07 – The Viral Scaling Principle

The IDEMS Principle
The IDEMS Principle
07 – The Viral Scaling Principle


David and Santiago discuss the principle Viral Scaling: “This principle relates to how the company aims to achieve impact at scale. It can be interpreted as focusing on initiatives that have the potential spread naturally.”

They emphasise how initiatives can achieve exponential growth by spreading organically and illustrate this with examples from their work with African universities.

[00:00:00] Santiago: Hi, and welcome to the IDEMS principle. I’m Santiago Borio, an Impact Activation Fellow, and I’m here with David Stern, a founding director of IDEMS. Hi, David.

[00:00:16] David: Hi, Santiago. Another principle discussion today.

[00:00:19] Santiago: Indeed. Today, I would like to question you and find out more about Viral Scaling.

[00:00:26] David: I like this one.

[00:00:27] Santiago: Looking at the website, Viral Scaling is described as follows. “This principle relates to how the company aims to achieve impact at scale. It can be interpreted as focusing on initiatives that have the potential to spread naturally.”

[00:00:43] David: Of course, this is one of the Scalable Impact principles. We have a grouping of our principles. Scalable Impact is a principle which groups together three others, Viral Scaling, Sustainable Development, Capacity Building.

[00:00:57] Santiago: Okay.

[00:00:58] David: Viral Scaling is one of my favourite principles.

[00:01:04] Santiago: So, a lot of things these days go viral.

[00:01:09] David: Yes.

[00:01:09] Santiago: What is the relation?

[00:01:12] David: Well, it’s very much, that’s part of the inspiration, you know, when you say a lot of things go viral, I mean, COVID went viral. Anyway, but that is, that is part of the inspiration. There is a process. And I’m afraid using COVID as an example is actually rather useful, but you’re also thinking of, let’s say you like TikTok.

[00:01:36] Santiago: Yeah. Videos go viral trends go viral, words go viral.

[00:01:40] David: Absolutely.

[00:01:41] Santiago: Terms.

[00:01:43] David: Absolutely. And this is the idea. Well, when something goes viral, it’s a cheap scale, you know, but it’s not necessarily planned. A lot of scalability in terms of education initiatives is about if you want to scale something, you go to the government and you try and get it into the curriculum and you go through those processes to get a top down scale.

This is very much bottom up. We’re not saying that that sort of scalability through political change through implementation change, you know, those are useful as well. What we’re looking at here is actually trying to imagine and think through consciously how we get the sort of work we do to have the potential to go viral. Now, have we been successful at this, at the sort of scales we were looking for? Not yet, but a big part of when I came to this and the realizations that I had around this, were recognizing the power of not necessarily going viral, but approaching scaling through thinking about viral scaling rather than thinking about the sort of more traditional approaches to scale.

[00:02:54] Santiago: I’m taking a step back. Viral scaling, you mean you have an intervention that some one person benefits from and that one person might take that and benefit a couple, a couple of people, just a couple of people, benefit another couple of people and you obtain incredibly rapid growth. In fact, exponential growth.

[00:03:13] David: Exactly. It’s all about exponential growth. If you take it in terms of exponential growth, you only need an R number, if you take your COVID disease, replication number of being greater than one. So as long as one person is spreading it to more than one person on average, the initiative will grow and it will scale. That’s sort of very much the approach that we’re looking at. We’re looking at making it easy and possible and supporting that spread.

[00:03:44] Santiago: Yeah, and I can see how that happens with, for example, social media videos. You know, you see something and you tend to share it to multiple people, those multiple people then share it to other multiple people, and so on and so forth. But how does that work in terms of interventions?

[00:04:02] David: I mean, let’s take a very concrete example of the work we’re doing with African universities, you know, where we’re supporting electronic assessment with them. That started with us supporting an individual university, and we said our conditions to support that university were that any of the content that we helped them with, that we created, should be openly available.

