Overcoming Challenges to Turn Learning into Action

Anne Maftei, Kristen Schlott, and Ravi Chhatpar

Global development funders pour millions of dollars every year into various forms of learning — from disseminating insights and lessons learned to reflecting and acting on program outcomes to using knowledge to improve decision-making. But, based on what we’ve seen, many of the smartest, most creative, and most successful organizations in the social impact space are hindered by poor learning systems. This means that they are failing to reach their potential in terms of performance and impact, and that they are limited in their ability to evolve or pivot in response to challenges they face.

Learning is core to what we do at the Mastercard Foundation Rural & Agricultural Finance Learning Lab (the Lab) and Dalberg Design. We seek to help some of the leading organizations in the social impact sector improve how they learn from their work. Specifically, the Lab has a mandate to support learning within the Mastercard Foundation’s $180 million-plus smallholder finance portfolio, and to shift perceptions of and crowd more investment into a sector that is facing a $170 billion financing gap. Achieving this ambitious goal is no small feat, and having good learning systems is critical.

We define learning as the process of acquiring knowledge or skills, and intentional learning as having goals to direct that process and systems to help turn learning into action in a way that is consistent with organizational objectives.

Together, we designed and piloted solutions to help the Foundation’s partners build their internal learning capacity. And we learned a few things along the way. In this post, we’re going to bust three common myths that lead organizations to adopt a superficial approach to learning, and offer suggestions on how to take an intentional learning approach instead.

Myth 1: “Our organization is getting stuff done. We’re hitting milestones and launching products and initiatives, therefore we must be learning.”

This myth underscores an inescapable reality in the development space: the tension that exists between chasing ambitious programmatic targets and building effective learning systems. Too little up-front investment in the latter means that when it comes time to reflect on learning, teams spend an excessive amount of time chasing down insights that may be stored in people’s heads or scribbled in their notebooks.

The process of capturing what you’re learning as you go doesn’t need to be complicated. We created a Dynamic Learning Playbook that features a few simple approaches, including the Insights Capture Tool, which allows users across an organization to collaboratively capture and organize real-time insights as they emerge. We’ve seen several of our partners use this tool to capture what they’re learning when conducting a field visit, attending a conference, or running a training for clients. Taking a lightweight but systematic approach to capturing and structuring qualitative insights is an easy way to embed learning in your team’s daily workflows. This tool is most effective when integrated into an ongoing process of data capture, reflection, and action.

Myth 2: “Having dedicated budget and staff for monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) means we’re a learning-focused organization.”

This misconception will resonate with any organization having worked with a funder that requires a specific budget allocation for MEL activities. The size of the budget line dedicated to MEL is an imperfect measure of the quality of learning activities being implemented. The focus should rather be on time allocation across the organization, because in reality, everyone involved in program implementation — not just the MEL resources — should be investing some portion of their time in learning.

An effective way to demonstrate the importance of internal knowledge sharing is by using a Knowledge Flow Mapping tool. This tool helps create a common understanding of what types of information and knowledge are produced by different functions or teams, and how that is shared internally. It also helps identify gaps and opportunities for improving knowledge flow across teams or individuals.

To have an impact, learning should drive action. Therefore, learning needs to be integrated into key decision-making processes that cut across teams — from the field staff to product teams to senior decision makers. A simple approach is to include an After Action Review (AAR) protocol in any meeting held after an activity or initiative ends. The AAR is a set of four questions that helps facilitate a focused discussion and reflection on lessons learned. It’s a simple way to systematically hold space on the agenda for learning and immediately transfer lessons learned between individuals or teams.

Myth 3: “If we set up the right processes and systems, a learning culture will build itself organically.”

There is no silver bullet to building a learning culture: it takes time and intention. But a prerequisite for a robust learning culture is leadership that is committed to learning. Leaders set the example of a learning mindset by participating in learning activities, creating space and establishing norms to explore successes and failures, and integrating lessons learned into decision-making processes. Leaders can also establish learning activities as a formal part of the roles and responsibilities of various team members, as well as set incentives and targets for learning activities and outputs.

Our Dynamic Learning Playbook includes several tools and case studies that demonstrate the various ways in which leadership can set a vision for learning. For example, the Learning Alignment Sprint is a full-team session designed to create alignment on learning objectives, approaches, roles, and responsibilities. Beyond creating a shared understanding of the value and purpose of learning within the organization, it has the added benefit of empowering individuals and teams to be more intentional about learning. Acknowledging and encouraging learning at the individual level — and ensuring learning systems include a feedback loop — will drive an organization-wide culture of learning.

Where do we begin?

Becoming a learning organization takes time, but there are simple solutions that can be applied to your day-to-day work that can help you get there faster. Learning doesn’t need to be complex or expensive; we developed the Dynamic Learning Playbook to help organizations find right-sized solutions. This approach, and in fact many of the tools found in the Playbook, draws inspiration from the seminal organizational learning and development work done by Senge, Janus, and Milway and Saxton, but is adapted based on our own real-world applications and contexts.

Leadership plays an important role in prioritizing intentional learning. Leaders can help build an environment at their organization that is supportive of and incentivizes knowledge sharing by:

  1. Modelling behavior they want to see — asking questions, acknowledging uncertainty, creating opportunities for open and direct communications across teams, and connecting the dots between learning and decision-making;
  2. Ensuring that job descriptions clearly articulate how different teams should participate in learning activities, and that incentives are aligned to reinforce this;
  3. Implementing simple, concrete learning practices to encourage knowledge-sharing behavior in their staff. For instance, many of our partners leverage platforms like Slack or WhatsApp to share insights in real time, across geographies. It doesn’t have to be process-heavy or resource-intensive.

Funders have an important role to play as well, since their partners’ ability to successfully reach ambitious implementation targets depends on them having the necessary resources to implement sound internal learning practices. Funders can support better learning by:

  • Considering how their budgeting rules and reporting processes influence how funding recipients operationalize learning, and adapting them if necessary;
  • Providing funding to cover appropriate resourcing for day-to-day learning, in addition to budgeting for the usual MEL activities. This means ensuring that sufficient funds are earmarked for all relevant team members to participate in learning activities.

Ultimately, intentional learning requires striking a balance between hard systems and soft processes. A strong learning culture stems from having formal processes of recruitment, training, and management of staff, as well as incentives that shape the way people interact internally. Finding this balance will ensure that, regardless of changes in leadership, funding, or strategic direction, an organization’s learning culture and focus remain intact.

Anne Maftei is the learning manager at the Mastercard Foundation Rural & Agricultural Learning Lab. Follow her on Twitter at @anne_maftei.

Kristen Schlott is a creative lead at Dalberg Design.

Ravi Chhatpar is partner and co-founder of Dalberg Design.

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