Institutional history

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 (i) document institutional innovations in programmes and projects, (ii) diagnose the system of innovation of which the particular project or programme is a part, and (iii) 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.


During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) developed a new way to organize its natural resources management (NRM) research (Shambu Prasad et al. 2005). It began to address issues in this domain in an integrated fashion, using the concept of a watershed as the organizing principle. This led to the ‘watershed approach’, an innovation subsequently widely used by others involved in natural resources research and rural development. The irony was that ICRISAT, despite the success of this innovation, paid little attention to it. A significant institutional constraint to learning that was documented in the institutional history was the separation of the research organization from farmers’ fields. The conventional thinking at the institute was that its main contributions were technologies, usually improved varieties; thus the watershed approach which needed new institutional mechanisms was largely sidelined. It was only in the late 1990s that ICRISAT came to recognize the importance of these institutional innovations.

Advice for choosing this method

Common mistakes in producing institutional histories:

  • Following the guidelines too rigidly.
  • Using the checklist too rigidly.
  • Stopping at description and failing to analyse.
  • Being afraid to express opinions.
  • Using timelines constructed by an individual or group before project start.
  • Using the exercise to resolve project-related quarrels.
  • Allowing cross-project interviews to give too much emphasis to technical achievements or challenges.

The preparation of a good institutional history requires an environment conducive to listening and reflection. Facilitators with knowledge of institutional change processes are also essential to success. Facilitators can at times be seen by some partners as mediators. Bringing the institutional issues that result in conflict into a public rather than private space requires sensitivity and judgment on the part of the facilitator.

Two things are essential to make ‘institutional histories’ writeshops work: (i) a good facilitator who creates the right environment and encourages others to capture institutional innovations as they emerge from the discussion; and (ii) a checklist to provide a framework for the writers. However, the facilitator – and the evaluation team who will use the data -- need to ensure that checklists are used to produce an analytical narrative, rather than just factual, descriptive information.

Shambu Prasad, C., Hall, A.J. and Wani, S.P. 2005. Institutional History of Watershed Research: The Evolution of ICRISAT’s Work on Natural Resources in India. Global Theme on Agroecosystems Report No. 12. Patancheru, India: International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Shambu Prasad, Hall and Thummuru (2006). Engaging Scientists Through Institutional Histories. ILAC Brief 14. ILAC, Bioversity; Rome.
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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.

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