Narrative methods in program evaluation and organization development

As a future professional, with master degree I am really interested in the sphere of education. In order to educate or apply knowledge to the minds of people, the special program should be created. But in this case again teachers faced with one more complicated problem – program evaluation. Again, program evaluation is wildly used not only in the sphere of education. Let us invide deeper in this question. The field of program evaluation has evolved over the past half century, moving from focusing primarily on research methods to embracing concepts such as utilization, values, context, change, learning, strategy, politics, and organizational dynamics. Along with this shift has come a broader epistemological perspective and wider array of empirical methods. They are qualitative and mixed methods, responsive case studies, participatory and empowerment action research, and interpretive and constructivist versions of knowledge. Note that the concept of program evaluation can include a wide variety of methods to evaluate many aspects of programs in nonprofit or for-profit organizations. There are numerous books and other materials that provide in-depth analysis of evaluations, their designs, methods, combination of methods and techniques of analysis. However, personnel do not have to be experts in these topics to carry out a useful program evaluation. The "20-80" rule applies here, that 20% of effort generates 80% of the needed results. It's better to do what might turn out to be an average effort at evaluation than to do no evaluation at all.

Many people believe evaluation is a useless activity that generates lots of boring data with useless conclusions. This was a problem with evaluations in the past when program evaluation methods were chosen largely on the basis of achieving complete scientific accuracy, reliability and validity. This approach often generated extensive data from which very carefully chosen conclusions were drawn. Generalizations and recommendations were avoided. As a result, evaluation reports tended to reiterate the obvious and left program administrators disappointed and skeptical about the value of evaluation in general. More recently (especially as a result of Michael Patton's development of utilizationfocused evaluation), evaluation has focused on utility, relevance and practicality at least as much as scientific validity.

Many people believe that evaluation is about proving the success or failure of a program. This myth assumes that success is implementing the perfect program and never having to hear from employees, customers or clients again the program will now run itself perfectly. This doesn't happen in real life. Success is remaining open to continuing feedback and adjusting the program accordingly. Evaluation gives you this continuing feedback. Many believe that evaluation is a highly unique and complex process that occurs at a certain time in a certain way, and almost always includes the use of outside experts. Many people believe they must completely understand terms such as validity and reliability. They don't have to. They do have to consider what information they need in order to make current decisions about program issues or needs. Note that many people regularly undertake some nature of program evaluation they just don't do it in a formal fashion so they don't get the most out of their efforts or they make conclusions that are inaccurate (some evaluators would disagree that this is program evaluation if not done methodically). Consequently, they miss precious opportunities to make more of difference for their customer and clients, or to get a bigger bang for their buck.

So What is Program Evaluation?

First, let us consider "what is a program?Typically, organizations work from their mission to identify several overall goals which must be reached to accomplish their mission. In nonprofits, each of these goals often becomes a program. Nonprofit programs are organized methods to provide certain related services to constituents, e.g., clients, customers, patients, etc. Programs must be evaluated to decide if the programs are indeed useful to constituents. In a for-profit, a program is often a one-time effort to produce a new product or line of products.

So, still, what is program evaluation? Program evaluation is carefully collecting information about a program or some aspect of a program in order to make necessary decisions about the program. Program evaluation can include any or a variety of at least 35 different types of evaluation, such as for needs assessments, accreditation, cost/benefit analysis, effectiveness, efficiency, formative, summative, goal-based, process, outcomes, etc. The type of evaluation you undertake to improve your programs depends on what you want to learn about the program. Don't worry about what type of evaluation you need or are doingworry about what you need to know to make the program decisions you need to make, and worry about how you can accurately collect and understand that information.

So, then where Program Evaluation is Helpful? See some frequent Reasons:

Program evaluation can:

  1. Understand, verify or increase the impact of products or services on customers or clients These "outcomes" evaluations are increasingly required by nonprofit funders as verification that the nonprofits are indeed helping their constituents. Too often, service providers (for-profit or nonprofit) rely on their own instincts and passions to conclude what their customers or clients really need and whether the products or services are providing what is needed. Over time, these organizations find themselves in a lot of guessing about what would be a good product or service, and trial and error about how new products or services could be delivered.
  2. Improve delivery mechanisms to be more efficient and less costly Over time, product or service delivery ends up to be an inefficient collection of activities that are less efficient and more costly than need be. Evaluations can identify program strengths and weaknesses to improve the program.
  3. Verify that you're doing what you think you're doing Typically, plans about how to deliver services, end up changing substantially as those plans are put into place. Evaluations can verify if the program is really running as originally planned.

Other Reasons: Program evaluation can:

  1. Facilitate management's really thinking about what their program is all about, including its goals, how it meets it goals and how it will know if it has met its goals or not.
  2. Produce data or verify results that can be used for public relations and promoting services in the community.
  3. Produce valid comparisons between programs to decide which should be retained, the face of pending budget cuts.
  4. Fully examine and describe effective programs for duplication elsewhere.

Still, evaluation has remained an essentially empirical endeavor that emphasizes data collection and reporting and the underlying skills of research design, measurement, and analysis. Related fields, such as organization development (OD), differ from evaluation in their emphasis on skills like establishing trusting and respectful relationships, communicating effectively, diagnosis, negotiation, motivation, and change dynamics. The future of program evaluation should include graduate education and professional training programs that deliberately blend these two skill sets to produce a new kind of professional-a scholarpractitioner who integrates objective reflection based on systematic inquiry with interventions designed to improve policies and programs

(McClintock, 2004).

