In Defence of Empirical Experience

I hear and I forget

I see and I remember

I do and I understand


Empiricism is the act of making decisions based on what is. It enables us to understand what really is possible, and what can be achieved. This is best done by doing. Trying something. Experiencing it. Then learning from it and adapting your approach accordingly.

This way of working is heavily advocated where I work back home in software development. Why? Because technology projects in businesses are complex. And when things are complex, they become hard to predict. Technology changes quickly, as does the business landscape. Empiricism in this context promotes responsiveness in a domain that can often prove to be constraining and frustrating.

The way this is done is by applying some key principles from empiricism. One – encourage observations to be made by being transparent about new ideas and work. Two – prioritise some ideas to test the value you think they will have. Three – try these ideas out, and agree how you will measure their relative success. Four – reflect at a given time to see how successful the idea was in practice. Five – build on the idea, amend it and try it again, or discard it entire. Then rinse and repeat.

The mobius loop of empirical experience
An visual example of empiricism in projects – experimenting with options and learning which is most valuable

But why stop at software development I thought – why not consider International Development?

This was the question I began to ask myself this year, and has led to my joining Challenges Worldwide on a 3 month placement working on private sector development. Before, I was set on building theoretical experience of development through a Master’s degree. With development spanning so many industries, countries and types of programmes, I figured that it was more valuable to gain broad knowledge which I could apply later, on the assumption I wished to pursue it. Equally, many jobs in the UK in development require a Master’s as a minimum, meaning in many ways I felt it was a “must”.

Sadly, empiricism is distinctly limited here. It would take a long time, in full time education, to get a feeling of what the Development work was like. I would argue that you would be bound to miss out on key information on what people really need – as opposed to what theory may dictate. As such, it felt like the last thing the sector needed would be another Master’s student. Instead, it would be more beneficial to do work in the field (and adding value) before using this practical experience in a next step. This could be more international work, spawning one’s own ideas for social development, or building more skills in a business environment. When considering feedback from independent sources and personal contacts, I realised that this opinion was usually shared – unless one was 200% on doing the Master’s.

This lead to me finding Challenges Worldwide, an organisation that reflected my specific interests in development: private sector growth, value creation in agri-business and youth employability. Their opportunities were also distinct in allowing me to try out leadership techniques in a new environment. In addition, I would be able to observe an urban area in Sub-Saharan Africa, so I could see particular development challenges that exist at a local level.

Now, I am not writing this post to slate post graduate study. Some courses I looked into seemed interesting, inspiring and challenging. And as said, if someone is 200% sure they want to do it, they should do it! Master’s in International Development often offer great internships as part of the course and frequently provide superb access to world leading networks. Many successful policy researchers point to “grad school” as an ideal method for gaining hard skills which can be applied quickly.

However, for me, gaining first hand access to the developing world was more valuable for now. In doing so, I could see for myself the potential for growth, along with some of the barriers. Development enthusiasts often talk of the local nuances that determine the success of policy and programme design; it truly is far easier to observe what is beneficial and what isn’t with your own eyes. How can I really determine what the needs of people are on the ground through study alone? And how could I determine whether I was suitably skilled and ready to assist in helping address those needs?

This is in essence why I valued a placement in Uganda above my Master’s offers, and why I am here now with Challenges Worldwide. And I don’t regret that decision in the slightest. Everyday I gain insight and information about all I was curious about, which will inform my next steps. So many new ideas and contacts have come from it – I have discovered new options as I have gone along. For example, it has helped me realise that I would like to do study more, but to gain technical skills in econometrics and data analysis, alongside learning some programming languages. The good thing is, this kind of education does not have to happen in a full time context. An example here is the series of MicroMasters being offered by edX and multiple universities across the world. They are run remotely and there much more affordable. They are also much shorter, yet recognised by an increasing number of organisations.

So here’s to adopting an empirical approach to career decisions. And here’s to building practical experience in the development sector wherever possible.

If you would like to read the original article, visit James blog -> In defence of empirical experience

Meet the team: JamesWritten by James Wilkinson

Team Leader, Kampala, Uganda, 2017