And then, after that university had found a bit of success, they hosted a workshop. And at that workshop, we shared those open education resources with other universities. And a few other universities used them, and now one of those other universities had its own workshop in another country, and they shared it with other universities, and now a few of those other universities have started using it. And so we’re getting to that element where, it’s taking time, it’s not happening at the same rapid growth that you’d expect a TikTok video and so on. There have been roadblocks at that initial university and it’s not continued to grow in the same way for various reasons, whereas one of the universities which should have taken it over from them has grown faster and they’re now providing the next phase of growth for others.

[00:05:19] Santiago: It didn’t just grow faster, rather than organising a workshop, they organised a conference.

[00:05:25] David: Well, that’s a separate issue, but when they started using it, they weren’t starting from scratch. They were able to build from where it was before, and then their contributions to that has now enabled other universities to take it, and so that’s gathering momentum. It’s all about building momentum, and it’s about being able to think about, interventions in this way of enabling momentum to grow rather than enabling impact to happen.

[00:05:55] Santiago: Okay, but in the description, there are a few words that maybe go against the example you just provided.

[00:06:06] David: Very good.

[00:06:07] Santiago: Have the potential to spread naturally.

[00:06:11] David: Yes.

[00:06:12] Santiago: So, in the case of these universities, there was a lot of nudging from external organizations, sometimes ourselves, sometimes others. How does that fit with natural spread?

[00:06:26] David: Well, I mean, the point is that it’s what do we mean by natural spread in different ways. So some of these are happening with support and they need support. That’s fine. But part of the aim of that support is also to reduce its need. Other people are picking it up and using it, and Dar es Salaam, they’ve, they’ve had much less support. They’ve had minimal support and they’ve actually contributed much more in other ways. And so, you know, different elements, some are more natural than others, but the key is that you’re aiming for that natural spread. The more you’re having to force the spread, the less natural it is, the less scalable it becomes for somebody else to be able to do it in the future.

So the workshops that we host, which have been essential to the spreading component, these are a problem. They are against the natural spread because they’re expensive. They have a cost associated. We know that there’s another group that wants to host the workshop and my understanding, you can tell me, their budget isn’t going to work.

[00:07:30] Santiago: Not as it currently stands, no.

[00:07:32] David: So actually there is a, there’s, there’s a fundamental barrier to that spreading naturally because of the cost involved.

[00:07:38] Santiago: However, that same group has already taken the resources and they want the workshop to formalise the work that they’ve done.

[00:07:46] David: Absolutely. And to spread it to others. So this is the point. So the workshop is enabling them to spread, and it’s enabling them to spread it, but that isn’t, it isn’t stopping it from spreading to them. So the workshops are important in this, but they are a barrier to the natural spread, because at the moment the workshops aren’t sustainable. This is a sort of Sustainable Development.

[00:08:05] Santiago: And, and also reading it carefully. It’s the potential to spread naturally.

[00:08:10] David: Yes, we’re very careful with our words, and so it’s not that it is necessarily only spreading naturally but it has the potential to spread naturally. Almost always, some of these things, there, there are big barriers to them starting to spread.

[00:08:25] Santiago: And I’m not sure you know, but now that you mentioned that project, there is one individual, at the University of Edinburgh starting to use those materials developed for African universities.

[00:08:38] David: Absolutely, and this is the sort of element about that sort of natural spread. And that has the potential for other things because, unless I’m mistaken, she’s part of a group that has links to Uganda. And we’ve had trouble getting into Uganda. So, you know, it’s possible that there’s now a way of that naturally spreading into Uganda through these sorts of processes and these collaborations.

And this is the natural spread, it’s about, you know, just trying to remove those barriers. When I first came across the idea of viral scaling, it was sort of after reflecting on six years that I had within a Kenyan university and how, basically, all the initiatives that I’d done and all the successes I’d found, had failed. But none of them had really failed, because they’d all been reborn into something else. And it was that element of being reborn that suddenly made me realise that actually, this is what’s important. They couldn’t be reproduced because my effort as an individual was too central to those initiatives.

They had to die and be reborn. They had to fail and have a new incarnation in some sense, as something which was more scalable, which others could pick up and use because the amount of effort I put in was not reproducible. I was willing to put elements of effort in which were just unique to my personal circumstance.

