January 11, 2024
8 minutes
Propel Tips & Tricks - Part 5

Part 5: Knowledge and Action

In this learning series, we take you through tips & trips for organisational learning in international development.

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. Part 3 got us started with a more practical approach to learning by building a learning agenda and part 4 discusses how the collected knowledge can be shared.

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 third 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. Learning agendas provide us with a way to have a clear plan about where knowledge gaps exist, which hypotheses we need to investigate, and hence, what knowledge we will capture throughout a project. Assuming we have set up our learning agenda and started capturing our learning, that is an important step. However, all the knowledge that is captured in a project can also have a lot of value for others in the organisation or beyond who work on a related topic or in a related context. Therefore, we are here looking at  how these experiences can be shared. 

Having access to the right knowledge timely is crucial. But let’s take another look at the definition of organisational learning we introduced in part 2: 

“Organisations are seen as learning by encoding inferences from history into routines that guide behaviour” Levitt and March (1988)

Another well known definition puts this into simpler terms: 

Organisational learning is “a change in the organization’s knowledge that occurs as a function of experience” (Argote, 2011)

Here, the author stipulates that learning occurs if an organisation changes its behaviour or actions based on the knowledge it has gathered from experience. Hence, if we connect this to our previous parts in which we structured our approach to learning, developed a way to document experiences, and share those insights with others, the step that is still missing is to connect this new found knowledge to action.  

Knowledge and action

As development and humanitarian work is non-linear and often, unpredictable and dynamic, organisations working in these fields require the ability to reflect on their experiences and adapt actions accordingly. However, even if you have access to all your organisation’s knowledge at all times, how can you make sure the organisation is actually learning from it?

One key approach that has gained prominence over recent years is adaptive management. Contrary to rigid planning models common in international development work, adaptive management asks for a more flexible approach. In practice that would mean that for a 3 year development project, not all activities and actions are pre-planned  from the start. Rather, that the project has the space to experiment, learn and revise  planned actions based on what was learned.

However, there are different levels at which learning can take place. For organisational learning, it has been distinguished between single-loop and double-loop learning (some have even added triple-loop learning). With  single-loop learning, an organisation would look at its lesson learnt and the collected experiences and check that with the planned actions. In the context of an NGO that could mean, for example, that you have faced a challenge during project implementation. From this challenge, you were able to deduct a number of lessons. Reflecting on the rest of your project plan, you realise that with this newly acquired  knowledge, some of the actions planned for the latter will most likely not work out the way you had intended. Hence, you  recognise the need to revise the planned actions.

Double-loop learning takes this kind of reflection and adaptation a step deeper. Double-loop learning puts into question the values underlying the actions or strategies an organisation has. Hence, it requires a deeper introspective. Applying this again to the context of an NGO, one could argue that single-loop learning remains within the periphery of a project or programme. It takes an insight and may inform a different course of action in that project. Double-loop learning would, however, carry this insight one level higher, beyond the project, to the organisational level where organisational values that inform the projects of the organisation are embedded.

For knowledge to be connected to learning, there has to be a deliberate effort to consider, digest and integrate learnings in projects or at the organisational level. Hence, space and time should be created to interact with the learnings documented. Important to note is that learning does not happen in a vacuum. Different persistence, biases and power dynamics might influence which lessons are considered important and which are not. A diverse range of perspectives should therefore be at  the table when discussing learnings as well as a safe space is integral to hear those perspectives. 

How to connect knowledge to action

Step 1: In the previous parts, we looked at documenting learnings and accessing them. At the individual level, a person documenting a learning might already remember it and take it into account for next time. However, learning can also be relevant for others or the collective – such as the project or organisation as a whole. Therefore, we made sure that the knowledge can be shared and accessed in the previous part. In this step, we turn to the latter stages of the knowledge cycle introduced in part 2: internalising and socialising the knowledge. To internalise knowledge, it has to be engaged with. Hence, the first step to adaptive management is to create the space for teams to engage with project learnings. It should be put on the agenda, that beyond documenting learnings, teams have time to reflect on what was learned. 

Step 2: To engage with project learnings, teams can set up different kinds of sensemaking sessions to digest learnings. In this step, it is important to connect the learnings to  actions. Hence, if a learning emerged from a project try to connect where it interacts with the project plan or Theory of Change. Ask yourself: could this learning have an impact on other activities we have planned? How might it affect those and can we continue as planned or is there the need for an adjustment? If you identify the need for adjustment, then you should discuss with your project how that might look like and what the requirements for changing the plan are. Specifically, in development and humanitarian work, it is important to include donors in these conversations early on. By including them in these conversations, trust can be established which is needed to take a more flexible project approach. 

Step 3: Lastly, it should be asked whether a learning emerging from a project or team is relevant to the organisation as a whole. If it is, that learning could have an impact on larger strategies or interventions the organisation employs. In that case, representatives from various levels of  the organisation should receive the insights found and should be engaged in a conversation about the learnings. 

Sneak-peak for inspiration: Propel connects single-to double-loop learning. In Propel, you can start by mapping your learning journey with an interactive learning agenda. Your project team can then systematically document their learnings throughout a project cycle and reflect upon them together. All key learnings from all projects in an organisation are then connected at the organisational level for insights across topics and contexts. And last but not least, you can always stay up-to-date with the Personal Dashboard to know what learnings are coming out of the projects you are part of and to plan your learning activities. 

In Propel, you can: 

  1. Map your learning journey and capture learning at project-level

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Figure 1: A Project's Learning Journey in Propel

  1. Plan your learning activities and keep an overview of what is happening across the organisation: 

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Figure 2: Your Personal Propel Dashboard

  1. Explore insights across the whole organisation:

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Figure 3: The Organisational View in Propel

Additional  resources to check out: 

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