Development of a Methodology to Assess Knowledge Uptake by Technical Professionals and Decision-Makers for Developmental Water Services
Report no: 1519/1/07
August 2007

i. Background and motivation for conducting the research

Over the past decade or so in South Africa, there has been a fundamental change in the way in which services are provided, from an approach dominated by technical factors to one in which a range of factors other than purely technical factors are addressed. In this new approach, services are provided to meet developmental objectives, with an emphasis on poor communities. In the water field, a suggested term for this new approach is ‘developmental water services’. This change has been acknowledged by the Water Research Commission (WRC) in its own knowledge review, where it observed that “...the sector is in transformation”, pointing to a “shift in paradigm” as the challenges of integrating technical factors with other factors such as business aspects become more established (WRC, 2002: p.24, 31-32). The review went on to indicate that this is a relatively new field (specifically referring to Integrated Urban Water Management) and that human capacity is relatively low. The Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) also identified the low human capacity in the sector and indicated that it intended “ establish a knowledge institution [in the following] year with the aim of unlocking capacity of local municipalities” (Phasiwe, 2003). However, experience with students in several formal tertiary level courses and experience with practitioners in the field suggest that while there is fairly
significant knowledge available within the research community on the change ‘from technical design to developmental service provision’, there appears to be insufficient uptake of this knowledge by technical professionals and decision-makers responsible for service provision (Van Ryneveld and McCutcheon, 1997). Knowledge uptake is defined here as ‘the active acquisition of disseminated information, the comprehension of the information and the ability of practitioners to apply the information in the field’. Significant attention in recent years has been paid to the development of new organisational arrangements, policies, legislation and procedures for developmental water services. This exploratory study, by contrast, turns the attention to the uptake of knowledge by individual practitioners at the higher levels within the new service provision paradigm.

ii. Study aims

The study aims were:
  1. To review the literature on the topics of (i) developmental water services provision; and (ii) knowledge uptake and related factors, both individually and in combination.
  2. To develop a methodology to identify how the uptake of knowledge by technical professionals and decision-makers in developmental service provision in the water sector is taking place in practice.
  3. To make an initial assessment of how knowledge uptake (as described above) is in fact taking place in practice, and to propose strategies to improve this.
The core question of the study was stated as follows: “Assuming that there is good information available and accessible on the topic of developmental water services, why are individual practitioners at the higher levels not acquiring, comprehending and applying that knowledge better, as evidenced by persistent service delivery backlogs and poor sustainability?”

The question really has three parts to it:
  1. Is there (as assumed) good information available and accessible on the topic of developmental water services?
  2. If so, is there a mismatch between knowledge available in the literature and knowledge taken up by individuals?
  3. And if there is a mismatch, why is the knowledge available in the literature not better taken up by individuals?
A key objective of the study was to understand better what the problems were confronting individual technical professionals and decision-makers, and to make connections - if there were any to be made - between the problem in the global sense (of the sector having made good progress in terms of policy etc., but having performed less well in terms of delivery and sustainability) and the specifics of the problems confronting individuals.

iii. Brief summary of the major results and conclusions

Methodology to investigate knowledge uptake and context:

The investigation focused on the individual, and explored the uptake - meaning the acquisition, comprehension and application in context - of knowledge on developmental water services. The sequence in which these components were explored was as follows:
  1. The investigation started with a literature review of knowledge/information on developmental water services.
  2. This was followed by a literature review of knowledge uptake by the individual.
  3. However, in investigating the individual, it was found that one could not make sense of the required characteristics of the individual without also investigating the context in which the individual was operating.
  4. Investigation of the individual and context in turn led back to a re-examination of the knowledge - raising questions as to whether it was appropriate to the context (and to the individual).
Within the study, knowledge and context are addressed under the heading of developmental water services. Individual characteristics are addressed under the heading of competencies.

One does not (and cannot really) measure directly what knowledge is taken up by an individual in the sense of what is acquired and comprehended by the brain; nor is it particularly important. Rather, as evidence that knowledge has been taken up, one measures what the individual can do with that knowledge. Knowledge uptake is therefore demonstrated through competence. Knowledge must be visible and used in practice for it to be considered taken up by an individual.Consequently, knowledge uptake is best explored by considering those competencies that are observable in the decisions, discussions and actions of technical professionals and decision-makers. The methodology which has been developed in this study, which made significant use of in-depth case studies in the form of interviews and interactions with individual practitioners, is one which enables those observations to be made.

