Monitoring and evaluation professionals can hail from a range of backgrounds — trained in statistics, mathematics, and research work, or with programmatic experience in specific sectors such as health, agriculture, and governance. While pathways into a career in M&E can vary, there are a few keys skills to critical.
Devex spoke with a number of M&E experts with experience working at NGOs and global organizations — including the United States Agency for International Development, Management Systems International, and DAI — to gather their tips on the skills needed to succeed in the role.
Here are some of the top skills needed to build expertise in M&E.
Statistical and analytical skills
Negar Ghobadi, M&E manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council based in Jordan, said that strong analytical abilities are critical for M&E roles and something she prioritizes when it comes to hiring.
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Ghobadi studied development economics and econometrics, a course focused on statistics and data. Working initially in programming roles, her familiarity with data helped her to become the M&E focal point within the organization.
Knowledge of qualitative and quantitative data methodology is also important for M&E practitioners, Ghobadi added.
Victoria Mendoza, based in Honduras and working as an M&E specialist at DAI, believed her “strong analytical skills and critical thinking abilities” were noticed by management and lead to her rapid promotion in the M&E field.
Similarly, Joseph Sineka Limange, who has worked for several years in M&E in both practitioner and managerial roles, recognized that strong statistical and analytical skills have been hugely helpful to his career. As a senior M&E adviser at MSI, he now leads on hiring for some M&E positions. He echoed that while a background in mathematics or statistics can be helpful, strong analytical skills are most important.
“Knowledge is very important, that cannot be overemphasized, but the skills to impart that knowledge and those delivery skills are very important.”— Joseph Sineka Limange, senior M&E adviser, MSI
While an M&E professional’s day-to-day work may focus heavily on reports and data, the primary role of this position is to “enable effective decision-making;” strong communication skills are therefore critical, Limange said.
“We need to be able to provide the information necessary to enable them [programming staff] to make the right decisions to improve performance,” he explained. “If you cannot communicate what you see for people to be able to absorb, then it becomes an issue.”
Communication has been an important skill in allowing Limange to build his reputation as an effective speaker and trainer, which has helped him progress in his career.
“Knowledge is very important, that cannot be overemphasized,” Limange said, “but the skills to impart that knowledge and those delivery skills are very important.”
NRC’s Ghobadi also stressed the importance of communication skills, especially when working with programming staff who sometimes see M&E as a “policing role.”
“Build very good relationships with programs otherwise they cannot function,” she said.
For M&E professionals interested in overseeing projects and teams, managerial skills are required in addition to strong technical expertise, according to Shahid Umar, M&E specialist currently serving on a USAID performance management support contract implemented by MSI.
In addition to solid communication skills, Umar explained that M&E managerial roles require soft skills to facilitate team collaboration, in addition to coordination with partners and donors — as almost all M&E work involves reporting on indicators to these stakeholders. For M&E management roles, budget preparation skills are also valuable.
MSI’s Limange, noting the value of strong managerial skills, went back to study project management, and said this helped him rise up through the M&E ranks. Managerial roles tend not to involve so much direct M&E activities, he explained, but are more about establishing and supervising systems and helping the team work effectively.
In the international development space, this also involves working with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Limange said that his strong managerial skills have been hugely helpful, allowing him to avoid common challenges he has witnessed when a leader comes from a technical background, but lacks any management experience.
Know your software
Familiarity with at least one, but ideally several data software programs, is critical to any M&E expert.
“To grow as a professional, you need to have a very good understanding of research methods,” MSI’s Umar said, “plus also having skills on those packages for statistical analysis practice and qualitative data analysis objectives.”
Umar recommended building a good knowledge of STATA — the program that is commonly used by M&E practitioners working in agriculture, economics, public policy, and governance — and SAS, which he says is a popular choice for health projects. It’s also very important to know software for qualitative data analysis such as MAXQDA and NVivo. “It’s good to have training and basic understanding on both qualitative and quantitative analysis software,” he added.
Ghobadi said that in addition to STATA and Nvivo, Excel and Power BI are also very important, but different sectors favor specific software. She also recommended becoming familiar with MoBenzi or KoBoToolbox.
Limange said that database development skills are also critical for an M&E expert. You might have to work with IT professionals and guide them in building strong data collection tools, he explained, so knowledge of data management tools, such as MySQL, and an understanding of how these are developed, is useful.
Keep up-to-date with the sector
The global development sector is constantly evolving and M&E is no exception, with new approaches and software changing how work is done.
“There is always a simpler way to do things,” DAI’s Mendoza said, “and it is necessary to keep updated through courses and constant studying.”
Limange is a member of a number of M&E associations, which have been the main source of capacity building for him. Having worked on several USAID projects over the years, he has also found these networks to be useful, and said that the agency’s promotion of ongoing education has created opportunities for him to continue building his knowledge in the M&E field.
Building your expertise beyond your degree is important, Umar added. He recommended using forums such as the American Evaluation Association, which fosters dialogue among the field’s professionals. These forums, in additions to training and refresher courses, are a good way to increase your knowledge and understanding of trends in the sector.
Update, Dec. 7, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Shahid Umar from MSI said: “To grow as a professional, you need to have a very good understanding of research methods,” and that he recommended building good knowledge of STATA and SAS.
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