Tips on producing institutional histories

Brief Summary:

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 which 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.

Outline for an institutional history document
While there is no set formula, an institutional history can employ usefully cover the following broad stages.
a. Constructing institutional timelines
b. Partner/actor inventory and roles
c. Institutional Innovations:
the main element of the institutional analysis done by reviewing themes to explore changed 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.


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

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.


Ronald Mackay