[00:10:04] Santiago: And your skill set.

[00:10:05] David: And my skill set. So this was where this idea of viral scaling really came out and it’s slightly scary to think that that’s now almost 10 years ago I first wrote about this as an idea and, and, and we identified at that point…

[00:10:20] Santiago: You presented it in a paper?

[00:10:22] David: I presented it in a conference. And it was a conference where I was very self critical about the work that I’d done and trying to draw learnings out of what was a very powerful experience. And one of the things that I really took away from that reflection was that it’s, it’s complex. It’s this complexity.

Actually it’s very interesting. We’ve mentioned before the power of three, which keeps coming up in so many different areas of our work at IDEMS. But again, in that paper or in that presentation, I identified that you had to worry about the open resources and actually people having access to things with these public goods. You had to also worry about incentives and the incentive scheme that people were working in. Things aligned to that so that actually the scaling could work within what they were doing.

[00:11:15] Santiago: So, let’s bring this back to our example.

[00:11:19] David: Yes.

[00:11:19] Santiago: The open resources are the questions that we created and we share openly through our servers.

[00:11:26] David: Yes.

[00:11:26] Santiago: The incentives.

[00:11:28] David: Well, so one of our lecturers at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kakamega in Kenya, you know, there was this lecturer who didn’t engage that much. But at the end of the semester, her students performed so much better on the exam that she now saw the incentives, that actually this intervention was helping her to educate her students better. She valued that. And so it was sort of helping her to do what she was wanting to do.

[00:11:57] Santiago: And her students achieving better results reflects better on her as well.

[00:12:00] David: Exactly. And it allows her to achieve more. She gets better students. Better students means she has more chance of promotion, going through the system in different ways because she, and so on. It works within her context in that system.

[00:12:12] Santiago: So there’s open resources, incentives, and the third?

[00:12:15] David: The third one is support, it’s community. It’s actually this aspect, and this is where these workshops are so important in, in the example that you’ve got, the conference, the workshops. You can’t do this alone, in isolation, you can’t, you have to build community. And you have to build that community. It can be external, it can be internal. But it’s about, it’s about people and connections.

[00:12:36] Santiago: I would argue that, as well as the workshops, there’s a concept that we’ve developed about STACK Champions.

[00:12:44] David: Absolutely, but it’s also the STACK Interns, with the supporting, it’s actually those supporters. So it’s, you know, the community has different aspects to it, but it’s this support network. And I love the term community of practice. This is sort of used in many different topics. There’s sort of studies around communities of practice. We’ve adopted monitoring evaluation methods from communities of practice in different ways. It’s a really, really powerful concept. And so that’s one of the three one of the three components that really is important that I identified in terms of thinking about how you actually, how you get things that can scare virally.

You need support networks, you need your community, you need your open educational resources, things that can be spread freely, public goods and you need the right incentive schemes, and all three of those are hard.

You need to fit in with the incentive schemes and, I don’t believe yet we’re nailing this. I don’t think, I think the example we’ve used is one which I like, and it’s a slow burn, but it is growing nicely with viral scale.

[00:13:50] Santiago: And the, the three elements are not a guarantee that something will scale virally.

[00:13:56] David: Well, the only guarantee that something scales virally is that you have an R number greater than 1. That’s how you scale virally. If you, and this is the mathematics, this is where mathematics helps. You scale virally if you have an R number greater than 1. Now what’s really important, of course, is that viral scaling doesn’t necessarily mean you scale fast.

If you have an R number just greater than 1, you know, it may be a slow burn.

[00:14:21] Santiago: But it may take a very long time.

[00:14:24] David: But you will get out at scale. And it will happen as long as you maintain that R number greater than one. It’s going to grow and it’s going to grow slowly and so on. And that’s a really important concept that actually, viral scaling doesn’t mean necessarily what we associate it with now because of social media, rapid growth.

