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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Learning - sharing what we know we know

Here's a terrible story whose details we'll hide. It’s from an excellent, well regarded development agency where around 1998 a smart, experienced project manager learned in a country programme that a particular approach didn’t work, it upset people and their lives and was a waste of money. As s/he recounted the experience another equally smart experienced person stood up and said s/he’d learnt the same lesson working in the same organisation in another country around 1989. And I later spoke to someone who works for the same organisation who was too embarrassed to admit in plenary that s/he had learnt the same lesson for the same organisation in another country in 2004!


Stories like this are dismayingly common, and not just in international development cooperation. DfID’s Learning efforts, to take just one, scored Amber/Red 1 in a 2014 assessment by the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI). So what can organisations do to learn better? This perennial question is at the centre of a review we’re doing with Water Aid UK on Knowledge Sharing and Learning. It overlaps with the other sanitation work we’re doing, KM in the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) programme. Three sub questions are interesting to both projects:
  • Are we too cautious about saying what we know we know
  • How do we record what we know and have learned in ways that people will pay attention to? 
  • How do organisations develop cultures where it is “socially unacceptable not to learn”, as one grantee put it recently? 

Known knowns

On the first point, a conclusion from the terrible story is that the first smart experienced person, who told the story, groaned as he learnt that the same error had repeated, in the same organisation. He suggested we don’t declare loudly and clearly enough what it is we know we know. We are often too tentative and vague, delivering high level bullet point recommendations or simply not sharing our conclusions. As part of the BDS KM programme we're supporting a Learning Exchange where he is going to sit down with two others from two organisations and try to write down what it is they have all learnt, what they know they know (about Sanitation Marketing, in this instance). We're encouraging them to tell the story using a range of media, to try and make their ideas sing and dance.

We'll also be encouraging the group to produce content that makes people think. If there is a document that tells you how to do something, and doesn’t require you to think, then it's probably only a technical fix: important for sure, in specific contexts, but not necessarily generalisable nor stimulating to other people's learning. Meaningful outputs that might enable people to learn across contexts are those that require people to talk together, question and reflect on the basis of what they read/hear/see in the documentation - to learn socially.

But it’s not easy to pronounce on what we know we know. It’s quite a bold thing to do. It’s much easier to ask questions, be tentative. I tried in a long, excellent conversation about knowledge and doledge on the KM4Dev discussion list, and I still feel uneasy about being so definite. A better example is a great blog, "Do we learn enough and does learning lead to improved sector performance?" The authors are two more smart, experienced, WASH specialists and the blog reflects on learning from the recent BDS annual convening meeting in Hanoi. The authors described elsewhere how, when they first re-read what they had come up, with they were startled at how obvious a lot of it seemed. But the blog has been well received, possibly because by stating the obvious, statements about which they were confident, the authors are providing navigational markers by which other people can steer.

But it takes time – and a learning culture - to mainstream that kind of reflection and recording. To quote from the ICAI report on DfID: “DFID is not sufficiently integrating opportunities for continuous learning within day-to-day tasks. In particular, staff do not have enough time to build learning into their core tasks. DFID is not fully ensuring that the lessons from each stage of the delivery chain are captured, particularly in relation to locally employed staff, delivery agents and, most crucially, the beneficiaries. Heads of office do not consistently define a positive culture of learning".

We'll be addressing culture in the next blog.


1. [programme performs relatively poorly overall against ICAI’s criteria for effectiveness and value for money. Significant improvements should be made]

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