In the first two parts 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. Part 2 is subsequently all about different ways of approaching learning.
Start building knowledge and learning practices
In part 2 of the learning series, the 3 key steps to approach learning were described, namely: (1) Capturing experiences, (2) Sharing and using experiences, and (3) Turning knowledge into action.
In this part, we now dive into the first step.
Tips & tricks to approach and structure learning
The first step to start capturing learnings that can be shared is to think about how the knowledge individuals hold in an organisation 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.
What is a learning agenda
Development and humanitarian projects and programmes are often times built on a Theory of Change (ToC). A ToC is an approach for planning a programme of projects in a collaborative way. It builds on assumptions and relationships between activities, planned outcomes and the impact intended to be achieved. The ToC maps the assumptions underlying the relationships between these steps. The assumptions are often formed as “if…then…” formulations. In practice that means “if we conduct this activity, then we achieve this”. These assumptions are based on the results hypothesis. Hence, they assume a certain outcome. By nature, assumptions are estimations of what is meant to happen. But they have to be tested, reflected on an evaluation. That is where the learning agenda comes in.
How to develop a learning agenda
Step 1: The first step to developing a learning agenda is to consider the learning agendas that already exist within an organisation. If there is a learning agenda at the organisational level, this learning agenda should be consulted to set up the agenda for the programme-level. Additionally, it is important to consider the wider context for learning. In which context does the programme for which we are developing the learning agenda take place?
Step 2: Reflecting on the context and existing learning questions, is a good starting point to explore what knowledge is already available within the organisation and where knowledge gaps exist. If knowledge around certain results hypotheses already exists within an organisation, these can be used as a basis to create additional learning questions for the new programme. They will help determine where knowledge is missing and what the programme team aims to test and investigate throughout the programme implementation. These gaps and topics of interest are the guiding thread for setting up the learning questions.
Step 3: Developing the actual learning questions based on the gaps identified should be a collaborative process. It is best to consult with the whole team involved in the programme to look at the identified gaps and come up with appropriate questions together. These learning questions should include operational questions (i.e. address how to implement the planned activities and achieve the outcomes) and thematic questions (i.e. address the technical content of the programme). The learning questions should be sufficiently detailed to be answerable while being broad enough to be used as a resource for the context and topic overall. Once all learning questions are collected, it is important to prioritise them. To do so, it is crucial to consider available resources and capacity within the programme.
Step 4: Once you have an agreed set of learning questions that will guide the learning journey, the next step is to plan the learning activities that will address the learning questions throughout the programme. This step is important, as often, learning questions are developed with great care at the beginning of a programme, but then forgotten about until the end. In that case, a lot of valuable knowledge may get lost along the way. Hence, learning activities should be carefully planned in right from the start to ensure learning questions are regularly reflect upon and that the programme team can take enough time and space to do so. Examples for learning activities can be found here.
Step 5: Lastly, create one shared space where the learning agenda is always centrally available to everyone involved in the programme. It is important that a learning agenda is not stored locally on someone’s personal computer, but accessible to the programme team and relevant stakeholders. That way, it can become a collaborative process that is not scattered across different documents and forgotten about. Tools can also support the planning process around learning activities to ensure it is a continuous process. Software tools such as Propel can facilitate this step.
Important to note:
A learning agenda is a useful way to start approaching learning in a structured and guided way. However, a learning agenda does not turn learning within your programme into an automated process. Deliberate attention to the learning journey is required. That means, that from the start of a programme, the learning agenda should be introduced as an integral element of making the programme a success. The learning process should involve everyone in the team and divide responsibilities across the team to create ownership over the learning process. That way learning can become a habit in the project and can take place continuously.
Additional resources to check out:
- Evidence Toolkit: Learning Agendas
- USAID: Establishing a learning agenda
- USAID: INFORMED: Learning Question Formulation in Eight Steps
- USAID: Tips for creating a learning agenda
- Florence Randari: How I Create a Program Learning Agenda from Scratch - Part 1
- Purposeful: Example of a learning agenda
- Hivos: Theory of Change