Part 1: The purpose of learning for international development organisations
Why should we think about learning in development?
“knowledge is at the heart of global development. It is the critical resource for development organisations to work and collaborate successfully as well as for communities, cities, nations and regions to create wealth, quality of living, peace and sustainability. Knowledge is an essential element for the achievement of the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, requiring the world’s full attention.” (USAID, n.d.)
The international development field is undergoing drastic changes. Organisations working in the field need to find new ways to stay effective and efficient to achieve the impact they set out to achieve. However, organisations face three key challenges:
- The international development field is dynamic and constantly changing. The global nature of development challenges further complicates development interventions.
- Change for sustainable development is unpredictable and non-linear. Yet, development programmes are often still set up in static and rigid ways.
- Development organisations operate across the globe with experts who hold a wealth of experience. However, staff turnover is high and coordinating with staff located across the globe can be challenging.
With these challenges in mind, organisational learning is key for organisations to stay effective and impactful under these circumstances. Organisational learning enables organisations to adapt to changing environments quickly, build on what works and work collaboratively.
What is learning for international development?
One of the key theories by Peter Senge describes the key 5 elements of a learning organisation: (1) systems thinking, (2) personal mastery, (3) mental models, (4) shared vision, and (5) team learning”. While these terms sound great, they are not very practical. So how can we think about learning for development? Importantly, for international development organisations, it’s important to think about programmatic learning – how do we learn within a programme or project? – and organisational learning – how do we combine learnings from programmes at the organisational level?
Tips & tricks to make learning more intentional
If you want to enhance the learning practices and learning culture in your organisation, you can start by thinking about the following steps:
A first step is to think about what knowledge is there already and how can it be organised systematically? In a second step, you think about how this knowledge can be made accessible to everyone in the organisation. The accessibility should be set up in a way that everyone can easily find and apply relevant information extracted from the knowledge repertoire. By laying this groundwork, everyone in the organisation can start building on the existing knowledge by actively using it in work processes and decision making and expanding on it, instead of duplicating it.
To take it further and actively start implementing learning practices, there a number of elements to keep in mind. While intertwined, it is important to give each element sufficient attention.
Step 1: One of the most important steps is to create buy-in from the whole organisation. The value organisational learning can contribute to the work of an organisation needs to be communicated and internalised across the whole organisation. If this step is skipped, the risk is that knowledge and learning practices are dismissed as mere additional reporting or administrative burden.
Step 2: Having the support of the organisation’s leadership is crucial. Leadership can support the organisational learning process by emphasising its importance and providing the space for learning. Leadership support of organisational learning translates into the organisation’s commitment to the learning process.
Step 3: Connected to the support of the leadership, an organisational culture that values learning and has an open error culture should be fostered. By rewarding learning and actively avoiding a blame-culture, everyone in the organisation gains confidence of engaging and being open to learning.
Step 4: A clear roadmap for learning needs to be developed and set-up. A clear roadmap comes with timelines and fixed points for reflection. By setting fixed times for learning, you minimise the risk of skipping it in favour of other tasks.
Additional resources to check out:
- Overseas Development Institute: Putting learning at the centre: adaptive development programming in practice
- German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS): What have we learned about learning?
- Harvard Business Review: Building a Learning Organization
- ALNAP: Learning to change
- Peter Senge: The 5th Discipline