Narrative methods represent a form of inquiry that has promise for integrating evaluation and organization development. Narrative methods rely on various forms of storytelling that, with regard to linking inquiry and change goals, have many important attributes:

Storytelling lends itself to participatory change processes because it relies on people to make sense of their own experiences and environments.

Stories can be used to focus on particular interventions while also reflecting on the array of contextual factors that influence outcomes.

Stories can be systematically gathered and claims verified from independent sources or methods.

Narrative data can be analyzed using existing conceptual frameworks or assessed for emergent themes.

Narrative methods can be integrated into ongoing organizational processes to aid in program planning, decision making, and strategic management.

The following sketches describe narrative methods that have somewhat different purposes and procedures. They share a focus on formative evaluation, or improving the program during its evaluation, though in several instances they can contribute to summative assessment of outcomes. For purposes of comparison, the methods are organized into three groups: those that are relatively structured around success, those whose themes are emergent, and those that are linked to a theory of change.

Narratives Structured Around Success Dart and Davies (2003) propose a method they call the most significant change (MSC) technique and describe how it was applied to the evaluation of a large-scale agricultural extension program in Australia. This method is highly structured and designed to engage all levels of the system from program clients and front-line staff to statewide decision makers and funders, as well as university and industry partners. The MSC process involves the following steps:

Identify domains of inquiry for storytelling (e.g.changes in decision-making skills or farm profitability).

Develop a format for data collection (e.g.story title, what happened, when, and why the change was considered significant).

As described by Dart and Davies (2003), one of the most important results of MSC was that the story selection process surfaced differing values and desired outcomes for the program. In other words, the evaluation storytelling process was at least as important as the evaluation data in the stories. In addition, a follow-up case study of MSC revealed that it had increased involvement and interest in evaluation, caused participants at all levels to understand better the program outcomes and the dynamics that influence them, and facilitated strategic planning and resource allocation toward the most highly valued directions. This is a good illustration of narrative method linking inquiry and OD needs. A related narrative method, structured to gather stories about both positive and negative outcomes, is called the success case method (Brinkerhoff, 2003 ). The method has been most frequently used to evaluate staff training and related human resource programs, although conceptually it could be applied to other programs as well.

The purpose of the success case method is not just to evaluate the training, but to identify those aspects of training that were criticalalone or in interaction with other organizational factors. In this way, the stories serve both to document outcomes, but also to guide management about needed organizational changes that will accomplish broader organizational performance goals. Kibel (1999) describes a related success story method that involves more complex data gathering and scoring procedures and that is designed for a broader range of human service programs.

Narratives With Emerging Themes

A different approach to narrative methods is found within qualitative case studies (Costantino & Greene, 2003). Here, stories are used to understand context, culture, and participants’ experiences in relation to program activities and outcomes. As with most case studies, this method can require site visits, review of documents, participant observation, and persona. The authors changed their original practice of summarizing stories to include verbatim transcripts, some of which contained interwoven mini stories. In this way they were able to portray a much richer picture of the program (itself an intergenerational storytelling program) and of relationships among participants and staff, and they were able to use stories as a significant part of the reported data.

Nelson (1998) describes a similar approach that uses both individual and group storytelling in evaluating youth development and risk prevention programs.

Narratives Linked to a Theory of Change The previous uses of narrative emphasize inquiry more than OD perspectives. Appreciative inquiry (AI) represents the opposite emphasis, although it relies heavily on data collection and analysis (Barrett & Fry, 2002). The AI method evolved over time within the OD field as a form of inquiry designed to identify potential for innovation and motivation in organizational groups. AI is an attempt to move away from deficit and problemsolving orientations common to most evaluation and OD work and move toward “peak positive experiences” that occur within organizations. AI uses explicitly collaborative interviewing and narrative methods in its effort to draw on the power of social constructionism to shape the future. AI is based on social constructionism’s concept that what you look for is what you will find, and where you think you are going is where you will end up.

The AI approach involves several structured phases of systematic inquiry into peak experiences and their causes, along with creative ideas about how to sustain current valued innovations in the organizational process. Stories are shared among stakeholders as part of the analysis and the process to plan change. AI can include attention to problems and can blend with evaluation that emphasizes accountability, but it is decidedly effective as a means of socially creating provocative innovations that will sustain progress.

This brief overview of narrative methods shows promise for drawing more explicit connections between the fields of program evaluation and OD. In addition, training in the use of narrative methods is one means of integrating the skill sets and goals of each profession to sustain and improve programs.



  1. Barrett, F.Fry, R. (2002). Appreciative inquiry in action: The unfolding of a provocative invitation. In R. Fry, F. Barrett, J. Seiling, D. Whitney (Eds.), Appreciative inquiry and organizational transformation: Reports from the field. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.
  2. Brinkerhoff, R. O. (2003). The success case method: Find out quickly what’s working and what’s not. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  3. Costantino, R. D.,Greene, J. C. (2003). Reflections on the use of narrative in evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 24(1), 35–49.
  4. Dart, J.Davies, R. (2003). A dialogical, story-based evaluation tool: The most significant change technique. American Journal of Evaluation, 24(2), 137–155.
  5. Kibel, B. M. (1999). Success stories as hard data: An introduction to results mapping. New York: Kluwer/Plenum.
Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology