An update on Operations Camp 2019

Jah Ying Chung, Pro­ject lead

Eirin M. Ev­jen, Exec. Dir. EA Norway

Jør­gen R. Ljønes, Ass. Exec. Dir. EA Norway

In a fo­rum post in Fe­bru­ary, we posted our plans for or­ga­niz­ing an op­er­a­tions camp aimed at im­prov­ing re­cruit­ment of op­er­a­tions tal­ent for EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. The EA Meta Fund gave us a grant for the pro­ject in March. This is an up­date on this pro­ject, our rea­son­ing for chang­ing course, and what we have found so far.

Ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary:

  • We started re­search­ing the op­er­a­tions bot­tle­neck in the fall of 2018, and de­cided to run an op­er­a­tions boot­camp for which we re­ceived a grant from the EA Meta Fund.

  • In April, af­ter more feed­back on our plans, we took a step back and de­cided to con­duct more re­search into the key op­er­a­tions challenges at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. With the help of Jah Ying Chung, we con­ducted in­ter­views and ran a work­shop with op­er­a­tions staff at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions.

  • Based on these in­ter­views, we iden­ti­fied twelve challenges in op­er­a­tions at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. To iden­tify which of the challenges are the most press­ing, we sur­veyed EA op­er­a­tions peo­ple at EA Global San Fran­cisco and through an on­line sur­vey.

  • Through differ­ently weighted mod­els of the data we col­lected, we have iden­ti­fied the five challenges which stand out as most press­ing. The top two are:

    • Stan­dard­iza­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion of rou­tines and pro­cesses.

    • Ta­lent re­ten­tion.

  • While hiring was men­tioned as a challenge by sev­eral, we did not find it to be among the most press­ing challenges and have de­cided not to run a camp to im­prove re­cruit­ment.

  • We are cur­rently con­sid­er­ing our next steps for test­ing pos­si­ble solu­tions to one or more of the top challenges.

What is this post about?

In this post we will ex­plain our shift away from an op­er­a­tions camp to our new ap­proach for in­creas­ing op­er­a­tions ca­pac­ity at or­ga­ni­za­tions in the EA space (from here on referred to some­what loosely as “EA or­ga­ni­za­tions”). We iden­ti­fied twelve op­er­a­tions bot­tle­necks (in­clud­ing those re­lated to hiring) and re­searched what the most press­ing challenges at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions are, ac­cord­ing to their op­er­a­tions staff. Then we nar­rowed these down to the five top challenges, namely:

  • Stan­dard­iza­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion of in­ter­nal poli­cies and processes

  • Ta­lent retention

  • Mak­ing time for strate­gic thinking

  • Shar­ing best prac­tices be­tween organizations

  • On­board­ing and in­te­grat­ing new staff into the or­ga­ni­za­tion and community

From our anal­y­sis, the first two challenges seem sig­nifi­cantly more press­ing than the next three, and all five stand out from the rest.

We plan next to ex­plore pos­si­ble solu­tions to one or more of these top challenges. Here our skills and ex­pe­rience are lack­ing and we aim to re­cruit new pro­ject con­trib­u­tors with more rele­vant ex­pe­rience than us to take the pro­ject for­ward. We in­tend to pre­sent our find­ings and ten­ta­tive re­sults at EAG Lon­don and write a third fo­rum post on this soon af­ter.

Where we started

Eirin and Jør­gen at EA Nor­way re­searched op­er­a­tions re­cruit­ment ques­tions dur­ing the fall of 2018 to bet­ter un­der­stand op­er­a­tions challenges in the EA sphere and how we could help miti­gate these. We fo­cused on the re­cruit­ment challenge in the wake of 80,000 Hours’ call for more in­ter­est in op­er­a­tions-type roles and on the dis­cus­sions on co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems be­tween orgs and po­ten­tial can­di­dates.

Given what we learned and that we un­der­stood the re­cruit­ment challenge as mainly one of co­or­di­na­tion and in­for­ma­tion asym­me­try, we came up with the idea of an op­er­a­tions camp to lower these bar­ri­ers and find op­er­a­tions tal­ent for EA orgs. 80,000 Hours and op­er­a­tions staff at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions con­firmed in Jan­uary this year that this was still a sig­nifi­cant challenge. This was the ba­sis we had for ap­ply­ing for and re­ceiv­ing a grant from EA Meta Fund in March for this pro­ject.

As a next step in our prepa­ra­tions we reached out to other peo­ple in the move­ment with more do­main ex­per­tise. Th­ese con­ver­sa­tions led us to take a step back and ask: What are we fun­da­men­tally try­ing to achieve here? Our an­swer is that in essence, we want to in­crease the to­tal op­er­a­tions ca­pac­ity of EA or­ga­ni­za­tions, which is a broader tar­get than helping with the hiring challenge. We re­al­ized that we were not cer­tain that an op­er­a­tions camp was the best way to achieve this broader goal.

Our pro­ject changed sig­nifi­cantly from or­ga­niz­ing an event, with con­tent de­vel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with do­main level ex­perts, to more fun­da­men­tal re­search into all op­er­a­tions challenges of EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. This also de­manded a differ­ent set of skills and ex­pe­rience than Eirin and Jør­gen as­sessed they had, so they en­gaged Jah Ying Chung to lead the re­search. Jah Ying has been a lead­ing con­trib­u­tor to the pro­ject since April this year. We up­dated the Meta EA Fund man­age­ment team on our plan changes in June for trans­parency and ex­pec­ta­tion man­age­ment.

