Monday, 14 February 2011

Personal reflection on what it means and takes to become a learning organization

What does it mean to be a learning organization? What are the underpinning drivers for becoming a learning organization? What does an organization aspiring to become a learning organization need to do?

The literature says that a learning organization is one that “facilitates learning of its members to continuously transform themselves and enables them to remain competitive”.

What does being competitive mean for the development world? Does it mean you’re the darling of donors and are in a better position to attract funding? And once you’ve done so, do you think that any organization can single handily respond to all development challenges?

Or does being competitive mean you’re highly efficient and systematically deliver high-quality products and services?

I guess the next question would be who will be benefitting from your high-quality products and services? Donors, clients, people who we work with and for or both? And if both, how do we reconcile the different needs? Can we afford putting on the back burner the umpteenth results framework and logframe required by the donor and focus our energy in writing about the learning emerging from the success and/or failure of a development initiative? Should we focus our energies on systematically documenting and sharing good practices and helping others to avoid reinventing the wheel rather than writing the next progress report for the donor?

I guess the answer is you need to do both. And we are doing both. But this begs a bigger question. By doing both, are we doing both well? What happens if we stop doing the bureaucratic bean counting and focus exclusively on capturing, documenting and sharing learning? Could that potentially lead to better results? And if it does so, would not we be meeting all the objectives set out in the results frameworks and logframes? And would not that mean that finally we’ll put an end to churning out more data and information and get serious and actually start generating knowledge?

In the development world, a real learning organization should learn and share regardless of donor demands and pressure. A learning organization should be one that has the right people doing the job and not more people doing the job. It should be a place where knowledge sharing is everyone’s business and learning does not happen just to survive, rather learning happens because the organization strives to achieve bigger and better results.

In a learning organization, people think, communicate and work together. And learning and knowledge sharing is not “done” only and exclusively to be competitive and out-do other “sister agencies”. In a real learning organization, everyone learns and shares spontaneously and there isn't a need to put an incentive system to entice and/or remind people to do so. If learning is part of the organization’s DNA is will happen naturally!

In the technology world, Apple has the reputation of being on the cutting edge, innovative, ahead of the curve and trendsetter. I guess those of us in the development world who aspire to become the “Apple” of development, should start rolling up our sleeves, get serious about using, documenting and sharing the results of our learning so that we can achieve better results.

This may mean that we stop talking about and building yet another electronic platform to collaborate and start sharing the learning in whatever form it is most appropriate – which incidentally considering our “clients”, most probably the electronic option may end up being the less attractive and less cost effective. We have to understand and come to terms that a learning organization is more than one that just collects and stores data in numerous information cemeteries, but one that acts on knowledge to create something new. And to do so, we should not sacrifice quality for quantity, nor should we fall in the trap of let’s share everything under the sun.

In the age of information overflow, where we’re being bombarded 24hrs a day, 7 days a week with all sorts of information, why are we obsessed with quantity and not quality? Why do we want our colleagues, donors, and the people who we work for and with sift through mountains of information to get to – if they are lucky – to the knowledge nugget? Would not we be doing everyone a favour if we shared that very nugget? This means, however, that WE have to do the sifting, and would not that be called adding VALUE?

Personally I would like to be associated with and contribute to a learning organization that is always ahead of the curve, is one that has its ears to ground, is visionary, takes risks, embraces and acts on emerging trends and seizes opportunities; one that knows what it knows and learns what it does not know and one that continuously unlearns to learn.

Is this utopia, or does such a learning organization exist? And Happy Valentine's Day to everyone!


Ewen said...

Hi Roxanna,

Your post is bang on! Being a learning organisation is about being ahead of our own pack (ourselves, not unnecessarily competing with others) and wanting to improve continually.

A couple of comments:
- A learning organisation in development is also about looking beyond organisational learning and embracing other institutions and actors (even individuals) around it as an ecosystem of which it s part and parcel.

- When you talk about the nugget to share - I do see where it's coming from and it's true that we should try to open up our conversations and our information as much as possible but there's a risk in thinking that what are nuggets to us are nuggets to others. Everyone's looking for a different answer - hence the importance, as a learning organisation, to open up our dialogue to external actors to multiply the nuggets for everyone in co-creating knowledge.

- Finally I do think there is still a point for accountability towards donors - alongside various other purposes (see Irene Guijt's nine functions of M&E on slide of the KMIC webinar presentation we gave for IKM-Emergent). The point is that we work with them to help them find useful ways to report accounts from the initiatives they're funding - a vastly unexplored area.

Thanks for the Valentine post! Keep it up, with love as you have usually done!

Beate Stalsett said...

Great post Roxy! I love this paragraph:
"In the development world, a real learning organization should learn and share regardless of donor demands and pressure. A learning organization should be one that has the right people doing the job and not more people doing the job."

And you know, I don't think it is utopia. But it requires hard, focused and continuos work. Most importantly it requires ambassadors or visionaries who believe in it, and who are willing to guide and inspire the rest of us.

Ewen said...

Btw, the references to the presentation in my comment (about the different purposes of monitoring): Slide 31 on presentation


Nancy White said...

The questions you raise, Roxy, suggest some meta practices. One, we MUST retain time and attention to reflection so that TWO, we can generatively work with these polarities of "bean counting" and "sharing" and everything in between so that we keep readjusting to what gets us to our development goals. These polaritities can't be "solved." But if we become blind to them in our routines, we will fail. I worry, these days, about busy-ness and this lack of time for reflection. Sigh.

Side note: I wonder if the size of many of our development institutions has skewed us towards the highly structured and hierarchical to the point we can't always be learning organizations?