Saturday, March 5, 2011

What's a Volunteer (Meant) To Do?

So what am I actually doing in India?

It's been pointed out to me that I've not actually spoken much about what work it is that I'm doing out here, so I'm going to try and give a bit of an overview of my role at Srijan Foundation....

The company itself is still very young. 10 years old this year, it was started by a group of friends who used to work for other social development agencies (UNICEF, etc). The structure is pretty simple – there is a small (2/3 people) management team, then project managers who are responsible for the projects in the various areas of Jharkhand in which Srijan operate. These PM's work with the local field workers to implement the projects.

My official title is “MIS Officer” and my role was to help Srijan to set-up an MIS system. For those of you not in the Consultancy industry, I guess I'd better give a quick overview of MIS now ;-)

MIS (Management Information Systems) basically means using data to help you make better decisions. For example, stock control systems help you to make better purchasing decisions, finance systems enable better budgeting, etc. Generally we use computers to do these tasks as they can automatically crunch the numbers much faster. In bigger companies, MIS has evolved to mean linking all of these systems together to help get an even clearer picture of the organisation – stock is linked to sales data, to the finances, etc.

Which is all great, but what does that mean for my placement? To be honest, a whole lot of nothing! Srijan are just not in a position to make much use of this stuff at the moment. Their processes are just not in place to be able to do this – forgetting running before you can walk, this is trying to do an ultra-marathon before you're out of nappies...

So my focus has shifted. I'm working on basic project management principles, trying to add some rigour and strategy to the organisation (I just realised how badly I sound like a consultant! Apologies....). For example, we now have a project register – it lists all of the current projects and potential new projects. Sounds obvious, right? Sounds not particularly useful? Well, when you've identified over 15 potential new projects and don't have any plan for approaching them, it helps to have it written down and in one place! We've now identified the top three of these projects and will develop proposals for them over the coming weeks. It will hopefully stop the "scatter-gun" approach they've tended to take in the past and give a bit of focus!

Communications is a major problem for Srijan too. They may be based in Hazaribag, but the vast majority of the work happens in the field offices, which are all over the state of Jharkhand. They didn't have email, so all of the communications took place during field visits and by phone calls. Need a copy of a document? You had to wait for a physical meeting. Even better, the management team were all using the same email addresses! They had individual emails, but also three or four “Srijan” emails, which they all had the passwords for. Chaos ensued!

Now we have our own domain – There's a website, very basic, at, and we're giving all of the PM's their own emails. This should make sharing information much easier. There's also an internal website, private to Srijan employees, where we are starting to store all of the important documents, so everyone can access them, wherever they are.

I've also been working on Strategy documents. Some of this is just documentation – getting the HR Policy actually into one document and making it available to everyone for example. I've written a Project Management, MIS and Procurement documents too.

IT skills in general is not a strong point among the employees. Basic MS Word and Excel skills are missing, so I've developed a short course to try and get everyone to a basic level. It's hard going as my Hindi is poor and their English isn't always much better!

Finally, my spoken and written English is a big bonus to Srijan. I spend a fair amount of time re-writing letters, emails and other documents. The Management team's English is very good, but there are sometimes some amusing typos that need correcting and minor changes to grammar. It's really just the benefits of having a native speaker able to check the documents!

So that kind of covers it all. Over the coming months (less than 9 left!), I'll be trying to strengthen the skills of their PM's – getting them to do more planning / scheduling, regular reporting, etc. and to start using previous project data to produce stronger budgets. We're also working on a more structured approach to proposals, so they don't have to start from scratch each time.

The really great thing about all of this is how receptive the organisation are to my ideas. They are really keen to take all my thoughts on board and I don't have to fight to convince them of anything (so far!). I'm very lucky in that respect, as I know other volunteers often meet a lot of resistance to their proposals.

It's definitely a challenge – I'm used to trying to improve Project Management practices, but not used to working at such a basic level! For example, at the moment I'm just trying to get people to say what they will be working on at the start of each week....planning isn't exactly top priority here! The thing is, when you're out in the field, seeing the impact that they make in people's lives, it really drives it home why I'm here. If I can help them save 1% on their budgets, or speed up their reporting so they have more time in the field, that directly impacts on people's lives....and that can only be a good thing.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Tim,

    Been trying to find you for a while now to see how you're doing and what you've been getting up to. Glad to see things are going well and you've managed to find yourself a niche, even if it isn't what you went out to do.

    Unfortunately I am back in the UK and have been for the last 2 months. I got malaria pretty early on (in fact, in the 2nd week of ICT!!) and while I took medication, turns out it wasn't treated properly and I actually had it on and off for over 2 months. Thus they sent me home in the new year on compassionate leave and have been recovering ever since. Am now trying to decide whether to go back... Do you remember how ridiculous my placement description was and how I couldn't do the stakeholder mapping exercise? Well, turns out that should have been a warning sign! Haha. I'm awaiting my boss to send me information of a proper job description now that I have raised my 'concerns' and I'll take it from there. Nigeria is cool so it would be good to go back.

    Keep having maximum fun and eat loads of paneer and aloo parathas for me please! Namaste.

    Beth x