Yeah, it’s the same that you’d get, you really expect this from your COVID. Exponential growth always surprises people at how fast it is, and it is incredibly fast. But exponential growth can also be a very slow growth, a very slow and patient growth, with a very small R number, but that’s equally powerful.

And so really Viral Scaling is about that. And there’s another, of course, very important principle which relates to this, because if you’re having this spread, you know, spreading naturally, we’re talking about a form of replication. You know what’s coming next, because when we’re talking about replication, we’re talking about evolution.

And we’re talking about evolution because that replication needs to be imperfect. Imperfect replication leads to evolution. So what’s spreading is changing all the time. You had all your different variants of COVID, and they changed in nature. The first ones were more deadly, the later ones spread more virally. They spread faster in certain ways, and so, you know the changing of the disease.

[00:15:56] Santiago: The support for African universities, the materials, there will be soon a new release of the software that allows for questions on new areas of mathematics.

[00:16:05] David: Exactly, and there’s sort of going to be ways in which this can expand and can change as it’s changing over time and so on. So is all about understanding how that evolution happens, how they spread from one university to the other. Now we’re looking at Namibia is one of the latest universities, countries and universities, University of Namibia has been interested. And they’re able to build from the examples of multiple institutions when they’re trying to find out how they’re wanting to take up the resources and take up materials and make it work for them.

And what they are doing now is going to affect what others can do in the future. And so this is the nature of an approach, which I believe is important. And it can be a very patient approach and it can be a very rapid approach. The key being understanding how change happens through these sorts of viral approaches, that’s an approach which we think is central.

Now we’re not saying that you shouldn’t try and go and do the political approach and have a top down scale. I believe that’s really important. In fact, we work with partners who try it in that way and scale in that way. And that’s a good thing. But we’re saying that as our strength, as our principle, we are most interested in this bottom up approach of viral scaling.

Now it might be rapid, it might not, but we’re interested in enabling this and trying to sort of build structures which enable this and thinking about this as we think about how we want things to scale. We’re not doing this perfectly for all our projects, but it’s always on my mind.

This is one of my favourite principles and it’s one of the most challenging principles for me. It’s one of the principles where I believe over the next few years, we will start seeing some of the fruits of our labour over recent times where we’ve been putting these structures in place. It’s taken me a long time to, to really learn how to, how to think about this, how to, how to do this. I’ve been thinking about this for almost 10 years now. It’s, it’s challenging.

I’m not alone in thinking like this, but I don’t actually know, unlike some of the other principles where other people do apply this in other areas, I mean Scalable Impact, lots of people talk about that, Sustainable Development, Capacity Building, these are common terms which are used and understood widely.

Viral Scaling, I’m surprised, how little this is sort of caught on as a term which is widely used and it’s one which I feel is central to my thinking. It’s very powerful as a, as an approach to sort of ground us, as a guiding principle, and it’s really challenging.

[00:18:53] Santiago: Well, I look forward to having another discussion, in which you can go into detail on a real success story of viral scaling.

[00:19:06] David: I would look, yes, well, in the months that come I’m sure we will have maybe the years to come. Now I’m sure we will have some really interesting examples of viral scaling, which come out and which sort of have this sort of natural spreading. And I hope that they’ll have an element of evolution in them.

Our podcasts going viral, that wouldn’t really count to me because there’s no evolution there.

[00:19:30] Santiago: The podcasts will have to change in nature.

[00:19:34] David: Well, the podcast, but we’re still producing, you know, it becomes much more interesting when the ideas evolve and when other people contribute. I don’t know how to do this and how to actually get to that in that, that same way, but that’s maybe something we need to challenge.

[00:19:47] Santiago: Well, anyone interested in getting involved, feel free to get in touch.

[00:19:51] David: Absolutely, yes. If we can find a way to take these ideas and evolve this approach to podcasts, maybe have an interview series where actually listeners sort of come in and sort of discuss these with us.

I don’t know. Whatever it may be, an evolution of our podcast series. Wonderful. I’d love it.

[00:20:10] Santiago: Take care, David.

[00:20:11] David: Thank you.