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Tipping the Scale: Lessons from the mHealth Forum about Investments in Collaboration

Much was said at the inaugural Global mHealth Forum in Washington, DC, December 10-11, about bringing mHealth innovations and programs “to scale.”

From harnessing interoperability to building local capacity, the buzzword I heard during the plenary, concurrent sessions, fireside chats, and even side events, was scale.

In order to really scale up successful pilots and support efficient and effective implementation of mHealth programs—whether they be data collection and mapping new Ebola cases using basic mobile phones or sophisticated diagnostic testing to diagnose pneumonia via smart phones and tablets—we must work in an environment of collaboration.

We all say we want to achieve scale, and what we really need is deep collaboration.

To truly scale up, partners and stakeholders need to communicate with each other about governance processes, technology structures, results, and best practices.

But haven’t you heard this before? Of course; yet, we are failing to achieve scale in many instances. One of the most inspiring conversations I attended was the afternoon session on December 11, “Scale up Starts with Design.”

We may traditionally think of design as the technological development of an mHealth application or the creation of a catchy logo, but these conversations focused on designing a program from the standpoint of application stakeholder engagement for implementation. Several presenters talked openly and honestly about investing in collaboration to truly understand people and their agendas.

Lesley-Anne Long, Global Director of mPowering Frontline Health Workers, passionately said, “We all say we want to achieve scale, and what we really need is deep collaboration. We need to do it enough to make a difference.

”She acknowledged that collaboration is too often crushed by competition: “We cannot lack the courage to meaningfully collaborate with conviction.”

Trip Allport from Accenture Development Partnerships echoed these sentiments.

“We need to leverage the technology that is out there," he said. "We still think newer is better, but that is not actually the case. We need to use each other’s solutions—this is the path to scale.”

Both Lesley-Anne and Trip discussed investing in brokers—intermediary agents to help partners understand each other in order to facilitate true, successful collaboration. 

To really achieve successful programs, we need to look more closely at human-centered design.

This was a new idea for me. Personally, I think of scaling up programs by developing workplans with defined deliverables and budgeting line items to facilitate those scopes of work, but I never think about investing in collaboration. Doesn’t that just happen?No, it doesn’t. This was one of my forum take-aways.

To really achieve successful programs, we need to look more closely at human-centered design and invest in how we think and what we do with our knowledge. And we absolutely must engage our in-country stakeholders so as to genuinely understand the needs of those we serve.

One article referenced during the session was “When will Design Get Serious about Impact,” a thought-provoking call to change the dynamics of how we in development think. A shift to design and scale approaches that are centered around people will allow us to genuinely understand their needs, perceptions, and situations.

As Patricia Mechael from the UN Foundation and mHELP said at the opening of the conference, “The real game changer is not the technology—it is the people factor.”

I agree, and I look forward to applying human-centered design in my work going forward to effectively scale up.

This post originally appeared on the K4Health blog.