A key finding of the study is that for effective provision of water services within a
developmental context, there is a close interrelationship between the three components of:
  1. knowledge/information (on developmental water services);
  2. context; and
  3. individual;
...and that it is difficult to address any one of the three components without reference to the other two.

Context in developmental water services:
There is a lot of information readily available in the sector on the provision of water services to meet developmental objectives. This information emphasises poor communities in which a range of factors other than purely technical factors are addressed. What appears to be weak or missing is information on how to apply this information in context; and that context is the bureaucracy consisting of a combination of political and technical disciplines.

Developmental water services was defined as ‘the provision of water services to meet developmental objectives, with an emphasis on poor communities, in which a range of factors other than purely technical factors are addressed’. A key finding of the study was the identification of a further major aspect of developmental water services as ‘a combination of political and technical disciplines in a unified approach, consisting of:
  1. Implementation of services on the ground carried out by technical professionals (in different fields such as engineering, health, housing etc., often arranged institutionally into departments along those lines);
  2. decisions, trade-offs and resource allocations (within limited resources, to meet developmental objectives) carried out by politicians;
...and the institutionalisation of this, or translation into the bureaucracy’.

Developmental water services
Developmental water services

As to whether there is literature on these newly identified contextual aspects of developmental water services, the answer is that there is some literature on individual elements, such as:
  1. trade-offs;
  2. different disciplines (particularly political and technical/engineering);
  3. different disciplines asking different types of question;
  4. formalisation of arrangements in the workings of the bureaucracy;
...but that it is more dispersed and limited than the technical literature, and is therefore not readily available and accessible to the water services community.

The in-depth interviews overwhelmingly supported the notion that developmental water services is ‘a combination of political and technical disciplines in a unified approach, and the translation of this into the bureaucracy’ (as described above). From the comments by interviewees on the context within which they operate, a simple preliminary framework was constructed to describe the key elements and characteristics of the workings of the bureaucracy as it applied to developmental water services. This framework consisted of two main categories, with a third category applying generally to both of them, and a number of sub-themes within each category:
  1. Interactions between politicians and officials/technical professionals - nominally ‘down the hierarchy’ from politicians to officials - involve: (i) translation or conversion from: policy delivery, general specific, abstract concrete, purpose technique, and non-technical.... to technical; (ii) the bureaucratic aspect of this translation, namely delegation of authority (and reporting in reverse), and allocation of resources, specifically budget allocations (and reporting on budget expenditure in reverse).
  2. The making of trade-offs and key decisions of principle, requiring prioritisation between different projects and different departments - nominally ‘across the hierarchy’ - involves: (i) conflicting objectives, (ii) trade-offs and prioritisation within limited resources, (iii) risk and mitigation of risk.
  3. General characteristics applying to both of the above involve: (i) Communication, including communication across all interfaces and between all parties; courage/boldness in communicating the consequences of difficult choices; (ii) a team approach, and understanding the whole system, including trust and mutual support of different players, competence of different players; and (iii) the translation of these matters into the working of the bureaucracy, including: exercise of authority and fear of transgressing authority, slowness to get an interview or decision.
This framework - together with the supporting evidence from the in-depth interviews - is a key output of the study, providing a preliminary description of the contextual elements and characteristics of developmental water services.

Two other key observations were made in respect of the context:
  1. (a) The interfaces between different groupings and disciplines (e.g. politicians, technical professionals, community) - and communication across these interfaces - are also identified as being critical.
  2. (b) The major conclusion from observing institutional arrangements and decision-making processes is the critical importance of the Mayoral Committee/Executive Mayor in decision-making for developmental water services.
In summary, it was the contextual aspects of developmental water services, consisting of ‘a combination of political and technical disciplines in a unified approach, and the translation of this into the bureaucracy’ which on the evidence of the in-depth interviews would appear to constitute the major challenge facing high-level technical professionals and decision-makers in the provision and sustainability of water services.

Competencies as evidence of knowledge uptake:
A framework of competencies for the developmental water services sector as a whole (including technical professionals and decision-makers), drawn from both the literature and the interviews, was constructed and is set out in Table 1 (see p vii). What is suggested is that individuals emanating from different disciplines may be stronger or weaker in particular competency areas, but that the full range of competencies should be covered by the sector as a whole. In most cases,
the interviews supported, enhanced or confirmed the evidence in the literature. In some cases participants in the study stressed issues not identified in the literature.

