With our time in Guatemala quickly coming to an end, my Integration Lab (i-Lab) team and I wanted to meet with some of the people we had talked to earlier in our fieldwork to discuss what we had learned. We invited a few past interviewees to dinner to listen to their thoughts on how we could turn our insights into actions. What surprised me first about this dinner was how most of our guests already knew each other. The conversation nearly immediately turned to questions about family and recent events in each other’s lives. What also surprised me was how they reacted to one another when they introduced themselves and shared a little bit about their organizations.
As we went around the table, there were lots of nods from participants who had previously worked together. This all changed when we arrived at someone whom no one at the table had worked with before. As she described the work of her organization, I could see everyone else at the table lean forward, listening intently. I could see the beginning of future collaboration before anyone even said a word.
BUILDING COLLABORATION IN CONTEXT
My i-Lab team and I have been working with Community Empowerment Solutions (CES) in Guatemala and Ecuador to improve collaboration between NGOs working in the local communities. Learning about these people’s experiences with collaboration—their successes, their challenges, and their ideas for how to make it easier for organizations to work together—helps us work with CES to develop a system to facilitate future partnerships.
And so we set out to meet these people and listen to their stories. Putting into practice the skills we learned from our work in i-Lab, we interviewed people from organizations in different communities across Guatemala. We ended up speaking to representatives from more than thirty groups, which we entered into a spreadsheet as a collection of standardized characteristics and categories to make our eventual analysis easier.
HOW COMMUNITY STORIES ADD DEPTH TO OUR RESEARCH
We began the analysis process as we neared the end of our time in Ecuador. As we went through our data, attempting to find useful insights, I found myself not simply relying on our carefully-crafted coding sheet. I was just as often going back through long-form notes and reflecting back on those interview experiences more holistically, drawing inspiration from the experiences and anecdotes that made each conversation unique.
In our interview data, a lot of organizations highlight the importance of trust; however, in one interview, someone articulated what it means to build trust in a professional setting with a depth that no spreadsheet can convey. The person we spoke to described partnerships between organizations in the same way someone would describe a relationship: how much is too much to share on a first date, when to introduce that person to your family, when to move in together, etc. This wonderful characterization was barely reflected in our data, and certainly not in full detail, yet the concept was just as essential as that data to our work.
On the other hand, reducing these intimate interactions to a few cells on a spreadsheet, as uncomfortable as it may feel, is necessary. As we begin the second phase of our project in Ecuador, the thought of working through more than sixty interviews without any system of standardization sounds borderline impossible. But it is important to remember what is left out in that the process. A good analogy might not be able to be standardized or quantified, but it has changed the way we think about our problem and its solution. The way people talk or listen to each other at dinner may not have a place in a spreadsheet, but it has been just as meaningful to us as any trend we have found in our data. Those human moments that cannot be succinctly summarized or plotted on a graph have been essential to truly understanding the experiences of those people we have met.