Learning to Learn: How Development Partners Can Generate Knowledge Across Organizations

By Dr. Barbara Fillip


This is the second in a series of KANAVA blog posts exploring the life cycle of development programs and how each phase in that cycle can be improved through better monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Read the first post, which explores how development programs can ground their work in evidence-based design, here.  

As an organizational development expert, I’ve worked with some of the world’s largest, most complex government agencies. From NASA to USAID, my clients have always placed a premium on learning, recognizing that today’s investments—in planning, in programs, and in the people who perform them—don’t end with project closeout. Instead, each represents an opportunity to deepen an organization’s understanding of what works—and what doesn’t—in its respective industry, improving it in the process.  

Government agencies, however, do not deliver their mandate on their own. They work with and through myriads of partnerships, contractual arrangements, and formal and informal collaboration agreements, each of which comes with a specific set of constraints and opportunities. For each of these ways of working together, co-learning opportunities need to be identified and their potential value assessed upfront. That’s because learning across organizations, especially in overseas environments like those served by USAID, can be a challenging, time-consuming effort.  

Learning across organizations, especially in overseas environments like those served by USAID, can be a challenging, time-consuming effort.

Although much has been written about organizational learning, most of the literature, including that written by knowledge management (KM) practitioners, focuses on the organization as the main unit of analysis. Other sources, especially those written by Learning and Development (L&D) practitioners, focus on individuals and sometimes teams. What is more rare is how individuals and teams from different organizations can learn from and transfer knowledge to one another.

Yet more and more development workers find themselves working in teams, projects, or work groups that are made up of staff who belong, not just to different divisions within an organization, but to different organizations altogether. As collaborations, partnerships, and contracting arrangements evolve to address constantly evolving development challenges, individuals must learn to work effectively within these teams. That means learning to learn collaboratively.

USAID’s Learning Lab has gathered a lot of the latest thinking on Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) on its website. But aid implementers and the agencies that fund them can also draw on collaborative learning models from other sectors. Here are seven lessons from my own experience working with NASA and other clients:      

1. Clarify the overall goals and objectives of the joint learning activities. There should be a clear understanding of why the learning activities are being undertaken jointly as opposed to each organization involved in a collaboration conducting its own independent lessons learned.

2. Don’t place blame. Joint lessons learned sessions should never be used to try to place blame on any member of the collaboration or to tell other members of the collaboration what they should have done differently. If a serious problem occurred (a partner isn’t performing as expected for example), there are avenues to address these problems other than a lessons learned session. The joint learning session helps identify what every party involved could have done different from the start, not who is to blame for failures.

3. Clarify who will lead the joint learning effort. Identify a person to lead the joint effort rather than a lead organization.  Does the position/person have the right level of seniority, appropriate level of expertise, trust and credibility? If it is important for all parties to be represented fairly and equally in the discussion, it may be a good idea to get the support of a third party facilitator to ensure neutrality in the conduct of the session.

4. Clarify the schedule of learning activities. Avoid using ambiguous wording. Phrasing such as “Lessons learned will be documented on a regular basis” can be interpreted in many different ways and could lead to disconnects between the collaborating partners.

5. Stipulate the methods to be used. A wide-open lessons learned conversation with 20-30 participants is very different from a series of one-on-one interviews, yet both could conceivably be used to elicit and document project lessons. In fact, a broad discussion of methods and their use in the specific context of the project would be valuable. Don’t assume that the way you’ve been doing it on other projects is necessarily the right approach in this context.

6. Be clear about outputs and utilization. Discuss how lessons will be used to make adjustments to the path forward in terms of work plans and specific activities. For example, my preferred format for documenting lessons learned discussions is an insight map. Whatever format you choose, it’s important to talk upfront about whether the session is meant to identify specific recommendations and actions or not. In some cases, the parties to the discussion have a wide open conversation, go back to their respective offices and independently decide on specific actions they will take to address issues raised during the lessons learned meeting and perhaps report on actions taken at a later date. In other cases, a second joint meeting may be held to focus on specific recommendations and actions.

7. Ensure accountability. In these different variations of the process, it’s also important to discuss the issue of decision making and validation. Who will have the final say in terms of the final version of the lessons and/or recommendations? What kind of follow up or accountability process is in place to ensure that lessons are indeed embedded into future activities (within the ongoing project, not just in a potential future collaboration)?

Dealing with different teams and leadership styles can make collaborating difficult, but with a few simple lessons to guide the process, development practitioners can learn from one another and, together, make aid more effective for all.

Dr. Barbara Fillip is a Senior Organizational Development Advisor with KANAVA International. The above text was adapted from a longer article found here.

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