The competencies were classified as methodical competencies and social competencies or competencies of personage. Methodical competence (MC; Table 1: section 1) involves learned competence in the discipline or field. Social competence and competence of personage (SCCP; Table 1: section 2) involves the capacity to work with various stakeholders in the context of work and personal attributes that are necessary to more (or most) effectively complete the
work at hand. Both Methodical competence (MC) and Social competence and competence of personage (SCCP) are underpinned by Judgement (Table 1: section 3).


Methodical competence (1)

Academic (1.1) Practical (1.2)
Active life-long learning (1.1.1)
- accessing information
- lifelong professional development
- initiative to continue learning
Technical know-how and skills (1.2.1)
- scientific method and analysis
- knowledge of contemporary issues
- materials and design knowledge
Knowledgeable analysis (1.1.2)
- compare information or situations
- interpret & analyse, recognising the relevance of,
given information
- evaluate the viability of solutions
- plan provision of services
Numeracy (1.2.2)
- understand technical information and the basic
structures of an engineered system
- perform basic calculations
- interpret diagrammatic information (e.g. graphs)
- visualise plans & product
Technical decision-making and problem solving (1.1.3)
- analyse new situations
- integrate and apply diverse fields of knowledge in practice
- overcome obstacles
- revise processes
Information (ICT) Skills (1.2.3)
- software applications
- macro writing
- design tools
- seek, store & retrieve info as needed

  Social competence and competence of personage (2)

Administrative (2.1) Intrapersonal (2.2) Interpersonal (2.3)
Business sense (2.1.1)
- understand business processes
- estimate economic costs
- project management
- knowledge of legislation and
public policy
Listening (2.2.1)
- listen to others
- synthesise different perspectives
- observe interactions
Teamwork (2.3.1)
- respect for others
- productive working relationships
- function on multi-disciplinary
Environmental awareness (2.1.2) Creativity / Innovation (2.2.2)
- original & alternative solutions
- show initiative
People management and leadership
Ethical (2.1.3)
- show integrity
- belong to professional societies
- responsible to the profession
- confidentiality
Adaptable (2.2.3)
- anticipate and predict change
- manage change
- help others adapt
Working with stakeholders (2.3.3)
- client focus
- understand needs of clients
- negotiation
- work within socio-economic
Time management (2.1.4)
- establish time frames
- maintain timelines
- meet deadlines
Awareness of self in context (2.2.4)
- motivation
- designated responsibility
- multiple demands
- aware of potential problems
Communication (2.3.4)
- language proficiency
- AV presentations
- comprehension and writing
- oral communication
- interpersonal communication

  Judgement (3)

- Judgement is fundamental to methodological, social and personal competence and impacts in every decision and sphere of influence of the individual
- Judgement includes the ability to evaluate information, isolate central issues in decisions, balance competing interests and check viability of decisions

The following issues were identified as being key:

Decision-making, that requires the ability to understand, interpret or analyse technical or mathematical information, in the provision of water services requires (amongst others) three levels of methodical competence (Table 1: section 1), namely:
  1. numeracy (involving the ability to interpret graphical information, perform basic calculations, visualise the product of drawn plans, and some basic knowledge of engineered systems) (Table 1: section 1.2.2);
  2. knowledgeable analysis (involving the ability to not just understand, but interpret and analyse information and use the information in decision-making; essentially working with other people’s solutions instead of finding your own) (Table 1: section 1.1.2); and
  3. problem solving (involving the ability to evaluate and analyse a situation with nothing given, identify and obtain appropriate methods and data and then apply the methods to solve the problem) (Table 1: section 1.1.3).
It is clear from the research that only technical professionals require high levels of problem solving. As a basic minimum, participants in the sector should at least be numerate. A lack of numeracy can have a significant impact on the quality of decision-making. It appears that most decision-makers in the water sector are numerate. However, examples of decision-makers not understanding why a water reservoir needs to be higher than the housing it services are in
evidence. The level of knowledgeable analysis required to participate in the water sector is not clear. Some interviewees expressed concern at the low level of knowledgeable analysis demonstrated by decision-makers in the sector.