Ex­plo­ra­tion of bot­tle­neck candidates

To gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the challenges op­er­a­tions staff at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions face, we in­ter­viewed mul­ti­ple peo­ple at var­i­ous EA or­ga­ni­za­tions in Europe. Nine in­ter­views were con­ducted across eight or­ga­ni­za­tions within our loose cat­e­go­riza­tion of Fund­ing, Meta EA and Far Fu­ture. In ad­di­tion to these struc­tured in­ter­views, we strength­ened our un­der­stand­ing of the challenges through more in­for­mal con­ver­sa­tions with var­i­ous peo­ple in op­er­a­tions roles, lead­ers, and other long­time EAs.

We an­a­lyzed the in­ter­views and iden­ti­fied a set of twelve clusters of challenges, which we have or­ga­nized un­der the fol­low­ing short de­scrip­tions (in no par­tic­u­lar or­der):

  1. Seek­ing pro­fes­sional men­tor­ship and coach­ing for op­er­a­tions staff at EA organizations

  2. Pro­fes­sional skill development

  3. Net­work­ing among op­er­a­tions staff

  4. Shar­ing best prac­tices be­tween organizations

  5. Mak­ing time for strate­gic thinking

  6. Hiring and de­vel­op­ing ju­nior as­so­ci­ates to build in­ter­nal capacity

  7. Effec­tive in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and feed­back loops

  8. Ta­lent retention

  9. Stan­dard­iza­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion of in­ter­nal policies

  10. Ac­cess­ing ex­ter­nal net­works, e.g. for tal­ent recruitment

  11. Cul­tural challenges in orgs and EA community

  12. Ac­cu­rate ex­pec­ta­tions of op­er­a­tions and organization

Each challenge was men­tioned by at least one in­ter­vie­wee, but we had lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about the rel­a­tive im­por­tance and prevalence of these challenges across mul­ti­ple or­ga­ni­za­tions.

At EAG San Fran­cisco in June we or­ganised a work­shop with 14 op­er­a­tions staff across eight or­ga­ni­za­tions. Some of these had pre­vi­ously con­tributed as in­ter­vie­wees in the pre­vi­ous stage of our pro­ject, but most of them had not. First we pre­sented our work so far and the challenges we had iden­ti­fied, and then we had the par­ti­ci­pants vote on which challenges they thought are most press­ing for their or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Be­cause it was easy to do, and to miti­gate se­lec­tion bias, we sent an email with an on­line form to or­ga­ni­za­tions that didn’t par­ti­ci­pate at the work­shop. Through the form we we got four more re­sponses from three ad­di­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Iden­ti­fy­ing top bottlenecks

The data showed a ro­bust re­sult, even when we tried differ­ent weights of the votes in our anal­y­sis. Five challenges stood out from the rest, and the first two in par­tic­u­lar:

  • Stan­dard­iza­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion of in­ter­nal poli­cies and pro­cesses—EA op­er­a­tions staff noted that they of­ten move from task to task, with­out col­lect­ing and doc­u­ment­ing past learn­ings and ex­pe­riences. Col­lect­ing this knowl­edge will lead to greater effi­ciency, more con­fi­dent le­gal com­pli­ance, and preser­va­tion of in­sti­tu­tional knowl­edge.

  • Ta­lent Re­ten­tion—Effec­tive Altru­ism is a small but grow­ing space that at­tracts pas­sion­ate and ded­i­cated staff. As EA or­ga­ni­za­tions ma­ture, they will need to con­sider how they will en­courage their top perform­ing staff to stay, as the cost of re­cruit­ment is very high.

  • Mak­ing time for strate­gic think­ing—High-level staff at EA orgs are solely re­spon­si­ble for or­ga­ni­za­tional strat­egy and big-pic­ture think­ing, but they do not feel they spend enough time on it.

  • Shar­ing best prac­tices be­tween or­ga­ni­za­tions - Similar to the “stan­dard­ize and doc­u­men­ta­tion” challenge, shar­ing best prac­tices be­tween or­ga­ni­za­tions will lead to greater effi­ciency and preser­va­tion of field-wide knowl­edge. There is also in­ter­est in con­sid­er­ing whether it would be use­ful for op­er­a­tions staff to meet at events and gath­er­ings.

  • Cul­tural challenges—Sev­eral op­er­a­tions staff men­tioned a per­ceived “clique­ness” to parts of the EA move­ment that new­com­ers may feel is hard to break into.

An im­por­tant up­date is that we no longer think re­cruit­ment is the most im­por­tant challenge for in­creas­ing the op­er­a­tions ca­pac­ity at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. We don’t think it is much less im­por­tant or tractable than we had thought; rather, we think other challenges are even more im­por­tant and ur­gent. There­fore we will not be host­ing an op­er­a­tions camp as ini­tially planned.

What are we go­ing to do now?

We are cur­rently dis­cussing our next steps and the timeline un­til EAG Lon­don. This pro­ject has mor­phed and in­creased in com­plex­ity, and the con­tin­u­ing re­search on these challenges and pos­si­ble solu­tions to over­come them re­quire ex­pe­rience and ex­per­tise we feel we are lack­ing. We are now ex­pand­ing our team to counter this limi­ta­tion. If you are in­ter­ested in helping out as a vol­un­teer or mak­ing your do­main ex­per­tise available, we would like to hear from you in the com­ments or by email to post@effek­ti­valtru­

In broad strokes we imag­ine that in the time lead­ing up to EAG Lon­don we will be on­board­ing new team mem­bers to the pro­ject, con­tinue re­search­ing the top challenges and start plan­ning for how we may ex­plore and test pos­si­ble solu­tions. At EAG Lon­don we in­tend to run a work­shop or sem­i­nar for op­er­a­tions staff and man­agers to pre­sent our find­ings and sug­ges­tions. After EAG Lon­don we will sum­ma­rize our work and most likely also share this in an­other fo­rum post like this one.