September 21, 2023
5 minutes
Propel Tips & Tricks - Part 2

Part 2: Getting started with organisational learning

In this learning series, we take you through tips & trips for organisational learning in international development.
In the first part of our tips & tricks series,  we dove into the purpose of organisational learning. Part 1 described why it is important to think about programmatic and organisational learning for international development. The first step to addressing the why was all about becoming more intentional about learning by: creating buy-in, having leadership  support for learning, creating the space for learning, and having a clear roadmap for how learning should take shape.
The next step is then all about different ways of approaching learning. This part 2 therefore zooms in on how to approach and structure learning.

How to start approaching learning?

One of the key theories informing the concept of organisational learning by  Levitt and March (1988) describe learning in organisation as

“organisations are seen as learning by encoding inferences from history into routines that guide behaviour”.

That might sound like a complicated concept at  first. But simply put, it means that organisations learn from the experiences within them, these experiences become part of the organisation’s memory and in turn, guide future actions. In essence that means that to learn, an organisation has to find a way to (1) capture experiences, (2) share these experiences and make them available across the organisation, and (3) ensure that the insights from these experiences inform actions. 

A useful visualisation of this process was provided by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1999):

Knowledge spiral. Source: Nonaka & Takeuchi (1999) [10]. | Download  Scientific Diagram

Their SECI (Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation) knowledge cycle describes the process of turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge, skills and experiences held by individuals, whereas explicit knowledge is codified knowledge that can be shared, through documents, for example. Through the SECI cycle, knowledge is socialised from one person to another, and through that process externalised to other people in your organisation. Through knowledge sharing and exchange, it is combined with other knowledge to create new knowledge. As the knowledge is shared, it becomes integrated into the practice within that organisation, embedded in its routines.

Tips & tricks to approach and structure learning 

Step 1: Capturing experiences:

The first step to put this process into practice is to think about how the knowledge individuals hold in an organisations can be externalised, so that it can be shared with others. This step is particularly important for experience-based knowledge. For example, an expert on a specific topic in an organisation with 10 years of experience holds a lot of valuable knowledge. The organisation would lose that knowledge if the person were to leave the organisation without first making the knowledge explicit. 

A common way of approaching this first step is to design a learning agenda at the start of a programme or even at the organisational level. A learning agenda includes a set of collaboratively determined learning questions that will guide your team’s learning process during implementation work. It’s important to assign learning activities to your learning questions and owners of the learning questions. Reflecting on the learning agenda has to be an intentional effort with planned moments for reflection. Our next tips & tips will dive further into setting up a learning agenda. 

Step 2: Sharing and using experiences: 

The second step in this process is to ensure that the documented knowledge is shared across programmes, but also across the whole organisation. Often, knowledge stays in silos, while it might be relevant beyond, for example, project-boundaries. A phrase to describe knowledge not being available centrally and when kept in silos is: “if only we knew what we know”. Because knowledge is often kept within a project, scattered in individual documents or even kept locally, on someone’s computer, others in a project or at the organisation might not even know about the knowledge out there they could tap into. Therefore, a way of sharing the knowledge in an easy central way should be set up and opportunities for - formal and informal - knowledge exchange created. 

Step 3: Turn knowledge into action

Lastly, as Hulme (1989) stated

“actively ‘not learning from experience’ is as much a part of organizational processes as ‘learning from experience’”.

That is to say that just because experience and lessons are available as explicit knowledge, does not mean they are automatically integrated in an organisations practices. There has to be an active “digestion” process for the people in an organisation to engage with new knowledge to ensure it becomes part of the organisation’s routines. 

This step has to be intentionally facilitated to provide everyone in the organisation the space to reflect on obtained knowledge, engage with it and apply it. Spaces and reflection times should be build into organisational and project processes to reflect with the team on the plan, new insights and what effect the new knowledge might have on the future of the plan. Here, different levels of reflection can be facilitated, in theory described as single-, double- and triple-loop learning. For single-loop learning, strategies or actions are adjusted by an organisation based on new information. For double-loop learning, an organisation would examine its values which inform its strategies. Triple-loop learning refers to the step in which organisations would question their very reason for existence, their “raison d’être”. 

Starting with these 3 steps is important to understand how knowledge currently flows within your organisation and how learning takes place. Once that is understood, it’s important to build out the existing practices and make sure that knowledge and experiences can flow freely, from the individual to the organisation. In the following tips & trips publications, we will dive deeper into how these steps can be put into practice. 

Additional  resources to check out: 

Propel learning in your organisation: stay tuned for more tips & tricks for learning.