The participants' lack of comment or attention to actively listening to others (Table 1: section 2.2.1) is in our estimation a serious shortcoming. This appears to be a shortcoming in all parties in the developmental water service sector. It may be that this limits the technical professional’s capacity to work with stakeholders, a difficulty raised by consultants and decision-makers in the interviews. In addition, not listening would clearly exacerbate decision-makers’ inability to acquire the knowledge necessary for analysing and may lead to some of the frustrations technical professionals experience when their advice is ignored.

Technical professionals struggled to work well with stakeholders (Table 1: section 2.3.3) and it appeared to some interviewees that technical professionals could not always discern who the stakeholders were.

In general participants in the sector expressed concern at the low level of written communication (Table 1: section 2.3.4).

Judgement (Table 1: section 3) may be one of the most important competencies in South Africa where limited financial resources restrict the availability, choice and sustainability of services. Although it appears to the researchers that knowledgeable analysis, a business sense, active listening and working with stakeholders are key competencies in making sound judgements, the foundational basis for sound judgement remains unclear and was not a focus of this research.

While competencies are clearly a key characteristic of performance of individuals, and are a major focus of this investigation, there are a number of other characteristics which may provide methods and tools for understanding and improving the performance of individuals and disciplines within the sector, including (a) Thinking style; (b) Cultural orientation; and (c) Learning style. With regard to one of these aspects, namely learning style, although the sample size was small, it is particularly noteworthy that all four interviewees without hesitation indicated that they preferred visual ( diagrammatic or pictorial) to verbal (written) communication. This is in line with the results of a number of international surveys on learning (Felder and Brent, 2005)1 , but in striking contrast to the format of presentation of most research outputs. Furthermore, evidence from a number of interactions indicates that high-level technical ix professionals and decision-makers in practice do not generally appear to be reading technical or research reports. This provides a very brief initial indication of individual preferences for how knowledge might be taken up, as against what knowledge is - or should be - taken up (which is the primary focus of this investigation).

New knowledge contributed by the project:
In summary the project contributed several new insights as follows:
  1. (a) The study developed and documented an exploratory methodology based primarily on in-depth interviews which enabled the collection of evidence on knowledge, context and individual competencies with respect to developmental water services.
  2. (b) The study established that for effective provision of water services within a developmental context, there is a close relationship between the three components of (i) knowledge/information (on developmental water services); (ii) context; and (iii) individual; and that it is difficult to address any one of the three components without reference to the other two.
  3. (c) The study established a number of simple preliminary frameworks as follows: (i) A framework to describe the key elements and characteristics of the workings of the bureaucracy as applied to developmental water services - effectively the contextual component of developmental water services; (ii) A framework of individual competencies for the developmental water services sector as a whole (including both technical professionals and decision-makers).
Recommendations for further research:
  1. Repeat the investigation - i.e. literature review and in-depth interviews (possibly jettisoning the abbreviated surveys) - but broader and deeper.
  2. Investigate the political dimension of ‘developmental water services’, and what it brings to ‘developmental water services’.
  3. Investigate the workings of the bureaucracy, how it may be stifling the exercise of competencies of individuals in addressing the challenges that confront the sector in the provision of developmental water services, and identify what interventions may be undertaken to rectify or improve the situation.
  4. For points (a) to (c) above, an ethnographic study method (i.e. utilising a non-participant observer over a more extended period of time than an in-depth interview) may be utilised. Ethnography is about an outsider (researcher) making the unfamiliar events and practices of a community of practice, in this case local government offices and bureaucracies in developmental water services, familiar through observation and interviews. This involves recording and reporting activity that participants (who are too close to their business) no longer consider even noteworthy but may be a central aspect of the practice and may offer vital insight into the effective supply of services to consumers. Ethnography involves participant observation working with and alongside participants in the field.
  5. Investigate the depth and nature of numeracy, knowledgeable analysis and problem solving that is displayed by and required of decision-makers, technical professionals, project managers and possibly even mid-level line management.
  6. Following the above series of investigations of what knowledge uptake is - and ought to be - taking place, investigate how knowledge uptake is taking place - and how it might better take place.
  7. Investigate current vehicles (formal and informal) for developing the necessary competencies for high-level decision-makers and technical professionals in developmental water services, as provisionally identified in the competency table. In particular, investigate the extent to which these competencies are developed by the time individuals exit from formal higher education institutions, as well as how these competencies are developed in practice.

1 Felder, R M and Brent, R (2005) Understanding Student Differences, Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 94, No.1, pp.57-72.