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Using the best knowledge from business for the humanitarian sector

Can innovation methods developed in the commercial sector be applied to the humanitarian sector? An educational initiative that enables the exchange of knowledge between the two is the result of a collaboration between the Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation (DCHI) and Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). An event from this collaboration, the DCHI Academy on Knowledge Exchange on Tuesday 1 June, uses RSM’s expertise in entrepreneurship and partnerships to bring about a transformation in humanitarian aid.



The event was co-hosted by RSM and Dr Harwin de Vries, an assistant professor in the department of Technology and Operations Management at RSM who was appointed by DCHI to serve as Academic Focal Point to bring his knowledge and academic perspectives in October 2020.

Dr Harwin de Vries said: “It would be arrogant to claim that expertise within business schools is directly transferable to the humanitarian sector. But we should also not throw the baby out with the bathwater and explore the opportunities and boundaries of collaboration and knowledge exchange.”

The DCHI Academy on Knowledge Exchange on 1 June was streamed live with RSM professors Lucas Meijs and Rob van Tulder. It aims to open up the conversation from all sectors to explore shared insights and knowledge from non-governmental organisations, non-profit organisations and commercial sectors – but more importantly how academics and universities enable all kinds of organisations to learn from each other.

The collaboration – and the appointment of Dr De Vries – enables a greater range of e‑learning and access to valuable partnerships and academic resources. Dr De Vries’ expertise is in risks and opportunities from operations strategy on outsourcing and centralisation and decentralisation to inform the debate on localisation.

Learn from each other’s fields

The Knowledge Academy on 1 June is for anyone who wants improve innovation within their organisation – it’s for people from business and from humanitarian sectors to learn from each other’s fields. This includes students as well as managers and co-ordinators working on humanitarian aid and development programmes, research and development managers, C‑level executives from governmental bodies, innovation managers, consultants and strategists, and representatives from foundations as well as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs from start-ups and scale-ups.

An approach that attracts expertise

Michel Becks, Humanitarian Innovation Coordinator at the Netherlands Red Cross, which is well known for providing humanitarian aid, said there was no point waiting for a disaster to strike. “Why wait until then? Many measures can already be taken in advance to help communities to better prepare for and cope with disasters and crises. The use of data and digital services helps us to work with at-risk communities to take locally appropriate humanitarian action. We cannot do this alone, DCHI helps us to attract expertise and knowledge from external partners, such as NGOs, private business organisations and knowledge institutes like RSM. This helps us to deliver more impact and cost-effective humanitarian aid.”

Research into practice

Dr De Vries worked with humanitarian organisations in previous roles at INSEAD, the Erasmus School of Economics, and ORTEC, where he studied their logistics and explored the role for data-driven decision making in the sector. He said assistant professors are usually very busy developing courses that they will teach and running them, and it’s easy to lose the connection to practice. “I feel that strong ties between academics and practitioners are crucial. It ensures that research findings find their way to practice, provides a way to reality-check your research, and ensures that problems faced by practitioners are translated into research opportunities. After my first year at RSM I was therefore looking for ways to increase my engagement with the sector, and found this opportunity with DCHI. DCHI represents a coalition of innovation-and research-minded humanitarian organisations and embodies the mindset that resonates with my preferred way of doing research: identify a big problem, rigorously study all relevant aspects of that problem, and only start thinking about solutions afterwards (instead of the other way around).”

Tapping into the knowledge

“Business schools host a lot of knowledge that is relevant to the humanitarian sector, but much of that is hardly tapped into. Many of the challenges that humanitarian organisations face have a counterpart in the commercial sector and that have been studied extensively.” He referred to the challenges and questions studied in strategy about business focus and how local should organisations be, and in logistics, how to make decisions under supply, demand, and budget uncertainty. Likewise, in business analytics, the question of turning data into better predictions or decisions, and in knowledge management, making sure that lessons are learned and embedded in the organisational memory. “I see it as part of my role to raise awareness of business school knowledge in the humanitarian sector, for instance through the DCHI academy. I also see it as my role to translate the challenges that humanitarian organisations aim to address into opportunities for academic research.”

Value for beneficiaries

Dr De Vries believes that business schools joining forces with businesses and humanitarian organisations can generate much value for beneficiaries. He gave as an example the humanitarian organisations moving away from setting up their own supply chains for delivering aid towards utilizing existing supply chain markets. “This induces multiplier effects in the local economy and promotes beneficiaries’ dignity,” he said. “Roughly 20 per cent of humanitarian aid is now delivered by handing out cash or vouchers which beneficiaries can spend with local vendors, and this percentage is expected to increase significantly in the coming years. Humanitarian organisations also increasingly engage in market development in collaboration with businesses, for instance when essential products or services are not available. DCHI’s Access to Modern Energy programme is a good example of that: several humanitarian organisations partnered up with commercial ones to develop business models to ensure sustainable access to modern energy. These shifts require a business mindset and business skills. For example, expertise in market analysis, data analytics, and supply chain management are key to running a cash or voucher programme, and business model development skills are essential to develop markets. This is what business schools and businesses can bring to the table.”

A more accurate understanding

The Knowledge Academy on 1 June showed the diversity of RSM faculty and thought leaders from foundations and humanitarian NGOs and NPOs, and describes humanitarian innovation and experiences to identify where innovation can have the greatest impact on partnerships. Participants experienced an unlocking of their creativity and a new flow of ideas. Sessions covered the most common barriers to public-private partnerships and how to overcome them, and how to enable building a culture that fosters the use of an innovation methods and models. The event was interactive; participants met DCHI alumni and those working on innovative humanitarian challenges.

Further learning

A MOOC (‘massive online open course’), the DCHI Humanitarian Innovation Course which ran over five weeks in spring 2020, will run again in due course on Kaya, an academy platform for humanitarian leadership. Anyone interested can register to be notified when the next course is announced.

Transforming humanitarian action

The Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation (DCHI) brings together humanitarian organisations, research and educational institutes, businesses of all sizes and governmental actors. The Coalition enables more than 300 of them to jointly find, develop and scale innovative solutions, so it is a pioneer and a driving force behind innovation, entrepreneurship and partnerships, transforming humanitarian action through innovation to realise more economic and societal impact at a lower cost.

For more information about the DCHI Knowledge Academy, and to register, see https://dchi.nl/programme-dchi-academy/

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Erika Harriford-McLaren, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at harriford@rsm.nl.

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