Column Series: Applying BI in Capacity Development by Yusuke Takagi 3


‘New values are generated between different systems, where inter-cultural friction arises’. These are the words of Professor Ueno during the commencement ceremony at the University of Tokyo[1], when explaining the importance of diversity. If this also applies to the generation of innovation, what elements (systems) should be blended with behavioural insight (BI) for further social innovation?

In this series of columns, I will present the potential elements that might bring a synergetic impact with BI, placing a particular focus on the development context.

Applying BI in Capacity Development

The Next Trend in BI

Preliminary attempts to apply BI to public policy have been focused on improving policy outcome. So, what’s next? The UK Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) suggests that the next opportunity might be its application in improving organizations (governments) themselves which are also vulnerable to biases and pathologies[2].

The application of BI in organizational behaviour has been attempted by many institutions. BIT is researching on this topic. Interestingly, the World Bank and the UN are also trying to apply BI to their organizational effectiveness, and as interventions in organizations from developing countries[3][4].

These efforts suggest that there is a huge room for the application of BI in organizational behavioural change and organizational learning, which often play a key role in sustaining development impact. In particular, applying BI to organizational learning might be a useful tool for capacity development projects, since minor hurdles and hassles often hinder the overall learning process in organizations.

The benefits of Capacity Development

‘The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines capacity development as the process through which individuals, organizations and societies obtain, strengthen and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve their own development objectives over time’. In addition, the UNDP suggests that capacity development strengthens resilience and improves the long-term sustainability of interventions[5] (UNDP, 2019).

Working in the field of international development, we often hear the story that facilities, tools or technologies provided by donors are not continuously used after a project comes to a period. This is a regrettable but common narrative we hear around the world. This is the reason why organizational capacity is essential in ensuring sustainable development impact. In addition, capacity development also plays a critical role in transferring ‘the ownership’ of development impact from the donor to the recipient agency. This perspective of capacity development is also significant for city-to-city development cooperation because a city can share not only knowledge and technique, but also a long-term vision, the work attitude of employees and knowhow which are expected to broaden the capacity of the recipient organization.

Incorporating BI into capacity development

While everyone understands the importance of capacity development, executing it well is not that easy in reality. In fact, when speaking with public (or utility) officials in developing countries, they often raise ‘the laziness of staff’ as one of the critical challenges in building organizational capacity to carry out their plan for business improvement. In particular, there is a gap between the availability of learning opportunities and the actual learning. The number of training opportunities does not matter if the learners are not ready for them. This suggests that making people learn is difficult, much less organizations. Especially, if staff are not motivated, we need to take some measures such as incentivizing them to take up these learning opportunities.

However, this is not surprising in behavioural science because BI tells us that people’s willpower and attention are limited. In this sense, BI may offer some solutions. We may only need a small intervention to encourage staff to take up learning opportunities or motivate them to learn. For instance, offering snacks is often recognized as a powerful tool to get staff to attend a meeting or training session. Taking a group photo at the beginning of a training session might discourage late-coming. In this respect, the ‘Nudge’ perspective can help inform such interventions, and therefore BI might be useful in promoting effective capacity development.

In addition, nudges may be useful in motivating staff to stick to organizational commitments, which also significantly improves the overall capacity of organizations. The World Bank’s behavioural science team (Mind, Behaviour, and Development Unit, or eMBeD) conducted an experiment in Nigeria and found out that incentives leveraging on social recognition can motivate public officials to handle bookkeeping more accurately[6]. However, they also confirmed that the effectiveness of social incentive highly depends on the context. This kind of finding would be useful in adjusting the staff’s attitude for capacity enhancement.

Leveraging ‘Double-loop learning’ through BI frameworks

Organizational learning in capacity development can be examined through the ‘loop learning theory’, which was developed by Chris Argyris[7]. This theory can be divided into single-loop learning and double-loop learning as shown below.

Figure 1. Single and Double-Loop Learning (Developed by author based on Organizational Learning Weblog (2014)[8].)

Single-loop learning is a process of learning where ‘people, organizations or groups modify their actions according to the difference between expected and reached outcomes[9]’ (Organizational Learning Weblog, 2014). In single-loop learning, people follow the rules. Double-loop learning is a process where people or organizations ‘correct or change the underlying causes behind the problematic action’[10] (Organizational Learning Weblog, 2014). In short, this requires a careful observation of contexts and decision making processes of organizations, and this is the same as what BI does.

In this sense, a BI perspective would be especially beneficial in double-loop learning because, just like the application of BI, double-loop learning also requires both identifying problematic behaviours with contexts and inducing behavioural change. Since it is a learning process, BI frameworks such as BASIC[11] (A framework to apply BI to policies by 5 steps: Behaviour, Analysis, Strategy, Intervention and Change) would be highly useful in analyzing the root issues in organizational behaviour and finding out effective solutions. In addition, clues to overcome the causes of the problem might be found from the accumulated knowledge on nudges.

As I wrote in the beginning, the application of BI in organizations is expected to be the next trend, although many of the attempts are still in the experimental stage. As the UK BIT continues to work on this field, further research is needed to accumulate the knowhow and find out what works in what context. While paying close attention to such research, it would be beneficial for us to consider how BI applies to conventional capacity development processes such as the double-loop learning.

Yusuke Takagi (YBiT member)

Edited by Mika Kunieda, Lek Hong

[1] Ueno, C. (2019) ‘Congratulatory address at undergraduate entrance ceremony at Tokyo University 2019’. [Online] Available at [Accessed September 23rd, 2019].

[2] Sanders, M., Snijders, V., and Hallsworth, M. (2018). “Behavioural science and policy: where are we now and where are we going?” in Behavioural Public Policy Journal Volume 2, Issue 2 November 2018 , pp. 144-167 Cambridge University Press.

[3] The World Bank (2019) “eMBeD: Using the Behavioral Sciences to Fight Global Poverty and Reduce Inequality. ” [Online] Available at [Accessed October 4th, 2019].

[4] The UNDP (2016)“Behavioural Insights at the United Nations Achieving Agenda 2030” [Online] Available at  [Accessed October 4th, 2019].

[5] The UNDP (2019) “UNDP and capacity development”. [Online] Available at  [Accessed October 22nd, 2019].

[6] The World Bank (2018). “Motivating Public Sector Workers in Nigeria”. [Online] Available at  [Accessed October 13th, 2019].

[7] Organizational Learning Weblog (2014). “Single and double loop learning”. [Online] Available at  [Accessed October 13th, 2019].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “BASIC” was developed by OECD in order to guide policy makers to apply BI into their policy making.

   The OECD (2019). “Tools and Ethics for Applied Behavioural Insights: The BASIC Toolkit” [Online] Available at [Accessed October 13th, 2019].