Why Stay Grounded?

To make impact on the ground, we need to talk to those on the ground. In this piece, we share our first-hand experience of staying grounded. 
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At GBL, we run large experiments and deal with big datasets. Some would say we are “serious researchers.” Why we do what we do, you can read here. But if you’re wondering how we do this serious research differently, it’s by actively being on the ground.

It is easy to get lost in a purely academic world.

We want our research to contribute to that world, but not be limited to it. We want it to disrupt traditional norms and be grounded in the problems it is striving to solve. And in order to make our research accessible and actionable, we look for constant feedback from people on the ground.

Back in 2012, we evaluated a life skills training program for female garment workers. While we found phenomenal business and social impacts of this training, talking to the women gave us insights our research could never have. A lot of them said that while the training helped them communicate better with their supervisors — validating our findings -the environment around them remained the same. The supervisors, for example, didn’t change their ways of communicating.

So, we went back to the drawing board and asked -

How can we change this ecosystem so it enables these women to thrive?

And this led to the Supervisors’ Transformation Into Change Holders program or STITCH — a life skills training program for supervisors, which we co-created with our industry partner, Shahi Exports, and a personnel consultancy firm. STITCH focuses on aspects, which while essential for effective management, are often ignored in traditional managerial trainings, like communication and gender sensitization. True to the GBL spirit, we ran an experiment to test its impact. Preliminary results are showing a reduction in harassment and improvement in productivity due to STITCH, making this come full circle for us.

In the factory ecosystem that we operate out of, there are other stakeholders too — factory floor managers, factory general managers, and higher level managers, and we recently met a bunch of them. Our goal this time around was two-fold.

One, to tell them about our research learnings from past projects — learnings that have come from their own factories. 
Two, to get their views on our new project ideas — some of which we want to launch soon.

Specifically, we sought their advice on the feasibility, innovation, potential social & business impact, scalability and the need (if any) of these ideas in the ever-changing real-world context.

Going in we were quite apprehensive. Will factory managers take out time from their busy schedules to meet us?

Will they find our research valuable?

Will they find our activity engaging? Will they be willing to share insights that they have honed over years of experience with us, a young, growing organization?

These apprehensions soon disappeared when we realized we had a highly engaged audience that was asking questions at every step. This translated into new learnings for us.

We found that - one, if channeled positively, disagreement can be turned into positive energy. People from varying backgrounds can come together to work through difficult problems. We saw this in our group activity where we divided the attendees into smaller groups and asked them to collectively rank our ideas - often disruptive - across various parameters.

Two, the best kind of validation comes from people on the ground. The resounding approval we got from factory managers on our potential solutions to tackle loneliness among migrant workers was surprising even for us. It reinstated our belief that mental health issues among young, female migrant workers remain untouched, but hold immense potential to drive motivation at work if addressed at the right stage.

Three, it’s never too late to shift lenses. Even on a project that may have started. One project we are excited to test is alternative work arrangements for workers, wherein they will have the option of a 5 day work week instead of a 6. An idea that we’ve imported from the service industry, and which we think can help improve the work-life balance of the workforce in the garment industry. Talking to the managers made us think of several logistical issues that may pose a challenge to this project’s implementation. For example: how does this operate in view of transport that the factory arranges for workers as the shift would change daily work hours? Are there any legal restrictions we should be thinking about? As convinced as we are about the power of this project, we are also now going to fine-tune these details before we test it.

So, back to the original question.

Why talk to people on the ground?

Because no one understands the ground reality better, to tell us whether we are on the right path or not, to make our “serious research” worth the world’s time.