One of the key findings that emerged from the research was that many MERL practitioners and users are seeking solutions that may already exist, but that they are not yet aware of, or are unsure of how to implement. Whilst a base level of understanding of key technologies exists, the ability to differentiate between technologies, software packages or appropriate use cases appears to be limited.

This post is part of a series on gaps identified during a Design Thinking session held at the MERL Tech Jozi conference held earlier this year.

Let’s face it, the myriad of terminology used in tech circles is a tad intimidating for “normal” folk. Without a fairly good technical foundation, it’s not necessarily obvious in what circumstances SMS may be more or less appropriate to capture data than a USSD menu or IVR for that matter (or indeed what these acronyms even stand for!). Any technology, software or service is going to have its own set of advantages and disadvantages (such as cost, usability, flexibility, etc). MERL practitioners have a responsibility to start equipping themselves with the skills needed to make informed decisions about which tool is most appropriate for their particular needs, but MERL Tech providers also need to do more to bridge the divide.

This finding indicates that there may be a discovery issue when MERL practitioners seek out solutions. An opportunity exists for MERL Tech providers to play a role in more clearly defining, differentiating and communicating their offerings in a way that speaks the language of the user. Solutions need to focus more on the problems they solve and the pros and cons involved rather than listing only benefits, features and specifications.

One possible solution proposed during the workshop was a guide of sorts, which assists MERL practitioners to understand, select and apply technology appropriate to their specific use case – a resource which may well be of value to the broader community.

MERL Tech is not a silver bullet

Another related frustration articulated was that the expectations of suppliers and implementers are not always well-aligned. In some cases it seems, this may be as a result of implementers placing unrealistic expectations on the technology and in other instances, it may be as a result of enthusiastic MERL Tech providers over-stating the benefits of MERL Tech. Either way, this mismatch can lead to disappointment that will ultimately damage the reputation and uptake of MERL Tech if not addressed.

It’s important that both implementers and service providers are realistic about both the benefits and challenges of MERL Tech. Whilst few will argue that the digitisation of MERL offers an array of exciting advantages over traditional paper-based approaches, the use of technology also introduces new challenges that need to be understood and dealt with. These can come in the form of new skills that need to be acquired by fieldworkers and managers and the logistics related to device and airtime management.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our findings, the full report can be downloaded from our website.