Why do we succeed in some activities, and fail in others? This question was on my mind during the signing by Malta, Mexico and Switzerland of the extension of the MoU on online diplomatic training. The MoU provides the formal framework for the very successful cooperation between Diplo and the Instituto Matías Romero (the Mexican diplomatic academy). In practice, this success translates into significant impact of the online courses in training Mexican diplomats, joint course development, and a smooth and pleasant cooperation between the two institutions.
Before I list the reasons for this success, I need to make one caveat. I am careful about ‘canonising’ any practice (as thousand of guidebooks do, since Machiavelli through to today’s pile of books on how to do everything from becoming a successful businessman to having a happier life). Our personal and individual life journeys are unique and often very contextual. Context, luck, and the role of simple coincidence are often filtered out of such guidebooks because they diminish the impact of the ‘big wisdoms’ offered. The maximum we can do with our experience is to inspire others, and learn to avoid to potential pitfalls.
With this serious caveat, let me reflect on a few reasons for the successful cooperation between the Mexican diplomatic academy and Diplo:
- The Instituto Matías Romero adopted an evidence-based approach in developing their training programmes, including their use of external online learning courses. In 2004 they did comprehensive survey of available offers. Alina Bassegoda, former Distance Learning Coordinator at the institute, explains: ‘After an intensive search for providers of online courses specializing in diplomatic practice and international relations, the Mexican diplomatic academy, Instituto Matías Romero, found DiploFoundation in 2004. Diplo’s variety of online courses related to the diplomatic activity, the high quality of its tutors and experts, and its commitment to technology and education, have led to an increasingly fruitful relationship between our institutions.’
- They made a courageous decision to select Diplo, which was a young institution from the far-way island of Malta. This decision was counter-intuitive to the predominant risk-avoidance approach of the diplomatic profession. The intuitive decision would have been to select a ‘proven’ institution that could buffer the potential failure of the project (it is easier to justify failure in cooperation with institutions such as Oxford and Harvard, than an unknown newcomer). (This reminds me of what Sir Humphrey says in the BBC series Yes Minister. When you want to convince your minister not to do something, you tell him that his decision is ‘courageous’). Fortunately, in our case Sir Humphrey got it wrong!
- The institute integrated online learning very well into the institutional social dynamics of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Formally, online learning became part of human resources and training policies, linked to career advancement. Practically, it became popular and ‘cool’ to take online courses.
- Online training had support from senior diplomats and the leadership of the Ministry. One of the first online courses on Language and Diplomacy was attended by a group which included a number of Mexican ambassadors. It was a good way both to test the quality of the course through the participation of experienced diplomats, and to send a signal to junior diplomats that online learning is important.
- There was constant feedback and communication between the Mexican diplomatic academy and Diplo. Mexico requested changes and improvements based on feedback from their participants. An excellent working relationship was developed with a lot of trust and open discussion about problems and mistakes. The system and approach has been constantly improving and adjusting to specific needs of the diplomatic profession. At Diplo, we enjoyed this approach of learning by teaching.
- Online training addressed real needs: how to train the numerous diplomats of a large foreign service in their postings worldwide and far away from Mexico. A needs-driven approach is always better than a fashion or trend-driven one. This lesson may be useful for decision-making on online learning in this era of Coursera-driven online learning hype.
- The two teams – Diplo and Instituto Matías Romero – developed a high awareness of their respective institutional and professional contexts. Although we used evidence for our decisions, we were always fully aware that shared facts do not always imply shared perceptions (or truth).
All in all, the cooperation was developed through a bottom-up and gradual process. Common sense really was common in making decisions. While there was always a clear idea in what direction to move, there was no ‘grand design’ or scheme.
After the signing ceremony, we continue our online learning journey, but in a different environment than back in 2004. With Coursera and other prominent initiatives, online learning is moving into the mainstream. In the forthcoming period, we will meet new challenges and, hopefully, devise new ways to address them. We invite you to come with us on this exciting journey!