Better Than New


Grant-makers are Listening to the Voice of the Customer in Tibet by menteral
June 20, 2007, 10:28 am
Filed under: Social Change

Tibet PhotoBy Adam Menter

I recently read an article on WorldChanging.com that tells the story of a foreign teacher named Kevin Stuart in rural Tibetan China who is using English language education as a means to empower local students to write grant proposals and improve the situation in their communities. Having traveled to similar areas of the developing world and seen first-hand how aid is often distributed by foreign foundations and NGOs, it was great to read about an initiative like this.

Too many foundations, as well-meaning as they are, use what I would call a “push” strategy. Using only the most basic and cursory methods for understanding what – if anything – is ailing a given community, they force-feed people ready-made solutions that were devised using their pre-existing cultural frame. These over-assumed solutions often aren’t appropriate for the situation or the local culture – and aid dollars are not used to maximum affect. By teaching these students English, and connecting them to grant-making institutions, what Mr. Stuart is doing is giving these communities a stronger voice. Quite literally in this case. This voice can both articulate needs and suggest solutions – allowing grant-making agencies to “pull” more effective from the communities whose needs they are trying to meet.

Businesses can fall into the same trap – introducing products with an incomplete working understanding of customers’ real needs. Even when great social research and market studies have been done, it is tempting for companies to over-assume the solution and push products into the marketplace. While these solutions may make sense from the company’s cultural frame, and in relation to existing product offerings, they can miss the really big opportunities – even if they do meet some success in the market. Sometimes the misleading puzzle piece is how and when new products are devised and tested. Long-term, exploratory ethnographic research is a much more powerful tool than targeted, closed-ended, focus groups – even if it is more blunt and requires more synthesis.

As our globalized, networked, transparent, and open-source world continues to evolve, the companies that have the strongest connection and most constructive relationships with their customers are going to thrive. Open-sourced innovation and co-development are buzzwords that businesses are just starting to understand and use effectively. It will be a better world – both for businesses and for people – once it’s really figured out.

As far as Mr. Stuart’s community in Tibet goes – I am heartened but not completely sold. In some respects, his initiative is just another hoop that local communities have to go through to get hand-outs. And does teaching English really strengthen communities and promote cultural diversity? Many of the examples given in the article – creating a digital archive of traditional, constructing pigsties, and introducing running water – seem like the same old host of ad projects. I’ll start getting really excited when more grant makers learn to speak Tibetan and live in the communities they mean to help.

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