Institutional histories

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An institutional history (IH) is a narrative that records key points about how institutional arrangements – new ways of working – have evolved over time and have created and contributed to more effective ways to achieve project or programme goals.

An IH is generated and recorded in a collaborative way by scientists, farmers and other stakeholders. A key intention behind institutional histories is to introduce institutional factors into the legitimate narrative of success and failure in research organizations.

Histories can be written by using interviews and ‘writeshops’ to construct a timeline, gain a clear understanding of roles and relationships, enquire into what triggers successful innovations and reflect on failures. Lessons drawn from this analysis can be used to improve performance. The dialogue that is promoted between the actors during the preparation of institutional histories can promote learning and capacity building.

As part of an evaluation, an institutional history can be used to:

  • document institutional innovations in programmes and projects
  • diagnose the system of innovation of which the particular project or programme is a part
  • highlight barriers to and mechanisms that assist change.

A good institutional history draws out and synthesizes lessons for the research organizations and partners involved as well as for others in similar, comparable circumstances and hence contributes to knowledge and theory-building in agricultural R&D. From an evaluation perspective, the essential outcome of an institutional history is a sound and insightful diagnosis of the overall system of innovation, including the scientific and non-scientific players, of which the particular project or programme is a part. IH can be useful for uncovering issues by...

  • Describing the implementation environment
  • Describing participant characteristics
  • Describing implementation
  • Analysing
  • Synthesising
  • Describing program effects
  • Describing/ measuring outcomes and impact
  • Understanding perceptions of causes
  • Documenting unintended consequences
  • Checking alignment with program theory
  • Self-assessment

Outline for an institutional history document

While there is no set formula, an institutional history can employ the following broad stages:

a. Constructing institutional timelines
b. Partner/actor inventory and roles
c. Institutional Innovations - the main element of the institutional analysis is done by reviewing themes to explore changing patterns of working. Histories might focus on different institutional innovation themes such as:

  • Working in partnerships: changed patterns of working among scientists, farmers and other stakeholders.
  • Communication: Communication among partners helps to draw out changed behaviour.
  • Conflict management: More successful projects use conflict as opportunities for learning and innovation. Conflicts in partnership projects include issues such as domination by one or more partners, and relationships between individuals.
  • Learning: An important part of the institutional arrangements is the learning mechanism. Asking questions aids critical reflection on how lessons are learnt.


  • The main objective of an institutional history is to help scientists and their organizations learn, so it is important that they actively engage in the process.
  • Facilitators with a broad social science outlook are usually required to promote this process. It is important that scientists are helped to make connections between ways of working and different outcomes, and the search for linkages and relations that might have brought about these outcomes.
  • It can take several months to complete an institutional history of a long-term research programme, including assembly of diverse sources of information and conducting interviews with diverse stakeholders. Alternatively, an institutional history that focuses on a time-bound activity such as a project can be prepared much more quickly.
  • The kind of institutional history to be compiled – for a long-term research programme or for a shorter-term project – should be decided early on, in consultation with the research managers and scientists involved. In either approach, the histories are fed back to the group for critique and clarification and might go through several rounds of presentation, critique and revision. Both approaches should involve not only scientists from the research organization but also other stakeholders, as both perceptions of what worked and what did not are valuable.
  • ‘Writeshops’ encourage democratic history writing. Writeshops take place over two or three days, guided by a facilitator. The first day includes an introduction to institutional issues, sometimes followed by brief presentations on the project or projects. (It is useful to ask project staff to prepare a project history in advance.)
  • If more than one project is being discussed, cross-project interviewing can be used to extract lessons that are shared with the rest of the group. Representatives of individual projects use the discussions and insights arising from the workshop to create or revise their own narratives, either during the workshop or immediately after.
  • In a sense, written accounts of the institutional history are based in part, on recollections and may be biased.  However, it must be pointed out that (i) the implementation agency is not the sole agent in the evaluation; (ii) both quantitative and qualitative data can inform the history; and (iii) the final draft of the history is arrived at and agreed upon in a reflective, participatory way.



Adwera, A., Dijkman, J., Dorai, K., Hall, A., Kilelu, C., Kingiri, A., Madzudzo, E., Ojha, H., Reddy, T.S.V., Sulaiman, R.V. and Ugbe, U. (2011 Forthcoming). Institutional Change and Innovation: A Framework and Preliminary Analysis of RIU. RIU Discussion Paper Series, Research Into Use (RIU): UK. Hall, A., Mytelka, L.K. & Oyelaran-Oyeyinka, B. (2006). “Concepts and guidelines for diagnostic assessments of agricultural innovation capacity.” UNU-MERIT Working Paper Series #2006-017, United Nations University-Maastricht Economic and social Research and training centre on Innovation and Technology: Maastricht, The Netherlands. Shambu, Prasad, Hall and Thummuru (2006). Engaging Scientists Through Institutional Histories. ILAC Brief 14. ILAC, Bioversity; Rome. Retrieved from (archived link)
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