so the intervention has a short-lived history.

The last case is that of numbers. We all want to show how successful our projects have been. In keeping with SMART goals, if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. I cannot agree more. However, the balance between quantity and quality is equally crucial. We have undertaken impact assessment of education projects where sports for development is a critical component of the project design. In most cases, this involves training in sports and other sessions to hone soft skills like teamwork, discipline, goal setting and more. However, a multi-national company has taken this to another level altogether. The students they selected for their programme are completely taken care of, for five years: education, health and nutrition, and of course, sports coaching. The outcome: life-changing experiences in the form of international tournaments, exposure to opportunities, aspiration for more, and above all, a realisation to do something for others back in their communities. When I asked the Managing Director of the Company how in the number game, is fine with working with 60 children as against 600 in a school, he replied, “We follow Business Excellence in our company operations, why should it be any different in our CSR? Moreover, our 60 students are leaders. They will in turn influence the 600.”

The third and final use of process innovation is in designing for Scalability. In any intervention, we look at the needs of the community and accordingly, design a solution based on the desired Theory of Change. What happens when you want to scale the project? Capacity and capability requirements shoots up. Even more than resources, the ability to deal with significant operational challenges become paramount. A multi stakeholder approach is the answer. Collaboration seeks to leverage the strength of the different actors in a system – Government, Industry, Academia, and of course, the development sector. Easier said than done! Diverging priorities and pressures, different working styles and mandate, all contribute to a gap in perception of the other. Even conflict. Process innovation is at its best in such scenarios. An eco-system model can only be built if the processes that occur in that system are clearly comprehended. The points of convergence or intersection need to be explored in depth to ascertain the bestway to work together. Partnerships that complement each other truly optimise resources and core competencies. Also, it need not be dependent on specific partners, but their profile. Alignment of interest and efforts can result not only in effectively meeting the needs of the people, but also in the most efficient manner.

A waste management project by its name indicates its focus. Yet, an ecosystem model can transform it into a holistic community development project. Let me explain. A Corporate works with a municipal corporation and an NGO to create awareness on the health issues of the surrounding landfills and the burning of waste. They then encourage households to segregate waste. Wet waste collected is supplied to a composting unit of an agricultural university. This in turn is given to the farmers in the areas for higher yields. Compost can be sold for more income generation. Closing the loop in a system generates better results, and this is normally possible when more and more actors work together.

Relevance, Sustainability and Scale are critical to the success of any intervention, and Process Innovation plays a significant role in achieving them. Even if the Corporate stops supporting the above waste management project, it will continue as it has been designed with all the three components in mind. Everyone in that system benefits because it is no longer a zero sum game, but a win-win situation of a circular economy.

There is substantial emphasis on social innovation and most awards do cite them as a criterion. There are even awards that are exclusively for innovations but as the gentleman said at the end of our conversation during the jury session, “I wish more attention was paid to process innovation.” An echo of my fervent prayer.

Karon Shaiva is Managing Trustee of the RISE Infinity Foundation and Convenor of the RISE Summit that seeks to break barriers and build bridges on women, social and green issues. She can be reached at