You want to take your M&E system one step further and introduce a proper M&E software? That’s great, because a software has the potential of making the monitoring process more efficient and transparent, reduce errors and get more accurate data. But how to go about it? You have three options:
- You build your own system, for example in Microsoft Excel;
- You purchase an M&E software package off-the-shelf;
- You hire an IT consultant to set up a customized M&E system according to your organization’s specific requirements.
If options one and two do not work out for you, you can hire consultants to develop a solution for you. You will probably start a public tender to find the most suitable IT company to entrust with this task. While there a lot of things to pay attention to when formulating the Terms of Reference (TOR), I would like to give you some tips specifically about the communication with the hired IT consultants. These insights come from years of experience of being on both sides: The party who wants a tool and needs to describe it to the implementing programmers and being the IT guy (or rather lady) who implements Excel and web-based database tools for M&E.
To be on the safe side, I recommend you to work with this assumption: IT consultants have no clue about M&E. There are few IT companies who come from the development sector, like energypedia consult does, and are familiar with M&E concepts such as indicators, logframes and impact chains. To still get what you need, you should pay attention to the following communication tips:
- Take your time explaining what you need: Writing TOR takes time – but it takes even longer and becomes more costly when you hire somebody for something that is not thought through. If you don’t know all the details right from the start, get some expert assistance in formulating terms – it’s worthwhile.
- Use graphs: Instead of using words to describe your monitoring logic and the system you need, it is much easier to make graphs to depict the structure, user groups, linking of information, flow of monitoring data etc.
- Give examples: When unsure about how to put a feature into words, send a link or a screenshot of the function that you might have come across elsewhere and wish to have in your tool.
- Explain concepts and terminology: Many results frameworks work with the terms “input” and “output”. Most IT guys, however, will not have equipment and finished schools in mind, but rather data flows that consist of inputs and outputs. Make sure you clarify this. Also, the term web-based or web monitoring itself is a source of misunderstanding. In the IT world, web monitoring refers to monitoring activity in the internet, for example website visits or monitoring a server. That is probably not what you want when building up an M&E system for e.g. a good governance programme.
- Meet in person: In your budget calculation, allow for at least one workshop where you meet in person, for example a kick-off workshop in which you clarify your requirements. This is not only a possibility to ask each other questions, but also to get a feeling of the other party’s language and way of thinking.
- Maintain a dialogue: During the implementation phase, make sure to stay in regular touch with the programmers. Ask them to show you updates every once in a while to allow you to give feedback. When you detect that the programmers are heading into the wrong direction, you want to find out rather sooner than later.
- Document communication: When we implement web-based systems, we typically create a page within the web platform itself that outlines all the agreed steps. This list serves as a to-do list and an implementation protocol at the same time. It facilitates communication, particularly when on both sides multiple persons are involved that are not always present in all meetings or phone calls.
- Be prepared for misunderstandings: They happen. It’s normal. Plan for some buffer days before launching the final tool.
In general, the implementation phase should allow for some flexibility. As both parties learn from each other during the process, you should not be afraid to adjust initial plans, because the final tool will benefit greatly from it (if the contract has some flexibility). Big customized IT projects take some time.
If you need more advise on this matter and some more insights on setting up IT-based M&E systems, please feel free to contact me any time! In the past we supported some clients by setting up a prototype for their web-based M&E system with our flexible WebMo approach. During the prototype process the client learnt a lot and afterwards it was quite easy for other developers to copy the prototype and migrate it to their e.g. Microsoft Share Point environment (in case your IT guys don't believe in Open Source or don’t want to host third-party software on their server).
Please leave your comments, if you think that I have missed an important communication rule.